It has been more than a decade since the metropolitan daily in your community ended the pretense that they were fighting for you against the forces of inept government, indifferent big business, and other institutions that require a watchdog. The day of muckraking, crusading journalism ended when publishers determined that it took less effort and expense to simply provide biscuit recipes, reviews of rock-and-roll concerts, and wire-service photos of newborn baby puppies. This menu of lame trivia failed to win over audiences, but investors liked it just fine when profits improved.
Now, dumbed down well past the point of no return and abandoned by advertisers and audiences, these same newspapers are too disengaged and besotted to fight for their own survival. Small wonder that readers aren’t even bothering to say, “The hell with them.” They’ve simply walked away.
I was visiting the San Francisco area a couple of months ago, around the time Hearst was threatening to close The Chronicle, and now I’ve just returned from Boston, where the owners may be determined to shut down The Globe, and, as a trained reporter, I can offer this dispatch: No one in either community cares in the slightest about the threat of their newspaper disappearing.
The Tucson Citizen died a few weekends past. My bet is that no one cares, in Tucson, or Pima County, or anywhere else. Wherever you may be, around your office water-cooler this morning, everyone probably knows what happened to poor Susan Boyle, and how much the Star Trek movie earned at the box office, and what the overnight ratings were for the concluding episode of some lame TV drama, but no one will have ever heard of the Tucson Citizen. When the Seattle Post-Intelligencer‘s print version croaked recently I had intended to scribble down some thoughts — worthwhile and revealing thoughts, I might stress — about an internship I once had there, back in grad school. Never quite got around to it. Had a lot more important things to attend to, potatoes requiring mashing, several bicycle tires to inflate, and all.
I’ve spent my entire life reading, employed by, studying and caring about newspapers (in which case, you’re probably right to make that sarcastic aside about it not being much of a life) and I still can’t manage to get worked up about the industry’s decline.
I’ve been corresponding recently via e-mail with a fellow who used to own some big newspapers, and a much larger number of small ones, and he tells me that there are great challenges in the business, such as distribution logistics, and high fixed labor costs. I wanted to keep the conversation pleasant, but, come on now. Talk about missing the point. The biggest problem newspapers face is plainly that they are just plain irrelevant to anyone without a financial stake in their well-being.
There just isn’t much left to newspapers for anyone to care about. All the sensory aspects that used to be an integral part of the experience of reading a newspaper have been stripped out, such as the foul-smelling ink that would leave stains on your fingers and clothing, and the paper residue that would cling to your lap. If you happened to be walking past a newspaper printing plant late at night, say the old Globe and Mail offices in downtown Toronto, when the presses were running, you’d feel the rumble of the machinery, and when, at 9 p.m., you paid the vendor for the next morning’s paper, it could still be warm to the touch: literally, hot off the press.
It didn’t matter that the paper you’d just bought wasn’t worthy of any prize from the New York Art Directors’ Club. It wasn’t meant to appear sleek, functional and friendly, like an I-phone. You were supposed to adjust to it, folding the broadsheet pages in halves or quarters to accommodate the output of the printing apparatus, or else lying on the floor on your stomach to scan the pages. Who does that now? The pages have been trimmed to manageable size, the typefaces plumped up with collagen, the designs cleansed and sanitized.
As noted a few blog posts back, the Marriott hotel chain plans to discontinue dropping newspapers in front of guestrooms this season. This decision has not caused Marriott stock to plummet, and I doubt that Bill Marriott’s days have been taken up with fending off complaints from deprived hotel guests. It’s not as if he was out removing TV sets from the fiberboard armoires in each of his properties, or emptying the vending machines of Pringles or OnYums. I’d like to see him dare to try that stunt.
No, Bill Marriott’s safe to kick newspapers while they’re down, because newspaper publishers are far too stupid to fight back. In the heyday of the press, promotion managers would try to boost circulation by creating appealing gimmicks, such as cash giveaways, and bingo games, and other tactics to appeal to casual readers. Editors would send reporters out to create news, a la Nellie Bly. Editors, again — because you didn’t really have art directors until fairly recently — would concoct eye-grabbing headlines, or select striking photographs, or determine a way to stand out from other publications: hence, the salmon-colored Financial Times, or the late “Pink” Toronto Telegram.
That was then. Now, the publishers are too whipped to fight, and too weak to even recycle the old bad ideas. Readers have understandably deduced that if all dailies are offering is an ever-decreasing portion of ever-more uninteresting content, it’s time to try something else for your information fix: a commuter rag, an entertainment-listings tabloid, YouTube, or a blog. It’s not that any of those things are inherently less boring than your morning paper, or, lord knows, that they have a better-executed business plan. As regards the newspaper, it’s simply that, as someone once observed of the rule of the modern Iranian monarchy, in the end, they just didn’t matter any more.