Lords of the Flies

November 16, 2007

Douglas McLennan has shrewd things to say about the reasons for the decline of the newspaper industry. The gist is that even in their heyday, newspapers weren’t really “mass culture.” They were, as he puts it, a “niche subsidy” product:

The genius of newspapers was that they aggregated lots of mini-content — comics, bridge columns, stock tables, crossword puzzles, the arts, business, sports — and built enough of a combined audience to subsidize the content that otherwise would not have paid for itself.

I don’t know a single journalist who got in the business because they wanted to make sure Garfield or Dear Abby got delivered every day, but the fact is that the content that journalists think counts most — coverage of city hall, foreign reporting, investigations — does not have a big enough audience to pay for itself on its own.

Yet somewhere along the way, this idea of niche aggregation slipped away from the local paper and was replaced by the sense that every story ought to be comprehensible by every reader. The problem: in a culture that increasingly offers more and more choice and allows people to get more precisely what they want, when they want, and how they want it, a generalized product that doesn’t specifically satisfy anyone finds its audience erode away. The more general, the more broad, the more “mass culture” a newspaper tries to become, the faster its readers look elsewhere.

The very things you see newspapers doing to try to bring in new readers — Britney Spears on the cover, pandering to pop culture trends, sensationalist news stories that offer more heat than light — are the things that while they might have worked 20 years ago, don’t today. That’s because the celebutantes get better dish at TMZ and the Live at 5 guys do better fire and missing kids.

Gawd, the endless dreary debates about high culture/low culture I used to get into with newspaper editors. They were pursuing this chimerical monster of a reader who had an eighth- or seventh-grade reading level, yet would still be interested in buying and reading a newspaper. I date the beginning of my decisive shift from “I love newspapers and want to make a career in the newspaper industry” to “Get me the fuck out of this madhouse” from the time my managing editor looked me in the eye and said, with great seriousness, that we needed to take our cues from television — we should follow television’s lead and cover television as much as possible. The fact that people who watch a lot of television tend to be people who don’t do a lot of reading was irrelevant.

Well, that managing editor quit to raise a family and I went into another line of work. And the newspaper we both worked on is busy turning itself into a free Web site with an ancillary newspaper, except they have little fresh content to offer because they’ve cut most of their local coverage and reduced the staff to a barely functioning level. The editors are chiefly involved in getting wire copy onto the Web site as quickly as possible. The same wire copy people can get elsewhere. As an added feature, they hire old folks to totter out every weekend and litter people’s driveways with advertising supplements. The supplements are seldom read, but they come in little plastic bags that are the perfect size for those cleaning up after their dogs. So I guess from that viewpoint, they’re still serving the community. Sort of.

Higher up the food chain, the thinking appears to be that the crap on Fox News draws conservatives like flies, so maybe if they just mix a little of that same crap into their product, they’ll get some flies as well. And so the Philadelphia Inquirer pays good coin to have the deep thoughts of Rick Santorum on its pages; Newsweek seeks the truth from Karl Rove, the man behind the Swift Boat liars assault on John Kerry; and Time magazine offers a platform to William Kristol, a Republican strategist posing as a journalist.

The flies may come, but they don’t stick around long — they can get what they like best at Fox, shoveled out fresh and steaming by the hour. And the people who want something other than crap go elsewhere.

That I should be around to see newspaper journalism come to this.

2 Responses to “Lords of the Flies”

  1. Caveat Says:

    It really is a shame. There is no distinction these days between paparazzi and ‘professional’ journalists. There are no copy editors or fact-checkers.

    There aren’t very many actual reporters any more, who research a story and actually go out to get interviews and substantial facts.

    As you say, they pull things off the wire, sometimes add a bit of irrelevant phrasing so they can slap a byline on it and call it ‘news’. Most of the time they don’t even understand what they’ve run.

    We had a ruling the other day in Ontario that basically gave media a green light – they cannot be held accountable if their facts are incorrect as long as the overall gist is on the money. So, if you are a public figure they can libel you and get away with it. I hope this will be appealed.

    I complained about a radio show here that was smearing dog owners in a way that would have caused the station to lose its licence had it been talking about a racial or ethnic minority.

    The answer to my complaint to the incestuous body that deals with these matters can be summed up in three short points:

    1. We can say whatever we want
    2. We don’t have to have facts to back up our allegations
    3. You can just eat it

    I have lost all confidence in the MSM and I’m not alone. They’d best clean up their act quickly or they will become completely irrelevant.

  2. rix Says:

    Asbury Park Press could be the best positioned newspaper in Jersey in terms of market. It’s in a media hole netween NYC & Philly. It encompasses several towns that produce good violent crime stories on a daily basis. There’s an affluent demographic for arts, food & culture & the ads those generate. It doesn’t need to pretend to cover the whole state for high school sports. Yet, I read some of the most stupid columnist & op ed stuff in that paper, & it doesn’t do particularly good investigative journalism despite all the political shenanigans in Monmouth & Ocean counties.

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