Hi, my name is Eric, and I’m a newspaper junkie.
I generally read three newspapers (preferably local ones) each and every day, in a private, solitary series of rituals. As an early-bird type, I start off with The Daily Gazette to accompany my morning coffee in the quiet time before anyone else arrives in the office. At lunch, if I can find a copy, I grab The Record, since its convenient tabloid configuration is perfect for reading while eating by one’s self on a diner two-top. (Something I quite enjoy doing, actually, so don’t insult me by saying “Oh, just one,” in withering terms when I show up at your greasy spoon seeking grilled cheese). Absent a handy Record, copies of which are becoming harder to come by around here lately, I’ll settle for USA Today and its magnificent sports section.
At home, I subscribe to The Times Union, so I read that every night before Marcia gets home and we head off to the gym or dinner or my scheduled ass-whipping at the Scrabble table. (She beat me 425 to 275 last night, with two bingos. Ouch!)
With all the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments lately about the decline and fall of various venerable daily newspapers, I suppose I should be worried about whether I’ll be able to satisfy my tactile news-gathering needs, since handling paper and ink clearly satisfies me in ways that clattering away at a computer can’t. Which isn’t to say that I’m any sort of Luddite or technophobe: I’ve had an internet presence longer than probably 98% of the folks reading this, so certainly appreciate the power of the post-print paradigm. I just like newspapers too, and not only because they go so much better with bacon or biscuits.
Given the amount of money that I’ve pumped into my newspaper addiction over the years, I figure I’m the guy (in a universal sense) that the newspapers really want to keep happy on some plane. They wouldn’t have to run around scared, trying to court and capture new customers who require a lot more grooming with a lot less promise of steady-state return over the long run, if they were guaranteed to keep me and my ilk, and our spawn, engaged and paying for their products. I mean, just look at the per-paper price increases that I’ve absorbed without blink or pause over the past few years, simply because newspapers in their current configurations are essentially perfectly inelastic commodities to me: I’ll keep paying for papers whatever they cost as long as they meet my needs.
But the flipside of that inelasticity is true as well: once newspapers stop meeting my needs, then I’ll stop reading them, even if they cut their prices back to keep me. So with all of that as rambling preamble, and at the risk of biting the generous hand that hosts me here, I’d like to offer some observations about what the newspapers need to do to continue meeting my needs, thereby keeping me, a self-admitted ink addict, from entering into a newsprint detox program and moving on with my life, finally smudge-free and with one less recycling bin to manage.
I’m reminded of the wonderful and insightful song “Ted Key Beefs” by Killdozer, in which my all-time favorite lyricist, Michael Gerald (seriously) dolefully intones the following passage:
“It amuses me to see businesses spending so much money every year to get me back, when I was there in the first place. All they needed to do was give me some service, and show a little courtesy. In fact, I was the most important person in the world to them: I was a customer.
But now . . . I’m the fellow who never comes back.”‘
That’s a wise and cautionary lesson for businesses of all stripes that Mr. Gerald offers: don’t chase the customers you don’t yet have to the detriment or neglect of the customers that you already do have.
So what do my newspapers need to do to prevent me from becoming the fellow who never goes back? As Mr. Gerald noted, first and foremost, the newspapers need to give me some service and show me a little courtesy. Above all else, this means: don’t insult my intelligence by trying to spin fairytales out of the tough times you’re having of late. You know times are hard. I know times are hard. Belts need to be tightened. Be straight with me. I can take it.
But if instead you tell me that you are eliminating five sections a week in order to give me more of what I want, then you’ve insulted my intelligence. As would trying to convince me that front-page advertisements were a quaint throwback to Victorian design ethics or establishing a story-swapping service with other papers within your corporate family, then trying to assure me that the model is the same one underpinning the Associated Press, and isn’t going to result in some reporter, somewhere, losing his or her job. I’m not that stupid, and I suspect that other newspaper readers aren’t either. So don’t talk down to me that way, please and thanks.
Once my newspapers resume treating me, their current customer, with a basic modicum of courtesy and respect, what else do I want from them?
First and foremost, I want news. That’s why I buy a newspaper. If I wanted style, dating, or parenting tips, then I’d buy a style-paper, a dating-paper or a parenting-paper. This isn’t to say that there can’t be news stories about style, dating or parenting, of course, but if you are running an “any old time” puff piece on those or related soft topics with no currency or immediacy, then why waste precious page space on that? News, to me, implies change. Stories that never change aren’t stories.
There’s certainly no shortage of things changing around here in the political, social, athletic, artistic, creative, dramatic, educational and medical worlds, on top of the various earth-shattering events unfolding planet-wide around us. Cover them as a priority, please, in the space you might instead use for, say, full-page photo spreads of people at parties, cruel observations about folks in the community who don’t meet certain cliques’ fashion standards, or reprints of the absolute worst columns from the otherwise choice Wall Street Journal.
After you’ve laid the news out on me, then I want some analysis. This is why I can read three local papers covering many of the same events, since each paper offers me some unique perspective on what happened and what it means. The differences in tone and content of coverage between the Gazette and the Times Union on the problems within the Schenectady police department (to cite but one recent example) are marked and fascinating, and you get a much richer sense of the story reading both newspapers. I expect my newspapers to find, hire and keep journalists, editors and reporters who can provide such unique, independent analysis in stimulating and responsible ways, unlike the unwashed rabble online (me included) who are held to no standards, and whose voices, while legion, are often shrill and uncouth. I can get that for free. If I’m paying for your newspaper, I want something better.
One of the related real beauties of the daily newspapers to me is that while stories may be breaking, at some point they have to be put to bed and processed, and given beginnings, middles and ends, at least for a day. Facts, analysis and commentary are preserved as they were perceived at the time, rather than being subsumed in an unending, ever-morphing wave of blog posts and comments. The bottom line is, I don’t need instantaneous updates for 99% of the news stories that impact me on a daily basis. I’m fine with them being captured in amber, and then getting another piece of amber the next day, perhaps with the same insect preserved within, but now in a different posture.
It’s still beautiful, even if I have to wait a little bit for it to be delivered to me.
And speaking of blogs and websites, don’t send me to them. Seriously.
You have me in your newspaper, so figure out how to keep me there, rather than sending me elsewhere. I like to surf, sure, but if you force me to go to your website to get something related to an article I’ve read in print, then odds are I’m going to find it, and then quickly move onto something that’s entirely web-based, rather than oscillating back and forth in an uncomfortable netherworld between print and digital like some Lovecraftian half-dead thing that requires both a laptop and newspaper to share the table with its fish and chips. That’s just too complicated and crowded. And when you boil it all down, it’s ultimately all just words and pictures in either place, so why not work to make your words and pictures so rapturous that only a fool would deign to seek the shallow, vapid imitations that blight Cyberia?
You know, like this blog you’re reading right now, where an ex-journalist who used to get paid to write and edit now rambles on for free about journalists who are still getting paid to write and edit, and who are hoping that you who read this will please pretty please click on some of the advertising banners that flash and burble around it, so that they can continue to get paid to produce the paper product that this website and others like it are helping to destroy.
It’s a pretty weird business model, isn’t it? I think so, and I don’t believe that it’s a sustainable one. I believe that the few print dailies that are going to survive in the long run are going to be those that recognize that fact, and get off the web, and devote all of their time and talent to producing unique, local, exceptional written product that makes the price you pay for it seem like a bargain. Like television and radio, the daily newspaper market has long been defined by rapacious holding corporations devouring choice local properties as soon as it seems like they might be profitable. The sooner those corporations go under and homegrown (or re-rooted) locals move in to take their places, the better the product that survives will be. Yes, it’s going to be a convulsion. Yes, lots of papers aren’t going to make it. Yes, lots of writers, editors and photographers are going to have to seek new careers. But that’s going to happen no matter what.
Of course, in the aftermath of that convulsion, unit prices of the surviving products will be higher and circulation will be lower, meaning that the print newspapers are not ever going to reach the market share they once did. But that’s okay, isn’t it? Most people may buy CD’s or MP3’s these days, but there are still tough, efficient little companies out there pressing vinyl records for folks who love the heft and quality of them, and who appreciate having something tangible to hold in their hands in exchange for their hard-earned money. So here’s hoping that newspapers will find a similar niche, where reasonable profits can be made for high-quality product with a devoted, dedicated audience who are willing to pay for it, along with businesses that are willing to advertise in front of such devoted consumers for related products which may appeal to them.
But in the same way that record companies are not likely to impress vinyl audiophiles by pushing MP3s on them, newspapers are not likely to impress their most fervent readers by pushing websites and podcasts at us. We can find those on our own if we want them, thanks. We’re here with our faces buried in your newspapers because we want you to offer us something better than that.
Why do you seem so determined to make us all go away?