I flirted with journalism in high school. I wasn’t disciplined enough then to think I could do print journalism but I had an eye and thought I could make a go as a photojournalist. The usual irrational fears stopped me from chasing that particular dream, but I’ve always regarded journalism as one of the twin career girlfriends I was too shy to pursue (the other was animation). Every once in a while I get to wondering what might have been, what could have been, and look at the current state of affairs and imagine myself there, in the newsrooms (and animation studios) doing all the things I coulda-woulda been doing.
Every other week it seems another newspaper folds, alternating weeks with newspapers that scale back and lay off reporters. The great cry is that the Internet is killing newspapers, that with so much “free” content out there that newspaper cannot compete, that the economy has killed ad revenues that kept papers alive.
The reality is that newspapers killed newspapers. They haven’t evolved with their readership, and I’m not just talking about technology. They relinquished their position as guardians of the Fourth Estate and in doing so let the government walk all over them. They stopped seeing themselves as providers of news and instead became delivery devices for advertisers. While stoically presenting the news in time-honored style they allowed themselves to fall out of fashion with readers who were being groomed to accept entertainment as news when they should have been the guide that helped consumers reject these lowered standards. Fox News, and to a lesser extent CNN, could only exist in a world where newspapers made themselves irrelevant. The problems with newspaper today has been brewing for decades.
But earlier today I was thinking about the death knoll of newspapers while riding mass transit. On a packed commuter trolley there were dozens of people, easily half the people I could see, reading one of three daily newspapers available to them. I saw people pull apart sections and toss away the ones they didn’t want to read. I saw people fold their papers into manageable sections that could be read in the cramped space of a seat during rush hour. I saw people attempting to wield the unwieldy tangle of papers.
E-ink, or electronic tablets are eventually going to replace newspapers, I’m fairly certain. But imagining that newspaper could still retain a print format for any number of reason, they would need to radically reinvent themselves for the 21st century. They need to discover the New in News and recognize that their 19th century ways just wont cut it. And it needs to be a radical change in order for it to work, no piecemeal changes that lose readers bit by bit and never get a chance. Newspaper need to recognize that they must change, change big, and become news themselves if they intend to survive in any sort of print format.
To that end I modestly present The Five New’s of News
1. New format. Stop the presses and reformat the print runs to conform to consumer use. They should be half-tabloid size, halved the long way, to come in around 6 x 17 inches. This allows for two good-sized columns of text, reasonably sized photos, and more importantly a shape that can stand on its own without complicated folding or difficult manipulation in tight spaces. Whether it s bound by staples or not would depend on the finished page count, but ideally it would be saddle stitched with a mammoth staple to hold it together. And no separate sections of the paper, because when you don’t have the news to fill them it makes the paper look pathetic. All-in-one, like a book, with many unique chapters.
These changes are for daily papers, Monday through Friday. For the weekends, dump the Saturday paper — no one really cares, no one reads it, and it saves paper — and print either a full tabloid or broadsheet-sized edition full of in-depth reporting on stories from the week and special stories that aren’t as time sensitive. It should have more of a magazine feel, in look and content, something that doesn’t feel like the daily newspapers at all.
2. New subsections. It’s always pissed me off the way newspapers appeal business — with its own section — but no section for Labor. I’m not talking about cute little sections about the workplace with tips on ergonomic seating and keyboards, I mean hard examinations of labor relations at home and abroad, contract deals and employer relations.
You know what else we don’t talk about? Race. Put it in a less threatening Race & Culture subheading and lets get the discussions out in the open. And not fluff pieces on the clothing or foods of other nations but some serious examinations of attitudes other non-American cultures have about education, religion, and politics. We never seem to know anything about other cultures until we have to send peace-keeping forces in to quell ethnic cleansing or humanitarian aid against famine or disease. This isn’t just a questions of “International News,” this is about our blindered view of other cultures unless the US feels the political need to get involved.
I’m also going to advocate for a Literature section, separate from the arts, that includes not only book reviews but also new fiction and poetry. There’s no reason we can have papers full of crappy daily comic strips (that aren’t even funny or clever) and not have a couple column inches of verse or a short story from a new voice. This section can also include hard news about the publishing industry the same way that Hollywood gets coverage almost daily for deals and grosses. You want a literate society, you have to give literature something more than lip service.
I know some papers already have features for Science and Technology, but I’d like to see the tech side be a bit more about explaining how technology works, how it’s applied, and what the human effects are. As it stands right now, most tech sections read like auto sections: reprints of corporate press releases. And speaking of, lets dump the automotive focus and talk about Transportation in a way that covers everything from public transit to bicycling to high speed rail. Again, this is about hard news items, not fluff about the industry’s latest models.
Finally (though there’s always room for more), we really need regular coverage on the Environment. I’d actually prefer the term Ecology because it includes all discussions about organisms interacting with the environment, it’s all-encompassing.
3. New style. This is about the writing itself. Get in and get out. Six paragraphs for a story at the most: one each for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How of a traditional story. Not as dry and rigid as that, but pithy and with flair. If a story requires or suggest more depth suggest an online link and promote a longer version coming in the Sunday edition. People want to take in as much news as they can in as short a period as possible. Shorter stories that give them the basics. Throw out the inverted pyramid and think like radio news.
This would allow more content than headline news on the internet and television, but not feel like a chore when you want a snapshot of the world’s news on a 20 minute commute. Seriously, stop giving readers three hours worth of reading and tell them to find the articles that apeal to them. Give them a solid newspaper’s worth of stories without having to choose.
4. New price. Free. Let’s be real, newspapers have to decide whether they want to accept ad revenue or reader revenue, but not both. Charge for at-home delivery, but make them free in the racks, or stop taking ads and charge. Chances are that isn’t economically feasible, but at this point the American newspaper is running out of options. Charge more for ads and stop hitting up the consumer.
5. New voices. The newsroom is going to have to accept that the old days of large rooms of folks plugging away on stories no longer works. Instead, each section has an editor and a small army of fact checkers to edit news submitted by… anyone. Call them freelancers, call them stringers, call them correspondents, just don’t put them on the payroll or give them assignments. Naturally there will be journalists out there hunting down the stories, but there are armies, legions, of people equally capable and all over the neighborhoods and nations who can tell the same stories, and better.
Newspapers would still have style sheets for submissions, contributors would be given by-lines. There could be an electronic bulletin board calling for specific stories open to all, stories open to a network of professionals with backgrounds or track records, and stories done in-house or assigned to specialists. The web has made the world into a village, and the newspaper now has to become the town square whee people come to give their reports from the outlying areas. Newspapers are already sharing the resources from each other’s newsrooms, they just need to take things a step further and open them up to everyone. Not amateur filler, the way TV news now broadcasts people’s cell phone videos as news, but real news written by people with a witness to news, reported in a way that informs.
That said, newspapers are probably doomed. If, as Obama has said, the economy is an ocean liner that takes a while to turn back on course, newspapers have become asteroids that I doubt can be shifted from their orbits; at this point they are probably on a collision course with the sun. I’d lie to think that if I had gone into photojournalism that I would be out there, trying to find the images that capture the story. Given a chance to cover the current state of newspapers I would probably have to take an artful shot — in black and white — of a freshly dug grave awaiting a new occupant.