What's Wrong With Newspapers

While I was at the hospital with my daughter, I had plenty of time to catch up on my newspaper reading. I'm a lifelong newspaper subscriber, but sometimes I don't have time to do more than scan the headlines.

Newspaper Habit

Once, I enjoyed reading the newspaper from front to back. I read everything from the news to sports to business to entertainment. Sometimes I even scanned the ad pages, looking for oddities like weird personal announcements.

I can't remember the last time I did this. I began to wonder if it was my lack of time that had made my newspaper reading decline or was it something else.

Things Change

As I read the extended coverage of the Michael Jackson event, I reached a rather startling conclusion. I don't read the newspaper much any more because it's nothing special. I can get the same coverage online or on TV. Gosh, I hate making a statement like that, but it's true.

Death Spiral

For the first time, I really looked at the newspaper in my hands. When had it shrunk so much? The width and length of the pages are barely more than a countertop giveaway paper. The thickness of each daily paper is about the same as a countertop periodical. The Sunday edition is larger because it's packed with glossy advertisements, though even those are much fewer than a year ago.

Mistaken Identity

The real problem though is that the newspaper has lost its identity. Formerly, it was a source of "real" news. Now, it's a source of "reel" news, kind of like a print version of Entertainment Tonight. Even the way articles are written has changed. Now, they read as if written by a high school kid, complete with the syntax and vocabulary used by that group.

No longer do you find journalism. Now you get introductory paragraphs that are laughable because of the purple prose. You get entire sections of the newspaper aimed at a target audience of 18 - 25 year olds, but the bean counters calling the shots at newspapers don't realize that this target audience does NOT subscribe to newspapers. In fact, they rarely read newspapers.

Takeaway Truth

Newspapers are dying, not so much because of the Internet offering free news, but because they've lost sight of what makes them special.


  1. About 30 years ago, the automakers were in big trouble, losing market share to imports, and the joke was that US automakers had begun to emulate the Japanese; so far, they had started by serving sushi in the company cafeteria.

    About the same time, USA Today came out, and many local newspapers changed to meet the new competition. Yes, using better paper and full-color printing made sense, but the big change, the bad change, was that they turned themselves into McPapers, devoid of content.

    As a former newspaper owner, I screamed, but nobody was listening. Local newspapers, I said, should play to their strengths. They need to beef up local content. Instead of a newspaper of 150,000 circulation, they needed to publish 5 newspapers of 30,000 circulation each, each doing a better job of covering local news, like schools, etc.

    Before WWII, newspapers were published on a 40" web - which meant the newspaper was 20" wide. By 1970, newspapers were to a 34" web, and working towards a 32" web. Today, they're on a 24" web.

    When you print a narrower web, it means you print fewer square inches per minute, and press runs are longer and more expensive. A 40" web, producing a tabloid, is about the same size as today's broadsheet newspaper, and but it is cheaper and faster to print. Why does faster matter? Because it lets you print 5 community newspapers instead of 1 city newspaper.

    Our current economic mess isn't just a normal recession; we've also got a sea change happening. Materials are more expensive, and computer-controlled machinery is cheaper. That means it makes more sense to produce custom products for each customer, less sense to mass produce something that fits nobody very well. Instead of being a wage-slave to a 5000-man factory, tomorrow will see people working in bedrooms, garages, and barns, in enterprises of 20 or fewer employees.

    Smart businesses are going "high touch" and succeeding. Newspapers are dying because paper, ink, and gasoline are much more expensive than electrons, and the product isn't worth the premium cost; it's worth far less.

    Weekly newspapers are still doing OK, because they're "closer" to their readers, and local stores (whose advertising pays most of the cost) can easily adjust to readers getting their ads on Tuesday instead of Thursday.

    So yeah, you've hit *this* takeaway truth on the button. And as writers, we need to apply that same takeaway truth. When we figure out what makes our writing really *valuable* to readers, we thrive. When what we produce is just a time-killer while the waitress brings us eggs and coffee, we're going to go hungry.

  2. Harl Delos, well said. May I take your comment and repost it as a guest blog? Everyone should read what you said, and a lot of people don't read comments.

  3. I would be honored, Joan. Please mention my blog, Canthook.com as well as my name.

    You've reminded me of another takeaway truth: beware of the "DWT"s. Not the DTs, that writers are stereotypically associated with, but the DWTs: Doing the Wrong Things.

    I spend too much of my time writing comments on others' blogs, instead of writing guest blogs. What's worse, I don't even post the commentary on my own blog. (I just now posted this essay on my own blog, with a couple of trivial changes to provide context.)

    Samuel Johnson had something to say about that: "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."

    In my defense, though, I did make an even more general post about this sea change on my blog yesterday: Cash In Your Stocks, Quit Your Job, BYOB, and Get Horizontal! It's quite applicable to writers as long as you realize that writers are manufacturers of copy.

    Webster Kuswa's book "Sell Copy", a couple of decades ago, pointed out that you can write highly valuable copy with no more effort, perhaps less, than that, ahem, "masterpiece" that sits unpublished in the bottom of the closet. It's highly worth reading, even though it's out of print (and you can buy it for as little as 35c, used, on Amazon.)