Saturday, January 17, 2009

What Will You Miss About Newspapers?

Writer/big idea guy Seth Godin posted a piece to his blog on January 14 with the title When Newspapers Are Gone, What Will You Miss?

Godin said he wouldn't miss much:

The reality is that [investigation and analysis are] relatively cheap (compared to everything else the newspaper had to do in order to bring it to us.) Newspapers took two cents of journalism and wrapped in ninety-eight cents of overhead and distraction.
Cory Doctorow picked it up on BoingBoing, asking readers what they would miss about newspapers, and I spent Friday evening (before and after Battlestar Galactica) reading the comment thread.

At least 30 percent of the commenters provided some version of "I'll miss the newsprint, since it's so useful as a bird cage liner / gift wrap / paper maché / window cleaner" etcetera. Many said they wouldn't miss newspapers at all. But there were a number of insightful comments as well, showing the quality of the BoingBoing comment threads once again (in contrast to the majority of comments on newspaper sites, for example).

Here's what I'll miss, some of which echoes comments from BoingBoing:
  • editors -- in an age when there is more and more to know and less to time to know it, I sure value the possibility of having a trusted editor work for me at 50 cents a day
  • beat reporters -- who else is going to sit through government meetings to find out what's happening 2 hours and 37 minutes into it? Is that something the average blogger has time for? I remember when Craig Cox was covering the Minneapolis City Council meetings for his Minneapolis Observer site, a practice he maintained for about a year or so. It was great. But sometimes you have to get a job.
  • serendipity -- as with that other great lost resource, the card catalog, having paper in front of you that carries bits of information you're not looking for is key to keeping an open mind and learning things you weren't expecting
  • investigative reporters and their budgets -- this is perhaps the most obvious one, and while it's easy to say that newspapers haven't been doing investigative reporting for the past five or ten years, that's really not true.
  • the fact that we all know how it works... We know that there are reporters and editors creating a paper, and if we have news we know who to call. Without newspapers, who would you call to make sure everyone knows about something outrageous that happens? I just saw a perfect example in today's Pioneer Press: a woman got a ticket for parking in front of her asthmatic kid's school while making a five-minute drop-off (during a snow emergency on one of our -15 degree days). The ticketers, who worked for a private company hired by the city, laughed at her. Obviously, somebody called the paper and there it is two days later; the ticketers have been fired, and the city and company have apologized. Without a newspaper, where would someone with a story like that turn? There are local news sites, of course, but there's no "big stick" like a daily newspaper that's read by most of the adults in a community.
Enough from me. Here's a sampling of my favorite comments from the BoingBoing thread; the ones I wish I'd written. (All reproduced exactly as written, without editing or correction. It is a comment thread, after all!)

Hephaistos, comment #23:
It's a lot more serious than that. Even if the 2% number is accurate, you're blithely ignoring the whole idea of local news. Every singly city, town and burg in the country has news that is important to the residents of that location -- local papers cover that. Sure, the quality varies wildly, but they are there, writing about their town or region so the residents know what's up. It's a vast army of paid reporters gathering and circulation information. It's easy to find out what Obama did today, but what happened two miles away? Who's going to go to every city council meeting in every town in America, and stay to the end? TV won't do it, radio won't do it, and neither will the citizen journalist.

Newspapers create paid reporting jobs in every community in America -- how many local news websites are there that have writers who are paid living wages to write about news in their community? I'd venture close to zero. We're looking at the collapse of news itself, and may be coming up on an age of even greater isolation and ignorance about our local communities -- the Wal-Mart-ization of news. Will something spring up to take its place? Maybe, I hope so, but it's certainly not clear what.
#48 posted by wordtipping
I will miss the layout. A great effort was made to makes papers read-able, so that your eyes moved easily across the pages. The same is true of magazines. The web has failed to recapture this feeling. The web is just as informative but much less sophisticated. Reading the news on a website feels like reading a stack of paper with too bright clip art everywhere.
#49 posted by my_belly
The serendipity. I read plenty of news online, but I know the way I read is very different from the way I sit down in front of the paper version when I get home. With the physical paper I'll go through each page and read the at least the lead of every article. I don't browse like that online; if a headline doesn't grab me, my mouse is on to the next link.
Commenter #67 is journalist Joshua Ellis, who posted his own essay in response to Godin on his blog, ZenArchery. A couple of excerpts:
I think the key here is in the last paragraph of Godin’s post. The statement that “the reality is that this sort of journalism is relatively cheap (compared to everything else the newspaper had to do in order to bring it to us.)” is simply untrue. Having a staff of journalists costs the same as having any other kind of staff: salaries, real estate, equipment, insurance, utilities, the whole nine yards....

Godin also says “The magic of the web, the reason you should care about this even if you don’t care about the news, is that when the marginal cost of something is free and when the time to deliver it is zero, the economics become magical.”

But it’s not free. I can’t understand why people don’t see this. Writing an article about corruption in local or national politics is not free. It takes time and money to make it happen — more time and money than this blog post took, or Godin’s post took, enough time and money that most people can’t afford to do it simply for whuffie or blogerati status. Delivering it may be free and instantaneous, but that doesn’t mean making it is free and instantaneous.
#74 posted by Anonymous
News gathering, investigation and reporting will have to become a donation funded enterprise ala PBS and NPR. There is no other way to break the ownership of advertisers over the important work of telling the truth.

Instead of mourning the dead tree editions (I will too, honestly), and even more bizarrely, mourning the corrupt money-hungry system that spoils modern news, how about we get busy setting up non-profit news sources that pay their reporters and editors good salaries to tell the truth, with no threats of advertisers pulling the plug on uncomfortable revelations.
#77 posted by Anonymous
One good thing about newspaper: You don't have to hear the "correct" opinions of the countless idiots who use "teh internets". When someone has a paper, they can yell and scream and whine all they want at the pages, but I don't have to hear they're BS.
#81 posted by Anonymous
I know this sounds funny, but I miss the ads. Specifically, in NYC, the theater ads. I was in a doctor's office recently where there was a copy of the Sunday Times Arts & Leisure, and saw ads announcing a whole mess of shows I didn't even know there were plans for. Sure, I could find out about them if I explicitly subscribed to or something like that, but sometimes you really do want things pushed to you.

For some reason, the web equivalent of a full-page ad in the times is obtrusive rather than a bold statement, which is in some ways a shame.
#86 posted by FonHom
I will miss reading the news that I wouldn't have chosen to read...the articles that wouldn't appear in my custom feed.

Who doesn't want to learn things outside of what they already care about?

A lot of people, that's who. I for one wouldn't have read 90% of my schoolwork if I weren't forced to, but 90% of that 90% was very helpful.

The A section of the average US newspaper serves as a current events baseline, for better or worse. Without it, we'll breed a generation of news deniers - "If I don't choose to read it it doesn't exist." They'll get along fine with the net-naive who say that if they saw "proof" of something online it must be true. And the rest of us can - I dunno - start copying the news by hand and post it in a public place? That's an idea!
#87 posted by TharkLord
Amen to that, TharkLord.

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