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.

P.s.

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).

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Ignorant lawmaker proposes newspapers without opinions…

March 25, 2009

ANOTHER ONE OF MY MINIBLOGS:

How to not save newspapers or the politicians’ dream.

Some lawmaker has proposed what he calls a way to save newspapers, allow them to run as non-profits. They would not have to pay taxes but as non profits they would be prohibited from making political endorsements.

The man must be quite ignorant. If he knew his history he would know that much of the impetus for the First Amendment (free speech, free press, not to mention freedom of religion) came out of the fact that Colonial newspapers, at that time basically essays written by editors with political opinions, were often shut down by the forces of the King of England.

But then again an ignorance of our own history, as I have blogged previously and as has been noted by so many, is what leads us to many of our problems today.

Nice try, though.

P.s.

Maybe what has me worked up is that while a lot of guys grab the sports page, I have always gone right for the Opinion Page.

(Copyright 2009)


Why newspapers are dying, the short version…

March 23, 2009

I’ve written so much about the demise of newspapers that there is not much more I can say, but I can boil everything down to a lot fewer words:

Newspapers are dying because news as a commodity, although in big demand, is being given away free, on TV, the internet (ironically by newspapers among others), and various other new electronic gadgets.

And because of that newspapers have lost readership for their paid paper editions and have for that reason alone lost their advertising share. And to remind those who don’t realize it, advertising is what makes or made newspapers money.

The Wall Street Journal recently changed ownership and I do not know how it is doing financially, but it is instructive to point out it does not give its news away for free either in its printed or online editions, except in rare circumstances.

If something is free, generally that is how much it is worth.


For whom the bell tolls, it tolls for newspapers

October 30, 2008

(Copyright 2008)

The WALTHER REPORT

By Tony Walther

With news that the Christian Science Monitor will cease daily print publication next spring and go totally online and the constant reports of declining newspaper circulation and advertising revenues, it seems that the death knell of newspapers as we have known them has finally tolled.

As I wrote in a previous blog, the demise of newspapers was said to be imminent when I took my first journalism classes in 1972. That was premature, but prescient, nonetheless. At the time, they thought maybe people might start reading modern electronic newspapers on some type of board that resembled the conventional newspaper. The PC had not come into prominence yet, let alone the BlackBerry.

I have read that some local newspapers across the country are doing well, but that is only some. The local seven-day per week newspaper where I live in the northern end of California’s Sacramento Valley seems to be dying a slow and painful death (and they keep telling us so in their editorials and have even hinted they may go to less than daily, possibly cutting out as much as two or three days). Their only hope, they think, is to keep their online version going. Somehow I think that if they drop their regular print version, the online version will disappear too, or maybe not, but it won’t be the same animal. And what the far away corporate moguls do not get is that the local newspaper has a monopoly on local news and people are interested in it – they just wish the paper would present more of it and in a more professional and comprehensive and consistent manner.

Newspapers as a source of immediate news for the most part went the way of the dodo bird a long, long time ago, kind of.

If there is really some breaking news, especially an accident or natural disaster, radio and TV are going to have it first and while it is still news. But for the most part, they only do what amounts to headlines. And you have to devote a lot of time to watch expanded coverage, and you only get the presentation on their schedule, and then you still don’t get the detail that can be provided in the more convenient printed form.

I have always wondered what would happen if there were no conventional news media such as newspapers. Then we really would be down to unchecked rumor and a mismatch of style in presenting news that might become incomprehensible and/or unreliable.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the internet, and it is the only way I get most of my news, except the most local of news, for which I still have to depend upon my local newspaper. There is a website operated by two former local newspaper employees but so far it is not offering anything substantial. It’s hard to find time to work for nothing. And quality is still a problem.

I worked as a small town radio reporter for about nine months once. I learned that except for the actual on-the-spot news, traffic accidents and once or twice a courtroom verdict, most of our news came out of the local newspaper. We at least had the decency to rewrite it and add to it a little. When I worked at the paper, the jerk radio reporter just read my stories verbatim and didn’t even attribute them, after I did the leg work. I will say, though, that once when I worked in Arizona, a radio station read one of my stories and gave my name – thanks.

I noticed through the years that a lot of stories on the nightly TV news were generated from stories that had first appeared in major daily newspapers, sometimes days earlier, or were from stories out of news wire services, generated by newspaper reporters or wire service reporters. (In a kind of related issue, AP or Associated Press, a kind of newspaper cooperative wire service, is losing clientele.)

Newspapers have provided the base for news that is presented in all mediums. Even now it is common for a TV reporter to do a standup report and hold up a copy of the local newspaper as a visual prop to show what big news something is.

Then there are the bloggers, such as me. I don’t do news these days, just commentary. But I learned a long time ago after losing a newspaper job to a corporate downsizing that I couldn’t just do the same job, but on my own (I thought of putting out a local newsletter). No one was going to pay me to drive around or make phone calls to collect news. And blogging had not come into being yet. But even today, I am not making any money at this (although some enterprising thieves do snatch my blogs and post them on their websites which contain paid advertising – probably Republicans!).

A story in the New York Times (online of course) noted that at a recent media conference someone worried that with the demise of the conventional news media (to include newspapers) the internet might become a “cesspool” of useless information (more than it already is, I add). And it wasn’t some disgruntled print journalist making that observation. It was Eric Schmidt, chief executive of Google.

My point is that there needs to be some base and some reliable check on the accuracy of information and even a gatekeeper to sort fact from rumor or legitimate news from gossipy tidbits (not that any method is totally reliable in this or that everyone agrees on what constitutes legitimacy or gossip).

If newspapers survive online, maybe the support structure of editors and such will survive, although I have my doubts.

Another thing to consider is that the internet is not likely to remain essentially free.

As an example, once newspapers no longer make their revenue off of the printed paper medium, they will need new sources of income. Some reputable organizations are already either charging for all of their stories or are giving us only teaser paragraphs and then charging for access to the rest.

A dirty secret is that news is a commodity that has been virtually given away free for a long time. The result is that news can be hard to sell.

Some specialized types of news are probably easier to put a price tag on, such as that handled by the Wall Street Journal.

We may end up with a world where only those who can afford it will be fully informed.

Even though I already knew it, I got first-hand confirmation of the fact that news is not what makes newspapers money (at least not directly) when I took my first newspaper job. We as news staffers were often reminded that the management felt we were mere troublesome overhead. It was the selling of advertising that made money (an ad salesperson paid directly for his or her own salary out of his or her own sales). The cost of each paper, at that time a dime, paid for part of the cost of printing the newspaper, nothing more. It was a small daily newspaper.

The newspaper’s profit was dependent upon the amount of advertising it sold. But due to the mechanical requirements of printing, there is often a break point where you have to choose between having not enough room for news or possibly having way too much space to fill (and not because there is not enough news, but production takes time and money – that was even more so in those pre-computer days). Often I would hear things like, “gosh I hate to have that much news.” That can be interpreted in different contexts, but ad people generally prefer tight pages, filled with ads and a little news filler in between. I often frankly wondered why the small newspapers, which did not and still don’t for the most part, have any respect or understanding of journalism, even bothered to run any news content at all. Of course without some news content they could not call themselves newspapers, but there is an animal called a shopper – in fact for the most part, that is what our local newspaper is. Shoppers supposedly are not able to command as much for their advertising rates.

I actually enjoy reading a real paper newspaper and find it much more comfortable and less fatiguing as opposed to a computer screen (and don’t you find yourself doing a lot more skimming on the screen?), although for the volume and immediacy of information, the computer is best.

And I believe I blogged once before that I think some type of medium that looks and feels like a newspaper, but that is electronic and can be updated immediately could hold promise.

Meanwhile, I hope CNN, Google, Yahoo, and the New York Times, and others keep posting fee news and information for me.


Watch out if your boss talks of “synergy”

August 12, 2008

(Copyright 2008)

The WALTHER REPORT

By Tony Walther

Ran across the word “synergy” in a blog today and it got me to thinking about the first time I ever heard that word. It was back in the go-go 90s when I almost thought I was on the road to success in a career that had thus far offered me none.

I was hired to be the editor of a weekly suburban newspaper in the Sacramento, Ca. area.

I’ll try not to name names so as to protect the innocent or the guilty, as the case may be.

The corporate chain that owned this newspaper also ran a six-day a week daily in a nearby city that suffers from an identity crisis because a lot of people who live there are commuters and often refer to their city of residence as “Sacramento” even though it is not and in fact is in a different county.

As I was told, the old man that founded the chain had luck elsewhere in running suburban weeklies and tying them in with larger dailies, in the way of advertising, use of equipment, and even sharing of personnel to some degree.

I admit, I took the job out of desperation, as much as anything else. Normally my opinion of your average so-called suburban weekly is that they are nothing more than shoppers, thrown out for free and worth about that much.

But I was pleasantly surprised when I was given some pretty good support. I was given free rein in the editorial aspects, and yes, although at first I was the editor and chief reporter/photographer and just about the only reporter/photographer, in not too long a time, I had some help in that regard. And from the first, I had great support in the production end. I supplied the material and laid out the pages on what we used to call dummy sheets (a diagram of the layout, if you will) and professional production people did the rest.

The newspaper looked good. We had actual news. I had confidently stated in my job interview that I would have no trouble finding news, and I didn’t.

And we had delivery, although it was not dependable I would find out.

The newspapers were supposed to be delivered to each and every residence in this particular suburb once per week. A lot of them were delivered, but I received tons of calls from people who said they had missed their delivery (it was a free paper). I did deliver some myself, but I did not have the time nor ability to handle all the circulation problems. That was supposed to be the job of the daily’s circulation director. He was of little help.

To this day, I believe that lack of dependable circulation is what killed that newspaper. I’ve worked for several newspapers who had a hard time increasing their circulation. At this weekly, folks were nearly begging to get the paper but could not or would not be accommodated.

At any rate, for a time it looked like things were going well. The general manager of the afore-mentioned daily connected with my paper was my boss. He had been a sports reporter/editor and somehow had gotten into the business end of the business and had been named general manager. (And by the way, I think newspapers started to fail back whenever they started to be run by folks who called themselves “general manager,” instead of “publisher,” although that older title is used now and is synonymous with general manager, which means: “we know nothing of journalism, but we know a cash cow when we see it, and we’ll milk the old gal for all she’s worth and then bleed her dry before we jump ship for ‘new opportunities.’”)

Sorry, I got off track. Anyway, things were looking up. I was able to wangle a substantial raise.

My boss, who was desperately, in his middle age, trying to climb the corporate ladder, came over to my little hole-in-the-wall office one day and picked me up in his SUV. I had not really ever noticed such a vehicle before. It was like stepping up into the cab of a semi (something I would later do for more than a decade). He had a humongous plastic coffee cup. He had a nice suit too.

As we ate lunch at TJ Fridays (maybe that’s where suburban middle managers eat — don’t know, never been there since). He told me that the folks at corporate were “impressed” with what I was doing and that the big boss, not the old man (who was dying and probably not with it anymore), but the younger talented executive who was actually now in charge, was coming to visit and I would be able to sit in on a meeting with the big boys.

My boss talked of how we could connect the daily with my weekly and two other weeklies they had in the area and create a kind of “synergy.” A lot of the news was of shared interest since we were all in the same general area. And best of all (and really the bottom line), advertisers could be sold on the “synergy” of the whole thing.

Well, the meeting with the big boys took place. Mr. Big Time executive, tall and slim and tanned and wearing suspenders, was courteous to me, I guess, but when my boss mentioned the effort behind my weekly, Mr. Big Time curtly quipped: “that’s not my fault.”

Oh, I forgot to mention the advertising lady from the daily who just like the circulation man from that daily was of little help to my weekly.

When my weekly finally died, she smiled, revealing dog-like incisors, and lamented: “timing is everything,” and apparently it was off for me. And just like Mr. Big Time, it wasn’t her fault.

Apparently, my boss dodged the bullet too, he was kicked upstairs and sent to the Bay Area. The advertising lady took my boss’s place.

I was out of a job for a couple of weeks and then was hired back in a different capacity to do more work for less pay. But I was glad to have it. I eventually was the casualty of corporate downsizing after the old man that ran the corporation died and his widow sold of the assets due to inheritance taxes. The six-day daily became a three-day per week paper.

I think the remaining weeklies were sold off.

So much for “synergy.” I still hate that word.


News blues…

June 3, 2008
(copyright)
The WALTHER REPORT
By Tony Walther
 
In general, newspaper circulation and ad revenues are in a free fall. Newspaper readership has been declining for a couple of decades or more. In fact, when I began in journalism back in the early 70s, the demise of the newspaper was seen as imminent. The institution survived.
 
Some local “niche” newspapers are doing better, reportedly, but overall, the trend is down, down, down.
 
Americans don’t read as much as they used to. And now the internet, through which I blog and e-mail this column, has really put the screws to the old-fashioned hold-in- your-hands paper newspaper.
 
Now, newspapers have gone online. At first it was just an adjunct to their traditional real newspaper, but now some are considering that online may be their future. I have mixed emotions about this. On the one hand, I see an opportunity for print media to survive, albeit in an electronic form. On the other hand, I don’t see how you replace the experience, the feeling of holding your own newspaper in your hands and being able to turn the pages and the convenience of carrying it where you go. Maybe people just don’t care for that anymore. But I got to thinking about that the other night as I was reading a novel. I had earlier in the day perused some novels online. As I lay on the living room couch, holding a paperback book in my hands, I realized that the experience reading the real thing, instead of following the words on a computer screen, is much more enjoyable. It’s just an altogether different medium.
 
Maybe a little off the track here, but I like watching movies on the big screen, as opposed to on a television screen. It’s a different form of the art.
 
But back to newspapers. The declining readership, which has led to declining ad revenue, has threatened to destroy the business. With the explosion of information (and misinformation) available via the internet, newspapers have been crowded out.
 
The biggest place they have been hit is hard news. Since I constantly scan the internet, I rarely, if ever, find any new news in my newspaper – that is on the national and world level. Now this has been a fact for decades if you look at print vs. television (but TV news is headlines and over simplified reports). Now we have instant news via printed, or written, word on our computer screens. So, by the time I get the news in my paper it seems as if it is ancient history.
 
The same is not true for local news. So far, in my neck of the woods anyway, my local newspaper is the only medium providing anything near comprehensive local news. The local radio stations and television stations only provide a few headlines, and they often come straight out of the newspaper. In fact, it seems strange that our local newspaper can beat the local television stations with the news.
 
Local TV news in the hinterlands where I live is still predominantly in the nature of cute pet stories. And you can’t compare broadcast with print anyway. It’s like comparing apples and oranges.
 
There is a problem, though, because the chain that owns our local newspaper is losing money, it has cut back on the newspaper’s staff and, ironically, after going to an emphasis on local coverage, so much so that cute dog stories make the lead on the front page, it has less real local news. And the powers that be can’t figure our why their readership continues to decline.
 
But the local editor proudly proclaims that his paper’s online readership is improving and that it is the wave of the future. But looking at its online content, I am not impressed. I suspect that the online version could take over eventually, but the end result will be a mediocre presentation with still limited readership. I don’t know how much advertising revenue the newspaper has been able to attract with the online.
 
One long-time writer left the paper – she was either fired or quit, depending on what version you choose to believe – and is posting her own website, but it is not really a news presentation. It does seem to have some advertising on it, mostly business cards. She has actually managed to scoop the local newspaper on a few stories, although nothing major. Mostly it’s just local folks writing about their hobbies and businesses, some chit chat and self promotion.
 
Someone had suggested that all the former and disgruntled local newspaper writers ought to get together and put out their own online newspaper. I think that would be a problem for anyone who has to make a living. The first thing I discovered after losing my last newspaper job in a corporate downsizing, is that all those years someone was paying me for making those phone calls and driving around and doing all that leg work I did as a reporter. Yeah, I was of the old school. I did leg work. Online was in development then, but I realized that I could not afford to gather news on my own.
 
Ad revenue is what makes everything possible. Disgruntled out of work newspaper writers would have to practically create their own traditional business model, another newspaper, in order to compete with the only game in town.
 
Traditional newspapers don’t even know quite what to make of online. They jumped into it several years ago, giving everything away for free. Some have started to charge for it, but have found folks reluctant to subscribe, when they can get so much for free on the internet. Advertisers want to know how many people will actually see their ads. They like to think that there is a reader commitment to the medium they buy space in or on.
 
Maybe eventually when there are a lot fewer real newspapers and more online sites start charging for what they present, the picture will change. And I think that is the way it will go.
 
Media News Group CEO Dean Singleton runs a chain that owns lots of newspapers, big and small. He’s the scourge of real journalists, but he is powerful and he had some things to say recently at a newspaper confab:
 
He said that online is the future, but that newspapers need to maintain their core, real newspapers, because it will “finance the future.”
 
Most interesting to me, though, was that he said journalists need to get off their high horses and get down to the readers’ level (that, of course in my paraphrasing). Reportedly, what he actually said in part was that newspaper folks should  “…quit writing and editing for each other…” and  “…move to a print model to match the times.” (The Singleton stuff was out of Editor and Publisher’s online site.)
 
I don’t know what Singleton meant exactly. I hope he didn’t mean quit editing for grammar and readability, and I hope he didn’t mean everyone should write in blog or e-mail style as some do with a little i for the personal pronoun and all those texting abbreviations.
 
Some so-called local newspapers run unedited news releases and copy locals bring in with all of their misspellings and commas and colons and semi-colons stuck in here and there at any place for no apparent reason. Some folks think that anytime you use an S you have to use an apostrophe. Grammar is not meant to be some type of esoteric exercise, it has to do with clear communication. If you have read this far, you may feel I need my own grammar remediation – but I try (even if I do make up some of my own rules).
 
Back to whether folks will pay for online: If you have some reliable and valuable information, people are willing to pay for it. The Wall Street Journal does not present its work for free (just a few teaser articles that say you have to sign up to get the rest of the story), and some others have gone that way also.
 
The energy crisis could play into all of this too. As oil becomes more and more expensive, the production of electricity that runs the internet gets pricier too. It may become too expensive to provide info over the net for free. I did not come up with that. I heard that on a PBS business report.
 
Well, another ramble from me, but I think online is the future of what we now call print journalism. I am happy it has a future. You have to be able to read news and absorb it to be an informed citizen of the world.
 
We have already seen what happens when large numbers of the public choose to keep themselves in the dark because they just can’t find the time to read or possibly never learned how to read. For one, politicians run amok. A man who has no ability or inclination to look at issues objectively and who surrounds himself with sycophants, and makes war where he can find it by shading the truth, gets elected, not once, but two times as leader of the free world.
 
What is really needed is a new emphasis in our schools on reading. No not how many books I read contests (how do you know the books were really read?), but reading and writing about what is read. Trouble is, a lot of our modern teachers are reading challenged themselves. They just never had the time. Sorry about that last one. That may have been an overstatement. But I watched a young teacher on a quiz show recently. She didn’t know where the Hamptons were, among other things. Apparently she never read “The Great Gatsby.”