Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Times-Picayune: R.I.P. The “Daily Newspaper”

(By Joel Achenbach, Washington Post, May 25, 2012)

The last few days I’ve been running around Pennsylvania, interviewing people, from big-shots to ordinary Shmoes, taking notes and asking a million questions, and am putting together what I hope will be a good story about real people in a real place. But in the back of my mind these days I always wonder if this go-there reporting concept makes any sense. Does it pencil out? Salary…two nights at the strangely expensive Hampton Inn … meals … snacks … pinball … the spa … driver … interpreter … fixer … fresh fruit and champagne delivered to the room ... the usual reporter-on-the-road costs, in other words. Is the cost worth it when the end result is just a little ol’ story in the paper?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to stay home and just, you know, Google it? Surely there’s a poll out there, online, and we could just tell you what people think based on that. Make a couple of phone calls. Done, and cheaply.  Said it before: You can’t Google your way to great journalism.

The numbers worry me. And this latest story about the New Orleans Times-Picayune worries me. The Times-Pic is famous for its Pulitzer-winning coverage of Hurricane Katrina, but it also did outstanding work on the BP oil spill two years ago. Staff writer David Hammer’s reporting was particularly essential to the rest of us following the story. Now we learn that the paper’s corporate owners have decided to cut back print publication to three days a week. We’re assured that the Times-Pic will still publish 24 hours a day online, but an analyst predicts a major cut in staffing, from about 150 to 100 employees in the newsroom. Several other company papers in the Deep South are also cutting back to three days a week.

There’s no simple solution to the collapse of the traditional newspaper business model. Everyone’s got to figure this thing out in their own way. But let’s not pretend that this isn’t a sad moment for New Orleans.  One of the great virtues of newspapers has always been the way they show up every day, reliably, and become a trusted part of people’s lives. People have rituals around their newspaper. Maybe you read the paper on your porch in the morning while listening to the birds. Maybe you line your bird cage with it. Whatever: It’s a fixture in daily life. It’s not supposed to be a fixture in Wednesday, Friday and Sunday life.

The online versions of these papers are still perfectly capable of publishing great journalism. But the platform is shrinking. Already there’s a shift away from desktop computers to mobile devices. How many journalists can be supported through devices that you hold in your hand? That’s not a rhetorical question: I’m really curious to know.  Sorry to repeat myself on this, but I like to read things that don’t beep at me and hector me and make me feel guilty because I’m not doing something else. Do you want to sit there on your porch reading your news on a device that is connected to every other news source in the world, and your email accounts, and your Twitter feed, and is burping with text msgs and voice msgs and any moment may actually RING with a phone call and a person who demands your attention?  No. Now hand me the sports section.

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