by RIP RENSE
think newspapers are dying. I think they died a long time ago.
I think the rise of
demographic research dictating content was the first death knell. This began
in the ‘70s, and it supplanted, or at least corrupted, what used to be
called “news judgment.”
News judgment essentially
meant that you determined content based on instinct and experience. You knew
what would make a good story. You knew, or sensed, what people would like to
read. You had a knack for it.
Demography professed to
make this into a science. You could study what readers wanted,
demographers said, and then give it to them. There were always millions of
statistics and charts showing “market penetration” in this or that
“demographic,” to back up assertions.
I’ve always thought this
Here’s why: demography
does not measure what people want, or even need. It measures what they will
react to. These are different matters. News judgment left it up to
individual editors to exercise their hunches, instincts, and judgment.
The people need to know this. The people want to know this. And yes,
the people will react to this. Demography panders to response mechanism.
The people will read this. Demographic research told us so.
This filtered into
newsrooms and features departments everywhere, and it was a poison. It
also pervaded popular culture, of course, and is responsible for the
tragic “dumbing down” of radio and television---and, as a result, citizens.
Pandering to human reaction does not new brain cells make.
|Mainstream newspapers clunkily try to
compete---clinging to a patrician tone while superficially emulating
the ‘net and alt-press. They’re like like the old guy in the suit
Another factor in the decline of newspapers was Watergate. During and after
the scandal, journalism schools flooded. Being a reporter suddenly became a
far more romantic and adventurous thing than ever before. Clark Kent was the
As a result, lots of
college-bound kids who would never otherwise have considered journalism
thought “hey, that looks like fun.” Anyone who could write a complete
paragraph could earn a journalism degree, whether they had any actual
journalistic instinct or writing talent. This led to a tsunami of people
entering the business who had no real instinct for it, let alone flair.
Still another factor was
so-called Affirmative Action, which, while well-intentioned, often gave
unwarranted breaks to persons of poor or mediocre ability---strictly on the
basis of race or ethnicity---sometimes undercutting persons of greater
proficiency. Witness New York Times fraud Jayson Blair, whose way to the top
was greased by race.
There are other causes
behind the new talk of “the death of newspapers,” in the wake of huge
circulation drops and layoffs at major papers across the country:
family-owned businesses turning into corporate-owned investments (and
write-offs); journalist-publishers being replaced by
accountant/demographer-publishers; competition with television and Internet,
and. . .attitude.
I don’t think attitude
can be understated as a factor.
A newspaper should be
a number of simple things that it almost never is anymore: local,
topical, timely, lively, irreverent, advocative, provocative, hard-hitting.
Demographics don’t tell you this, common sense does. For all the terrible
flaws papers had in their heyday---sensationalism, racism, accuracy
problems, yellow journalism---they were more likely to reflect the above
traits than they are now.
I can’t think of a single
contemporary daily newspaper that embodies these values. From Monterey to
Montpelier, you find the same demographically designed packages of
national/international wire reports, celeb news, crime, namby-pamby
editorials, a few token local stories, and fluff. As alike as Krispy Kreme
Donuts, and pretty soon, perhaps just as bankrupt.
newspaper attitude does live on, to some extent, in the Internet, and in
so-called alternative weeklies.
The ‘net is the best
thing to happen to news and commentary since “extra extra, read all about
it,” such is its immediacy and irreverence. It is also the worst thing to
happen to news and commentary, as responsible newsgathering and thoughtful
commentary are all but drowning in a cyber-river of black bile, falsehood,
feature solid investigative reporting and aggressive coverage of local
issues. The writing style is often savvy and devoid of the lofty, so-called
“omniscient voice” of self-serious daily papers. What’s more, alt-weeklies
tend toward the “afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted” sentiment
that should be a starting point for any newspaper.
But they also
feature a good deal of amaterurish, self-indulgent prose that
gratuitously employs graphic sexual imagery and four-letter words. This
plays to a certain (young) audience, but also alienates, and undercuts
credibility. It is unnecessary and for the most part, undignified.
clunkily try to compete---clinging to a patrician tone while superficially
emulating the ‘net and alt-press. They’re like like the old guy in the suit
saying “cool.” Reminds of Nixon growing his sideburns in the ’68 campaign so
as to appear ever-so-slightly groovy.
It all adds up to
newspapers losing touch with what they are supposed to be, and the
communities they purport to serve. Look at that “great newspaper” (as it
constantly touts itself), the L.A. Times, which for years has relegated
local news, and a small amount of it, mostly to section B. The classic
feature story---a bulwark tool for focusing attention on interesting and
laudable folk in the community---is all but dead in the Times, replaced
largely by obsequious coverage of the entertainment industry.
If L.A. is, as the cliché
goes, a sprawl of suburbs pretending to be a city, I think the L.A. Times
(and to a lesser extent, the Valley-heavy Daily News, which is distributed
citywide) actually bears some responsibility for this. The Times covers the
sprawl, not the city. For those who say there is no there there, no
city to cover, I say if you build it, they will come. If you cover
the place as if it is a community, people will come to regard it more as
such. What’s more, I think this is a function of a paper: to help give a
community its identity.
|The Bellows-era Her-Ex beat the Times in the
annual Press Club Awards, and did so repeatedly. How ironic it is
that so many former Her-Ex staffers wound up on Spring Street, and
never managed to carry the Bellows style and ethos with them.
L.A. Herald-Examiner under Jim Bellows is the
obvious illustration. Had the Hearst Corporation seriously backed up that
paper financially, and had the Times not for decades monopolized all the
major advertising, the Her-Ex would easily have been the dominant paper in
Consider: Her-Ex coverage
was skewed toward L.A., while also handling national and international. The
writing was fresh, tight, alive, playful, punchy, percolating. The reporting
was tough, relentless, hard-hitting. The editorials, at their best,
assaulted. The columnists, at least most of them, were trenchant and witty.
The sports page---roiling with personality---is missed to this day. Feature
writing was smart, stylish, cogent (and did a good job on Hollywood.) Most
of all, the Her-Ex was local. It did not treat L.A. as a series of
demographic targets, ethnic pockets, or a cliché of amorphous suburbia. It
treated it like a town.
The Bellows-era Her-Ex
beat the Times in the annual Press Club Awards, and did so repeatedly. How
ironic it is that so many former Her-Ex staffers wound up on Spring Street,
and never managed to carry the Bellows style and ethos with them. Many, in
fact, became stuffy and pompous---the very Times qualities that the Her-Ex
openly mocked in its pages.
The crisis of identity,
direction, and money that is today’s L.A. Times is rivaled only by the
crisis of identity, direction, and money that is the L.A. Dodgers. The
Chicago Tribune, which owns the paper (problem number one) is manned by
bean-counters who politically tend toward conservative, which is hardly a
recipe for “afflict the comfortable” ethos.
This leaves one gaping chasm of an opportunity for the Daily News to finally
make an effort to become an L.A. paper, but this also will probably not
happen, because the Daily News is owned by Dean Singleton, a bottom-line
artist with apparent aspirations to be a sort of junior Rupert Murdoch.
Translation: gimme the ad revenue and print whatever the hell you want,
as long as it leans conservative.
In the end, though, as
a newspaper editor friend of mine remarked (yes, I still have one or two
left), “it just doesn’t matter.” Meaning that if newspapers are in decline,
there is really nothing to be done about it. That they have already been
trumped, so to speak, by corporate tyranny, demographics, television,
Internet, less literacy, and less inclination toward reading. No amount of
reshaping editorial content will make any difference.
That might be true. But
it would be fun if some of them went down swinging, like the old Her-Ex did.
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