2007-02-21 20:37:19 UTC
February 14, 2007
Why America's Newspapers are Dying
It isnt Faux News, or lack of pulp trees
By Bryan Zepp Jamieson
McClatchy Newspapers, second largest chain of papers in the U.S. and owners of Californias Bee newspapers, was bemoaning the fact that their stock had slipped nearly 40%. They mentioned lack of advertising revenue, dropping circulation, and increasing costs of production as the problem, but the basic situation goes beyond that.
Newspapers love to cite cable news stations for all that has gone wrong in journalism over the past 35 years since the glory days of the Watergate scandal. But "Spin", the brilliant CBC series (http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/spincycles/index.html), mentioned today the "dirty little secret" about cable news: they aren't that popular, and their influence, such as it is, exists only because they insist they are influential. Americas most popular news cable station is Faux News, and on a good day, it gets one out of every two hundred Americans to watch. And while that viewership includes the administration and movers and shakers in the GOP, the typical Faux viewer is near or past retirement, annoyed that minorities are moving into the neighborhood, and thinks the worlds been going to hell since 1960. Grandpa Simpson with a whiskey bottle.
The New York Times has substantially more reach, even just inside New York City. And their influence extends far beyond that. Even in these days, more people read the New York Times or many other major metropolitan papers than watch Faux News.
In other words, were it not for the fact that the GOP had been co-opted by its lunatic wing, Faux News would have all the influence of the Weekly World News, or National Enquirer, and for much the same reasons.
Cable News also shorted the news cycle from 24 hours to one half hour, and papers complain that they cant compete with that, but try anyway with the same sloppy, superficial, rushed journalism that afflicts even the cable stations that arent there simply as propaganda organs.
USA Today, back in the eighties, came up with the flashy, bright newspaper with lots of color and illustrations and not a whole heck of a lot of content. It was a commercial success, and other newspapers followed suit, imagining that their news content should match their target demographic superficial and dim-witted.
Appealing to morons frequently pays off, since theres never a shortage of morons. The main problem is that morons dont read. Some cant, and the rest wont they think that reading is for the intellectually pretentious and sissies. Its a major reason why the rest of the world regards the typical American as a shambling idiot who cant find Australia on the map. (A guerrilla theater group made a strong case for this on YouTube with a painfully hilarious video of Americans pointing to Australia as a potential military threat such as North Korea or Iran, simply because the word "Australia" had been removed from the island continent and the name of another country substituted).
Newspapers are damning themselves by targeting the elderly and the somewhat dimwitted. This has alienated a lot of readers who prefer substance (and it shows in that more Americans read the London Guardians online edition than Brits) while picking up only a handful of morons who are almost certain that Canada is the one thats shaped like a boot.
While not as bad as television and far less so than commercial radio, newspapers are heading for an advertising event horizon, in which the amount of advertising might someday surpass the actual physical dimensions of the newspaper. Advertisers want ever more space for less and less money, and worse, are constantly leaning on newspapers to temper their coverage so as to not offend customers. Their customers, not the newspapers. The only time they care about the actual readers is when they see the circulation numbers have slipped, and demand a corresponding reduction in rates for their ads. And ignore any suggestions that some people quit subscribing because they got tired of leafing through four pages of ads to find a "continued on" section of two paragraphs. Even advertisers are realizing that people have reached a saturation point on advertising and are fed up.
The self-subornation of the media for purposes of not upsetting the readers or the advertisers has done much damage to newspapers, even though they are usually much better than Faux News. When people think of the New York Times these days, they dont think of the paper taking a courageous first Amendment stand in order to publish the Ellsberg Papers; they think of Judith [Jew] Millers craven first Amendment stand to cheerlead for the government and help Putsch lie the country into a bloody and pointless occupation. They remember the New York Times headline that lied about the findings on the Florida 2000 election. And Faux News, cynically and dishonestly, is anxious to remind the world of Jayson Blair forever. I dont read the New York Times because I trust it; I read it to see what the corporations are thinking.
That they are far more trustworthy than cable news doesnt matter; the slime from them rubs off on the Times, above and beyond their own self-inflicted injuries.
However, the final nail in the coffin of newspapers might be found in a curious location: the comics page. I have a Sacramento Bee here, and they have what many regard as the best comics collection among U.S. dailies, a full double-page spread. Thirty two strips or panels in all. Of that thirty two, only four got picked up this century. Twenty one of them were around in the eighties. Nine of them were around in the sixties, and theres several where the original creator died, and the strip got taken over, usually by a family member, or, in the case of Peanuts, they are simply recycling strips dating back to the 1950s. (Fortunately, Peanuts isnt the sort of strip to have jokes about President Eisenhowers golf game). Im quite sure the Sacramento Bee would like to get rid of those relics and get strips that can opine on Blackberries and Ipods, but its not that easy. Last year, they dumped the painfully inept "Mark Trail", and there was a huge outcry from Loyal Readers and the paper hurriedly put it back, knowing that far more people detested the strip, but unwilling to alienate a vocal minority and lose yet more revenue.
So you have all these hopelessly dated, mediocre comic strips, and even the more modern ones tend to be targeted more to adults, and come with sly "arent we just too most-podern for words" winks.
I got my start reading newspapers when I was five, and I started on the comics page. Gasoline Alley, Alley Oop, Lil Abner, Dick Tracy. Pogo. Most of them had some sort of appeal to a modern kid, and it was only a matter of time before I started exploring the rest of the paper, and discovered that they had whole pages devoted to my favorite hockey team, or why dad hated Diefenbaker so much. From Dick Tracy, I evolved into a newspaper reader.
Theres precious little in the comics page to appeal to kids. Indeed, the comics, more and more, are geared to pretty much the same demographic as Faux News Grandpa Simpson with a whiskey bottle. It both reflects the greying of newspaper readership and exacerbates it.
It may be that comics themselves are obsolete, supplanted by YouTube and MySpace. I dont know. In that case, the situation is without remedy until societal tastes, always fickle and cyclical, come back around again to the printed page, or at least static images on a screen.
But when newspapers target the dumb, the superficial, and the rapidly-aging who are morbidly clinging to their childhoods, this doesnt suggest a rosy future.
* Zepp was born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, and spent his formative years living in various parts of Canada from Halifax to Victoria, and then the UK, South Africa, and Australia before moving to the United States, where he has lived for 40 years. Aside from writing, his interests include hiking, raising dogs and cats, and making computers jump through hoops. His wife of 25 years edits his copy, and bravely attempts to make him sound coherent. Zepp lives on Mount Shasta.