Gasp, Hack, Wheeze

Now that we’re done talking about how the Internet has ruined journalism, and how newspapers are declining because bloggers wear pajamas, and the real problem is that people just don’t read anymore, and Moooom, Billy’s touching me, some people are finally starting to get to the heart of the problem:

Newspaper owners are greedy fuckers who would walk over their own mothers in golf spikes if it would make their stock prices go up half a point, but are only too happy to blame reporters, the last people in the newsrooms who give a shit, for the effects of the owners’ rapacious policies.

By the early 1990s, newspaper companies and their corporate owners believed double-digit profit returns were normal for the business. They forgot the competitive – almost cutthroat – atmosphere of the newspaper business before the 1970 legislation. Worse, they took their monopoly for granted and assumed news consumers were satisfied.

As soon as the marketplace opened, and the news audience had new options, those consumers started going elsewhere. First cable news in the 1980s and then the Internet in the late 1990s revealed a hunger for new news sources. Many alternative weeklies, including the most influential, began offering their product for free. The very product that comprised the bedrock of this monopoly business – news – began to be seriously devalued.

How did newspapers react?

They brought in consultants, armed with MBAs and experience in other troubled industries, to evaluate their operations. Recommendations were simple: Cut staff, cooperate more closely with advertisers (i.e., create “partnerships”) and offer the public more of what it wants to read – not what experienced editors believe the public needs to read.

Demographic studies are used to identify a core readership and to serve it by providing more “news you can use.” This has meant an increase in medical, travel and lifestyle news, often at the cost of international reporting and investigative pieces.

The reinvented newspaper has failed to stem the readership losses. The consultants’ reports are useless so long as the leadership of the industry clings to profit margin goals that are unrealistic and were originally an artificial creation of antitrust exemption.

By desperately trying to serve its core – but dwindling – audience, the newspaper business is shortchanging that audience. Most newspapers are offering little more than a comfortable rehash of events that their consumers are already aware of. Instead, newspapers should be challenging their readers by providing difficult-to-obtain firsthand reports from around the world that are unavailable anywhere else. They should combine that reporting with bracing, counterintuitive commentary that would provoke thought and discussion in the civic arena.

In other words, daily newspapers should drop the consultants, lower their unrealistic earnings targets and do what they do best. If they fail to do this, they will have nobody to blame for their demise but themselves.

To which I can only say Hell, and YEAH.

A.