Wednesday, January 12, 2005

We have met the enemy and he is us

The publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review suggests newspaper readership is declining precipitously because readers don't give a fig about public affairs. This may be true to a certain degree, but the primary blame for the decline of the newspaper lies with the industry itself.

In the years since commercial radio launched the Electronic Age, newspapers have not learned to overcome the latency inherent in producing and delivering a printed product. Scooped successively since the 1920s by radio, broadcast TV, 24-hour cable, web sites, email newsletters, blogs, podcasts and even cellphone text messaging, newspapers continue bannering tomorrow's paper with yesterday's news.

Papers are dying because they act like a breaking story isn't news until they write about it. They are dying because they write tedious articles about government process that only a wonk could love. They are dying because they are delivered too late, delivered too wet, or not delivered at all. They are dying because they lack the visual panache of even the simplest magazine, let alone a VH1 video.

They are dying because they have not learned how to produce compelling, must-read stories that play to the strengths of this classic, ageless medium. This is not -- repeat, not -- an appeal to dumb down the papers. Now more than ever, publishers and journalists need to raise the quality of their publications by taking risks and breaking rules to connect intellectually and emotionally with their readers.

Unique among all daily media, newspapers have the staff, time and space to investigate complex issues of sweeping importance. With superb writing and evocative graphics, newspapers can document a festering social problem or move you to tears with a tender human-interest story. Instead of writing for the heads, hearts and guts of their audiences, however, newspapers are playing it so safe that they are downright boring. Readers want to be surprised, informed, angered, moved, amused and comforted. Just about anything but bored.

As circulation erodes and advertising sales wilt, publishers are combating declining revenues by cutting expenses in order to preserve the profit margins expected by Wall Street (and demanded by their annual bonuses). Constrained by tighter resources, editors are forced to fill the columns with cheap and easy stories. Readers yawn. Circulation dips. Ad sales slip. Publishers squeeze expenses. And so it goes...

Even if it is true that more citizens can name the Three Stooges than the three branches of federal government, it is self-defeating to blame reader apathy for the industry's failure to evolve a product that has been begging for an extreme makeover for decades.

Remember what Pogo said? "I have met the enemy and he is us."


Blogger Mike said...


9:31 AM  

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