Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Big Chill: Daily newspaper journalism drowning in the icy waters of indifference

Forget the usual suspects. What's destroying newspapers isn't mainly the Internet, social media or other innovations. It's not the sheer youthful fecklessness of the Facebook generation. It's indifference. Readers realize their newspaper has become irrelevant to their lives. They stop caring and they tune it out. Or -- and this amounts to the same thing -- while they may still browse the website, they refuse to pay for what they once bought gladly. This casual, icy indifference is numbing and hard to reverse.

I was reminded of this by writer Mimi Johnson's cry from the heart about her journalist husband Steve Buttry's reluctantly leaving his newspaper. He had given his heart to newspapers for decades, but newspapers did not love him back. Johnson tells a sad tale that's being repeated all over the country as newspapers downsize, "right-size," reorganize and lay off some of their best and most experienced people. Others, like Buttry, leave the profession voluntarily, because they can't bear what's happening to it.

Especially poignant was her account of how her household's relationship with the daily newspaper had changed even before her husband jumped ship.
You see, he was not the first in our family to give up on newspapers. Last summer, in the midst of a temper tantrum at our local paper, I told Steve I would not allow any newspaper into our home. Not the city paper, not any paper. When he laughed, my rage subsided enough for a rueful smile. We both knew I was addicted. I grew up reading the Des Moines Register. As a four-year-old, I would stretch out with the paper, picking out the words I could identify, longing for the day when I knew enough of them to understand the whole story. When I did, I loved reading even more than I dreamed. Poring over printed words became my daily ritual. I didn’t even mind when the ink rubbed off on my hands.

Steve and I both knew my newspaper ban wouldn’t last. But it did. There weren’t even any withdrawal symptoms. I changed a lifetime habit overnight and it didn’t hurt a bit. Every morning I turn on my laptop and catch up with the news. At first I wondered if I’d stay as well informed. That seems na├»ve now. I am better and more quickly informed. I no longer rely on an editor to pick and choose what news I will read. My news is no longer a day old. The only limit is the time I will give it. I hit links off my Twitter stream. I troll newspaper web sites. I visit all-digital news sites. Newspapers have cannibalized their product to make ends meet for so long, I’ve lost nothing in the way of quality. If a web site has a paywall, I move on. I can always find someone else who’s willing to give me the story for free. [Empasis added.]
This was in a journalistic household (Johnson also started out as a reporter). If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere -- and it has, countless times. It doesn't take much -- spurred on by nothing more than a whim, a fit of pique, or a chance decision about which bill to pay -- one family after another changes a lifetime habit overnight, and it doesn’t hurt a bit. Each time it happens, another daily newspaper sinks a little more deeply into the icy waters of indifference.


Cybergabi said...

I am guilty too. I don't buy newspapers regularly. But for me it's more about the waste which accumulates in my house and which I have to carry to the paper dumpster a block down, which only has a small slit so that you have to put in your stuff one by one. I try to keep paper waste (in fact any waste) at a minimum.

I see your point, and I wish there were ways to keep newspapers alive and well without producing so much waste.

Kerry G. Hill said...

I know all too well about this. I gave more than 20 years of my professional life to daily newspapers in Wisconsin and Illinois. I put a lot into my newspapers (particularly the last one I worked for), but I didn't get much back.

I agree that a big part of the pain newspapers feel today is self-inflicted by their failure to remain relevant. I saw that from the inside and left voluntarily before the situation grew as dire as it now is.

If you could regroup all the talented former newspaper people now doing other work in this community, you could produce an incredible publication that would do Madison proud.

Anonymous said...

I was the managing editor of a small community newspaper which averaged 60 pages, and I was laid off a few years ago when the owners decided they needed to cut costs. That paper has since shrunk to half its former size (I'm not quite vain enough to suppose it was because of the editorial change) because of the economic downturn.

I've missed my job; I loved editing a local newspaper. But I also miss reading one. I can (and do) easily read up-to-the-minute, newsworthy, interesting and vital news from a myriad of news websites via the Internet, but local news is hard to come by.

This morning, I had breakfast in a rural cafe; they had the day's copy of our county newpaper, which is California's oldest. That paper was, from page one to the back page, literally too boring to read. I skimmed through the pages, looking for something newsworthy or interesting -- and there was nothing. And yet our county is chock full of fascinating people and businesses and daily events -- there's more than enough to fill a thrice-weekly newspaper. All the editor would have to do wake up -- he'd have interesting, newsworthy, local stories coming out his ears.

I'm in mourning over the dying newspapers industry, but when I run across the waste of newsprint like this morning's, I understand why the industry is in its death-throes. What a damned shame. We're losing more than newspapers. We're losing our own sense of community.