The Spectrum of Newspapers

I love news. I have always been keenly interested in staying on top of current events, especially in the technology sector. But I get my kicks out of reading everything from the state of foreign economies to the heroic efforts of a dog to save the life of a child.

For most of my life, the news has come in the form of ink-on-paper. The newspaper is that daily device which packaged the latest news into a convenient format. But even the name is deceptive, confusing its form with its function. “Newspaper” is the cheap wood pulp smeared with vegetable dye. The news is the information that it delivers.

So when people wring their hands over the fate of newspapers, it seems they are worried more for the pulp than for what’s written on it. That, of course, is patently ridiculous. Both because of the fact that writers will write on, and because newsprint, done a certain way, is clearly alive and well.

A Small Aside, Wherein I Establish My Credibility

I’ve been watching the developments in the print publishing business with keen interest. When I was in school, my ambition was to be a writer. In university, I modified that aim: I would be in publishing. I worked for the school paper, and eventually became the Editor of same. I came to understand the privilege and thrill of connecting a community of readers with the events that matter. In my time there, I dealt first-hand with matters both banal and terrifying: from awareness campaigns featuring people dressed as gorillas, to being just around the corner from a tragic shooting death.

What those events have in common is in the way they tell the story of the community. Do it for long enough, and you put together a reasonably clear picture of what it means to live in that place. Newspapers, in this way, exhibit a localizing effect on its readers.

The Dark Side of Newspapers

But that communication comes at a steep price. Printing is expensive, and there’s only one formula for paying those bills: advertising. At my university paper, the advertising department was a completely separate entity, and we kept a strong barrier between editorial and advertising. Why? Because the ever-present fear was that advertisers’ interests would invade the news. You might imagine a local restaurant wanting to place a full-page ad, and expecting a positive review in the paper as well.

If there were any hint of that level of collusion, the paper’s bond of trust with their reader would be broken. And for those of us idealists who worked in the paper, “editorial autonomy” was an oft-repeated phrase, and we resisted the siren call of higher revenues in exchange for some plum puff piece.

Nowadays, there is widespread fear that newspapers, as an industry, will vanish. Readers are migrating to the Web for their news; as readership drops, so too do the ad rates. Papers thought that they could run ads on their Web sites and get the same money; that hasn’t panned out at all.

This has inevitably led to the closure of some long-standing newspapers, particularly in the US. What will happen in those communities? To my mind, they have lost a bit of the glue that holds their community together: the stories of who they are, and what happens where they live, will no longer be told in those pages. It’ll be interesting to see if anyone can tell the difference five years from now.

For my part, I see a real shift coming in the way newspapers choose to survive in this market, and they fall into two broad categories. Because really, there are two kinds of newspaper, aren’t there? The kind you think of when you hear the word “newspaper”, and the other kind.

To the former, perhaps the best example is the New York Times. If you’re in Canada, it would be the Globe and Mail (or by circulation figures alone, the Toronto Star). None of these papers are as big as they used to be, but they’re no slouches either. They are massive operations with millions of readers, both in print and online. With their resources they have attained a high degree of editorial quality, which means that people want to read their stuff. They do the hard work of reporting the world: international, national and local news, often in different markets. And in the short term, at least, I don’t think they’re going anywhere.

Now let’s talk about the other kind of paper. In fact, I have a couple examples sitting on my desk right now.

newspaper.png

Where I live, we are “blessed” with two newspapers. Whitby This Week is the hyper-local edition of the Metroland Group’s empire (tell me that Web site doesn’t look like a domain squatter!). Snap Whitby is also a hyper-local edition of a broad chain of similar newspapers distributed around the world (though mostly in Ontario). I can’t begin to give sufficient vent to the amount of contempt I’d like to heap on these publications.

But I’ll try.

Whitby This Week is perhaps the most disappointing, chiefly owing to the deception that it promulgates: namely, that it is a real newspaper, and not a thin envelope in which is stuffed an outrageous amount of advertising. They put on a brave show, scraping the bottom of the barrel to find just one news article to plaster on that front page. This is a pretty good one for them: but are they seriously thinking that we care whether one homeowner is upset about a funeral home going up across the street? Oh god, what of the children?

It goes downhill from there. The next three pages constitutes the “news” section, larded with ads, and a tiny bit of editorial in the corner, of such banal consequence that I should sooner hang myself than let another event-less week go by.

Then, the muscular Op/Ed section, wherein the editors opine on the leading story — yes! more talk about the front page story I don’t care about! — and then some opinion columns by a few locals who have fascinating opinions on botany… and… uh…

Oh, what? Sorry, I glazed over there. Well, Whitby This Week’s content is far from engaging. But you know, it reflects the community, right? Not in that sense. I can’t believe that a community of half a million souls could generate such lack of pith. For example, here are some issues that get little attention in our so-called local paper:

• In-depth analysis of municipal politics, especially regarding the allocation of budgets;

• The state of business in our region, which competes with Toronto and often loses;

• Exposure of the strains of life in a bedroom community, with commuting parents and at-school children.

These are parts of the reality that make up this community, and this paper doesn’t do enough to bring them to the reader. But the reasons are clear when you flip through the paper: editorial costs money, baby! Advertising makes money. So within the editorial pages of the Friday paper, there is approximately an 80:20 ratio of ads to editorial — a revolting percentage. But it’s even worse when you throw in the flyers. It’s a veritable shit-bomb of paper sandwiched in there. Look at that picture above: looks pretty thick, eh? Indeed, the stack of paper is about 1.5 inches thick, and it’s all ads.

If that doesn’t convince you, consider their publication schedule. They used to publish on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday: nice, even intervals to ensure a smooth flow of news. No more: now it’s Thursday, Friday and Sunday. Huh? That’s right: advertisers win again by getting their ads in front of people on the weekend, when they’re likeliest to take advantage of deals.

It’s gotten bad enough that I don’t know anyone who actually reads the paper (unless — full disclosure — you happen to appear in the paper); instead, they get the paper for the Canadian Tire flyer. It’s an embarrassment.

Snap!

Snap is a fairly recent phenomenon with a very simple premise: take as many pictures of people as possible, and then put ads beside them. Every month, you’ll find the pages jammed with pictures of groups of people, at local events, smiling into the camera. I’m serious.

Why? Because those people call up everyone they know and yell, “I’m in the paper! Go get a copy!” And then, of course, they do. And look at the ads. It’s a mind-gamin’, money-makin’ machine, and it’s doing so well that they’re selling franchises — hop on now!

It makes me want to puke. But you have to admire their skill at manipulating the gears to make some cash.

It makes sense

So in the final analysis, it looks like newspapers are doing fine — as long as you’re a major paper, or as long as you’re an advertiser’s bitch. Everyone else is going down in flames.

For a long time, I was hung up on the form of the newspaper rather than its function: paper vs words. But as we’ve learned since the introduction of the Internet, that’s the completely wrong attitude. We probably shouldn’t care about whether newspaper lives or dies, but we should care about knowing where we get our editorial content from.

And I think the answer is pretty evident: from everywhere, depending on what you’re interested in.

News is a crucial instrument in the makeup of any community. It brings a group of people together, telling their shared story. My fellow Mac nerds and I are united, in a sense, through the news that we share. We may get the same facts, but our commonality helps us share the same opinion on those facts, through side channels like Twitter, or even (gasp!) face to face.

So too, everyone will choose their sources to make up their own “newspapers” — Facebook status updates, Twitter feeds, technology blogs, newspaper RSS feeds. Taken together, we’ll be fully informed more than any broadsheet could back in the Twentieth Century.

Now someone just has to invent a business model to take advantage of that.