Friday, March 9, 2007

Newspapers: Suck it Up

I originally wrote the following as a comment to my friend/colleague, Daryl's post on his Valley Advocate blog, Northampton Redoubt. Daryl's post was in turn a response to this dude's post on another local blog. That dude (Mr. Shanahan) (which makes me dance a little when I say it in my head) is the editor of one the local papers (the "somewhat liberal one") and in his post he's railing against all the supposed hype that the internet is going to change the way newspapers do business. He doesn't buy it. Well I got news for you, you lovable curmudgeon, you:

Among Mr. Shanahan's most annoying mistakes, and one made frequently in the media, is to refer to "bloggers" as some sort of homogenous group, engaged in largely the same type of writing. In the case of his piece, he suggests the primary thing bloggers do is to rewrite or link to the "hard news" put out by newspapers and then offer a lot of decidedly non-news opinions.

Of course, a lot of bloggers--most bloggers, the type writing about their favorite bands or their recently purchased XBox or their cat Fluffy--don't purport to be trying to compete with news sources at all. But as it regards "hard news", those bloggers that do rewrite, link to and comment on "first source" news serve a valuable purpose. They filter and recombine a massive amount of available options into something consumable. I visit a few online news sites and blogs because they do this for me, grabbing news I'm interested in and offering insight that challenges me. Their service has its downside, of course, because by visiting,, or or whatever, I am consciously seeking out like-minded people and views and analysis that complement, if not totally match, my own "worldview".

But honestly, newspapers offer the same self-selecting service (among others) to their readers but, in the domain of say the pioneer valley, the three main options line up to serve (if often dis-satisfyingly so) only three somewhat predictable "worldviews". The fact that they gather their news themselves is important to note but may be largely determined by an economic legacy--the capital requirements (printing presses, trucks and what-not) that enabled the centralized (and oligopolistic) activity of soliciting and selling advertising (and to a lesser extent, subscriptions). The newspapers remain viable not because they have some monopoly on the intellectual ability to report "hard news" but because they have invested in the ability to print, distribute and earn income from it--and can thus pay reporters full-time to keep the cycle going.

In think this is one of your best points Daryl--you can and do report "hard news"--probably better than--but at least just as well as Mr. Shanahan. You just don't have the physical, monetary or, for lack of a better phrase "cultural capital", backing up your endeavors.

Newspapers will have the edge in the near future in all those areas but the internet threatens the necessity of printing presses and trucks and has allowed newcomers in the news reporting business--"bloggers"--to compete for the "cultural" capital--the reputation, writing style expecations, relationships with the powerful and reader habits--that continue to support newspapers. The trend towards the internet is exactly why many (arguably the smartest) newspapers are putting more and more of their monetary and "cultural" capital behind their own internet activities.

I think people like Mr. Shanahan really hate the idea that what they do is so bound up in things as arbitrary as economics. Maybe they'd like to believe their positions of prominence have everything to do with their expertise, their abilities, their saavy, their experience. Those things are important--very important--but as long as advertisers continue to shift their budgets towards different mediums, they will find that the viability of an institution based only around one is increasingly called into question.

I'm not sure how the landscape will end up, if anything it will just continue to change and morph. But I can imagine a situation where "hard news" bloggers/reporters, performing their own research and interviews, can make a living simply selling advertising within their own blogs and can rely at least partly on other (super?) bloggers to offer the "conglomerating" job newspapers' centrality enable today. Or I can imagine a situation where there are enough Daryl LaFleurs, donating more than a few hours a week, that they can compete with the 40+ hours a week of a full-time reporter. Wikipedia is the obvious model.

Ironically, I think the area in which "bloggers" have most affected and will continue to have the biggest effect on newspapers, will be in the "soft news" areas. Many "bloggers" write about their personal lives or interests--this is how I keep up with a few friends scattered around the nation. Others write about recipes they've tried or new gadgets they've bought--this is how I keep with some of my own hobbies. There are infinite subjects of course on which people on the internet write about and while a discussion of this variance may not seem germane to Mr. Shanahan's article, as long as his paper devotes any space to "lifestyle" or "soft news" or "human interest", the bigger "threat" internet reading will become as it competes for the limited hours anyone has to spend reading about "man bites dog". From an advertiser's point view, at some point, it may be hitting just as many eyes.

I've gone on quite a while but hopefully my last point might wrap it all up. The first sorts of "blogging", the diarist/hobbyist writing, engendered a conversational, even long-winded, style that readers may be appreciating in different subjects, including hard news. Bloggers aren't constrained (sometimes unfortunately so) by the same economy of words that are requisite in the print world. Perhaps one of the most offending thing to newspaper traditionalists about blogging is the issue of style. Newspapers affect a "just the facts" mode that may be as much determined by issues of space as it is general expectations of objective, methodical (detached, scientific) reporting. But if there's anything (the only thing) the right wing's constant refrain about media bias has been good for, is reiterating the fact that "news is whatever sells newspapers"--that reporters have a job to do, a point of view, deadlines, and bills to pay--as much as a sincere and professional obligation to "truth". The public's growing comfort (perhaps even preference for) the "point of view" reporting common in the newsy blogosphere may end being the hardest pill for any traditionalist to swallow.