Thought You'd Never Ask

Just mouthing off -- because I can.

Monday, October 30, 2006

U.S. newspapers losing their grip

Wow, circulation really has fallen across the board for most U.S. daily newspapers (via DrudgeReport). We kind of thought so, and now data confirms it. As Michelle Malkin points out, one newspaper beats the trend:

Hemorrhaging left-wing newspapers could learn a thing or two about gaining and keeping readers from the NYPost, don't ya think?

The New York Post is increasing circulation:

"This is a joyous occasion for the paper and its readers," said Post editor-in-chief Col Allan. "The first question we ask every morning is what do our readers - our bosses - want to see in tomorrow's paper. And then we get it for them - the best sports in town, great gossip and features, hard-hitting news, and opinion that shapes the debate."

In other words, the staff of the Post run their paper the old-fashioned way, primarily as a business trying to serve customers instead of like a bureaucratic or philanthropic agency trying to shape public opinion and behaviors to their liking or to "make a difference in the world." I have a sense the Post is pretty well in touch with who their customers are and what their customers want for their money. You can think of this as crass commercialism that perverts the incentives behind journalism if you want to, but most of the time giving the people what they want is not so bad a deal:

At Dell Computers, employees are trained not simply to assemble computers to sell online but to address the individual problems of customers. "We used to focus on how many calls we could take per hour," says Manish Mehta, senior manager for Dell services online. "Now we focus on first-time resolves--solving the problem once and for all--even if that means talking longer with a customer." Michael Dell is now worth $16 billion because he has focused on consumers' needs....

Adam Smith noted that by pursuing his own interest the businessman advances the welfare of society even more effectively than when he tries to do so directly. Smith’s analysis of capitalism is entirely based on the beneficial social consequences of entrepreneurship. Indeed one could say that over the years the entrepreneur has in practice done more to serve people than all the goodwill efforts sponsored by governments, churches and philanthropic organizations put together....

Here's my personal anecdote about newspapers. I call it, "Did I get big, or did the papers just get small?"

Until the last few years I could call myself a lifelong newspaper junkie. I remember playing with newspapers, drawing lines around the text blocks, admiring the typefonts, and clipping the graphics out of the ads to save before I was even old enough to read. I began regularly reading my hometown newspaper as a kid when the comics and Ann Landers' advice column were not to be missed. These were the "gateway drugs" into that regular window on a larger world of "current events" beyond my humble domestic bliss that our newspaper offered. School projects and class assignments focusing on world and national events habituated me to becoming a more regular and wider reader. Alternative and competing newspapers became other interesting voices to consider and analyze as I reached my teens (and even began writing for a couple). By the time I was grown, I had the monkey on my back: I had to read my morning paper each day, and whenever I went anywhere on vacation, I loved to buy a local paper to see what was on people's minds.

The major newspaper here in my current metropolitan area was the final straw that turned me off and shut down my daily newspaper addiction. It wasn't just because our local rag leans profoundly left (an irksome trait, but not unbeatable, as I learned by living with and valuing the benefits of the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Los Angeles Times in years and locations past). Admittedly, our local major paper's obnoxious editorial slant, blatently Bush-bashing headlines, and cherrypicked story coverage repelled me, but that was not the deal-breaker.

I would say the final blow was realizing that I just was not the market this newspaper was catering to. In fact, I felt invisible to my local newspaper. I could feel the wind whistling through me every time I read it. I did not care about the hiphop artistes, sports figures, or local icons and community figures my newspaper seemed to tout; I did not recognize many of the names of seemingly shallow celebrities the paper devoted many column inches to, while seriously slighting national and international news stories or commentary and coverage of what I'd consider pressing issues. I also did not appreciate the editorial focus and graphic nature of some of the news coverage (stories about, for example, what goes on inside local strip clubs), which made me think I was in actuality having a tabloid delivered to my home that needed to be put out of sight of the children instead of used to educate them about local, national and world events.

Worst of all, the paper was usually half-filled with Associated Press reprints I'd already read (and found commentary about) on the internet or heard references to on the radio, sometimes days and weeks before. And those were the best-written pieces. The killing blow was the bad writing and the horrible copyediting on the locally written stories. Sometimes I couldn't tell what was going on or who people were or where things happened until many paragraphs into an article. Often after reading a whole feature or news article I still wouldn't know important facts like when or where something took place, or what the background context for the story was (something which the Los Angeles Times in particular used to be very good at providing). I am not kidding: my son, then in middle school, could write with better organization, clarity, grammar, spelling, and punctuation than this major metropolitan daily could manage, even with the very obvious overuse of its spellchecker--and its pretentions of authority.

Ptui. Why pay good money to support such a poor performance and product and make these dunderheads think I actually needed or admired their work? Especially when I could find more news and much higher-quality commentary (and better writing) than I can digest each day, with the click of the mouse or the push of a TV or talk-radio button?

I still miss that crisp unread newspaper in my hand each morning as I have my second cup of coffee (now I head off to my computer with my second cup, instead of spreading the morning headlines out on the kitchen table). I miss being able to hand the folded-back paper to my husband or my kids and saying "Hey, lookit this!" An era has certainly ended for newspapers, at least, if not for news junkies. The stiff competition of the new media definitely looms over the dinosaur newspapers. But if you ask me, it was the newspapers that put themselves out of business, forgetting to provide what was important to the literate, thoughtful, educated and hardworking grownups who paid their bills.

Saddest of all is the thought that newly-minted Americans, those foreign immigrants who, as a group, for over a century turned to daily newspapers to hone their English and increase their understanding of American practices, traditions, and values, might soon no longer have such a cheap, easy tool of true assimilation within their reach. Television offers no substantive substitute for that noble use of the American newspaper. We'd better hope the New York Posts of our world can continue to fill the gap by making a profit.


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