Thursday, February 26, 2009

the future of newspapers

The Philadelphia Inquirer, our local daily newspaper, recently filed for bankruptcy, although for the time being it is still appearing as usual. Many other newspapers aren't doing much better; even the NY Times has had to make adjustments. What future is there for print journalism, and how can it make a comeback?

I must confess to mixed feelings about the newspaper industry. I stopped reading the Inquirer when it refused to cover my campaign, or for that matter any local Republicans, although we still have a subscription. Coverage remains absurdly biased: the Times shamelessly plugs Obama, suggesting he has higher approval ratings than other first-term presidents (he doesn't), while the Inquirer ran a cartoon today showing Obama carrying a firehose and a Republican elephant trying to chop it with an axe, over the caption, "We just disagree about the tools." Yet a world without newspapers would leave even less room for reasoned, constructive debate, and politics even more polarized.

Still, I am wary of newspapers complaining about reader apathy at a time of record political involvement, and can't help noticing how alternative outlets--notably the better blogs--are attracting larger audiences. This does not necessarily mean that newspapers deserve what is happening to them, but it suggests that they are not entirely helpless, either. A few thoughts:

1. Newspapers need to make better use of new technologies. I read recently that the NY Times, which survives on perhaps one million print subscribers, cannot get enough advertising revenue out of fifteen or twenty times that number of online viewers. Maybe I'm missing something, but that just doesn't make sense. Part of the reason, I think, is that newspapers have adjusted slowly to the online world: the Inquirer, for example, rarely updates its website during the day, and even the Times tends to place online advertisements in much the same way (alongside or between the stories) as it does in the print edition. Many of the newer blogs--not to mention television--make far more creative use of advertising, often in a highly targeted, interactive way; why can't newspapers do the same?

2. Newspapers need to get interesting again. The problem with the Times, Inquirer, etc. is not that they are too liberal but that their content is so predictable. When is the last time that Maureen Dowd took a conservative position, or David Brooks (or Bill Kristol) a liberal one? People read things that surprise or outrage them: it's nice to have your existing ideas confirmed, but not worth spending a lot of money to do so.

3. Newspapers need to start covering what their readers care about rather than what their writers and editors care about. There is a very active politics within the African-American and other ethnic communities of Philadelphia, which gets covered in ethnic and neighborhood papers but rarely in the Inquirer itself (the Times doesn't even pretend to cover local news). Instead, the Inquirer regularly has two or three reporters trailing presidential candidates whose every conceivable utterance is covered by dozens of pool reporters, as well as double or triple covering ongoing corruption trials of already disgraced public figures. This sort of stuff is interesting to a few political junkies, but not to the mass of local readers. I'm not calling for dumbing down, just for doing one's job well, covering news that won't otherwise be covered instead of adding a gloss to what everyone already knows.

Whether all this would "save" daily papers is anyone's guess. But technology marches on, and complaining about the death of print journalism does little to stem the tide. Thinking creatively and intelligently about applying technological changes seems a much better bet.


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