I miss real paper newspapers; the web has no soul…

July 7, 2012

I miss real newspapers. I used to subscribe to my local daily newspaper but dropped it, partly because I am not home a lot because I am a long haul truck driver and because my wife passed away a couple of years ago — she read everything in it — but also because it got so small and lacked consistent content. The chain that owns it gutted its staff.

So these days I just surf the net, to include my local paper’s website, but I hate getting my news that way. I mean it’s up to date, up to the minute, and I have all the news in the world at my finger tips, plus reference material and so on, but I would be a lot more comfortable with a real newspaper. And sometimes my computer does not work right, especially out on the road. And even when it does, it is an uncomfortable way to read and the electronics of it all can be cumbersome. And you must have a power source (the battery does not last long). And it has been written, and I will confirm, that when you surf the web, for some reason, you find yourself just skimming and not taking it all in (although even with the conventional printed form we all do that to some extent or at times).

What I really miss is reading a paper with my breakfast. A lot of places don’t even sell newspapers anymore, or if they do, they might have USA Today, not much of a newspaper (if I just wanted headlines, I’d listen to broadcast, which I am forced to do anyway).

Real newspapers do survive, however. Now I don’t know how good of a newspaper the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio) is, but when I read, on my computer, that a restaurant owner died after being visited by President Obama (not his fault, even though Mitt Romney will probably try to blame him for it), I went to the Beacon-Journal’s website and read their story — quite informative and interesting. Seems this elderly woman ran a restaurant that has kept more than one generation of her family busy (and employed). She died of a heart attack — she had been feeling ill recently. But she adored Mr. Obama, the story said. (Gee, to hear Republicans tell it, entrepreneurs have to be Republican by definition, but of course she must have been a Democrat; well at least she was a fan of the top Democrat).

Oh, and the restaurant reportedly served up soul food. Now I noticed in a photo that this woman was apparently not black, but it looked like some of her family may have been of mixed race, which has not much to do with anything, but I have to put this sentence in here to go with my concluding sentence and to support my headline.

There was also a story in the same issue of a driver of a runaway dump truck who managed to steer his rig clear of parked cars, children and adults, and buildings as it careened down a hill (apparently losing its brakes), finally hitting a tree, and then sliding into a river. The driver died, but was hailed as a hero by his family and friends, who said it was his nature to think of others. I originally picked that story up on the web.

That’s another reason for wanting to turn back the tide in the decline of newspapers. These stories have to come from somewhere. And the web does not have soul.


I had always wondered how newspapers thought they were going to stay in business when they started giving away their material for free on the web. Just read a story (on the web) in Editor and Publisher that says the trend is for newspapers to build a pay wall, something I was already aware of — charging you for access (often just offering a teaser) — but it reinforced that message. I don’t blame them and if  it saves the industry, good (don’t know what I’ll do. I already pay quite enough to AT&T for my computer access, and the cost goes up steadily).

Newspapers seem more on their way out than ever; with fewer freebies for news a new demand might be created

September 9, 2010

With the news that the publisher of the New York Times, Arthur Sulzberger, acknowledged that the newspaper of record for the United States will eventually go out of print and be completely replaced by the online edition it seems to me those of us who have loved reading actual paper newspapers have to accept that they are going the way of the horse and buggy.

(I just read about his comments in the Huffington Post, an online-only newspaper. Some cruel irony there, I guess.)

Add to this the recent news that the Oxford Standard Dictionary will no longer be put out in a book form, and add to this that, as I understand it, textbook sales are down because schools use computers a lot, and add to that the fact Amazon sells more e-books than regular books (I think I read that) and it seems that we may lose the medium of the physically printed word, although we still can read words on the computer screen or on other electronic devices that I am not acquainted with.

Along these same lines, I miss real letters. Of course I never write any. I recently heard that those born after 1990 consider e-mail a slow form of communication — they’re all into things like Facebook and Twitter (both of which I have never used). I sent my granddaughter an e-mail the other day and wondered why she had not answered it, but her mother tells me that she does not get around to all her e-mails as much anymore because she’s all into the social networking sites.

It seems as if the only future for real paper newspapers is on the local level, the community newspaper level, although I am not sure there is even much of a future there.

The citizens of the community of Bell in Los Angeles County found out they were being ripped off by their city government, with the city manager pulling down some $800,000 per year, and bloated pay going to other officials and city council members as well. They were also being illegally taxed. They only found this out through the reporting of the LA Times newspaper. I don’t know if Bell has its own community newspaper or not. But without traditional investigative newspaper type reporting scandals like this stay hidden. Some entity has to be willing to pay reporters for digging with no quick return on profits (although in the long run the value of such efforts can bring a news organization profit).


As an aside, I should add that no offense to Bell, but to an outsider like me who only drives through and picks up freight there from time to time, it is an indistinguishable part of the LA concrete jungle that surrounds LA proper.


My main concern is that there be a reliable medium for straight news that will have the resources and the concern by those who run it to gather and report news in a quality and timely manner. It has always been a problem on the local level for a variety of reasons. One is that local newspapers are often staffed by beginners or to be painfully honest by those who may not quite be up to snuff for the big time. And I do not mean to libel or slander those hard-working souls and what I just wrote is not always the case anyway. I once labored in the small time. I did my best. I did not really make much of an effort to make it into the big time — probably spent too much time trying to just get away from small time journalism into something else entirely. We all have our own life stories and needs and aspirations (and we all make mistakes).

Another problem is that small newspapers often do not have the revenue to support a dynamic news gathering and reporting effort. And that has become a problem for the larger newspapers as well, having lost ad revenue to other mediums, such as the internet. And then there is lack of interest. For some reason, local reporting in many places just does not draw the interest as it might have at one time. So many people live lives disconnected with the communities in which they live that there just is not the potential readership available.

But it is not just local reporting I am concerned about. I have written this before, but I say again, newspapers have been the foundation of the whole news gathering effort. They got much of their regional and national and international news from what at least used to be called news wire services. Reporters trained as newspapermen gathered news and it was shared with membership papers. In the case of the Associated Press (AP) member newspapers would share their own generated stories with each other. Broadcast news, radio and television, originally recruited its news reporters from the print world.

While television largely took the lead in reporting the news, with its advantage of immediacy and live pictures, what a lot of people outside the news business may not have realized is that TV (and radio) was getting a large portion of its material from the newspapers and wire services. I worked for a short time at a small radio station. We got the local newspaper each day so we could find out what the news was. We did do our own reporting, but we used the newspapers and its resources, limited as they were (I know, I used to work for it too) as the basis for our (several) daily local news reports.

The internet has come along with a whole host of sites, many of which are really news commentary but many of which are straight news. They call them news aggregators. They get their material from other news sources, including newspapers and wire services. I have always wondered what they will do when all the real news gathering mediums go out of business. I did read that some of these sites are now recruiting their own news gathering staffs — I guess this is the evolution of the news business.

There has always been a split in the news business between those dedicated to actually gathering and reporting news and those dedicated solely or at least more to simply making money by selling advertising, for, except in a limited fashion, no one has come up with a business model in which people will actually pay for news (newsstand or subscription prices only offset, but do not actually pay the costs or allow for profit). But with the New York Times hinting it may eventually abandon its print edition and with it in fact promising to put up a pay wall so there are fewer to no freebies on the internet, I could see a market or a created demand for news, maybe.

Some positives and negatives about paying for your news…

May 15, 2010

One way newspapers might survive is to provide information people need and in such a way that it cannot be obtained anywhere else.

That takes some investment, so the non-serious players probably don’t stand a chance.

This comes to my mind because I read in the past day or so that the New York Times as of next January will begin charging a fee to use of its online site (well that cuts me out).

The Times has already experimented with this to a limited extent. For a while it was charging for some of its stories. The Wall Street Journal site contains mostly teasers, where you have to sign up (I didn’t check, but I guess you have to pay — I don’t sign up for things on the web) to ge the rest of the story.

Other online publications that provide specialized info are starting to charge for it.

This is probably taking place because things that are given away for free tend to have that value. And it’s hard to make a business when you give your product away.

Now a lot of smaller newspapers that have concluded that their product is really advertising have not invested in providing quality editorial (I’m talking news, not opinion) content. I would think they would have trouble charging for online content.

I have enjoyed the free ride with the Times. If everyone goes this way, it’s going to get mighty expensive to get the news.

First it was all that free TV (not necessarily quality TV), financed by advertising that disappeared with the practical necessity of having cable (or satellite).

Now that we have all been convinced and in some cases darn near forced to have computers and now that we have gotten used to surfing the web for our news, they want us to pay for it. Go figure.

Seriously, I think there may be a problem in the future in getting news and info if you cannot afford it.

The cost of traditional paper newspapers (although still below the inflated costs of most things) has become prohibitive. Paying a service provider for the internet is expensive enough, but if you are going to have to pay additionally for the content, that could price a lot of us out of the market.

The for-profit motive has forced the issue here. In order to survive we all have to get paid for our efforts in some way. For a long time we were able to sneak by with getting our news at no cost to low cost because those who provided it were sustained by advertising revenue. (The print medium has ads and TV has commercials and radio has spots).

But in the case of newspapers, as they lost their circulation to broadcast, to include cable, and then the internet, they lost their ad revenue, because advertisers tend to pay on the basis of how many people they think are reading or at least glancing at your publication.

In desperation, newspapers (and magazines) began putting up websites. Apparently it did not occur to anyone to immediately charge for this. It was kind of like a free introductory offer that had no expiration date.

It has lasted so long that it may be difficult to attract paying customers. A story I read on the Huffington Post (yes, a free website — for now) said that 82 percent of those surveyed said they would decline to pay for news — they’d just go to another (free) site.

Well, so will I — as long as there are any left.

In a perfect world this all might be healthy. If it became impossible to get news (and/or information) without paying for it, that would create a demand, and people who were really serious about filling a need for a quality presentation of news could afford to provide it.

But we do not live in a perfect world. And for some reason, in broadcast for an example, the only quality news presentation (and it is not perfect) is supplied by public television and radio (non-commercial — although it does now have what I call quasi-commercials, with sponsors saying more than their name).

To sum up, while it is not going to help me (the free blogger), I have to think that those presenting serious information being paid for their efforts is a positive thing. I do worry, though, about a world where information is available only to those who can afford it (at least maybe we can still have public libraries — but they are always under funding threats).


In the case of newspapers, the ones who are faring the best, or at least are surviving, are the ones big enough and good enough to have a reputation (the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, as examples), some quality smaller city newspapers that have a regional draw, and even small newspapers that have a niche and provide something readers want.

P.s. P.s.

But just as much as competition from other media and a general decline in reading among the public has hurt newspapers, what has hurt them even more, I think, is the fact that in the past several decades the newspaper industry has been largely taken over by non-journalism business types who have no interest in the very thing they purport to be producing, newspapers. They felt that you could just sell advertising and fill the remaining space with cheap to free filler. The result has been the decline in print journalism. But since print journalism is still the backbone of all news, that is a problem for all forms of journalism.

When the serious players in all of this can no longer afford to operate we will be left with sensationalism and happy talk and one-sided harangues, such as Rush Limberger Cheese and his ilk. And that really will be the ruin of our democracy. Tyranny thrives where people are kept ignorant.


And now, the Agricultural Communicator of the Year…

May 6, 2010

A lot of times farming is really all about weather.

Back in the mid 1970s I got my first newspaper job. I was a photographer, a reporter, and the farm editor. I put together a weekly farm news section for the newspaper, composed of various hand-out stories, plus news I gathered myself, and usually a feature I wrote about some local farmer or agricultural experimental project.

I did not grow up on a farm, but I had done some limited amount of farm work as a teenager and then as a young man out of the Army, to include irrigation and some tractor driving. I had been a member of the Future Farmers of America in high school and had raised some pigs and cows and done some vegetable gardening.

I put a lot of effort into the farm news section, probably more than had been done by some of my predecessors.

So it was not a surprise when my editor informed me that I, we, had been invited to the local Farm Bureau’s annual meeting where they were to give out the Agricultural Communicator of the Year Award.

Being as I was the only agricultural news reporter in the county, I was a shoe-in to get it.

I didn’t write an acceptance speech, but I had the words in my head. Heck I loved speech class in high school and could give a talk at the drop of a hat — no notes needed,

Now if the farm news guy to the county south of me was in the competition I might have had to worry, but we were out of his coverage area. I knew that old guy personally. He had majored in agriculture at college, but spent his years as a newspaperman.

My editor picked me up in his old green pickup truck with the cracked windshield he never did get around to repairing as far as I ever knew. He was not a farm boy himself, but he did grow up in the mountains where his dad owned a saw mill. He was all dressed up for the dinner in his workman-like jacket and tie. I don’t think he owned as much as a sport coat. I was dressed up in a sport coat and tie and slacks, looking like the professional newsman I aspired to be.

We ate the dinner and listened to the requisite business meeting and then it was time for the award. I was thinking of what I would say when they called me up. My editor was proud of me.

The Farm Bureau president made the announcement.

The award went to the TV weather guy.

Farmers value weather news.

The Newspaper is here, but it’s skinny and hard to read…

April 6, 2010

ADD 1:

My remote-controlled newspaper did arrive. For a split second I almost liked it and then quickly realized it was just more style over substance, and not that pleasing of a style at that.

But the worst part is that the type is nearly microscopic. And once again (it’s been done more than once before) the newspaper is actually skinnier (not as wide).

Strange, when the core readership of the actual paper edition of the newspaper is people my age (60) and older (maybe some slightly younger too (basically baby boomers and older).

Ironically, there was a story about an area community college student, a man 50 years old looking to get out of the dry wall work in which he was injured, who has started up a college newspaper. He was quoted as saying: “A huge amount of people, myself included, trust paper more than the internet. I like something I can put my hands on.”

I would add that I like something that is not a machine that I have to worry that will go on the fritz or that I cannot get onto the internet with, or that I don’t have to pay an internet access fee with, and that is comfortable to read.

So, anyway, my local newspaper is dying kind of a slow agonizing death. It’s kind of like the old Saturday Night Live thing when Franco of Spain died and the Spanish government waited so long to admit it. The news on each SNL spoof news show was “Franco is still dead”.

The news today is that the Redding (Ca.) Record Searchlight is still dying.

My original blog on this latest turn of events follows:

And so I await the arrival of that local newspaper that I already blogged was all but dead. The copy that is to arrive this morning is one that is actually, through the marvels of modern technology, put together — edited, laid out — thousands of miles and several states away from my home town. The new remote-controlled newspaper, if you will.

For some strange reason, due to the march of technology, declining readership and declining advertising, we can no longer have a completely locally-produced paper.

We’ve been told, warned that the paper will have a new look and that it will have an expanded state and national and world report — and the type will be a bit smaller (make it any smaller than it already is and I’ll have to buy a magnifying glass).

(We went through this new look thing already a couple of years ago. It was not an improvement. In fact, it was downright ugly — but we got used to it.)

When I first began reading the local paper — even before I lived in the community where I live now (lived close by)  — it was ugly, a hodgepodge of vertically stacked stories, most of them off the wire, with a smattering of local news (but in reality, probably as much local news as there is today — and far more state and national and world news).

Then the appearance began to improve and so did the local reporting (or so I thought, anyway).

And at its high point — when I was working on a smaller community paper in the area — an editor with the bigger local paper bragged that he could send ten or more staffers out whenever an important local news story broke.

Today, that editor is, I think, semi-retired and writes a weekly baseball card column on the sports page.

The paper today cannot send out ten staffers on a moment’s notice — I don’t think is has that many. I only see one or two bylines most of the time, and I see a lot of “contributor” bylines, which means the stuff is all but free and done by amateurs.

While I am sure not as many people read as they used to, I still think people want news.

It just seems that the supply and demand model does not work well for newspapers or news.

News has been relatively free for so long the public (including me) is resistant to paying for it (or may not be able to).

Then again, no one seems to be offering up a lot either.

This morning I shall find out what the Redding (Ca.) Record Searchlight has to offer.

I don’t expect much.

Please let me be wrong.

I’ll let you know.

May my local newspaper rest in peace…

April 1, 2010

(blogger’s note: while this deals with a local issue, it has implications in communities all over the U.S.)

As far as I am concerned my local newspaper, the Redding Record Searchlight, has all but died now that I read it will move its copy editing and layout functions from the town it is supposed to be located in, Redding, Ca., to Corpus Christi, Tex.

It had outsourced some of its advertising design and production work to India some time ago.

What this means is that essentially the newspaper is no longer a product of the local community and that important news decisions will be made elsewhere, and if you buy the paper or advertise in it you will be helping the economy of Corpus Christi to an extent and maybe the bottom line of media conglomerate E.W. Scripps of Cincinnati, Ohio, but not your local community as a whole, or at least not as much so as in the past. And if you continue to support the outsourced product you will probably only be hastening its demise since, well, who is going to be interested in it? Okay, that was kind of like the Yogi Berra joke, nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded, but what I mean is that while some people might subscribe or advertise out of habit, the broader public will lose interest — more than it already has.

(Maybe a boycott by readers and advertisers would force a move back to a locally-run newspaper.)

And as a blogger close to the operation wrote, copy editors from so far away will not know anything about local place names and peculiarities and history (there will be no institutional memory) so it will be impossible to catch errors and to make sure what is presented is relevant to the local area and that it is accurate and gives the local perspective.

Once you lose control of the copy editing and the layout, you lose control of your newspaper, even if you still do the local reporting and supposedly make decisions on local news coverage.

I know this. I went through it. I was in charge of putting out a weekly newspaper in the Sacramento area that was published by an area daily newspaper. I was essentially a one-man staff — although I had some help from time to time. But to relieve me of some of the work and to supposedly make things more efficient, for a time, most or all of the copy editing and layout was handed over to the daily’s news desk.

Well, that was a disaster. The editors did not have any knowledge or interest in the area I was covering — it was just a mechanical job to them.

It got even worse — and this, maybe was partly my fault.

The big news story in the community I covered was an effort to incorporate and make it an official city with its own government, rather than just a suburb in the unincorporated part of Sacramento County. I did a lot of coverage on that, to include on-the-spot coverage of a California Supreme Court hearing on the issue that was held in Los Angeles (strangely enough). The high court took the matter under advisement and it was not known for sure when it would hand down an opinion. As it happened, I was on vacation in Mexico, of all places, when the news came down. The incorporation effort was given the green light by the high court. The guy that was given the task of putting out my newspaper while I was gone (a reporter on the daily that published my weekly) put the story on the bottom of the front page. It was the biggest story my paper ever had. Okay, maybe partly my fault since I was on vacation, but the point is, you don’t make the decisions on your own newspaper you lose it.

As far as I am concerned, my hometown newspaper is no longer a responsible member of the community. It was one in the past.

While the newspaper, to its credit, has tried to maintain local covererage for the past several years, its editorial (news) department has been gutted and the people who run it nowadays have no institutional memory and just don’t seem to have a feel for the community and in fact have no real control over the newspaper. The control is in a far off corporate board room where no doubt the only concern is the bottom line and has nothing at all to do with journalism. Most, or at least too many, of those who actually make the money decisions, the investment decisions, on newspapers these days have no background in news. They are bean counters or MBA types who just see newspapers as another business.

Newspapers have always been a unique business. They have not always been good. In fact, the newspaper industry’s history is one of propaganda pamphlets, and one-sided rants of various kinds, and of sensationalism.

But there was a certain golden age, I think, when there were a lot of responsible newspapers that provided the public with both the information they wanted and the information they needed in a democracy, along with a good dose of human interest and entertainment and opinion. They were part of the literature of the American culture (well, so were the bad ones).

But newspapers are dying,  partly out of business greed and partly out of the so-called advance in technology and partly because the public education system gave up on teaching English some time ago.

I have mixed feelings about dropping my subscription to my local newspaper because as bad as it is, it still is the only game in town for local news.

You would think that some enterprising business people would see the need for local news and start up their own paper. But apparently newspapers are not seen as a viable business model these days. And in my experience most business people don’t get the idea of putting out a newspaper that emphasizes objective reporting and factual information over business puffery masquerading as news (like infomercials on TV).

In fact, on some (some) of the newspapers I worked for, the business types who ran them seemed to think the local newspaper’s role was to withhold (embarrassing or inconvenient) news rather than report it.

It might be only wishful thinking on my part, but perhaps some day in the future people will look around and wonder what happened to the local news (or all news) and a real newspaper might come back — one actually printed on paper — something you could hold in your hands and read, put down, and check it again and even save for the record.

It seems strange that while newspapers are already seen as a relic of the past by many they still seem to be the symbol of news. They are often used in graphics on broadcast news and are often mentioned in broadcast stories and internet sites often give a rundown of the day’s top newspaper stories.

And as far as I know, in all levels of news, local, state, nation and world, newspapers are still the backbone or the foundation of news reporting from which most of the other forms of media feed.

With the death of newspapers I think may come the death of news as we have known it.

I don’t have enough time now or even skill, perhaps, to explain this, but covering and reporting news in the newspaper fashion, with on-the-spot reporters, whose job it is to objectively interpret what they hear and see, assisted by editors who can work raw reporting into shape and catch errors and make judgments on coverage emphasis (and yes this is all subjective — what other way would there be?) is far different than internet I reports from amateurs (although they are great for immediate info) and bloggers who want to push and agenda.

It may be that the ever-dwindling responsible newspapers can successfully move their old-fashioned paper editions to the internet and essentially get the same job done, but it just does not seem the same to me.

And I know there are some areas in the nation where actual newspapers are still popular and do quite well. I just don’t live there.


My local newspaper often uses the fact that its advertising has fallen off drastically as an excuse for the cutbacks and outsourcing. I wonder if the powers that be ever get the fact that their readership has fallen off in large part because they no longer offer much to the reader, the person those advertisers are trying to reach.

News becoming a commodity with a price…

January 17, 2010

I’d much rather get my news from a newspaper that I can read at my pace and in comfort, rather than the computer, on which I feel rushed because I’m mobile and have only so many minutes, or however they measure it, to use before I go over my allotted time on my mobile contract. But I’m glad I have the computer because it is instant access to the latest news and there is more of it — most of the time anyway.

Newspapers have less news in them these days and they are getting expensive. If I’m going to shell out a dollar on weekdays or two or more dollars on Sunday, I expect to get a lot of material, and I am interested in hard news.

But there is a problem on the horizon, or actually it has already reared its ugly head. And it was quite predictable from the first time I ever heard about all the free info you can get via the internet. More and more sites are demanding money — no pay, access to our site, no way.

(well if that isn’t irritating. I had much more written below, but I guess I hit the wrong key and wiped it all out and I can’t get it back. Reminds me of the time when I wrote one of my original computer-assisted news stories and lost a 40-column-inch piece of work. I had to start all over.)

I was madly surfing the web this morning for a comprehensive story on the latest situation in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, but everything I found seemed to be sidebars (stories dealing with one aspect of the main story). With the mobile charges in my mind, I felt pressured. I tried to pull up a story on the Washington Post website, but all I got was the teaser and was informed that I would have to pay, to subscribe, to get the full story. Then I read on the Huffington Post site (still free for now) that the New York Times is close to charging for ALL of its online content.

I note that the Wall Street Journal charges for much of its online content, but not all. I was able to get a quite informative story concerning the Haiti situation via the WSJ (for free) the other day.

As a former journalist, I should not complain about having to pay for news. I make more money driving a truck than I ever made as a reporter. Many of the newspaper owners I worked for considered news to be a necessary piece of overhead, something that filled the spaces around the advertising. If you are one of my former employers reading this, of course you are the exception.

With a copy of a daily newspaper costing as much as a dollar or more or even two or more on Sundays, I would expect to get a lot of news for my money — but not necessarily so. With the shrinking advertising content, the size of newspapers and the size of their staffs and other news resources has shrunk as well.

I used to ponder whether a new business model for newspapers could not be created in which the news was the product for sale. Actually I think that was the now ancient historic model. So Could it be resurrected?

I once read a story in my local newspaper that said its original publisher would not accept paid advertising at first. Once the newspaper was more well established, paid advertising was accepted. I noted this to the current managing editor, who now presides over a once proud newspaper that now kowtows to the few advertisers it has left, and even tells its readers it cannot afford to cover all the news. He is relatively new in town and said that he thought he had heard such a story, but I got the impression that he categorized it more in the realm of mythology. I also mentioned that his newspaper once had a much larger staff. He laughed and said those days are long gone. He’s big on the online part of their newspaper and sees that as its only and possibly bright future.


I recall selling newspapers on the street back in the late 1950s for ten cents per copy. That was the going price for most daily newspapers well into the 70s, as I recall. Heck even in the early 60s the old Sacramento Union sold for five cents per copy (and probably was not worth it — at least the Union I saw in later years when it tried to make a comeback was not).

I think the long and the short of it is that I may see what I always thought should happen. News will attain a much higher value.

Trouble is: will I be able to afford it?

If “local” news gathering can be outsourced to India and U.S. taxpayers must fund GM to produce cars in China — just what is OUR function???

May 29, 2009

I just read on the Editor and Publisher site that the Hartford Advocate newspaper (out of Connecticut), along with two other alternative newspapers connected with it, in what was first proposed as a joke and then became serious, has published at least one edition in which all or virtually all of its local news was done by outsourced writers – from INDIA!

On my first read of this item I did not get whether this was a one-time thing or a new way of doing things. This is not the first time something like this has been done. And in the case of the Advocate, it seems some of these writers are quite highly qualified, having written for the Guardian (out of England), the BBC, and the Times of India. Interestingly, the Advocate personnel said the whole thing was “not cheap”.  But at least one other U.S. newspaper tried (still is?) outsourcing local news because they could get the job done for a lot less money (really kind of like just accepting the news release written by city hall instead of doing your own reporting – but really the story for the local newspaper is not so much about what happened at the council meeting, but what led up to it and what is the result and so on – good reporting is not transcription). My own local newspaper is starting to use more submitted articles. Back in the old days, local newspapers often used so-called “stringers” who worked on a kind of low piece rate (or maybe for free for their own vanity – kind of like I’m doing here). Back to the oursourced writers from India. Of course they do all of this by phone, calling to the U.S. for interviews from the Indian subcontinent. It’s bad enough they’ve taken over medicine (at least where I live), but our local news reporting too!?

Reading this on top of learning by way of the web and some on cable news that General Motors plans to use taxpayer bailout dollars to make cars in China (and even import some of them back into the U.S.) leaves me to ask the question: just what is OUR function on this planet?

(Maybe we’re all supposed to join the Army. Then again, that could be outsourced — like the French Foreign Legion — not a bad idea.)

Going back and reading the E&P item again I saw that the Advocate is a weekly and the whole thing was done as a kind of spoof to prove a point (or not). They (the paper) explain it themselves and if I can get this link correct you can get that explanation at: http://www.hartfordadvocate.com/article.cfm?aid=13171

And if that didn’t work, just Google Hartford Advocate.

They also mentioned that they got the idea from news some time ago that a newspaper in Pasadena, Ca. decided to outsource some local coverage by doing such things as linking up their Indian correspondents via webcam to local city council meetings. Having attended far too many council meetings when I was a reporter (I actually liked them at first), I’d say that’s one job I’d almost not mind giving up.

Seriously. Besides all the obvious logistical, practical, ethical, even cost, considerations associated with outsourcing news coverage, doesn’t one have to ask at what point do we lose our personal identity?

Outsourcing for local newspaper is like putting a nail in its own coffin…

May 23, 2009

I feel like a Luddite stuck in some kind of time warp or just a run-of-the-mill old timer who can’t accept change (I’m 59, nearing 60) what with my local newspaper with its shrinking page count and shrinking local news coverage, and most frustrating of all right now, its proclivity to oursource what little employment it offers (no I was not looking for a job).

The latest frustration was Friday morning when I called to check to see if the newspaper had received the check my wife and I sent off to cover our late subscription payment. We had received a notice wrapped around our morning newspaper that our paper would be cut off. So I called the number on the notice to inform them that, yes, sorry, our bad, we were late, but please don’t cut us off. My first clue something was amiss is when the man on the other end of the line asked how to spell our street name. Come to find out, while I live at the northern end of the Sacramento Valley in California, the customer service guy for my “local” newspaper was in Mesa, Arizona.

And there was another problem. He didn’t seem to have ready access to my account, and while he was pleasant, the only thing he seemed to want to talk about was signing me up for automatic payment.

Later I called the main number at my “local” newspaper and got that automated runaround and finally the phone hung up without me talking to a real person. Then, on my third try at all of this, somehow I got hold of a real person, she assured me that she was indeed real. She transferred my call to circulation and after waiting some time another real person came on the phone.

I told her my problem and she answered that what would probably happen is that I would not get the newspaper for a few days because although we had sent off our payment it takes ten days for them to post it. I asked why it takes ten days (the mail can’t be that slow). Come to find out it has to go through corporate at Portland, Oregon (430 miles north of here – I knew the mileage; I used to truck drive that route).

By this time newspaper delivery was not my concern. I called the newspaper’s general manager and told her I did not think it was a good idea to oursource customer service (I am in fact against basically all outsourcing they do). She said she was sorry I felt that way but that actually the newspaper is able to offer better customer service by outsourcing. We did not talk long enough for me to hear why that could be. I know I don’t agree, but I also know that apparently the newspaper corporation saves money that way. But of course in so doing they are probably shooting themselves in the foot or spiting their nose to save their face or whatever cliche or metaphor is appropriate here. I hung up on her and then felt ashamed, especially since at least, big wig that she is, she did answer her own phone. So I e-mailed her (see, I’m not a Luddite after all) and apologized and spelled out my specific concerns. As I told her, I realize that she cannot do anything about this. She only follows what corporate tells her.

No, I realize that newspapers are suffering and will probably die out altogether because of various reasons, to include new technology (the internet which of course I use extensively myself), too much competition for the shrinking advertising dollars, the poor economy, the fact that younger people in general, we are told, have no use for newspapers (and why would they if the newspapers give up offering anything?), and so on. But I think that they simply put the nails in their own coffins, especially local newspapers, when they abandon their own community by cutting down on staff and outsourcing work that could be done by local folks and would help stimulate the local economy and create more subscriptions and more money circulating to help potential advertisers.

It is a terrible irony that it was but just a few years ago that our local newspaper decided to put more emphasis on local reporting. They decided that people had already long ago gone to other sources for their national and world news, so they decided to do what they could do best, offering a complete local report, to include devoting most or all of their front pages to local news. Good idea!

But since then they have drastically slashed their news staff. They have outsourced even some of their advertising production work, and their customer service, as I have mentioned.

I even read about a Southern California newspaper that outsourced some of its local reporting. It actually had hired people in India to do phone interviews and write “local” stories. I don’t know how that panned out. I used to work as a newspaper reporter. And while it is true much work can and is done via phone, nothing replaces local person-to-person contact. It is evident that our own local newspaper is suffering from lack of staff. They no longer have a workable beat system. Under the beat system, a reporter covers a certain area and builds up news contacts. In the old days reporters spent a lot of time that today with short staffs would seem unproductive. But from those unproductive hours came a lot of  eventual stories and a lot more understanding and depth in news reporting.

I am told that actually smaller local newspapers, as opposed to the giant metros, have a better chance of surviving because they have a niche.

It seems our local newspaper is abandoning their own community and their own niche.

No shortage of opinions, but not so much straight news…

May 13, 2009

In all the talk over the demise of newspapers and the future of journalism it occurs to me that what we are being left with is far too much opinion-laced news and not nearly enough straight news reporting. I’m referring primarily to what is presented on the web and on cable TV.

Of course what I do on this blog space is 99 percent opinion, and I happen to thrive on opinions. While the proverbial American male is supposed to go right for the sports page, the first thing I check out in any newspaper is the opinion page. Or if I’m at a doctor’s office I will always pass up the sports or hunting magazines for a news magazine (although I don’t care for the news magazines as much as I used to).

But opinions need to be based on good and reliable information to have any validity.

I confess, even though I spent many years as a newspaper reporter, most of my own take on national and world news came from television news. Part of that is because I spent most of my days and often evenings working on local news (often covering boring meetings: school boards, city councils, and such). The small newspapers I worked on carried only a relatively small portion of what was called wire news. We of course at the small town level did not have our own news bureaus to cover national and world news, not even a capitol bureau for the state.

As a youth I religiously read the weekly Time Magazine and as an adult have read other news magazines on a fairly regular basis. And I often have read national and world news in the Sunday metropolitan newspapers, if not the ones through the week.

But when I did read newspaper stories in the past I recall that they appeared to be fairly balanced with no apparent slant (and I’m not saying newspapers still don’t operate that way for the most part). It can be argued all day and night whether reporters (or their editors) slant news stories or whether it is even possible to write a news story without personal bias creeping in. But with my experience as a newspaper reporter and as a newspaper reader, I think that in the past and even today, newspapers as a whole have presented news in a balanced fashion. I’m talking about in my lifetime. Sure back in the free-wheeling days of yellow journalism (say the 1890s) we know there were political agendas and just plain sensationalism to sell newspapers. And some of the original newspapers in this country were actually pamphlets with the publisher’s opinions. And today there are tabloid-style newspapers that are sensationalist gossip rags.

(When I was taking journalism classes in junior college in the early 1970s, one of my fellow students claimed he knew someone who worked on a certain metro newspaper owned by a notorious right wing publishing company and that the editors always substituted the word “riot”  for demonstration. Maybe just a kind of journalism urban myth. I don’t know.)

But I was taught that there was news and then there was opinion. The news ran in the regular news columns and the opinion pieces ran on the editorial or opinion pages. Then there was a kind of crossbred thing between news and opinion called a “news analysis” but it would be labeled as such, although it might appear anywhere in the paper, but the reader would know what he or she was reading.

A lot of the first TV news correspondents and news readers were former newspapermen. I’ll bet they discovered rather quickly what I did in my own small time approach.

After working several years as a newspaper reporter I served a short stint as a radio news reporter for a small local station. The news director hired me knowing that I had no broadcast experience. He had no print experience – but he was a voracious newspaper and news magazine reader, I will note.

Anyway, before the first time he had me do an on-the-hour five-minute newscast, I had asked him how to prepare it. He told me to just write my news stories the way I always did. I had gathered info and written several local stories. He engineered the broadcast (worked the control board) and gave me the cue. I barely got through my first story and the time was over.

So, writing for broadcast takes abbreviation. In fact, he told me all you did in the typical radio story was tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then conclude by telling them what you just told them. In reality, most of our stories were headlines. To our credit (or his credit) we also did several expanded stories (a much longer length) throughout the day.

But the point is, all this news people hear on television and radio is primarily encapsulated reports that are more summary than news. And in that summary, opinion usually takes the place of balanced quotes and info from various sources. We have to trust that the correspondent and others involved based their reports and conclusions on objective facts.

And now on the web objective reporting is often more like stacking the deck with your own set of facts or version of the truth. I even have read at least one Arianna Huffington piece where she has stated that she thinks there has been too much so-called “objective” reporting that has kept the writers from simply telling it like it is because they’re hamstrung by having to look objective by placing ridiculous assertions in their stories as evidence of being, shall we say, “fair and balanced”.

Most of the cable news now is opinion and sometimes news and opinion mixed together where the lines between discussion on the issues and dissemination of factual information are blurred.

(Advertising or political oriented folks often use the euphemism “information” for what is really promotion and propaganda. “We have to ‘educate’ the public on this issue, they will often say. And sadly, my own hometown chain-owned newspaper is so desperate for advertising that it runs full page ads disguised as news stories with near microscopic disclaimers.)

For my part, I love opinion, but I wish there was more detailed straight news reporting readily available upon which to base it.


I’m priced out of the market to get the metro papers and, besides, they’re getting skimpier all the time. My local newspaper keeps getting smaller and smaller and yet they raise the subscription price.