J. Brad Hicks (bradhicks) wrote,
  • Mood: quixotic

So, About That News Diet

I swear: I have watched friends give up smoking more easily and thoroughly than I give up the news. So let me talk about the news for a second. Since I'm as cranky from fighting myself over wanting to read the New York Times and Yahoo! Most Read News (and watch Rachel Maddow) as your average nicotine addict is on day two of their latest attempt to quit, let me channel some of this crankiness into saying something impolite that I haven't had the guts to say lately:

Screw the newspapers.

No, really. Every single one of you except the New York Times, the UK Guardian, and maybe one or two other "newspapers of record." What are you good for?

I'm as serious as the grave here.

First, let me get out of the way the stuff that people other than me have normally read the newspaper for. Almost none of it is of any use to me, but this is the bulk of your traditional subscriber base. For as long as I've been alive, the vast majority of the working class, middle class, and professional class people I've known who took a daily paper only looked at the following: the TV listings, the movie listings, the funnies, the sports scores, and maybe their horoscope. A few who were bored enough also looked at Dear Abby Landers, whichever. All of those things are online now, and they are online in easier formats. Cartoonists are moving to the web, where they get to keep a higher percentage of their royalties than the newspaper cartoon syndicates ever paid them, and where they can put a link to the collected edition books and souvenir t-shirts next to every cartoon, and where -- to the readers' famous delight -- the cartoon appears big enough that the readers can actually read it. Oh, and with an archive that goes back as far as the reader wants. You're not going to out-compete the web on cartoons. Nor are you going to out-compete the web on TV listings, since websites customize them for the user's channel layout and offer nearly instant searches for programs they're looking for. Nor are you going to out-compete websites on movie listings, which people bring up on their phones when they want them. Nor are you going to out-compete MLB.com and the rest of the league sports sites, plus Sports Illustrated. I don't care what you do to the paper itself, I don't care what civic appeals you make, I don't care what ads you run: you contribute no value to that information stream, you actually subtract value from information streams that are more complete and useful without you in the middle; you are never getting those customers back. Period.

Now let me talk about what I use newspapers for, namely, the actual news. When was the last time you came up with any?

Because if all you're going to do is collect both sides' quotes and put them into standard newspaper article "reverse pyramid" style, I don't need you, either. If all I want to know about a national news story is what the White House says and what the Republicans are saying, I can get it in more complete form than you're running it and, on average, an hour or more faster than I can get it from you, just by looking at the White House blog and one or more Republican blogs. If all I want is what the police said about an arrest and what the accused and their family said, I can look at the police department's website myself. (Odds on I already know what the accused says. If not, some blog will show me. Everybody's got a blog or a Twitter feed or something these days.) Nor is collating these into stories and deciding what stories are hot adding any value to those collections of quotes: Google and Yahoo both do a better job than you do, and in real time, just by throwing new stories in at random seeded by semantic search terms and then tracking the click-through rates.

There is only one thing that you could do that would be worth my paying you, and that's if you find the facts that other people aren't trying to beat down my door to tell me. And the New York Times knows this, which is why I pay them, not my hometown newspaper. And even then, I don't pay much; I subscribe to the Latest Stories blog via my Kindle 2 for $1.99 a month. Apparently so do a lot of people; it's the single best-selling blog in the Kindle store, not counting Amazon's own free ad-ware blog. Because the NYT doesn't just wait for sources to come to them and tell them stories and then pass them along; they actually pay people to go out and find stories. How good are they? A while back, a Congressional staffer on one of the intelligence committees ran a cross-check, counting the times when the NYT said one thing and the CIA said another: every single time, the NYT was right. They don't do this by collating press releases; they pay reporters to travel around the country and the world and ask questions, they pay reporters to dig through piles of records. It's called investigative journalism. You know: that stuff you used to do -- because virtually every newspaper in the world cut their investigative journalists and their foreign bureaus and all the rest of their actual news gathering people first, the second they were acquired by cost-cutting conglomerates.

You want an example? Fine. I find it flat-out inconceivable that my hometown newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, won a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the terrorist attack on Kirkwood City Hall last year. I read the Post's coverage. There wasn't any news in it. They had official statements from the usual people, and they had lots of weepy stories about how people felt about it. But it was the St. Louis Riverfront Times that actually dug up what little news was actually found about Cookie Thornton's motive. An ad-supported "free" newspaper. In their blog. I had to do most of the rest of the research myself. You know, if I had thought the Post-Dispatch actually had people digging up the dirt in Kirkwood, if it was going to be the Post-Dispatch that found out about the dirty deal between Thornton and certain white developers and their white political allies, the deal that Thornton felt they renegged on that drove him to homicide? I'd have paid for that. Entirely predictable "oh it was awful you can't imagine" weepers that all ended in "he was a crazy person, we'll never know why he did it"? What was I going to pay for that, for? I could have written that stuff myself and nobody could have told the difference.

I don't know how any local newspaper is supposed to get the funding for investigative reporting, or what those people are supposed to work on when they don't have any warm leads to chase, or how many people you could sell it to. You sure as heck aren't going to do it by selling advertisements; direct mail and Craigslist have eaten that revenue right out from under you, and it's not coming back, either. So if it can be done at all, it's going to have to be done by do something so radical it's never really been done before: selling actual newspapers for the cost to research them. All the way back to the dawn of the industry, ad revenue has matched or-outpaced subscription revenue, unless the newspaper was in some way externally subsidized. Maybe Fox News really is showing you the way, or more specifically, the way back: maybe every town is going to have to go back to being a two-newspaper town, where the local Democrats and the local Republicans each fund a newspaper out of their party funds, to investigate each other.

All I know for sure is this: unless you're finding news that somebody isn't beating down my spam filter to tell me themselves, I surely won't miss you when you're gone.
Tags: personal
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