Newspapers are a sinking ship – and have only themselves to blame

Peter Hadekel has an article last week (I’m catching up on my paper-reading) about how Osprey Media’s purchase by Quebecor is good news for newspapers.

I have to disagree. Not because I think it’s a bad sign, but rather because of news like this: Large increases in online ad revenue far from offsets gigantic drops in print advertising.

Now I’m not going to pretend like newspapers are going to cease to exist. They still serve a useful function. We still have print advertising in this world, and there’s really no more convenient way to get news while commuting to work than bringing the paper with you.

But that doesn’t mean these papers are going to remain the news powerhouses they are now, to say nothing of returning to the days when they were actually important in our lives.

The reason is partly to do with new technology, 24-hour TV news, and the Internet. But just as important are the huge cutbacks to news gathering that make readers wonder what it is exactly they’re paying for.

Among the bone-headed ideas that for some reason newspaper publishers think aren’t alienating their readers:

  • Increased use of wire copy in an age where just about any wire service story can be accessed for free online. National, international, entertainment and business coverage is becoming saturated with AP, Reuters, Bloomberg and AFP copy, and the pool of local reporters is shrinking. Papers lose their individual voice, and there’s nothing interesting in these pages you can’t just as easily learn from watching the hourly news update on CNN.
  • Giving lip-service to online properties.
    • Stories that aren’t subscriber-locked are hidden behind a massively-complicated navigation system, and surrounded by ads to the point where you can barely find them. As a result, bloggers and others who share stories with their friends link directly to “printer-friendly” versions, thereby robbing companies of online ad revenue.
    • Online classified sites all suck hard compared to Craigslist (some even arrogantly ask for money to have your ad included in their database).
    • Nobody seems to know how to do online multimedia properly. They send their reporters untrained with a video camera to shoot pointless, uninteresting video which they throw up unedited just so they can pat themselves on the back and say they’re clued in to the online world. The web infrastructure used with these photo galleries, audio slideshows and video clips provide no means to link to them directly and therefore no way for people to point them out to friends.
    • Stories posted online contain no clickable links whatsoever, and related stories aren’t linked to each other. Formatting issues like accents and soft returns are left unfixed, and anything with even the slightest bit of unusual formatting in the print edition looks like an unreadable mess online.
  • Infotainment, like reporting the previous night’s American Idol results (as if anyone who cared enough about the show would not have either watched it or gotten the news elsewhere), is on the rise at the expense of real journalism.
  • Elimination of foreign bureaus means many international issues are covered with fewer and fewer voices, with no analysis of what these events mean for you.
  • Shrinking newspaper space means more stories are covered in 50-word briefs, and the one thing newspapers provide that TV and radio don’t — detail — is lost.
  • Copy editing positions are being eliminated, resulting in glaring mistakes in newspaper copy and a lessening of newspapers’ reputations.
  • Opinion pieces are written up by old conservative economists and political has-beens instead of fresh-faced thinkers with bold new ideas.
  • An increased reliance on freelance writers means more interesting stories, but only of the sort that can be put together in a day. Stories that take longer to create, including those of beat writers, are left on the back burner to rot.
  • Papers spend millions on marketing campaigns and TV ads instead of improving quality.
  • Media convergence has meant a decrease in critical reporting of related media. Reporters and editors are either afraid to criticize their corporate bosses or are told outright not to say things that would make the company look bad. Newspapers write articles about TV shows for networks owned by their parent company. Readers see right through these things, and lose trust in their journalists.

4 thoughts on “Newspapers are a sinking ship – and have only themselves to blame

  1. heri

    hi steve
    it’s great to read this post, even though you work for Montreal Gazette.

    i think there are answers to this:
    * bloggers. people like you who hunt information out there.
    * websites like ohmynews or nowpublic who publish user-written reports

    i am sure you ve seen blogs like burning city from baghad who is telling stories from iraqis – which is a sharp constrast from cnn or fox reporters who stay in the green zone. i am expecting more people like that in the future.

    the big problem right now is the revenue model. if a blogger or someone is ready to report local news, it’s actually very difficult, if not impossible, to recoup costs (=his own salary). i am sure though it is just a transition and solutions and models will be found in the near future.

    by the way, i think your posts are great. you should submit them to digg/reddit or other portals. they would make a hit.

    Reply
  2. Sue Lick

    Steve,
    This is the most dead-on description of what’s happening in the business that I have ever seen. Thank you for not soft-coating anything. Your average reader has no idea.
    Sue
    Longtime journalist who is disgusted with what’s happening in the media

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Poll of the Week, #2: Innovation in Media | Montreal Tech Watch

  4. Pingback: Technology news in June | Montreal Tech Watch

Leave a Reply