It’s time to rip the lid off
It is a welcome confirmation, because it shows people still value a newspaper as perhaps the most authoritative and tangible artifact of a memorable event. Last week’s papers are likely to be preserved more carefully over the years than the YouTube videos, blogs and campaign ephemera that were created and consumed during the presidential campaign.
While the enthusiasm generated by the post-election editions proves on one level that newspapers still matter, the long-running decline in circulation also shows that newspapers in large measure have lost their ability to emotionally engage their communities on most of the other 364 days in a given year.
Newspapers can regain at least some of their diminished relevance by reinvigorating that connection. And they must do so quickly, if the industry is to endure.
The nation turned to newspapers after 9/11 and a stricken New Orleans embraced the inspired coverage of the Times-Picayune in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But it should not require an act of war, an act of God or a stunning turn of history for newspapers to touch the hearts and minds of their readers.
All but the most aggressively down-sized paper can generate excitement on a day-to-day basis by practing the sort of muscular, crusading journalism that afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted by kicking over rocks, exposing social injustice and holding public officials and corporate leaders to account.
Because newspapers still have more staff and more time to develop stories than any other local medium, they can do this immediately by training their firepower on truly significant matters, if they quit staffing meaningless press conferences; penning fluffy features; rewriting self-serving publicity releases; laboring over elaborate but inane graphics; obsessing over crime news, and transcribing dull but unimportant civic meetings.
This is not to say that all press conferences, features, new releases, graphics, crimes and civic meetings are meaningless. They are not. But it is to say that considerably more editorial imagination and discretion could do a world of good right about now.
Newspapers need to get off their haunches, boldly pick their shots, and then rip the lids off their respective towns, turning themselves once again into confident and thundering voices delivering coverage that compels attention and delivers results.
In so doing, they, and not the waterskiing squirrel on YouTube, will come to dominate the chatter at the watercooler.
Although modern workers now commune with computers instead of colleagues as they sip bottled water in their cubes, newspapers can leverage the ubiquity of interactive technology by supplementing their coverage with crowd-sourced contributions, a wide range of expert commentary and lively discussion forums.
Until the last person turns out the lights in the last newsroom – a day I hope will never come – newspapers will have it in them to raise the sort of constructive ruckus that makes readers and advertisers take note.
If they do it right, they’ll attract the attention of a bunch of new readers and advertisers. If they don’t regain their once-commanding voices, newspapers may be silenced altogether.