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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.



( 35 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 28th, 2009 07:43 am (UTC)
The Magic Christian
Terry Southern described a ludicrous variant on one of your proposed end-games in his novel, The Magic Christian:

...At this point a major policy change was announced. Henceforth the newspaper would not carry comics, editorials, feature stories, reviews, or advertising, and would present only the factual news in a straightforward manner. It was called The Facts, and Grand spent the ransom of a dozen queens in getting at the facts of the news, or at least a great many of them, which he had printed then in simple sentences. The issues of the first two days or so enjoyed a fair sale, but the contents on the whole appeared to be so incredible or so irrelevant that by the end of the week demand was lower than at any previous phase of the paper's existence. During the third week, the paper had no sale at all to speak of, and was simply given away; or, refused by the distributors, it was left in stacks on the street corners each morning, about two million copies a day. In the beginning people were amused by the sight of so many newspapers lying around unread; but when it continued, they became annoyed. Something funny was going on—Communist? Atheist? Homosexual? Catholic? Monopoly? Corruption? Protestant? Insane? Negro? Jewish? Puerto Rican? POETRY? The city was filthy. It was easy for people to talk about The Facts in terms of litter and debris. Speeches were made, letters written, yet the issue was vague. The editor of The Facts received insulting letters by the bagful. Grand sat tight for a week, then he gave the paper over exclusively to printing these letters; and its name was changed again—Opinions.

These printed letters reflected such angry divergence of thought and belief that what resulted was sharp dissension throughout the city. Group antagonism ran high. The paper was widely read and there were incidents of violence. Movements began.

Of course, that's when it really goes pear-shaped.
Apr. 28th, 2009 08:22 am (UTC)
Investigative Journalism
I agree we need investigative journalism, and few papers are doing it at all. But part of the problem is the few papers that are still doing it appear to be doing it less. The NY Times is having trouble remaining profitable, and one of the things they keep doing in response is cutting bureaus and journalists.

So, we need investigative journalism, newspapers are pretty much the only people paying for it right now, and fewer papers are hiring fewer investigative journalists each year. So how do we make sure investigative journalists get paid? Just by propping up the Times? Leaching off of foreign press? Or are there other ideas out there that could eventually increase the number of professional journalists out there looking for what others try to sweep under the rug?

I really want to know, because I don't want to be left with only the foreign press (I already listen to the BBC more than to American news), and those few intrepid souls who remain working for the Grey Lady.
Apr. 28th, 2009 12:55 pm (UTC)
I use the Post Dispatch, once I've culled the funnies, to line under my cat's litter box. Newsprint is thoroughly absorbent. Beyond that, I now get most of my information online. Occasionally I find a headline I want to read, but as Brad points out, mostly in the specialty sections (cars, sports, etc.) I only point out the litter box thing to express that I have, in fact, found something practical and useful for the local St. Louis newspaper to do.

Competition encourages quality. The Post Dispatch does not consider the RFT valid competition. They should, because the RFT actually writes in-depth articles and makes and attempt therein to find hidden facts and profound revelations. The RFT is a good format, too. Its only once a week, saving us from the constant stream of useless drivel that makes up the daily Post Dispatch.
Apr. 29th, 2009 12:18 am (UTC)
I'm actually a bit concerned about what we are gong to do for all the things that newspaper -- the paper-- is perfect for. What am I going to use to light the BBQ? I have used the Sunday comics as gift wrapping paper for years... And, of course lining the birdcage or paper training the puppy.... Etc.
Apr. 28th, 2009 01:08 pm (UTC)
I think of the Washington Post as a newspaper that's doing its own research. No?
Apr. 28th, 2009 03:02 pm (UTC)
The traditional "newspapers of record" are the NYT, the WSJ, and the WaPo, yes, for just this reason. The LA Times made a heroic try to get onto that list, but seems to have given up and "cost cut" their way back out of the competition. Many people now count USA Today in that list. There is some question as to whether the WSJ will continue to investigate and report facts now that it's a Murdoch paper.
(no subject) - hal_obrien - Apr. 28th, 2009 03:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - krinndnz - Apr. 28th, 2009 03:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - hal_obrien - Apr. 28th, 2009 04:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - krinndnz - Apr. 28th, 2009 09:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kimchalister - Apr. 29th, 2009 12:30 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - reannon - Apr. 28th, 2009 04:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - krinndnz - Apr. 28th, 2009 09:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 28th, 2009 01:10 pm (UTC)
I ran for election last year. A small seat, but one that I thought was importantant enough to get over my distaste for politics and actually get on the ballot to run for (ok, so I came in dead last). What annoyed me was that the local papers, who were the only folks who cared enough about this race to print a few articles, well, they'd ask me pages and pages of questions, I'd reply with pages and pages of answers, and all they'd print from each of the candidates for the office was a single sentence. Did the editors cut everything down? Did they decide that since one candidate wrote a single sentence/slogan, that they'd cut everyone else down to the same bandwidth? I have no clue.
Apr. 28th, 2009 01:15 pm (UTC)
For our part, we send a multi-page questionnaire that gets printed in a special election insert, candidates in their own words. The stories must be much shorter, so sometimes we do end up picking just a sentence or two. I can't say for certain what your paper was doing - did they run an election tab? Was the story compiling many candidates together? But I do know I get much, much more information from the various candidates than I could possibly use.

But note: the local papers were the only ones even interested.
Apr. 28th, 2009 01:10 pm (UTC)
all due respect...
You mean like the Las Vegas Sun exposing the deaths of construction workers on the Strip due to look-the-other-way safety regulators?

The New York Times exposing how retired generals were bought and paid for by military contractors to support the war on TV?

The St. Petersburg Times' PolitiFact, which fact-checked more than 750 claims by politicians during the 2008 election and continues to factcheck bullshit on a daily basis?

The L.A. Times exposing financial malfeasance in California's largest union?

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel exposing the government's failure to enforce regulations on contaminants in drinking water?

The Detroit Free Press brought down Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick in a massive corruption-and-sex scandal.

The itty bitty newspaper for Mesa, Ariz. exposed how a popular sheriff's singleminded focus on immigration left violent crime and other problems rampant in the county.

The Washington Post exposed deadly abuses at the U.S.'s immigration detention centers.

And that's just from the other Pulitzer nominees. And just from this year. Last year my little newspaper won the RFK award for exposing how Illinois DCFS screwed up a number of investigations and got 53 children killed.

It cost the Boston Globe more than $1 million to investigate the Catholic Church abetting and cloaking pedophiles in the priesthood. Bloggers can't do that and TV doesn't care.

You're a very bright guy, Brad, and you know very well that the local level of government is the level that really affects us all. It's the mayor, the school board, the county chairman, the transit chief. Newspapers are the only ones paying attention to them. Trust me, half the schadenfreude over the supposed death of newspapers is coming from the people at middling levels of power, because then they can do whatever the fuck they want and nobody will care. At the CPAC meeting a few months ago, someone mentioned the death of newspapers and they fucking CHEERED. TV is too worried about sweeps and good art and what freelance blogger is going to sit through interminable school board meetings or learn about the structure of a proposed tax increment financing district?

Oh yes. You'd miss us, if we were going anywhere. If you're only reading the stuff that Yahoo News or Google aggregates for you, you're going to miss it.

(Also, the Post didn't win the Pulitzer for Kirkwood. It was a finalist, and likely that was influenced by the fact that one of their own got shot - ironic, since they laid him off two weeks ago. And at the time, you lauded local reporters on the work they did covering it, including the Post. Yes, the RFT does good stuff. So do the rest of us.)

Edited at 2009-04-28 01:27 pm (UTC)
Apr. 28th, 2009 03:19 pm (UTC)
Re: all due respect...
I count the NYT as a real newspaper. The Kwame Kilpatrick story was broken in Detroit's free paper first. The Boston Globe broke the Catholic story about a decade ago, and has since then laid off almost everybody in the newsroom. For that matter, hasn't your paper done the same, laid off nearly everybody who was doing anything more than transcribing press releases?

Reannon, I don't want to pick on you (or identify which paper you work for in a public post), so let's go back to the Post-Disposal. Today's top story is on the avian swine flu. Actual reporting by the P-D: One one-sentence quote from a professor at SLU, who has nothing to say that couldn't have been cribbed from the same wire service story that the rest of the article was cribbed from. Top story in the Metro section is on cuts to the Parents as Teachers program. Other than a one-sentence reaction quote cribbed from a lawmaker's website, the entire rest of the article is cribbed from a Parents as Teachers press release. Now, you tell me: in either story, what did I need the Post-Dispatch for?

Because in the meantime, one reporter over at KSDK, Mike Owens, breaks about three local news stories a week that didn't come from press releases, they came from cultivating sources, investigating complaints, and digging through public records. Eliot Davis manages roughly as many investigative news stories per week over at the local Fox affiliate, KTVI, just by combing through municipal budgets and school district budgets looking for stuff that doesn't pass "the sniff test."

By comparison, as best as I can tell from reading the St. Louis Post-Dispatch online several times a day for several years, right up until they fired Sylvester Brown, reporters for the Post-Dispatch, like most newspapers, sit around and copy press releases, or call one local person for a reaction quote to an AP wire service story, all day long unless a news story literally falls into their laps. Worthless.

Edited at 2009-04-28 03:24 pm (UTC)
Re: all due respect... - reannon - Apr. 28th, 2009 05:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 28th, 2009 02:36 pm (UTC)
I'm strongly reminded of Ryan Sholin's "Ten Obvious Things About The Future Of Newspapers." I wonder what you think about a point that's more central to his bit: local relevance.
Apr. 28th, 2009 02:44 pm (UTC)
You weren't asking me, but thanks for linking, that was an interesting article. I'd agree with almost all of it. I'd add one caveat: it's not Google's fault in that Google is a good thing, helps people find us. However, Google NEWS is a very big problem. Links FTW, but when they pull whole articles and present them as their own content without compensating the newspaper from which they grab, that's a problem financially. But unknown if publishers will figure out a way to solve it.
(no subject) - krinndnz - Apr. 28th, 2009 02:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - reannon - Apr. 28th, 2009 03:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - krinndnz - Apr. 28th, 2009 03:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - briathian - Apr. 28th, 2009 03:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - reannon - Apr. 28th, 2009 03:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - briathian - Apr. 28th, 2009 03:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - hal_obrien - Apr. 28th, 2009 03:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - hal_obrien - Apr. 28th, 2009 04:01 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - anton_p_nym - Apr. 28th, 2009 04:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 28th, 2009 08:23 pm (UTC)
Have you sent this to editorial staff at newspapers?
Apr. 29th, 2009 11:22 am (UTC)
Liberal Conspiracy highlighted this post today; I like, thankyou. I wonder if you’ve come across Flat Earth News by Nick Davies? He writes a lot – mostly UK-based - on staff and funding cuts forcing reporters to rely on wire stories and PR statements to fill pages in time. Not sure if it’s easily available in the US (though it has a pretty good website with background articles) but it’s entirely worth buying.
May. 1st, 2009 02:57 am (UTC)
This is a real problem that he reports. Publishers (i.e. the money men) often see the editorial content as filler that keeps the ads from bumping into each other. They can't lower the cost of newsprint or rent or utilities but they can cut staff and hire cheap newbs to replace experienced hands. Obviously, the more pieces you have to write per issue (whether daily, weekly, or monthly), the less time you have to original research and interviews. This really shows up in many smaller publications.

Another good source for the inside-scoop in journalism is at http://www.poynter.org
May. 1st, 2009 02:50 am (UTC)
Wow! The fact that you believe the New York Times is the greatest newspaper in the USA and one of the best three or four in the world really makes me question your judgement. Three glaring examples spring to mind:

Jayson Blair just making shit up

Judith Miller repeatedly acting as mouthpiece for Bush's claims of WMD pre-Iraq, writing articles that reported White House assertions as fact

Rick Bragg passing off the work of others as his own

Journalists are human and, like all jobs, some people will cut corners. Others will do the best work they can. You can't judge them by where they work.
May. 18th, 2009 02:23 am (UTC)
Saw it in the NYT, too. *yawn* We knew George Bush was very religious; that his subordinates pretended to be his flavor of evangelical in order to curry favor is hardly startling.
( 35 comments — Leave a comment )