Friday, March 16, 2012

Hey, Remember 'Newspapers'?


I told a friend that I had an appointment to meet with an editor from my local newspaper. Her response was quick and telling: “Why?”

It’s a valid question. The downward plunge of newspaper readership in America is at such a precipitous descent that an Olympic ski jumper faced with such an angle would just slowly scoot back onto their little bench. 

Newspapers began their decline since 1987, and the rate of decline had been increasing ever since. Here’s a serendipitous stat: In 1940, 40% of Americans bought a daily paper (one for every household, in other words); in 2013 just 13% will.* And here’s the deal, the 13% who will are merely the remains of the 40% who are still alive to do it. Meaning, the readership of daily print newspapers is literally dying off.

TV news is likewise getting smaller and grayer. Since 1980 the eyeballs peeled at the nightly news broadcasts on the three traditional networks have dropped 55%**, and the eyes that are still looking increasingly need their reading glasses, some warm milk and help figuring out how this new-fangled Facebook thingie works.

The Santa Cruz Sentinel has not been immune to this calcification and exodus. The paper was a cornerstone of downtown Santa Cruz since 1856, when the city limits went from “Over there to a ways over that a-way.” It’s highest moment may have come during the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake when the city flocked to its newspaper after all other sources of news had been knocked out of action.

But the decline had already begun. The newspaper had been sold from its original family in 1982 and other sales and parent companies would follow***. The gigantic building downtown with it’s archaic presses would be vacated soon after the millennium and the Santa Cruz Sentinel would leave Santa Cruz for it’s current suite of offices out in Scotts Valley.

(The new tenant for the downtown building would be none other than Cruzio.com, the local Internet Service Provider. Oh, the Irony……)

Still though, this is the local media and you do not ignore its calls. When I heard that the Sentinel was looking for local bloggers I sent in my credentials: I’ve been posting goofy things online for 15 years now and I even had a stint as an official online blog of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer paper, even though I kept pointing out to them that I lived 900 miles from the Space Needle. It was a fun gig for about 2 years until the newspaper – one of the 25 largest in the country – quickly and quietly sank beneath the waters of Puget Sound.

Since then I’ve been on my own, publishing my silly little stories, not even bothering with advertising or Search Engine Optimization, or any of the things that might actually make me some money from my writing. On a good month I’ll get maybe 1,000 hits on Angus-land. In short, I am NOBODY in a vast, endless sea of blathering word-jockeys.

So I was delighted to get an email from Tom Moore, the Online Editor at the Sentinel inviting all of us local bloggers to an informal ‘Staff Training’ at their offices. It was short notice, but my Daytimer contains appointments like “Beat Resident Evil 4 on the ‘expert’ setting”, so I thought I could carve an hour out of my busy day.

On one side of the conference table were Tom the Editor, a couple of reporters and the Publisher. (I didn’t write down his name and when I tried to look it up this morning the Sentinel Website was down. As stated above, you can’t make up Irony like this.)

On the other side were US – the New Media! Storming the aging battlements of the Old Guard, staking our digital flag deep into the whimpering remains of……..well, it was me, 4 Mom types and a cranky old guy from the San Lorenzo Valley.

We were hardly the Vanguard of the Next Wave of Communication. One of us bloggers had been active 4 months, and one for just over a month. But out of 130 people who responded to the initial call, we were the ones who showed up in the rain on 24 hours notice.

And here’s the weird thing. All of us amateur bloggers showed up thinking we would be learning from the Pros. But this was ‘staff training’ for the Sentinel staff, and what they were doing was learning from us. We gave them all kinds of advice for their website index, the comments section of their stories, the layout of their online edition and anything else they put before us. Bloggers have opinions on everything; that's our job.

Yes, the paper wants to feature some of us bloggers on their site, and maybe even get a mention in the print version – that was the stated agenda. But as we got comfortable with one another – and once you get bloggers warmed up, oy vey – the conversation got philosophical and soul-searching. Should the paper carry less stories? Longer ones with more background? Should reporters be required to ride herd on the comments their stories generate?

Tom the Editor wanted to know how he could get more personality out of his reporters.  The Publisher was very interested in Voice. How we bloggers create and maintain our unique tone of whimsy and passion that sets us apart from the dispassionate, objective Voice of God that all Journalism classes teach (and which I studiously avoided taking in college).

I was flabbergasted to find myself suggesting to a seasoned reporter that he use the word “I” and “You” in his stories, get some Feeling into his facts and to take the reader along on his journey through the story.

This was not a summit meeting of the Old and New Media. This was not Print laying down its tattered Standards at the foot of Fark.com. This was an informal (really informal: one of the Moms brought the cookies) meet-and-greet between a local paper that needs new readers and some local voices who can furnish some unique clicks at no cost.

But I couldn’t help but walk away from it thinking that something is really changing in Journalism today. Traditional newspapers are dying, quickly. Print media will be buried with the last of its readers within this new generation. But enrollment in Journalism schools is currently BOOMING. The broadsheet, the dominant means of communication for 200 years, is circling the drain. (A fact that has our nations forests breathing easier.) But the need for Communication, Community and Connection has never been higher.

No one knows where all this will end (or if ‘end’ is even the proper term). I am concerned that the objective, factual story will have no voice at a table where analysis and opinion are the loudest voices in the room. Nevertheless, I am excited by all this volatility and opportunity. I don’t know where all this frantic activity will end, but I firmly believe that Change is always good. And fresh perspectives on our nations activities are desperately needed. But more fundamentally I believe that the human desire for Communication, Community and Connection will win out in the end, and Journalism, whatever it becomes, will be better off.

Angus McMahan
angusmcmahan@gmail.com
#AngusMcMahan

*Source: Washington Post magazine.
** Source: State of the Media.Org
*** Source: Wikipedia – the Sentinel website really was down all morning.

3 comments:

  1. > I am concerned that the objective, factual story will have no voice at a table where analysis and opinion are the loudest voices in the room.

    Good article, Angus. I share the concern you mention. A cynic might say we're there already, but I disagree. I still read the Sentinel, albeit online. That voice is not gone. It does need people like you looking out for it.

    I am glad you're part of the project. Good luck.

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  2. Well said, Bill. Thanks for the comment.

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  3. Angus, Thanks for coming and for the post! - Tom Moore

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