Can there be much more that can go wrong with newspapers?
by Cindy Skrzycki
Last month, the publisher of the New York Times compared print journalism to the Titanic. Not that the grand ship sunk because of the hubris of the captain (there’s a lot of that in the newspaper world, too), but because it would have gone down anyway in the wake of a new industry taking over sea-bound shipping—airplanes.
Most journalists still at their posts and those hanging on for dear life would buy the simpler explanation: the ship sank slowly. Period. It’s hard to tell a class of journalist wanna be’s that their lives are going to be built around an industry that provided pretty decent salaries, benefits, and career challenges. It’s like telling them to buy a ticket on the Titanic. The main challenge they are going to have is finding a stable news outlet, online or otherwise, that is underwritten by a sugar daddy who values their work. They will have to find the new financial model that works because their elders have not had much luck. In fact, they are fiddling while Rome burns.
So, whenever there are hints of counter-currents that print not be dead yet, some of us do sit up straighter and take note.
The Los Angeles Times, which itself has been torn asunder by layoffs leaving it a shadow of its former self, ran a story on October 28 marveling at how a busy, popular news stand has stayed busy and popular. People continue to patronize it, buying ink on printed paper. In fact, the news stand owner also downloads newspapers for his patrons who have to have it on paper—1,133 titles in 40 languages from a service called Newspaperdirect. It is $5 on weekdays for a printouts; $7 on the weekend.
Why does the owner of the news stand do this? Well, it’s about shipping again. He says it’s too expensive to get the real thing anymore, especially foreign editions. He also says he is trying to serve his customers. Many of them have been coming for years, mostly to buy lottery tickets, but also to pick up a glossy magazine which is just not the same on a computer screen—even those are being closed down at as brisk a clip as newspapers.
Then, there are whispers that a Kindle or other digital book readers are a great thing to have if you do a lot of traveling. But even those who love that they don't have to haul six heavy books in their carry-ons admit there is something missing in the gray-on-gray pages that scroll by, making Dickens seem even drabber. They appreciate that producing a printed book requires someone with an excellent sense of proportion and artistic design to pick a correct and enjoyable font, a nice stock of paper, and the cover design that may have drawn them to the book in the first place.
What gets lost in the debate over the transition to a completely digital world is that there is a world of artistic talent being lost. Some of this can be reproduced digitally, but not the whole package that can be held in your hand at one time, be it a magazine, a newspaper or a book. Even companies, which used to plow a wealth of resources and talent into their annual reports, which were mailed to shareholders, now urge their investors to view it all digitally. Again, it's one thing to view a quarterly report on line and save the trees, but an annual, distinct print product used to be a point of pride.
I have been arguing this point for what seems like forever with my journalism students who do not read printed newspapers until they are assigned to them. And, even then, they don't have the patience for appreciating that a whole team of people think about what that day's edition is going to look like and feel like to a reader--from the editorial cartoon, to single-page graphics, to photos, to section fronts and the front pages. Not to mention the writing. It's an artistic tour de force, everyday.
It must be something in the eye, or brain, that comes with years of training that makes one be grateful for that kind of package and think it wonderful because I find the clutter of digital editions annoying, time-consuming and distracting. Or, as the woman at the LA newsstand said when she plunked down $22 for a copy of Vogue Italia: it was worth it.
But it takes taste to know that, the expediency and cost-saving that comes with looking at a glowing screen be dammed.
Cindy Skrzycki is a Worldview correspondent for GlobalPost and has been a business writer and columnist for 30 years.