News We Can … Lose?

The Chicago Tribune publishes something called “Red Eye” which is meant to target the young urban professional demographic. These folks don’t read newspapers, apparently. To fill that void, the Tribune created this collection of trivia — gossip, pictures, videos, blogs, games, and music news — to go along with some “real” news coverage. I imagine most papers have done the same thing, or will, or have at least thought about it.

I’ve looked at the website recently, and it’s OK, I guess, on a very superficial level.

A better name for the site might be pointlesswasteoftime.com — too bad that one is already taken.

Despite that limitation — or maybe because of that feature — it apparently sells pretty well in print form, on street corners and in train stations. I have no idea what kind of traffic the site gets.

Of course, old school newspapers (and the news sites they run) aren’t exactly chock full of yummy goodness these days, either. In fact, I can barely stand to read the news section of any major newspaper or news site any more, except (sometimes) the Wall Street Journal and occasional peaks at the Chicago Tribune and a few others.

We do subscribe to our local suburban paper, the Daily Herald, and it does a decent job of providing a blend of national, state, and local news. And the sports section is pretty good, especially columnist Barry Rozner. But the national news coverage is mostly AP, and like nearly everything the AP covers at the national level, it is really, really bad. Horrible, in fact. So the local coverage is key for us. We used to subscribe to the Chicago Tribune, when we lived in a close-in suburb in Cook County, but that paper is much too focused on Chicago and Cook County politics to really speak to somebody who now lives in DuPage County.

Lately, we see publishers and editors of newspapers and wire services (like AP) wonder why revenue is down and they have to cut spending and fire people every other week.

There are surely multiple answers to this question, but here’s my answer, and I won’t even charge my usual consulting fee of $1,000 an hour: it’s because journalists are generally:

  • not qualified to write about very much, being both woefully under-educated and overly self-regarding;
  • out of touch with a large segment of the American people;
  • lazy, negative, and shrill, and too often serve as clerks for unnamed Washington power brokers and PR firms
  • afflicted with the typical union mentality that their job is an entitlement, immune to market-driven economic forces, and so don’t feel enough pressure to change their journalism model.

Today’s journalists, before they even got to college, were taught that journalists are supposed to change the world rather than report on it. Then at journalism school, they supposedly learn the same things that reporters used to learn on the job, except (1) not as well and (2) in a cocoon of self-regarding academia rather than in a big city on the crime beat. This can’t be an improvement.

In most journalism schools, from what I’ve read, they aren’t even required to become domain experts in any particular field, so as to form a knowledge base from which to write. So we end up with journalists who write about war with no military background or experience of any kind; who write about politics, yet don’t have basic knowledge of history or civics; who write about business, yet don’t understand economics or finance; who write about science, yet don’t understand the most basic comparative arguments or relative merits of percentages vs. absolute numbers.

Mostly, what they do is regurgitate talking points dictated to them by special interest groups via press releases and news conferences. And when they do get a “scoop”, it tends to be from unnamed sources who use the press to fight their nasty little Washington power struggles.

Because of all this, they are largely incapable of providing compelling content that brings readers in. In fact, they are so out of touch, they don’t even understand this is a problem, yet. The live in their little bubble worlds, where everybody reliably votes Democrat and worships at the Altar of Tolerance and Diversity, so they can’t even see that their viewpoints — which most definitely color their coverage — aren’t universally shared.

Coverage of events like the Vietnam War and Watergate have permanently colored what journalism means to a series of generations since that time, and it hasn’t been a good influence. It has convinced large chunks of the news-gathering intelligentsia that what should be called “reporting” is in fact Journalism.

And to compound all of that, unions control the newspaper industry, and so all their members operate under the illusion that their job exists in some kind of vacuum apart from the market forces that demand it — or, increasingly, do not demand it. Union members who operate as if they occupy the same position of strength as they did 40 years ago — what are the odds?

There are other factors as well; for instance, TV “news” is shameless in its self-promotion for both network properties and Hollywood in general. Newspapers aren’t quite as bad, but publications like “Red Eye” show that they’ve given in on that issue as well.

And don’t even get me started on war reporting. I’m reading a book on the media coverage of the Vietnam War (“Big Story” by Peter Braestrup) and the parallels with the inconsistent, shrill coverage of Operation Iraqi Freedom are strong and unmistakable. I’ve come to the conclusion that we’d be much better served with ex-military people in those positions of power and influence.

So what does all this mean? I’m not in the news business, so I can’t speak from a position of influence or expertise. But if I ran a news business, and somebody told me all this, I’d have some choices to make. Either I’m committed to “the cause”, or to the ongoing financial enterprise, but it isn’t possible to be committed to both when circulation is down, ad revenue is down, TV ratings are down, etc.

What this all comes down to is this: the one side — the unions and the J-school grads — they have vested interests in keeping things the way the have been for so long, because their power relies on it. The publisher, however, has a fiduciary responsibility to the investors and stockholders. They can’t afford to go down with that ship.

So, as with “Red Eye”, maybe the “kids” are on to something here. Maybe publications like “RedEye” are the future of newspapers. Maybe the future of newspapers is to become more like tabloids, and to connect more with readers on a local level, and to be more web-friendly.

Maybe we’d actually be better off today with a local tabloid than what we’ve got today in our major news outlets, even with all the well-known criticisms of tabloids in the U.K.

I honestly don’t know. It could hardly be much worse.

But I do know this — and while I hate to say it, as somebody who has grown up reading newspapers, and loved it — but yesterday’s newspapers are not today’s, and yesterday’s world is not today’s. Change comes quickly, and those who refuse to adapt find themselves out in the cold. Or out of business.

‘Business’. There’s a key word. The news business is like any other business in one major way: growing revenue streams by serving a market. But today’s journalists are largely too wrapped up in a misguided mission to score big stories like Watergate; they haven’t figured out that people have moved on from 1974, and are tired of “gotcha” journalism. I know I am, and I know I’m not the only one.

And the Internets® have allowed us other ways to get information. So we do. And we like it.

It’s up to the unions and the J-school grads to figure out where to go from here, and rewinding the clock back to 1974 is not an option.

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