Killing Print on Purpose

It took 10 years but people are finally starting to talk about it honestly:

Then, this week, Paton blamed the continuing budget problems on pensions – on the very employees doing the work in the field every day – the very employees who hear complaints in the community about how “this used to be such a great newspaper – it’s so thin now, there’s nothing worth reading in it – the online version is so buried under popups and other glitzy ads that you can’t even find the news anymore and it’s just not worth bothering.” This, we heard in the community.

In the office, our technology was so slow and awful we couldn’t perform basic functions – including loading those very same clunky news pages so we could update the copy with breaking news and information. We watched as the company poured what could have been salary money into remodeling or relocating offices. One property that had been moved out of downtown was relocated back into the downtown. Another property, which was too far for anyone to walk to, was remodeled to make room for community media labs and community engagement efforts.

I always scream about this every time I go to some stupid seminar about the “future of journalism” and people are boring on about iPhone apps and digital subscriptions and new paradigms and shit. I will never understand giving up on something that works just because something else works, too. Why not do all of it? Why not have a great paper and a great web site and great mobile apps and great visuals and video and great everything? Why this rush to declare one thing over? Why pull the plug when the patient isn’t even in a coma?

Part of my affection for print is tradition, of course, and the inherent bias that comes from having made it my primary medium for the early part of my career. But part of it is that the way things are now, the cost of technology being what it is, it is still the easiest and most democratic way to get news to the largest group of people.

Note I didn’t say it was the least expensive way. Just that, the digital divide being what it is, it’s the most broad.

Many people are fleeing print because digital is more convenient for them, and I have zero quarrel with them. I have a smartphone and it’s my small friend. I browse headlines and read Twitter on it and such. I get text alerts.

But many others are fleeing print because print has deliberately driven them away. Capricious delivery and distribution schedules, removal/downsizing of features and personalities that once made the print product attractive, a mercenary focus on sleepy bedroom suburbs at the expense of more diverse lower-income communities, and an allergy to listening to the very communities newspapers purport to serve told those communities that the paper didn’t care about them any more.

Is it any real surprise, then, that the communities believe it?

It’s not a bad racket, really: Drive people away from expensive (though profitable) print, declare that people have left print, kill off print because people have left it, and above all, make sure your employees get mad at bloggers and college kids and young reporters who are taking over their jobs, because you can’t have them turn the bullshit detectorsfor which you specifically hired them onto management. It’s not a bad racket at all.

If you’re in this for a racket, that is. If you’re in this to do journalism, it’s one of the seven hells.


12 thoughts on “Killing Print on Purpose

  1. “the digital divide being what it is”
    An era of internet triumphalism has been closing for the last year or so. Death of Steve Jobs, Foxconn scandals, IPO of Faceberg, telecoms shoving people into walled gardens with small data caps, and so on. The whole vibe of techno utopianism has soured.
    FB’s fiasco going public showed them as being either in the thrall of Wall Street or in bed with them. And for the first time people questioned the Silicon Valley magic: “why are we celebrating obscene wealth? Particularly for a company that has a few dozen employees and drives no secondary job creation (like the auto industry does for suppliers, say)?”
    And more generally: What’s so great about an industry that spends all its time these days suing each other over patents & creating barriers to entry instead of innovating?
    I was seduced by it all too, and I feel like an idiot now. Because the digital divide is real, and even those who are plugged in may not be able to keep up with all the email, social media and other electronic pings bombarding them throughout the day. An actual paper cuts through all that.
    Inside of a community, technology is isolating. Tech is wonderful for creating gossamer threads across long distances, but not for creating thick, durable bonds within a neighborhood. My anti-fracking efforts have recently put me in touch with a womanon my own damn street who’s been working the issue longer than I have. And it took way too long to meet her because I assumed I’d come across everyone via email. If I’d have just walked down the damn road knocking on doors I’d have met her months ago.
    There’s no substitute for the physical and tangible.

  2. They keep blaming retirement (both newspapers and other businesses).
    Yet their number of employees keeps shrinking – meaning less payouts for retirement.
    Not to mention, as long as you have a large enough pool of people (and before the papers say they don’t have enough, remember that most businesses pool together as a collective with other businesses), calculating the funds you need to cover the retirement is pretty easy. You don’t even have to do the math yourself as you can use well established actuarial tables.
    The markets soared under Clinton and have made impressive gains under Obama (although still at a rate lower than assumed by most tables). And of course, Bush II is a speedbump as the markets were lower than when he took office.
    So basically, blaming retirement, is the same as saying you don’t know how to do simple accounting practices with your money – a rather damning thing to say about a business.

  3. all you good, honest, hardworking ex-dead tree types now out of a job need to do one thing:
    start an online service. i would pay for one, at the same rate as i used to spend for rags like TNR before it went bad and the NYT before it went to hell. i am happy to spend a couple of bucks a day for real news, fact based reporting and truly investigative journalism. hell, i’ve been looking for that for years, which is why i come to places like these.
    but it’s on purpose, the destruction of print journalism- that’s another rant i’ll skip now. this blog is one reason i understand that. but you can’t have influence and power, let along make money, reporting truth all by yourself and hoping your blog is the one that goes viral.
    it’s long past time for indie writers to have a site and subscription service collective that lots of people like me would pay for and read. as i believe, we would.

  4. CD, I’ve been using my site to report on anti-fracking efforts in our area. I don’t think any kind of subscription model would work – not enough content to justify that – but what’s there is not being covered by the big outlets. And it sometimes has a quasi-investigative quality.
    I don’t think we’ll get the One True Alternative to the MSM. I think it’ll be a proliferation of ankle biters, and we’ll have to do what we can to discover & connect them.

  5. I’m old (52) and I’ve been a reader of print newspapers since I was a kid. Used to be that it took me a whole lunch break to read the LA Times, now I can do it in 20 minutes. The paper is wafer thin these days, it’s sad.
    I *loathe* the online version, it’s horribly laid out, the popup ads are horrible and even the articles I can find that I want to read have something bugs the fuck out of me that I complained about here recently, which is not having paragraphs, just single sentence > paragraph break > single sentence etc. It’s a cheap, exploitative way for the LATimes to have articles that take up, say, a 1/4 page in the print edition, sprawl over 6 or 7 “pages” online = more ads.

  6. The whole scam brings back memories of the story my father-in-law told me about how the railroads killed passenger service. They kept cutting resources to drive away passengers, then cutting service, then cutting resources until they could legitimately say they simply HAD to eliminate passenger service. And even then, after all that, they were still making a profit at it, just not as big a profit as they were making out of 100-car coal trains.
    Newspapers are still profitable, but a gang of rich vandals seems to have seized control of many of them and they’re determined to kill them for no other reason than that they can.

  7. @RAM – Point well taken. I’m starting to think in a weird way wondering if the airlines are doing the same thing the RRs did. Admittedly a hard to believe (to the surreal) idea that the Airlines would also cut the passenger service in favor of freight-only like the RRs did.
    @Henry – exactly my reaction. You have to watch a 15 second commercial to watch each 30 second news video (which more often than not, has a fetching title but turns out to be tripe). The ads from multiple sources put in multiple, conflicting, poorly written scripts which slow down the page loading and displaying to the point of being glacial. Often, even though the news article has already loaded, it doesn’t display as the advertisement provider server is overwhelmed and you time out waiting for the page to display. etc.
    I find it odd that the print newspapers traditionally get/got a substantial portion of their revenue from advertising. But in the print you can quickly jump over the ads that don’t interest you. In the online, you are held hostage to ads that very often are scams from sites that have “personally” found that you need their service.
    It is getting to the point that ebven the national news sites remind me of the experience (and who hasn’t had this happen to them) of clicking on a totally innocuous link (as pure as clicking on St. Francis, happens at work where I certainly wouldn’t search for questionable material) and had a barrage of porn pages pop up; each page you close launches 2 others. Only way to get away is to shut down the computer. If you click on a box saying “are you sure you want to leave this page” you don’t know if the button verbage is untruthful and you’re about to download some unwanted program.

  8. @MapleStreet: Ironically, my father-in-law was in charge of getting the daily papers on outbound trains from Union Station every morning and afternoon. That was back when the Trib, the Sun-Times, and the Daily News were all still publishing. The Chicago American was pretty much defunct by that time. With no more passenger service, papers went out by air and truck at first until regional publishing centers were introduced. Trains were always at a disadvantage because roads are maintained with government funds and rails are not, so trucking lines essentially got (and still get) a pretty large government subsidy.

  9. @cgeye – no trouble believing this at all. And now the airlines are talking about charging for carry on to discourage that practice (it almost looks complicit with the thefts). Not to mention that the actual predictive value of the TSA screening, both of luggage and of passengers, is in the cellar. Not only do the body imaging machines provide an additional source of radiation at a wavelenth whose health effects haven’t been fully studied, but their efficacy has come into doubt with a whole lot of machines sitting in their packages with question on whether they will be installed or not. Additionally, despite TSA assurances, there have been several cases with proof that multiple TSA folks would stand around the screen so they could look at the naked pictures. Reminds me a lot on how we hyped the red menace in the 50s (including nuclear menace) and then when people became too nervous, we gave them the salve of “duck and cover”.

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