The name of this blog means a lot to me. I am an ink-stained wretch.
I have largely avoided blogging about the fate of my beloved industry, because I frankly dread the well-meaning thread of comments from ‘Net people who are happy to explain that if newspapers only would do “X”, things would improve. Please, don’t. I don’t want to hear it. Whatever “X” you have to suggest has already been tried, by people far smarter than either you or I. And it has not worked.
The bottom line is that we probably did not deserve the money we made all those years, when we had a quasi-monopoly on daily information delivery, and (more importantly) on advertising delivery. The newspaper has always been an odd product – a bundle of only vaguely related goods that you’re forced to buy as a package. That’s a terrible idea, but it worked for years. The civic mission – the wretch sitting in the city council meeting, or poring over campaign finance reports, or shivering in the cold at dawn at the scene of some horrible accident, the formal witness to mark the passing of the deceased – piggybacked on the revenue generated by the fact that most people really want sports pages and comics and that dreadful little box that every day delivers starlet gossip.
It was lousy economics to spend all that energy on the civic mission stuff, because the best evidence available (especially web traffic) suggests not very many people actually read it. But it’s there, and its presence is nevertheless central, I believe, to the civic dialogue, to the lives of our communities. Now that economics is what matters, the stuff that was noble but not profitable is what will go. Roger Ebert was right last week to bemoan the loss of the thoughtful, but, dude, not enough people are apparently reading that shit any more to pay for people like you and I to keep doing it.
News on the web works great for readers, but not terribly well at all for generating revenue to support the wretches, so there are fewer and fewer of us.
I was thinking about this today while I read my old college friend Chuck Taylor’s blog post on his search for a path forward. Chuck’s a good journalist and a very smart guy. When you think of “X” – the creative new stuff worth trying – Chuck has been in the vanguard, working in straight mainstream press, alternative press, the terrific (and not so financially successful) web-ony regional press.
I don’t think the average person out there realizes what’s about to happen with the demise of newspapers. Whatever you think of their relevance to your world, they do the heavy lifting when it comes to covering both routine and important local news. Newspapers, and not blogs or TV or radio, are consistently and methodically covering and holding accountable local governments, businesses, and institutions. Sure, they miss stuff and don’t always live up to our expectations, but they’re reliable.
I was really excited with the emergence of Chuck’s Crosscut, in Seattle. I’m really excited by what my friend Trip Jennings and his colleagues are doing with the New Mexico Independent. I hope alternatives will flourish. But I have yet to see a model other than the strangely archaic approach of words on paper thrown on driveways that can support the civic mission.
I think the solution is to find the core of the civic mission, and to keep doing it as our audience declines. 100,000 people buy the Albuquerque Journal every day, but the core audience, the one that matters for the civic mission, the players and actors, is likely far smaller than that. It differs depending on the topic, but whatever its size, that core audience will continue to read the newspaper. Its size remains unchanged.
They will still need Dan McKay at the city council meeting.