by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
December 29-31, 2000
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Back in the autumn of 1994, when the World Wide Web was still in its infancy and only a handful of newspapers were online, media critic Jon Katz wrote an article called "Online or not, Newspapers Suck."
In this seminal article that appeared in Wired in September 1994, Katz wrote about the many flaws of newspapers. They don't like change and they're not responsive to readers. They have an inbred institutional arrogance -- we tell you the news, and you read it -- and have been slow to adapt to realities of a new age.
"Newspapers might begin to think about reversing their long-standing priorities," Katz wrote, "recognizing that everyone with electricity has access to more breaking news than they provide, faster than they provide it. They should, at last, accept there is little of significance they get to tell us for the first time. They should stop hiding that fact and begin taking advantage of it. What they can do is explain news, analyze it, dig into the details and opinions, capture people and stories in vivid writing -- all in greater depth than other media."
If newspapers are to survive, Katz concluded, they needed to hire reporters and editors that are younger and more diverse and pay them real salaries. They also needed to really listen to their community, and not just pretend to. They needed to chuck the know-it-all attitude and learn from the freewheeling ethos of the online world. Shoveling their product onto the Web wasn't going to be enough.
Six years later, not much has changed. While virtually every major newspaper has some sort of Web presence, the newspaper culture is still one of caution and fear of the future. Having spent the last 15 years of my life working for and having my heart broken by newspapers, I can testify that they are hopelessly out of touch with the new realities of a media world where few people under the age of 40 pick up a newspaper unless they absolutely have to.
Why? Because newspapers are boring and irrelevant. Most haven't fully adapted to radio and television, let alone the Internet. Most pay salaries that are embarrassingly low compared to other professions. Most are run by people who are uncreative and afraid of any thing or idea that's truly new or different while glomming on to every bogus trend to lure readers. The list goes on.
But newspapers don't have to be lousy. From my worm's eye view of the business, here's what can be done.
First off, newspapers need more good writing. There's a reason why journalists laugh out loud when they read the satirical newspaper The Onion (http://www.theonion.com). That's because The Onion uses the stilted language and inverted pyramid style of wire service reporting to write stories that mock journalism. The journalists laugh because they know too many of the real stories that appear in their papers read just like The Onion's.
Hack writers have always been with us, and too many of them find their way onto newspaper staffs. That's because newspapers still value speed over creativity when it comes to news stories. Reporters rarely get enough time to fully develop a good story -- not enough time to do the reporting and not enough time to write. That's because most newspapers don't have enough reporters, and the ones they have often have to report and write too many stories in too little time.
When you have to write fast, you tend to rely on formulas. On most run-of-the-mill stories, that's all that they warrant. But too often, potentially good stories get the formula treatment. So, newspapers need to get more great reporters, give them the time to create great news stories and make sure they pay them good money too, especially if they expect to keep them.
Newspapers also need more creativity in layout and design, but not at the expense of information. Photos and graphics can help tell the story or illuminate key facts, but they should complement the text instead of substituting for it. Too many papers have gone graphics crazy, forgetting that the words are what matter.
Something has to be done about blandness. There are very few distinctive newspapers out there. Almost all of them look and read the same. This has much to do with the caution of modern newspapers where editors are afraid to challenge readers. There's a reason why alternative weeklies are profitable and are gaining readers while dailies are losing them. They write about controversial subjects in real language with attitude and a point of view. Daily newspapers need to do this, too.
There is much about newspapers that is good. They are a personal and portable medium that requires no special technology to use. They serve as filters to let us know what's important and why. At the same time, they offer depth and breadth that television and radio can't match.
As long as half the nation doesn't have computers, and the half that does have them doesn't have fast online connections, newspapers will survive in their present form. It's still much easier to read a printed page than a computer screen. But newspapers have to take into account that a goodly number of their readers now have access to as much information as their editors.
This reality means newspapers need to concentrate on doing things the other mediums can't. The Internet gives you more information than any human can comfortably consume, but newspapers can help prioritize and sort it out. Television and radio offer immediacy, but newspapers can offer background and perspective.
Instead of dumbing down, newspapers need to offer an intelligent and lively alternative to the mindless triviality of tv and the firehose approach of online information delivery. More investigative and analytical stories, more local news, more input from the readers, livelier writing and a commitment to being more than just an advertising delivery system are all things newspapers must do if they are to survive.
For most people, newspapers are not necessities. There are enough information options that a person can be reasonably informed without ever picking up one. If a newspaper isn't full of interesting writing and compelling photography and doesn't provide a complete view of the world, it's not going to get read. Newspaper proprietors need to wake up and do something, or else they will be out of business fast.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).