Monday, March 31, 2008

Print journalism as we know it is dying as surely as this frozen relic in Lake Mendota

Print Journalism As We have Always Known It Is Dying

Peter Patau Photo

This newspaper that spent the last few months being torn apart by the ice and snow of a hard winter on Lake Mendota seems emblematic of what is happening to the practice of print journalism as we know it -- everywhere, not just in Madison, where we're losing a dead tree daily in less than a month. The industry has been pounded by forces beyond its control, and the dead trees are dying a second death.

Here in Madison The Capital Times will stop publishing as a print daily newspaper on April 26, continuing as an internet newspaper with two print supplements per week that will appear in the Wisconsin State Journal. It already seems to be a kind of ghost newspaper, since a lot of familiar names are gone. Columnist Doug Moe jumped ship for the State Journal. Others have taken buyouts and left. There's more freelance and wire service copy filling the gap.

Although the announcement of the daily's planned reincarnation on the internet was filled with optimistic predictions of a proud future, it feels as if The Capital Times, an outspoken progressive voice in Madison for the better part of a century, is dying before our eyes. It had seemed inevitable, simply a matter of time, for a long time, but I already miss it and can't shake a sharp sense of loss. Part of it is personal. I've been a subscriber for years and years -- which probably says as much about me and my demographics as the paper itself.

But it's more than a personal loss. For years now, Madison has been unique for a city our size in having two competitive daily newspapers, a fact that added greatly to our local political discourse. But the way Madisonians get their news has been changing for a long time. News is moving to the internet, where a variety of media share a stage that had once belonged almost exclusively to print journalists. And news has become a more interactive process as Web 2.0 applications make possible a far richer reader interaction than was ever possible with an occasional letter to the editor of a newspaper.

Eric Alterman writes about the future of newspapers in this week's New Yorker. He notes how quickly the landscape is changing, and how it realigns the way we process news. Among other things, the somewhat artificial American conventions of "objective journalism" are likely be replaced by different kinds of practices and expectations.

The young have been occupying this territory for some time, but for some of us it will be a very different world than the one we grew up in.
And so we are about to enter a fractured, chaotic world of news, characterized by superior community conversation but a decidedly diminished level of first-rate journalism. The transformation of newspapers from enterprises devoted to objective reporting to a cluster of communities, each engaged in its own kind of “news”––and each with its own set of “truths” upon which to base debate and discussion––will mean the loss of a single national narrative and agreed-upon set of “facts” by which to conduct our politics. News will become increasingly “red” or “blue.” This is not utterly new. Before Adolph Ochs took over the Times, in 1896, and issued his famous “without fear or favor” declaration, the American scene was dominated by brazenly partisan newspapers. And the news cultures of many European nations long ago embraced the notion of competing narratives for different political communities, with individual newspapers reflecting the views of each faction. It may not be entirely coincidental that these nations enjoy a level of political engagement that dwarfs that of the United States.
I've been getting most of my news online for years, and my head tells me the change is probably a good thing, but my heart will still yearn for the paper that will never come.


Pete Talbot said...

Madison Guy,

It shocks me to see the Capitol Times folding shop. I'm in Montana now but grew up in Madison and was weaned on the Times and the Journal, and as a progressive, I'll really miss the Times.

I appreciate you weighing in at our site in Missoula. We have a lot in common -- engaged communities in progressive college towns with active bloggers and a Lee Enterprises newspaper. It'll be interesting to see how things shake out.

Stay in touch.

Pete Talbot said...

P.S. The fact that the Capital Times (misspelled in my first comment) was an afternoon paper probably didn't help but I'm sure there's more in play than that. Maybe some of the Times' staff will end up on the blogosphere, but it will be a labor of love -- with significantly less pay and fewer benefits -- until there's a significant media shift. At this point for journalism, I fear the worst.

Dr Bud "Stop The Presses!" Diablo said...

I have an plan that could revive the Cap Times and revitalize the moribund State Journal. Since I'm busy with other things, I will simply post the idea in this obscure location, ripe for picking by the first opportunist who appreciates its genius.

What needs to happen is a successful legal challenge to the arbitrarily restricted concept of "news." Currently, if you're a Clinton or other public figure, news outlets can publish slurp-by-slurp accounts of your sexual activities, or post your colonoscopy results if they can get hold of them. Meanwhile, the private citizen is shielded by a so-called "right to privacy;" his sins and sufferings are presumed to be his own business.

Why? The revelation that my neighbor has threesomes, abuses Percodans, or has a deteriorating illness is more useful--and titillating--to me than the same info about some celebrity. I believe the concept of news needs to be redefined as equivalent to "information." In other words, you should be able to publish anything you can find out about anybody.

Such a change would allow the State Journal to publish stories like "Segoe Road Bookkeeper Knows a Thing or Two about Double Entry" and "Zoning Board Member Favbors a Quorum of Three--In His Bedroom!" If local papers could establish that local coverage like this is in the public interest--and it sure as heck is--the morning edition would fly off the racks.

Once the concept of news has been broadened, the notion of "fair comment" could be similarly extended. I have personally heard some rumors that I would like to share, but our stultifying libel laws make it too risky.

George H. said...

Ahem. It is a well known fact that on March 17, 2005, the words "wild monkey sex" were printed in the Wisconsin State Journal, Page One:

"The prospect of wild monkey sex, even among wild monkeys, apparently diminishes in allure if the consenting primates are parents."

I consider that a subtle breakthrough in line with diablo's long-term plans. Those of us who work in the belly of the beast have the hardest job.
Sadly, it is more difficult in these days of declining literacy.

Dr Bud Diablo said...

People are incredibly down on the future of the print media. The stock price of Idearc, the largest producer of US phone directories, has been hammered so badly that it sports a price/earnings ratio under 2(!). Investors believe that its sales will eventually be driven down to zero by its computerized competition.

Most prediction is simple linear extrapolation of the current trend. If sales have gone down, down, down, prognosticators predict that sales will go down, down, down, down, down, down. Perhaps, but not necessarily. Experts concede that print directories will be around for many years, so the industry has some time to find ways to exploit its advantages over online alternatives.

I believe that local newspapers also have a future. While they will never again be a primary source of national news, they will be around long enough to adapt. Down the road, I think, some brilliant entrepeneur will buy up a bunch of struggling dailies and find a way to make them profitable.

We often fail to appreciate the historical significance of an event until years later. The appearance of "wild monkey sex" on the front page of the WSJ may well mark the very moment when print journalism began to revitalize itself.