Newspapers Digging Their Own Graves

By | Thursday, May 19, 2011 1 comment
Tom Spurgeon recently linked to this article on the "state of digital transformation of newspapers." Despite the article's upbeat, progressive tone, Spurgeon noted that he still found it depressing and couldn't figure out why. My interest piqued, I tried reading the article myself.

"Tried" being the operative word.

In point of fact, I tried reading it repeatedly. I deliberately went back to it again and again, and found that it showed such an absolute lack of understanding what century we live in that I had to quit. It wasn't quite re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic, but it doesn't seem that far removed.

This quote is a prime example of what I'm talking about: "Newspapers still account for more than half of all originally reported journalism in the United States." I don't have the exact study that they're using as the basis for that claim, but I can tell you right now that it's wrong. Why? Because "journalism", despite what newspapers would like to believe, is NOT definitively defined. "Journalism is the practice of investigation and reporting of events, issues, and trends to a broad audience." The number of journalists out there used to be pretty small simply because there were very few outlets for reporting to a broad audience.

Today, here and now in the 21st century, that is not the case. The internet changed that. In 2010, there were roughly 255 million web sites in existence and 152 million blogs. Even if only 1/2 of one percent of those blogs were doing something that might be considered "investigation and reporting of events" that's still 3/4 of a million! A damn sight more than the 9,000-ish TV stations and 50,000-ish newspapers combined -- and that's assuming most of their content wasn't regurgitated from someplace else.

And that's not even considering what might be being reported via email, online video, or through social media. Did everybody miss that whole Arab Spring deal that has been told most immediately and directly through Twitter?

That ties in with this piece I read yesterday in which the author calls out Aaron Sorkin as an idiot because he thinks that working for the Wall Street Journal or New York Times automatically means you're inherently a better journalist and less prone to making mistakes than everyone else on the planet. No, whether or not you do good research and present your findings well and with accuracy makes you a good journalist; it has zero to do with who signs your paycheck.

Here's another big issue: "We need a gold standard of measurement: one way of looking at digital audiences..." I really am astounded by this. They're still trying to look at news consumers as a single block of people? They're still trying to be report everything to everybody? They still don't understand that the internet allows for -- and almost forces you to adopt -- a more narrowcast approach to your message? When most people's information came from one of maybe five or six accessible sources, it makes sense that they'd want to reach as broad an audience as possible. But the internet simply does not work that way. Each user can specify very niche interests and receive news on those very individualized topics. Maybe that niche is as small as Chicago Bulls home games in which Luol Deng scores more than a dozen points in the first half. Maybe that's as broad as all sports.

But even with the case as broad as "all sports" THAT'S STILL NARROWER THAN WHAT NEWSPAPERS ATTEMPT TO PROVIDE!!!

That almost inherently means that they can't do as good/comprehensive/insightful a job reporting on that as someone who only looks at sports. People are going to gravitate towards who's doing a better job and it should come as no surprise that that ain't newspapers! By design, they spread themselves to thin to do a decent job relative to everybody else who's on the internet.

I don't have anything against newspapers. I think they have performed admirable services over the years, often under less than tolerable circumstances. And I don't necessarily think they should go away; there is something to be said for having a broad overview of news, even if you can't get into or aren't interested in pursuing any of it very deeply as a reader. But that whole article just smacks of trying to apply old methodologies to entirely different venues. Which makes sense if you're coming to this venue for the first time and there are no precedents yet, but c'mon! The world wide web has been around for 20 years now! There are models out there that work, and they're refusing to look at them because... it's not like what they've done before, I guess?

Book publishers are changing how they do things. Comic book publishers are changing how they do things. TV is changing. Radio is changing. Movies are changing. Every media format out there seems to be moving faster than the glacial pace that newspapers are. That they seem bound and determined to try to hold on to the exact same position they had in society 100 years ago just strikes me as insanely mind-boggling. There's no reason that newspapers HAVE to die, but if they keep digging their own graves, it's hard to see a world in which they don't.
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Anonymous said...

I don't think every newspaper has one reporter who covers sports, foreign affairs, politics, and every other topic. They have beat reporters who cover specific subjects and therefore are not spreading themselves any thinner than any internet "journalist" I agree with Aaron Sorkin, by the way. User produced news will never have the credibility, validity, or expertise as proper journalism because there's no system to keep it in check. There's no editor, and the facts could all be made up. Behind every seemingly legitimate blog there could be a crazy moron wearing a bra for a hat. And that's usually the case. A lot of magazines and newspapers have bureaus in these foreign countries who can report the happenings in the middle east, asia, and africa. You don't just need teenagers with cell phones to report on the arab spring.