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The Same Old Story

Amy DePaul

Frontline’s recent special, News War, offered a few unintentionally poignant moments. One was seeing veteran reporter Lowell Bergman, in Part III, stumbling around in search of answers to the question, what happened to journalism? (This from the man behind The Insider?)

The answers Bergman found were pretty old hat for many of us: YouTube, Jon Stewart, bloggers and the like. Even Bergman’s finding that young people get their news from The Daily Show is played out at this point. In this regard, News War not only documented but also demonstrated the pitfalls of old-school journalism.

The end of the program featured a fairly downbeat discussion on the death of newspapers, using the Los Angeles Times as a case study. The interview with the publishing exec from the Tribune Company (the Times owners) smugly defending cutback after cutback angered even Internet enthusiasts like me. Newspapers alone cover schools, taxes, local governments, community conflicts, etc. They need to survive or, in a more likely scenario, bring their best practices to the Internet.

Frontline is right about corporate management eviscerating newspapers, but financial pressures from Wall Street only tell part of the story. Another, less discussed factor is that many people don’t like reading newspapers. Young people in particular don’t read daily news coverage: they read magazines, websites, emails, chick-lit, the Bible, World of Warcraft books, self-help tomes and more. But they do not read newspapers. We need to understand why, and here are just a few ideas:

1. Writing

For those of us raised on, or trained in, the ways of “inverted pyramid,” “nut graphs,” “news pegs” and other highly contrived ways of communicating information, newspapers are great. I came up through newspapers so I’ve used all of these devices. They still have value, but there are other ways to convey information. For example, sometimes a writer needs to develop an idea and build toward an outcome. Sometimes a writer needs to explain a complex issue patiently rather than cram it into choppy, one-sentence paragraphs that splice a story into odd little pieces.

2. Voice

Then there's the stuffy and impersonal voice that characterizes standard journalistic writing. This is one reason why my students don’t read foreign news. They will, however, read journalist Kevin Sites whose web dispatches tell stories, are more personal, yet meet journalistic standards.

3. Language

Newspapers are late to the multiculturalism party, which may be one reason for the explosion of newspapers in Asian languages and Spanish. In Miami, El Nuevo Herald’s Spanish-language daily draws an estimated 100,000 readers. The success of La Opinion in Los Angeles and Hoy in New York City, among many others, is further evidence of the growing Latino marketplace. Keep in mind that immigrant communities tend to be younger than the native-born population; newspapers that want to build a future readership, then, must include second-language readers. For an interesting example of English-language coverage of ethnic issues, look at http://www.newamericamedia.org.

4. The Web

Many newspapers are still using the Internet as a place to post their print stories rather than making full use of their sites to update breaking news, tell stories in many different ways, offer visitors in-depth content and links to original source materials, etc.

Amy DePaul is a college journalism instructor and free-lance writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post and many other metropolitan newspapers, as well as a variety of websites and magazines.

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