The Rip Post                                Riposte Archive


riposte2.jpg (10253 bytes)

          I don’t think newspapers are dying. I think they died a long time ago.
          I think the rise of demographic research dictating content was the first death knell. This began in the ‘70s, and it supplanted, or at least corrupted, what used to be called “news judgment.”
          News judgment essentially meant that you determined content based on instinct and experience. You knew what would make a good story. You knew, or sensed, what people would like to read. You had a knack for it.
          Demography professed to make this into a science. You could study what readers wanted, demographers said, and then give it to them. There were always millions of statistics and charts showing “market penetration” in this or that “demographic,” to back up assertions.
          I’ve always thought this was hooey.
          Here’s why: demography does not measure what people want, or even need. It measures what they will react to. These are different matters. News judgment left it up to individual editors to exercise their hunches, instincts, and judgment. The people need to know this. The people want to know this. And yes, the people will react to this. Demography panders to response mechanism. The people will read this. Demographic research told us so.
          This filtered into newsrooms and features departments everywhere, and it was a poison. It also pervaded popular culture, of course, and is responsible for the tragic “dumbing down” of radio and television---and, as a result, citizens. Pandering to human reaction does not new brain cells make.

Mainstream newspapers clunkily try to compete---clinging to a patrician tone while superficially emulating the ‘net and alt-press. They’re like like the old guy in the suit saying “cool.”

          Another factor in the decline of newspapers was Watergate. During and after the scandal, journalism schools flooded. Being a reporter suddenly became a far more romantic and adventurous thing than ever before. Clark Kent was the new Superman.
          As a result, lots of college-bound kids who would never otherwise have considered journalism thought “hey, that looks like fun.” Anyone who could write a complete paragraph could earn a journalism degree, whether they had any actual journalistic instinct or writing talent. This led to a tsunami of people entering the business who had no real instinct for it, let alone flair.
          Still another factor was so-called Affirmative Action, which, while well-intentioned, often gave unwarranted breaks to persons of poor or mediocre ability---strictly on the basis of race or ethnicity---sometimes undercutting persons of greater proficiency. Witness New York Times fraud Jayson Blair, whose way to the top was greased by race.
          There are other causes behind the new talk of “the death of newspapers,” in the wake of huge circulation drops and layoffs at major papers across the country: family-owned businesses turning into corporate-owned investments (and write-offs); journalist-publishers being replaced by accountant/demographer-publishers; competition with television and Internet, and. . .attitude.
          I don’t think attitude can be understated as a factor.
          A newspaper should be a number of simple things that it almost never is anymore: local, topical, timely, lively, irreverent, advocative, provocative, hard-hitting. Demographics don’t tell you this, common sense does. For all the terrible flaws papers had in their heyday---sensationalism, racism, accuracy problems, yellow journalism---they were more likely to reflect the above traits than they are now.
          I can’t think of a single contemporary daily newspaper that embodies these values. From Monterey to Montpelier, you find the same demographically designed packages of national/international wire reports, celeb news, crime, namby-pamby editorials, a few token local stories, and fluff. As alike as Krispy Kreme Donuts, and pretty soon, perhaps just as bankrupt.
          But old-fashioned newspaper attitude does live on, to some extent, in the Internet, and in so-called alternative weeklies.
          The ‘net is the best thing to happen to news and commentary since “extra extra, read all about it,” such is its immediacy and irreverence. It is also the worst thing to happen to news and commentary, as responsible newsgathering and thoughtful commentary are all but drowning in a cyber-river of black bile, falsehood, propaganda.
          Alt-weeklies typically feature solid investigative reporting and aggressive coverage of local issues. The writing style is often savvy and devoid of the lofty, so-called “omniscient voice” of self-serious daily papers. What’s more, alt-weeklies tend toward the “afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted” sentiment that should be a starting point for any newspaper.
           But they also feature a good deal of amaterurish, self-indulgent prose that gratuitously employs graphic sexual imagery and four-letter words. This plays to a certain (young) audience, but also alienates, and undercuts credibility. It is unnecessary and for the most part, undignified.
          Mainstream newspapers clunkily try to compete---clinging to a patrician tone while superficially emulating the ‘net and alt-press. They’re like like the old guy in the suit saying “cool.” Reminds of Nixon growing his sideburns in the ’68 campaign so as to appear ever-so-slightly groovy.
          It all adds up to newspapers losing touch with what they are supposed to be, and the communities they purport to serve. Look at that “great newspaper” (as it constantly touts itself), the L.A. Times, which for years has relegated local news, and a small amount of it, mostly to section B. The classic feature story---a bulwark tool for focusing attention on interesting and laudable folk in the community---is all but dead in the Times, replaced largely by obsequious coverage of the entertainment industry.
          If L.A. is, as the cliché goes, a sprawl of suburbs pretending to be a city, I think the L.A. Times (and to a lesser extent, the Valley-heavy Daily News, which is distributed citywide) actually bears some responsibility for this. The Times covers the sprawl, not the city. For those who say there is no there there, no city to cover, I say if you build it, they will come. If you cover the place as if it is a community, people will come to regard it more as such. What’s more, I think this is a function of a paper: to help give a community its identity.

The Bellows-era Her-Ex beat the Times in the annual Press Club Awards, and did so repeatedly. How ironic it is that so many former Her-Ex staffers wound up on Spring Street, and never managed to carry the Bellows style and ethos with them.

         The late L.A. Herald-Examiner under Jim Bellows is the obvious illustration. Had the Hearst Corporation seriously backed up that paper financially, and had the Times not for decades monopolized all the major advertising, the Her-Ex would easily have been the dominant paper in town.
          Consider: Her-Ex coverage was skewed toward L.A., while also handling national and international. The writing was fresh, tight, alive, playful, punchy, percolating. The reporting was tough, relentless, hard-hitting. The editorials, at their best, assaulted. The columnists, at least most of them, were trenchant and witty. The sports page---roiling with personality---is missed to this day. Feature writing was smart, stylish, cogent (and did a good job on Hollywood.) Most of all, the Her-Ex was local. It did not treat L.A. as a series of demographic targets, ethnic pockets, or a cliché of amorphous suburbia. It treated it like a town.
          The Bellows-era Her-Ex beat the Times in the annual Press Club Awards, and did so repeatedly. How ironic it is that so many former Her-Ex staffers wound up on Spring Street, and never managed to carry the Bellows style and ethos with them. Many, in fact, became stuffy and pompous---the very Times qualities that the Her-Ex openly mocked in its pages.
          The crisis of identity, direction, and money that is today’s L.A. Times is rivaled only by the crisis of identity, direction, and money that is the L.A. Dodgers. The Chicago Tribune, which owns the paper (problem number one) is manned by bean-counters who politically tend toward conservative, which is hardly a recipe for “afflict the comfortable” ethos.
          This leaves one gaping chasm of an opportunity for the Daily News to finally make an effort to become an L.A. paper, but this also will probably not happen, because the Daily News is owned by Dean Singleton, a bottom-line artist with apparent aspirations to be a sort of junior Rupert Murdoch. Translation: gimme the ad revenue and print whatever the hell you want, as long as it leans conservative.
          In the end, though, as a newspaper editor friend of mine remarked (yes, I still have one or two left), “it just doesn’t matter.” Meaning that if newspapers are in decline, there is really nothing to be done about it. That they have already been trumped, so to speak, by corporate tyranny, demographics, television, Internet, less literacy, and less inclination toward reading. No amount of reshaping editorial content will make any difference.
          That might be true. But it would be fun if some of them went down swinging, like the old Her-Ex did.

                                             BACK TO PAGE ONE

© 2005 Rip Rense. All rights reserved.