Monday, March 23, 2009

On the Death of "Print" Journalism

The work of an unpaid student intern, at the beginning of her journalism career, at the Los Angeles Times.

We had a big story in Northern California over the weekend that had all the drama, pathos, loss, and sorrow that makes a story a fascination. It cried out for good reporting. Five Oakland policemen were shot and four were killed when a parolee, afraid of returning to jail, ran amuk with a handgun and an assault weapon.

On-the-scene reporting of crime is the forte of television journalism. Unfortunately, this happened on a Saturday, a day when HUT levels (Home Using Television) are low, ad revenue also low, and stations understaff newsrooms. .

So you reach for the newspaper, hoping to find the story behind the story: who was the killer and what had been his life? Who were the officers and what was the record of each? Who were their families? What was the initial incident about? When the SWAT team went in, why did it go in as it did?

I opened my San Jose Mercury News on the Sunday morning almost 20 hours after the shootings and found the answer to none of these questions. Four officers were dead (give their names), suspect also dead (give his name), end of story. Print journalism isn't what it used to be, and what's more, maybe it never was

The San Franciso Chronicle had a much more in-depth report in its Sunday paper and it should have, being 45 miles closer to the scene (though one might argue that 45 miles is nothing today). Its follow-up reporting has been excellent. But the Chronicle, still owned by the family of legendary Californian, William Randolph Hearst, has been hemmoraging money (losses of $300M between 2000 and 2006, at least $1M a week lost this year) and may not survive. Unions at the paper recently agreed to some concessions, and that may help. But the Hearsts say they don't know how much longer they can continue to lose $1M a week and still publish a newspaper.

You can Google the newspaper business and read the long list of papers in America that have folded this year (the Seattle Post-Intelligencer ended its long run last week). What we'll miss are the background stories, the back stories, the talented "story telling" of veteran reporters that give us the "why" we so rarely learn from a television report.

Will all information gathering and dispersal now move to the Internet? I guess the answer is that "experts" believe it will. And that's okay if we can find Internet sites that check their facts--as established newspapers have been careful to do--and have talented storytellers on call, as good newspapers have always been able to hire. A business such as journalism has to adapt--as it continually has since Benjamin Franklin used to haul his own printing press around to make sure his own views were circulated wherever he went, France included.

My career in journalism began when I worked as an unpaid intern at the Los Angeles Times. All of my by-lines were on stories no one else at the paper wanted to cover. But it was good training for me. As a journalist who knows the limits of television (time limits being among the most critical), one of the things I continually seek in print reporting is depth and background I can't find and don't find on television. So it has been distressing to see newspapers, in response to the competiton from television and the Internet, attempting to be more like these new technologies instead of less like them. I have long thought that newspapers needed to find a unique position--fill the void of longer, deeper stories instead of giving us lighter more shallow coverage. We're already getting that elsewhere. Do they think we're fooled when they try to make a newspaper more "graphic" and thus more like a television story?

Newspapers have been slow to adapt. Unions on newspapers have been slow to make concessions that might have made adaptation and innovation possible. Joint publication with other organs--say a New York Times/San Francisco Chronicle, that had local stories by the Chron and the national pages of the Times--hasn't even been considered that I know of. Innovation on delivery (you print it, you put it on a truck, you throw it on a porch--come on!) hasn't been attempted, that I know of. Businesses in America that don't innovate cannot survive. And print journalism, as much as it is desperately needed, has continued to be one step behind the curve, just when it needed to be otherwise.

I want my morning paper. I want print journalism to survive, in some form, so that I might find and read information I need and can trust to be true. I confess, I like to read! I like to read long, interesting stories! Newspapers operated in old-fashioned, old-union ways won't make it. And I want them to make it because, it is true, as Thomas Jefferson said, that: "The light which has been shed on mankind by the art of printing has eminently changed the condition of the world." Somehow, the same just cannot be said for a Twitter or a Tweet.

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Devon C. said...

Technology is blamed as the reason for print journalism failing. However I think it's because the newspapers are so awful is why they're failing. There's nothing in them, they're full of typographical or grammatical errors, and they never answer the who, what, why, when or how. So in response people do not want to pay $200+ a year for a daily newspaper subscription. If the papers would not underestimate their readers, then they perhaps would have subscribers. And now the result is a very much less informed public. You don't get the same quality news online or from TV.

Robin Chapman said...

Devon: I couldn't agree with you more. When a product is first-rate, it rarely goes out of style. Daily newspapers have had their eye off the essentials in the last decade and they are now, unfortunately, paying the price. That in turn is hurting us all, since a truly informed electorate is essential to a successful democracy.

Lena said...

Maybe the alligators in the above photo are actually waiting for the bikers to pull off to the side of the road!