Monday, February 16, 2009

The sorry state of newspapers

Why are newspapers failing?

Sit back and relax. This will be brief. More to explore later when the urge strikes.

Newspapers are not failing because of the Web. They’re failing because they’re tired.

Tired ideas.

Tired writing.

Tired photography.

Tired design.

“Daddy, you are one sorry sonofabitch,” says Robert Duvall in The Apostle.

Well, the newspaper industry has grown sorry. Fat and sorry. Too many reporters getting too many stories through the telephone. Too many reporters writing twice a week. Too little freedom of expression. Too cozy with local pols. Too arrogant to listen to the readers and their own hearts.

Too damned stuck in tired textbook models – six kinds of ledes, three ways to organize the news story, eight words WE never use…

At the top of the blame list sat journalism educators spoon feeding the same tired rules, the same tired advice, the same tired narratives to students who were tired of journalism even before they graduated. It was, and is, the most vicious of circles.

What we needed, and need, to do as educators is stop training journalists and start teaching journalists. We’ve been training them to replicate all those tired ideas for jobs which are now rapidly disappearing. What is wrong with this picture?

We need to give them room to think, ideas to challenge and the energy of innovation.

It is probably too late to save newspapers, but it is not too late to save journalism.

-- Lofflin


  1. John, I wanted to comment about the last sentence in your post: "It is probably too late to save newspapers, but it is not too late to save journalism."

    At a recent job interview, the interviewer asked me what journalists need to do differently in a web-first publishing environment as opposed to a print-first atmosphere. My answer was that with the exception of their work schedules and deadlines, journalists should not do ANYTHING differently online than in print. Journalism is still journalism, no matter what the medium. Today's web reporters are still doing roughly the same job their print predecessors did 100 years ago.

    --Matt Kelsey

  2. You nailed it John. As much as I love the inky exhalation of a busy pressroom, no longer is it baby breath I smell, but the stench of death expelled through ill-fitting dentures. Reporters today, in print or otherwise, often settle for "good enough," rather than including all angles and digging to make their pieces truly objective journalism. When I find such a story, usually by accident, I once again am able to recall the tang of printer's ink and smile.

  3. Well said. Lack of energy certainly captures the overarching problem. I would not underestimate, the web, though, or the change in readership (younger audiences who prefer the immediacy of the Internet), and the environmental component. Those are all real factors that might have caused damage equal to the failures among journalists.

    The practice has definitely had its let downs. While many of the journalism principles you mention are still taught and still relevant, they are not universal – they can not be applied on every piece. Many journalists work from a rap sheet … six kinds of ledes, AP style, words that aren’t appropriate … and I’ve seen that carried out to a level that completely overwhelms the actual reporting. But for me, the most dominant issue is storytelling and newspaper editors' inability to capitalize on what separates print publications from online mediums.

    If you pick up USA Today or, locally, The Kansas City Star, there seems to be significantly more emphasis on articles as opposed to stories. Articles are more formulaic and timely, they contain easy-to-find information, they are objective and never personal, and they tend to be brief (there is an emphasis on word economy and AP style, so that many pieces seem to be written by the same writer). Storytelling is not as concise and the information is often buried. Stories require more of a reader’s time and they relay something deeper and more relevant than information. Those types of pieces are often considered fluff, today, writing that way involves the senses and language that might not be as straight forward. And that’s too bad.

    I would say that most good stories take a risk or offer up something about the writer. Articles don’t do that. When you do see a risk taken or a story told, it’s usually on the opinion pages. But even then editors aren’t going out on a limb. Semi-controversial opinions can be attributed to the individual columnist, not the entire editorial staff. What’s interesting is that the online community has mastered the presentation of opinion with news.

    Blogs and the rise in their popularity show that people don’t mind news presented with an opinion, especially if they tend to agree with the writer over time. Bloggers don’t tell stories, though, and that’s where newspapers have missed an opportunity to be different and to utilize the medium. People will carry newspapers around. They will come back to them to finish a well told story. And they can connect with a writer’s real voice, which is something bloggers can't do by posting a few paragraphs everyday.
    Journalism is observation encapsulated, and unfortunately that tends to be obvious in the work that appears in newspapers around the globe. Observing is never as fun as participation, in my experience. Once you stop telling stories and limit yourself to information, you’re writing a weather report. Nothing more.

    Kevin Kuzma

  4. As someone trying to jump into the industry in his late-twenties amidst a recalibration of his current career, it's good to see there are people out there passionate about throwing a wrench in the assembly and doing it right.