Friday, July 25, 2008

My greatest fear will be that you will crash and burn...

A couple of possibly competing data points about newspapers.

First, The Sun shared news recently of another reduction in local coverage. A daily feature just a few years ago, the Howard Section will now come out on Thursdays and Sundays only. Whether this results in an actual decrease in local stories or simply a consolidation of the same amount of stories on fewer days remains to be seen, but I'd put money on the latter in the short term and the former in the long term.

Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center just released a report detailing cutbacks at newspapers.

It has fewer pages than three years ago, the paper stock is thinner, and the stories are shorter. There is less foreign and national news, less space devoted to science, the arts, features and a range of specialized subjects. Business coverage is either packaged in an increasingly thin stand-alone section or collapsed into another part of the paper. The crossword puzzle has shrunk, the TV listings and stock tables may have disappeared, but coverage of some local issues has strengthened and investigative reporting remains highly valued.
So, according to the smart folks at Pew, while the rest of the paper withers, the local sections seem to be doing fine, if not better, yet, our local rag is cutting back on space for local news. What gives?

I actually don't think these are contradictory as they may seem. With so many options for consuming news on the big issues, consumers have turned to other outlets-- blogs, television, crazy emails from their grandparents, etc. In trying to find their niche in this changing landscape, newspapers, on average, have started devoting a greater share of their resources to local news, where the array of available options for consumers is considerably smaller; this is the transformation noted in Pew's study.

But even in this less competitive market, papers are finding it difficult to stay profitable because they're still relying on essentially the same model that's been used for decades, one that has largely failed to adapt to changing consumer preferences and technology. Traditional news organizations were painfully slow to embrace the internet, and even now that most have caught on to its permanence, they are stuck trying to play catch up in a game that's on a completely different field. In many cases, "tech-savvy" newspapers are still operating in the same paradigm, doing what they've always done, only digitally, which probably isn't going to cut it for much longer.

However, as long as people value information and their time, there will always be money to be made delivering news, whether local, regional, national or international. I'll leave it up to the smart people to figure out how.


Freemarket said...

I once sent an e-mail to the editor of the Baltimore Sun suggesting an improvement. I suggested that, for the online Letters to the Editor section, if a letter was sent in response to an article or editorial that a link should be provided to the article or editorial that the letter was in response to. I received a reply. The reply was something like “Interesting suggestion. But news men do want to admit that the internet exists.” No links have appeared in the Letter to the Editor section.

grammarmaven said...

I've noticed a lack of local coverage in the Post lately, too. During a chat with a Post photographer, I found out the two Howard County reporters took a buyout and haven't been replaced yet. A while back, the Post closed its Columbia location and consolidated in Annapolis. So for the time being, Anne Arundel County reporters are covering Howard when something comes up. They have been using lots of photos to eat up space, as far as I can tell.

Hayduke said...

In the last six months or so, the Sun has started tagging stories by topic, but, frankly, they're efforts are kind of lame. Here, for instance, are the tags used on the recent story about the Tower: "Local Authority, WCI Communities Incorporated, Court Administration." Really?

This kind of gets to something I was thinking about after I posted this last night. Why bother writing entirely new articles for ongoing stories like the Tower? Seriously, does Larry Carson need to devote 500 words to back story every time he files another article? Why not just tell us what the most recent news is for a particular topic (and include some new quotes from the major players) and then link back to the previous stories? The notion that you have to continue to provide background information in every story you write is a relic of the old print world.

Those who are interested in the Tower issue know the background of it. We know the players. We know how it relates to the the Downtown master planning process. Sure, maybe we occasionally forget one of the lesser bits of information about the story, but for the most part, we're only interested in the latest developments. The rest is a part of our individual and collective consciousness. Rewriting this just takes up the reporter's time for what, the handful of readers who just now took an interest in this subject?

Perhaps the newspapers of tomorrow resemble a cross between wikipedia, blogs and twitter. Individual stories about a particular issue are aggregated into a main overarching, Wikipedia-like entry (maybe with a timeline) about the topic, which is updated as it develops. These updates, depending on newsworthiness, could be short and newsy (Twitter) or a bit longer with some additional context and perspective on how it relates to the larger story (Blogs).

Anonymous said...

Don't blame the reporters at The Sun - this is all the doing of Tribune and of course, the idiot Zell.
Morale at the paper is at an all time low, and the feeling is that Tribune will be bankrupt in a year, leaving Baltimore without The Sun. Believe me, I speak from painful experience.

Hayduke said...

Anon 1:14: I don't mean to blame the reporters at all, and if it came off that way in the post or my comment, it was a failure on my part to clearly convey my thoughts. The only reason I mentioned Larry Carson's name at all was for sake of the broader example.

The problems with newspapers are systemic and broader than any individual paper, and they are most likely exacerbated by a shift away from local ownership.

Just out of curiousity, do you watch The Wire and if so what did you think of the last season? Not that what I'm getting at here is directly influenced by David Simon's take on newspapers today, but it's all connected, as they say.

Anonymous said...

Hayduke, I knew you did not mean to blame reporters, but I know others do. My comment on that was for those folks. I wonder if local business, governments are taking note of what is happening in the world of journalism. If you ask me, it seems they would be delighted - without investigative reporters keeping tabs of them. Plenty of national news on TV, but local coverage - well, I don't know. When newspapers disappear, I think the public will realize just how much they relied on them.

No, I do not watch The Wire. I will look for it this coming year though.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I forgot to add a comment regarding history being repeated in every article. Yes, it can get boring reading through all that stuff over and over again, but it is a standard in journalism to do that - one always has to assume someone is reading it for the first time. New people moving into the area would be lost without background information.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Jon Stewart's comment on investigative reporting:

Woodward and Bernstein cracked the Watergate scandal and then investigative reporters took the next millenium off work.

Anonymous said...

Why bother covering Howard County news? Even when we have a CE who lies to its citizens about his experience, we still elect him because he is a Dem.

We get the press coverage we deserve.