In Defense of Newspapers

San Francisco Animal Care & Control made a tiny bit of news last week when the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Neal J. Riley reported that the group was in need of newspapers. And before you start thinking that the animals occupying the shelter may have been interested in learning how to do a crossword puzzle, the real reason the group needed an abundance of printed words was actually to help train puppies to … 

… well, to go to the bathroom in the right place.

And no, the dogs weren’t interested in learning how to do a crossword puzzle while going to the bathroom, either. 

“There are some things that the digital newspaper subscription on an iPad can’t do. Helping toilet-train puppies at an animal shelter is one of them,” Riley wrote. “San Francisco Animal Care & Control has been relying on public contributions and occasional Chronicle donations of old newspapers to line animal cages and catch waste from puppies who don’t know how to take their business outside yet.” (“Library’s newspapers to help train pups”, 27 January 2013)

See: Newspapers do matter.

No, but seriously. Since the 17th century, when the term “newspaper” was first coined, it’s hard to think that there has been a more steadily relevant element of everyday living. The art of news-gathering and storytelling has become just about as ingrained in our existence as death and taxes. We are a race founded on curiosity, after all, and the one thing that has helped us quench that type of inquisitive thirst has been a constant daily recount through the printed word of all the things that have happened throughout the previous 24 hours.

Such is why it’s so ungodly disheartening to see how quickly this institution — an institution that has thrived for hundreds of years, mind you — is dying before our very eyes: A culture’s impatience and loneliness has created a new normal centered upon interconnectivity and ignorance. The result has been a crash-course in how to almost instantly murder highly respected mediums that at one point served as the world’s single most informative product.

“The Newspaper Publishing industry faces escalating competition from other forms of media, particularly digital outlets,” a press release posted on Digital Journal stated on January 28. “Consumers favor the real-time reporting capabilities of online news, including social networking platforms like Twitter. As a result, advertisers are spending less money on print and more on building their online presence, where they can create customizable campaigns and reach a wider audience. Although the recession worsened the diminishing readership and advertiser appeal of newspapers, declines in advertising revenue began after 2004. Even as the economy recovers, many advertisers and readers have not returned to print media; instead they have funneled their attention toward web-based outlets. Over the five years to 2012, total industry revenue is expected to decline at an annualized rate of 8.1% to total $33.8 billion, including a 2.6% decline in 2012 as publishers continue to lose downstream markets to other media platforms.” “Newspaper Publishing in the US Industry Market Research Report Now Available from IBISWorld”, by Staff, 28 January 2013)

Other media platforms = three words that nobody really knows what to do with these days. Other media platforms have become hot-button issues for anyone even dreaming of landing a leadership position at any print media outlet in the universe, and they have become an obtuse, somewhat obligatory combination of terms that people think will make investors and bosses salivate at the potential such focus could imply. Where can we make more money? How quickly can we do it? And how far away do we need to get from the traditional notion of what a newspaper is in order to make people think we have figured out a profitable model for this industry?

It all feels so … slimy, doesn’t it? As the way we consume news on a day-by-day/hour-by-hour/minute-by-minute basis continues to evolve, why are so many people so eager to write the obituary of the printed word, and why must there be no hope for the value of a tangible, albeit slightly dated by now thing that arrives at our doorstep each morning? Are the people who have made a living from this very practice simply trying to prove that they have a leg up on what’s coming, or are the people who have made a living from this very practice simply so narrow-minded and cynical that the moment the traditional form of publishing changes even slightly, they recoil and begin holding seminars on why newspaper people need to update their resumes?

More importantly, is there truly no hope for the future of print journalism, or is an acute disparity in attitude just as much to blame for a prognostication already fueled almost entirely by fear?

“I think I’m living through a golden age of journalism, actually,” New York Times media reporter David Carr told Terry Gross on an episode of NPR’s Fresh Air in October 2011. “I do think that there’s been horrible frictional costs, but I think when we look back at what has happened, I look at my backpack that is sitting here, and it contains more journalistic firepower than the entire newsroom that I walked into 30, 40 years ago. It’s connected to the cloud. I can make digital recordings of everything that I do. I can check in real time if someone’s telling me the truth. I have a still camera that takes video that I can upload quickly and seamlessly and I think that the ability to sit at your desk and check everything against history and build in context and narrative — it’s part of how newspapers ended up becoming daily magazines. 

“Now,” he continued, “the business model has not kept up with that. Now, the movie, Page One, does a really good job of capturing an incredibly scary time about whether fundamental questions of survival were being asked about the New York Times and other organizations. Did I worry that somewhere in there, when I was doing a big job-cuts story, that eventually I would type my own name? Yes I did. It was really scary for a while. It’s less scary now.”

This all came from Gross asking the following: “Do you feel, as a reporter who covers the business of media, that you are reporting on the dismemberment of your own profession?” Both the question and subsequent response combine to make for the most accurate nutshell of where modern day journalism currently resides. Conventional thought within the industry is almost always focused entirely around that inquiry these days, yet the answers from a majority of high profile reporters — David Carr, the most celebrated of the bunch — almost always seem to be rooted in the idea that any reason for panic is being somewhat exaggerated. Businesspeople within the media merely need to catch up with the last decade’s uniquely expansive technology, some argue, and then we can all rest assured that the future of print journalism will be fine. 

Maybe. But even when somebody finally cracks the code on how to make the use of Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere a profitable forum for traditional journalism — and yes, somebody will eventually figure that out — what’s going to happen when another sea change of consumption occurs? Will the minds behind some of the most valued and respected news outlets in all the land cower in the face of evolution and advancement? Will it be lemonade or expired lemons? Will there be another push for the death of the written word as we once knew it? Or will somebody finally step up and accept the challenge to move forward, rather than lament on how much better yesterday was than you know tomorrow will be?

I love newspapers. After graduating high school, I went to college specifically to study journalism. I never switched majors, found a spot on the college newspaper’s editorial staff, landed an internship and became a night editor in a small town paper right out of school. At 28, I’ve been told no less than 50 times by various people that it was such a mistake to stick with newspapers because the future has always been so grim. Me? I just feel lucky that I’ve spent six years in the workforce as someone employed by a newspaper. Yeah, I’ll never be rich, the hours suck, and the stress that comes along with deadlines and decisions is far from appealing to most normal-living people. 

But it’s hard for me to think about ever falling out of lust with the medium. Even if (or when) I get forced out of the profession someday, I know I’ll never be able to say that I don’t miss it. Your co-workers become your family. The job isn’t a display of work anymore than it’s an invested lifestyle. You hate everybody you work with. You love everybody you work with. There will forever be something, well, romantic about knowing that when people open up their front door at 6AM, a set of paper with printed words on it will be there, ready to greet them and explain everything they had missed. Picking up a morning newspaper is as idiosyncratic as turning on the television and as charming as writing letters to people on a piece of paper. 

Do I think the platform is dying? I don’t — there will always be a market for people who want to read news dedicated solely to the region in which they live. The breadth of coverage may be more limited, but it won’t be extinct, despite how dumbed-down each next generation always appears. Am I worried about people becoming bored with the product, mindlessly labeling it as an obsolete force of nature that has about as much value as a musket would in a nuclear war?

Well, let me put it this way: I consider newspapers the next wave of vinyl. The minute cassette tapes and compact discs hit the market decades ago, the idea of a clunky gigantic circle playing four or five songs before having to physically turn the thing over to hear more music seemed so silly after the digital world showed us what it can do. These days, about 30 years after the world had given up on actual LPs, there is an entire subculture of music lovers who swear by records and refuse to listen to anything else. Newspapers will be a lot like that — heralded by some as the only true way to experience the news of the day, regardless of how trite or backwards the practice of publishing and reading them might seem. Will the audience and demand be nearly as big as it once was? No. But will there always be those who see the value in a tradition that dates back to a time as old as, oh, say, the United States of America? Of course. 

Besides: If it weren’t for these things, what else would we use to potty train our pets?