(Reposted from The Huffington Post)
Michael Jackson died in the early afternoon on Thursday, June 25. I remember because my daughter texted the news to me from her summer college class about 2:45, when she was ostensibly listening to her professor.
That’s not so remarkable. What is remarkable is that the next morning’s Los Angeles Times headline across the top of the front page screamed, “King of Pop is dead at 50,” as if the entire world hadn’t heard about it 16 hours earlier.
That’s not to say the coverage wasn’t first-rate. It was. The main story had details few other media had, as befits a world-class news staff. A companion piece told us about Jackson’s impact on the music world and the culture. But that main headline made it seem like the paper was way behind the times. In fact, a review of most of the nation’s major newspapers from that morning finds the same breathy headlines pretending to declare something new. And that’s one of the newspaper industry’s biggest problems. Every day, most newspaper headlines literally shout: We are irrelevant!
Editors just can’t seem to get beyond the old mindset of being responsible for delivering the news, even though papers, outside of an occasional overnight event, haven’t truly broken news in decades. Television took that role more than 40 years ago, and the Internet took over in the early part of this century.
Yet papers insist on running headlines as if paperboys were still out there on the streets screaming, “Extra!” Editors and publishers are so old-school they can’t see the writing on the computer screen, if you will. Watch Jason Jones’ “Daily Show” skewering of The New York Times and see for yourself: Those guys live in a different world, a world several generations removed. For someone like me, who spent more than 20 years working for dailies and who loves the business even though I’ve been out of it a long time, that “Daily Show” piece was not just sad, it was excruciating. Especially since the current state of newspapers has been predicted for such a long time.
When I started working for daily newspapers in 1979, there was already hand-wringing throughout the industry over declining readership. Young people weren’t reading the papers like their parents and grandparents, and so one of the solutions papers came up with was the Newspapers in Education Program, which put papers in school classrooms. The idea was if you gave teachers subscriptions to the paper, they would use them in the classroom and engender new – perhaps lifetime – readers. It was an OK idea. But it never really panned out, and certainly wasn’t able to stop the decline in readership.
Television was the enemy, and so newspapers decided in the 1980s that if they redesigned themselves to resemble TV with splashy color graphics, large headlines, and short stories they’d be able to lure TV news watchers back to print. USA Today was born. Every one of the four papers I worked with from 1979 to 1995 redesigned itself; one did it twice in the time I was there.
Then in the early 1990s, we started seeing the rise in personal computing, and then electronic mail, and then the Internet, and pretty soon newspapers were scurrying around creating Web sites that essentially took the print version of the paper and put it online.
By the late 1990s, newspapers were flocking to the Web in droves, and beginning to talk about interactive content. In the early part of this decade, my friend who is the director of photography at the Reno Gazette Journal and his staff started carrying video equipment instead of still cameras so they could instantly upload streaming video to the paper’s Web site. And still newspaper readership and revenues declined.
Then, one recent day, some brilliant minds realized the newspaper industry had given all of its content, content that it pays good money to journalists to produce, away for free on the Internet. And all the ad revenue that used to pay for those journalists was fast disappearing. People could get free classified ads through Craigslist, and display advertisers were bolting for the Internet, too. But they weren’t going to the newspaper’s own Web sites, they were advertising on Google, and Yahoo, and a host of other Internet-savvy companies who had invested in harvesting advertisers from print for more than a decade. And then, newspaper companies started to close papers, and everyone looked around and said, “What the hell just happened!?”
It’s worth mentioning that many newspapers are still profitable. They’re just not as profitable as they were in the mid-20th century, when returns on investment often topped 30 percent. Given that grocery stores typically operate on profit levels of about 3 or 4 percent, it seems obscene, doesn’t it? Especially when the big chains slash jobs or even threaten to close papers that are only making, say 6 or 8 percent.
So, here we are in 2009, and the world of news – of global communication – has shifted to the Internet. Twitter, Facebook, The Huffington Post, Google News, Craiglist, newspapers’ own Web sites are stealing readers by the millions, and in many cases turning ordinary citizens into journalists. Witness the devastating earthquake in China in March 2008, or the Iranian election and its aftermath just three weeks ago. In my hometown of Santa Barbara, Twitter and online sites run by “amateur” reporters did a better job of informing the community on the devastating Tea Fire in May than any official news organization in town. The only “traditional” news organization that rivaled it was the alternative newspaper, The Independent’s, online presence.
Many journalists who work for newspapers are hanging onto their jobs by their fingertips. And still, editors don’t see that in order to be relevant, papers have to show readers why picking up a newspaper makes as much sense, or more, than, say, checking the latest headlines on an iPhone. The only way to do that is to cede the immediacy of the news to those who do it better and focus on analysis and explanatory journalism, giving readers insights and information they won’t find elsewhere.
Of course, newspaper editors have been saying that for years. They just haven’t been doing it, not well enough. And they haven’t trained their copy editors to write a non-breaking news headline. It’s so much simpler to keep doing it the way they’ve always done it.
I don’t know what the future holds for newspapers. Maybe it means printing the news on newsprint less often, perhaps only Monday through Friday, or only once a week on Sunday, and turning wholeheartedly to the Web. That would be sad, because part of the pleasure of reading a newspaper, outside of the fact that it’s portable and easy to read while curled up on the couch, is coming across something unexpected as one turns the page, a story that surprises or excites, or warms one’s heart. We can all use a little serendipity in our lives.
Unless editors and publishers take steps to make papers relevant again, even that delight will disappear. Meanwhile, the entire industry is sinking into the muck, just like those poor wooly mammoths in the tar pits.