Sunday, November 09, 2008

It’s time to rip the lid off

The mad rush among consumers to buy the historic editions proclaiming the Obama presidency is at once a validation of the power of newspapers and a reminder of what ails them.

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are you nuts? What do you mean "social injustice". I don't want to pay for your harebrained ideas about some self defined concept. What you define as social justice I would probably define as social injustice. This kind of agenda pushing propagandizing is why millions of people like me do not want to read a newspaper and support ideas that are directly in conflict with our own. TJH

3:40 AM  
Blogger Clever Idea Widgetry said...

I think you are overblowing the cultural significance of folks snapping up those portable mementos the newspapers shill. I compare it to the kiddos picking out a plastic Shamu to signify their SeaWorld trip.

People simply can't get enough of the event so they grasp at any momento, like a kiddo leaving SeaWorld that doesn't want it to end.

Find out where plastic Shamu ends up less than 48 hours later and you have your headline momento grab's significance.

6:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, the salvation of newspapers is in their own hands. Forget about user-donated community news, pictures of pretty pussy cats, mindless trend stories and colorless features. The future is back to the days of solid news. Put news back in newspapers.

6:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't understand why the media is so emotively stirred by people snatching up Nov. 5 editions.
The last time people charged the newsstands to snatch up a copy was Sept. 12, 2001. I know – I was one of them.
And let's be honest, I mostly did it because I had a vague notion that if I can hang on to it for 50 years, it'd take on the value of a rare coin. I'm sure I wasn't alone.

7:09 AM  
Blogger JO2 TW said...

I think the first two posters, and the majority of non-newspaper readers, will only note papers' demise once it is complete, and we have only the WSJ, the NYT and the WashPost. At some point, people will start to wonder why there has been no reporting on the misdeeds of city hall, or the state government. But only after they start to note the dearth of news at sites like Huffington and Drudge, which rely on good newspapers for their existence.

7:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Christian Science Monitor has it right. Newspapers need to go online exclusively for daily news. Then, they can issue a magazine-style print edition twice a week, on Thursdays and Sundays when ad inserts need to be distributed. These weekly print publications can run investigative pieces, analyses, news features and other longer stories. They can also serve the "souvenir" function that people obviously still crave.

7:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dream on, dude.

9:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are several problems with this argument for printed newspapers but the most obvious is in the examples cited. In both cases, the DEMAND for newspapers filled the NEED for mementos and memorabilia, not for their originally intended purpose of disseminating news information.

The proof is on Ebay. Those newspapers are being graded by quality and sold like baseball cards, “mint condition” “unread” “untouched” “still in original bag” “collectors edition”. Newspapers do not need to get into the memorabilia business. Newspapers need to be in the news business.

Newspapers need to become platform agnostic by publishing news via any medium which may transmit it. As with any product or service a company offers; Go where the customer is going and become the change agent to help them get there. Only when newspapers do this will they regain their social currency.

9:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Trying to save newspapers is a battle that has already been lost. News organizations are doing a good job engaging readers online, where traffic has been on a steady upswing. Newspapers have been finding creative ways to make use of new media.

The thing that is broke for newspapers is their business model, not the journalism itself. They need to retake control of their own content and finally stand up to the search engines.

9:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The expression is "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." It loses some of its cleverness the other way around.

1:34 PM  
Blogger Tim Windsor said...

I think Robert Ivan is right - these papers were souvenirs of a moment in time. Their possession stands as proof that you were there when Barack Obama was elected.

The critical error is to mistake the strong emotional connections people had with that moment in time and attribute it to the newspaper, which is merely an inexpensive and time-portable memento.

2:33 PM  
Blogger Chris Meadows said...

Newspapers qua newspapers, the physical artifact, are on the way out. People only buy the physical artifact when they want a souvenir. They've found a lot more convenient ways to view their news content than big bulky paper things that you can spill stuff on and never can figure out how to fold back up again.

3:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The urge to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable" is what has destroyed the trust of the public in newspapers.

The once-honourable profession of "reporter", a humble servant of the public good who sought out the facts and reported them is gone.

Now we have the journalist, an arrogant know-nothing with an ideological agenda who does not report facts, but preaches opinions. And usually the journalist is palpably ignorant of the subject matter, interested only in feeding its ego and pushing a political agenda.

The water-skiing squirrel is real; it's a squirrel and it skis on water. The front page of the New York Times is not real -- it's a horrid confection of propaganda and stupidity.

Bring on the squirrels! We won't be missing anything important.

9:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unlike public airwaves users, newspapers do not have to be "objective." They do have to be interesting.
Given the glut of national and international news in every medium (Internet, most of all), probably newspapers have to concentrate hard and heavy on local news and sources.
I can read all I want on Iraq, oil markets, the Dow. What I cannot find online is good reporting on my local city (Los Angeles).
I suspect it is the same in every city.
That, and reporting and editing has to be good.

1:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This was another inspiring piece by Mr. Mutter.

"Constructive ruckus" hit a chord in my newsroom. The phrase echoed throughout the night. And the domain name is still available.

The digging we do is our greatest strength. Sometimes we focus too much on the news that comes easily to us and not the stories we should be going after.

8:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

nice article

9:48 PM  
Blogger Marsh Gardiner said...

Newspapers are still "blue chips" in terms of reputation and authority—but most importantly, they have the power to focus attention, which is only becomes more important as the deluge of information increases. I also responded strongly to your point that papers need to "rip the lids off their communities and towns." In my world the major local paper is less relevant to my life than the free community-based weeklies that tell me about my immediate community, mostly because major news is a commodity that I consume online.

Business change is happening at both ends. While the big get bigger in some sectors, everything else is fragmenting—niches become more and more specialized. Organizations that don't figure this out risk extinction. Just like gigantic dinosaurs, newspapers have an accumulated bulk that hurts their competitive advantage.

6:02 AM  
Blogger A Concerned Taxpayer said...

Journalists do not have the "firepower" to expose real issues anymore. That's their problem, they are educated in the art of writing a story but do not know enough to get to the heart of the matter. The public has become much more savvy about how they will handle the media and the result is that the media has been dumb-downed into a permanent mouthpiece. How many journalists have CFAs or have worked in a hedge fund? Not many and that's why it took so long for them to get their story straight about the subprime crisis. Blogging will rip out ignorant journalists and install people who have actual experience and knowledge to provide the straight dope.

1:51 PM  

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