About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Newspapers, Again...

At least based on the comment counts, my blog readers don't really care so much if the newspaper industry withers away to a Sunday coupon delivery vehicle and a few articles on the Dillon Panthers during the football season. But I'll keep hacking away at the topic because it's one I care about.

A brief recap: newspaper advertising is under attack, as the internet gobbles up more and more of it. Newspaper circulation is under attack since more people go online for their news, and younger people especially see newspapers as less important. Even online migration to newspaper web sites helps only so much since the ads there generate less revenue than the print ads. The economy doesn't help. Recessions are bad for ads. You need fuel to drive trucks to deliver newspapers. I don't have any good solutions to this, but the newspaper industry has most often tried to cut its way to success. Fewer reporters, fewer bureaus, fewer pages of smaller size, etc.

Now, the owner of the Tribune Co., Samuel Zell, is taking this to new levels, as explained in this NY Times article and in many others. He has decreed that his newspapers should have a one-to-one ratio of advertising to news content. Many newspapers and magazines have a ratio of some sort. But 1-1 is pretty bad. The New Yorker would certainly be a lot thinner that way. As the article describes, the LA Times would lose 82 pages a week, that's almost 12 a day. That's an entire section gone, or two pages out of sports, two out of business, 2 here, 2 there. The Calendar section is rich with film advertising, so will that hold stable and every other section lose out? Some sections can shrink only so far because even Sam Zell will need to cover both the Dodgers and Angels, and the Kings, and the Bruins, and etc. He's also done page counts and has determined that journalists at the Hartford Courant produce 300 pages a year while those at the LA Times do only 50, and this just cannot be allowed to stand, either. And the market research says people want more charts, more graphs.

Washington Post columnist Harold Myerson sums up my thoughts on June 11. People at the Hartford Courant can produce lots of pages because they don't have a choice (they have maybe 200 people in the newsroom) and cover things only locally, and the paper's gone from being decent on the weekdays and a coupon vehicle on Sundays to having very little in it at all. You want to run around and cover the local school board and the police blotter you can fill up lots of pages. But some serious journalism requires lots and lots of time and effort over long periods of time. Like the discussion-changing Washington Post coverage of Walter Reed, which Myerson refers to.

I used to look forward to going to LA and buying the LA Times, but when I'm in LA in September for the premiere of True Blood I'm not sure I'll buy at all unless I really like the funnies assortment. Because why read a paper with nothing in it?

I don't know what the solution is, but it can't be this. I used to eagerly and happily buy at least one newspaper a day, something with funnies and gossip and such to go along with my daily dose of the NY Times. Now, I look at the funnies online or just don't bother because it isn't worth fifty cents or more a day just for that. The Baltimore Sun now costs 80 cents with tax and doesn't even have such a good funnies section. That's a Samuel Zell/Tribune/once-Times Mirror paper like the LA Times, and when I left Balticon on Memorial Day Monday, I said "well, let's not buy the shitty Baltimore Sun, because when I get to Penn Station in NY, I can find the Newark Star Ledger for fifty cents and it has a bigger better funnies section and it's not as if the rest of the paper will be any worse" Now, I go around the country, and I think I'll maybe buy the NY Times in print or in my Kindle, and I've got my monthly Washington Post and WSJ subscriptions for my Kindle, and do I really need to buy yet another local paper that has hardly any news hole left, that relies entirely on AP or the Post or the Times for its miserly column inches on the world outside the city I'm in, and has as its biggest virtue that there's a Doonesbury on page C7.

No industry can save itself by alienating its biggest customers. I don't care what the market research says. The people who say they want this chart and that graph still won't pick up the paper. Maybe I'm wrong on that. There is that great debate in sf/fantasy over whether to be Solaris and try and sell sf/fantasy to people who like sf/fantasy or like Orbit and try and reach out to the occasional reader, and maybe I should just consider the newspaper industry debate to be similar. But Orbit and Solaris are at least both trying to sell books to people who like books, while the Samuel Zells of the world have given up on selling a newspaper to people who like newspapers.


Tim Akers said...

Well, I think we know where I come down on the Solaris Orbit debate. As far as newspapers...hm. Industries break. I agree with you that Zell's solution is the worst ever, but when readership is going down you have to try to come up with some way to sell to people who aren't currently reading. That may estrange current readership, but sometimes you have to make that kind of jump.

There has to be some kind of solution, but hell if I know what it is. Maybe the medium of choice for "serious journalism" will stop being the newspaper all together. A corporation certainly can't live on internet ad rates, but maybe individual journalists can. Because it seems to me that the chaff that needs cutting in newsrooms aren't the journalists.

Lee Horne said...

Sadly I have to admit that I very rarely read any newspaper in the traditional print format. Even in an online format my days perusing local or more national newspapers are few. I thought about this topic last weekend when my husband went out to buy a newspaper...so we could start a fire for a bbq. The burgers were good by the way.

Perhaps it's simply my generation (I'm only 25) that doesn't deign to read newspapers. But I don't really think that's true, I would read the castoffs of my father's newspaper as a kid quite frequently. My college days were spent largely unaware of anything but myself but I'm now much more interested in the news. I search for interesting and valid news almost daily but rarely find anything that isn�t inundated with nothingness. I don't really think this epidemic of vapid "news" stories and story-less papers is relegated only to the print industry but has spread into all of the other media outlets.

Print news has its own traditional glory that I think makes their downfall that much more heartbreaking. When you watch Superman or think about old newspapers there�s in depth reporting, detailed research and thrilling conclusions that in the past put fiction to shame. It�s sadly just not that way anymore. Perhaps it�s the progress of other forms of media sucked out the heart that newspapers used to have or perhaps it�s something else entirely.

I do believe my generation is focused on paperless news media. We don't like to carry such large documents around nor do we want to spend money on what we can find for free on the internet. That being said, there isn't much of anything out there to find. Like you said, why bother if there's nothing substantial to read within the paper?

Peat said...

What's a newspaper?

Ulysses said...

I cancelled my subscription to the local newspaper when I moved across the village four years ago. Most of the local articles had been replaced by AP and Reuters stories, and those sometimes cut off mid-story if they didn't fit the column space available. The editorials were written in the conglomerate's head office in Toronto and had nothing to do with happenings in our area. It was getting hard to find the stories amid all the advertisements, and yes, the comics section was deplorable. Recently I heard they had cancelled the weekly television guide insert. For my in-laws, that was the last straw and they've cancelled their subscription as well.

I get my news from the radio now (we don't have a tv station), and I miss the depth of coverage newspaper articles used to provide.

john said...

Dramatic changes in reading habits have hit print readership badly. Online Portals, Blogs, Social Networks, RSS, Mobiles, Podcasts are booming now and readers have addicted to such interactive and rich media.

Here’s few useful links on digital publishing / delivery