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Why blogging, websites and the Internet will never replace newspapers

December 14, 2010

Goodbye to all that.

Apologies if you thought this would be a triumphalist rant about how newspapers will survive…no…matter…what! Nah, they have no chance. The Internet, along with minor factors like the economy and the imbecilic self-interest driving decisions in the corporate office towers ensure the extinction of newspapers.

I mean, really, who reads newspapers anymore? I’m a journalist, a lifelong newspaper reader who spent all but three years of a three-decade career toiling for one local rag or another — and I don’t read a newspaper anymore. I don’t have time. As a freelancer, ghostwriter (and your humble blogger), I have to hop on the information highway first thing every morning. Huff-huff-huff!

Besides, thanks to the misguided decisions of corporate barons, there’s hardly anything in the paper to read anymore. Cutting costs in a futile quest to maintain historically high profits, they feast on the bones of a goose that will lay no more golden eggs, not even tiny ones.

Cutting costs trumps every other consideration, including good journalism, reader satisfaction, the sense of responsibility that

The last edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 17, 2009. R.I.P.

should come with First Amendment privilege. I remember, back in the mid-’80s, newspapers provided such a comprehensive product — with in-depth sports, lifestyle and entertainment coverage, as well as local and national news — that I feared they would put magazines out of business.

And I’m not only talking about The New York Times or the Chicago Tribune or the Washington Post. I’m talking about the three papers I read every day, the Miami Herald, the Sun-Sentinel and the Palm Beach Post. All were rich with information presented by smart, hardworking reporters who knew how to write, copy editors who knew how to catch an error and designers who knew how to lay out a page.

You can still find such people in the skeleton crews that man newsrooms today, but there aren’t enough of them and they aren’t given the resources that competent daily journalism requires.

So why would I bother with that thin, pallid little thing now known as a newspaper, with 80 or 90 percent of its copy originating in New York or Chicago? Recently, researching a book I’m ghostwriting, I came into posession of some yellowing pages from the Fort Lauderdale News & Sun-Sentinel, Sunday, September 17, 1961. It’s like a relic from the Time When Giants Walked the Earth.  The thing is so broad, it would blanket the table at your nearby Starbucks.

My idea of Hell on Earth, aka my new life.

Today’s newspapers, whittled down bit by bit over the past decade or so to save newsprint costs, are barely wider than a sheet of toilet paper. And need I add they are of little greater use?

Yet, newspapers are still, in their diminished condition, a superior news source to the Internet.

How can that be, you ask? With my computer, I have the world at my fingertips! I’m freed from the elitist gatekeepers telling me what’s important!

Actually, my friend, what you have at your fingertips is an illusion of the world. An illusion of freedom. True, newspapers are put together by editors trained to cull through a day’s news, deciding, based on news judgment cultivated over many years, what you should read. The intention is to provide the general reader with a broad sampling of what is going on in the world — whether you want it or not.

The Internet, by contrast, is designed to constrict your view of the world. The Internet, you know, has gatekeepers, too, only they are not human beings but the algorithms built into the search engine you use. Their purpose is to figure out what you already like (or think you like) and guide you to more of the same.

Maybe you prefer to be led by a disembodied entity contained in a mathematical formula, but I can think of nothing more

Nope. Not the same. Not even close.

depersonalizing. I’d rather rely on an experienced editor —  you know, a human being with actual expertise.

Read a newspaper, even a contemporary one, and you expose yourself to a wider and wider world. Depend on the Internet for your news, and the world grows ever more narrow, until it converges to a point: You.

This is the place in this kind of piece where I should mount a rousing call for all of us to throw off the chains of digital inertia, the bondage of self-referentialism and save not only journalism but ourselves by subscribing to the local paper!

Yeah!

Sorry, but I must disappoint, because such a rhetorical flourish would be futile.

Newspapers are doomed.

Journalism as I have known and loved it is as passe as the stone tablet, the vacuum tube, the transistor radio, the wrist watch.

The Internet is king. And I’m not even certain that’s a bad thing. I certainly could not be as productive as I am today if I still relied on hand researching at the library (however much I loved that kind of work). I long ago stopped resisting the verbing of “google,” and I can hardly remember what life was like before Saints Sergey and Larry bestowed this boon upon the Earth.

And I’m not young. I can only imagine what capacities young people, who are growing up with this technology, may develop. I get a hint, a vague outline, when I read the novels of Cory Doctorow, like Little Brother or For the Win, books that make me feel like a fish watching its brethern plod out of the water and up on to the beach toward the line of trees.

Please acknowledge with me, if only for a moment, that no matter what benefit digital technology may confer, things of great good will be lost, too.

I was reminded of this a few months ago when I woke up one Saturday and decided to give myself a holiday. I stopped to pick up a newspaper and drove to my favorite coffee shop.

Opening the newspaper — it happened to be the Miami Herald — I was astonished at all the news it contained: Important stuff of which I was utterly innocent. What?! Jackson Hospital is laying off 4,000 workers? Four thousand?!

How could I not know such a thing? I visit numerous web sites each day, places like Yahoo or MSN or Huffington Post or various newspaper websites, but I did not know about the troubles at the largest public hospital in my part of the state.

Similarly, does anyone know if the University of Miami has replaced Randy Shannon as football coach? I have only the faintest interest in football, which means that no matter how much I visit the Miami Herald or Sun-Sentinel websites, I’m not going to learn the name of the new coach unless I specifically go looking for it.

And yet if I actually sat down with the newspaper, I’d come  across this information simply by paging through the paper, front to back.

Of such common information, outside the core realm of my interests or yours, is true community made.

Here’s the rub: The Internet will never replace newspapers. Supplant, yes. Replace, no.

So goodbye to all that.

May the new thing yet a-borning serve its generation half so well as the newspaper served mine.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. December 14, 2010 12:46 pm

    You sent me down memory lane, Chauncey, the days of youth when I delivered The Denver Post to 75 or so customers. The paper shack where I folded and rubberbanded the news – my sturdy Monarch bike with its canvas bags – the streets where I threw the Post, trying always to hit the porch. I was 12 & 13 when I did that. I actually made a little money. But now that’s all gone too. And we are the lesser for it.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 14, 2010 2:50 pm

      I’m resisting nostalgia with all my might, Duff. As lovely and comforting as it is, I fear it is the enemy of survival. And I am nowhere near old or flush enough to consider retirement.

  2. John Karwacki permalink
    December 14, 2010 1:29 pm

    Thanks Chauncey, next time I google I will hear the voice of Hal in the back of my head (via Stanley Kubrick via Authur C. Clarke) – “I can’t let you do that, John.” Truly chilling that we are heading in that direction, willingly trotting towards the end of autonomy. Yikes, thanks again for the nightmares, Chauncey (it’s all your fault!).

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 14, 2010 2:49 pm

      Yeah, thanks, Karwacki. Kill the messenger, why dontcha!

  3. Candice Simmons permalink
    December 14, 2010 4:42 pm

    One of my big fears of the internet is that anyone can blog anything he or she wishes, true or false. Remember that, wee generation of little whys. Do not believe everything you read on the internet because, more often than not, it is not true. At least with newspapers, there is someone in charge to question the facts, and fact finders, and copy editors, and all kinds of channels a writer/reporter has to go through to ensure that what he says has a modicum of objective reality and a hint of truth.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 14, 2010 5:24 pm

      And the newspaper, for all its faults, is like science, in that it is in search of testable truth, and it self-corrects day by day.

  4. Lynn Demarest permalink
    December 14, 2010 5:06 pm

    1. The newspaper is comatose, but Internet news consolidators (which drive web traffic to news sites, after all) didn’t kill it. What killed it was that someone came up for a free AND better way to do classified advertising, and that killed the goose that laid the golden egg died as surely as the word processor killed the manual typewriter.

    As newspapers blissfully sucked in mounds of cash from overpriced classified ads, they never bothered to enforce their content copyright. Who cared? The money was rolling in. The news was old as soon as it was printed anyway. Let the radio stations read their copy straight off the page. (Today, the newspaper and the radio are owned by the same corporation, so it’s all the same.)

    Now newspapers are focusing on enforcing their copyright as a means of income, which is I think the way to go (along with net ads).

    2. The soulless algorithms that personalize your experience may suggest stories to you based on what you have read (or searched for) in the past. But as with a newspaper, you always have the option to visit the other topics.

    Automated alerts that send you email whenever search words appear in the news are invaluable (I have one for “God,” naturally) but they needn’t be your only source of news.

    In fact, I find that using news-junkie facebook friends as “editors” works well for me, although I’ve yet to find one that can support the conservative perspective without including a bunch of links into Looneyville. (Drew included.)

    3. I subscribe to the Post because I want to support it. It is for me essentially a charitable act, because I know it is the last refuge of local news reporters, and local news reporters are the heart of the news gathering operation.

    The Post has been making an effort over the past year, although I’m not sure if their staffing has rebounded at all. Special Sections have suffered the most. I saw “Wenesday” in the TV book a few weeks back.

    I also subscribe to the paper because it’s hard to start a fire without a few sheets of newspaper, and a computerized comics page and crossword puzzle loses something for me.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 14, 2010 5:30 pm

      News consolidators are bad, because they aggregate newspaper and other sources without paying, and then sell ads against the copy. Plus, it may have been a blow to lose classified advertising to Craig’s List, it wasn’t a fatal one. Revenues from display ads kept the machine going until Google started to eat the world.

      Yeah, you may have the option of looking for more news, but a) human beings take the line of least resistance by nature, b) it eliminates the grand loveliness of serendipity — that is, discovering you’re interested in something you didn’t even know existed a moment ago, and c) I can’t search out news on a story I know nothing about.

      You can’t line a bird cage or wrap a fish in a laptop, either.

      • Lynn Demarest permalink
        December 14, 2010 6:31 pm

        Google News (http://news.google.com/news?pz=1&ned=us) is an aggregator, but forces you to jump to the source and does not include ads itself. All the news sources have to do is sell ads on their own site.

        Duh.

        As you know, classified ads cost much more per column inch than display ads, especially display ads bought via a yearly contract. For example, car dealers pay peanuts per column inch compared with buyers of classified ads, what few there are left.

        Lazy people didn’t read the newspaper either.

  5. December 14, 2010 8:09 pm

    Chauncey, I can’t argue with a point you’re making. I still subscribe to the Boston Globe, and have been my entire adult life. Even when I was in college in Boulder, Colorado I got the Globe sent to me (I also had a subscription my entire time in Boulder to the Rocky Mountain News). The Globe isn’t what it used to be, although the sport pages haven’t had much of a drop off–they might even be better. Still, I can’t imagine not starting my day with it.

    I know a lot of people still read the Globe–the problem is a lot of them have been reading it free online instead of subscribing to it, and the Globe (and many other papers) I believe are taking the steps to charge for online access. Maybe that will somehow save the papers. At least I hope so.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 15, 2010 12:02 am

      God, Dave, I love when you are bravely optimistic. It’s so out of character, at least from the Zeltserman who writes the books. I hope you’re right and I am wrong, but I fear the march of time and technology will prove inexorable.

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