Don’t call the newspaper worthless

It’s a cute little video from Search Engine’s Jesse Brown, making a point about how newspapers aren’t all that. And his arguments are valid – there are a lot of ads, wire service stories, opinions, comics, games and other not-original-news in your local newspaper.

But what bothered me was the implied conclusion: Newspapers are so full of not-news that they don’t deserve to be saved. They should be left to die, because they’re worthless.

This, while he’s holding up a copy of the Toronto Star.

Now the part where I relate this to television somehow

I was watching an episode of The West Wing last night (on that Rogers On Demand Online thing – it’s the only thing I find worth watching on it). It was from the beginning of the second season, when we’re introduced to a character named Ainsley Hayes (played by Emily Procter before she was seduced by David Caruso putting on his sunglasses and saying cheesy puns). Hayes is a conservative Republican, but she’s hired by the Democratic White House because she’s smart.

After visiting the White House, she has dinner with friends, who call the people at the White House names, prompting Hayes to tell them to stop:

Don’t say that.

Say they’re smug and superior.

Say their approach to public policy makes you want to tear your hair out.

Say they like high taxes and spending your money.

Say they want to take your guns and open your borders.

But don’t call them worthless.

At least don’t do it in front of me.

I felt a bit like Hayes watching that Jesse Brown video. And it wasn’t the first time.

We’re not better than them

I’ve read people who write that The Gazette is useless, that it provides little journalism of interest, that all the news in it can be gotten for free from TV, radio and the Internet, that blogs (including my own) provide more local news than The Gazette does.

But those blogs and those TV and radio stations get a lot of their news from the newspaper. How often does a story appear in The Gazette and then get featured on the local evening newscast on TV, more than 24 hours after the story was written by a Gazette journalist? How much original reporting is done on CJAD versus stories just read from the newspaper, whether it’s The Gazette, La Presse, Le Devoir, the Journal de Montréal (or its locked-out workers at Rue Frontenac), The Suburban or Metro?

Kate McDonnell’s Montreal City Weblog is cited as another source of news by people who seem to forget that it consists entirely of links to local news sites, most of which are local newspapers. Aggregation is an important job (I do a lot of it myself), but it’s pointless without the sources.

I’m not better than them either

When a blogger wrote recently that “Fagstein’s blog, most of the time, has more news on the city of Montreal on a regular basis”, I called him on it, listing the articles that were in that day’s paper produced by local journalists.

It’s not that I don’t put a lot of effort into this blog, or that I’m not proud of its contents (most of the time), but I don’t for a second think that it could replace the work of dozens of professional journalists working at a major newspaper, nor do I think it should. After all, I’m only one man, doing this as a hobby.

Two weeks ago The Gazette let me go, a move described as “stupid” by some of my defenders. And I’m not the only thing they’ve cut back on over the past few years – copy editors, secretarial and support staff, the size of the paper (both in width and number of pages), syndicated services like comics and crosswords (one of the bigger reader complaints is that The Gazette now has only two crossword puzzles on Saturdays instead of three). But even through those cutbacks, they’ve done their best to preserve their core block of employees – reporters.

Even after all that, it’s still my primary source for local news.

If you don’t believe me, I’ll repeat that experiment I did for that blogger and list the original stories that appeared in today’s Gazette:

These are all original stories written by Gazette writers for one day’s paper. And this list doesn’t include columns by Peggy Curran, Henry Aubin, Don Macpherson, Jay Bryan, Bryan Demchinsky, Mitch Joel, Red Fisher, Pat Hickey, Stephanie Myles, Bill Brownstein, Doug Camilli, Rochelle Lash. It doesn’t include a handful of original music reviews, two editorials, nine letters to the editor, and unsigned local news briefs. It doesn’t include photos from six Gazette photographers (not including file photos). And it doesn’t include blog posts and other content exclusive to the website.

Some balance, please

I’m not saying newspapers should be immune to criticism (I do a lot of it right here), or that all newspapers provide quality journalism and deserve special status (some are almost completely useless – including, unfortunately, some of Transcontinental’s community weeklies). And I’m not saying that TV, radio and blogs don’t do original journalism of their own.

But criticism of newspapers has to be done keeping context in mind. Don’t get lost in your own hyperbole and start saying we’d be better off without them.

To paraphrase Ainsley Hayes (badly, because I don’t have Aaron Sorkin on the payroll):

Say they’re smug and superior.

Say they don’t understand the Internet.

Say they have a counter-productive business plan and they’re contributing to their own downfall.

Say they’re wasting their money propping up a medium that’s only future is failure.

Say they have too many managers and not enough workers.

Say they’re making a fatal mistake by not hiring geeks to come up with innovative ways of bringing quality journalism online.

Say their ad-to-content ratio is far too high and they’re selling their souls with advertorials and special advertising sections.

Say they’re too generalized and are leaving the specialized “long tail” to alternative sources online.

Say they have too many columnists and not enough reporters.

Say they have too many wire stories and not enough original content.

Say they have too much of yesterday’s news and not enough of what’s coming tomorrow.

Say they have too much he-said-she-said and not enough analysis or useful information.

Say they rely too much on press releases and don’t focus enough on uncovering original information that wants to remain hidden.

Say they’re too lazy and the old geezers who work there should be replaced by energetic young people with new ideas and new skills.

Say they care more about people like them than about people like you.

Say they have too much fluff, lifestyle and sports news and not enough investigative reporting about issues that matter.

Say their designers focus too much on how a story looks and not enough on whether it’s conveying information in the most efficient way.

Say they’re not honest with their readers and use bullshit to cover up their faults.

Say they should have fewer journalists and more editors.

Say they should have fewer editors and more journalists.

Say they’re too stupid to recognize your brilliant solution to the newspaper crisis that has somehow eluded every newspaper in the world.

Say you don’t think the government or the people owe anything to them and shouldn’t step in to prevent them from going bankrupt when their century-old business model finally fails.

But don’t call them worthless.

At least don’t do it in front of me.

17 thoughts on “Don’t call the newspaper worthless

  1. Marc

    I agree, they’re not worthless. I once heard someone say that no one today under 40 can relate to a newspaper. Well, I’m a Gen-X’er and I like having the paper with me while having breakfast. Maybe I’m an old soul..who knows. To each their own.

    Reply
  2. wkh

    well I’ll back you up. I am bored reading what you think of other newspapers. Again, I miss what you think about STUFF although I know your schtick is “me blabbing about media.” It’s just you’re so smart and have such good quirky thoughts I miss watching/listening/reading you go off about STUFF. Blah blah blah The Star Blah blah blah Patrick Legace Blah blah blah Infoman oh god spare me who CARES? Please yes pass me the paper. I read here because you’re my dear friend and I keep hoping you go back to talking about STUFF and anxiously await those moments. Not that I think you should change, you keep on keeping on doing what you think is right (after all, I am the one who wanted News Features ;-) but I don’t love you for news coverage. Bitch please. Srsly.

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  3. Sikander

    I’m under 30 and am just about to open the door and pick up my copy of the Toronto Star to enjoy over breakfast. True, I subscribed because it’s costing me only $1.50 a week, but that’s still worth something!

    Reply
  4. Jim Royal

    I think you may be conflating newspapers and journalism. You spent much of your rebuttal defending individual journalists. Not once in his video does Jesse Brown disparage journalism or journalists. He’s dissing a delivery mechanism that is now as outmoded as messenger boys are in an era of email, IM, and Twitter.

    In comparison, photography has historically been about the chemistry of silver halide only for technical reasons. The market for photographic paper is all but dead, but photography is still here.

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    1. Fagstein Post author

      You spent much of your rebuttal defending individual journalists.

      Individual journalists who work for newspapers. I’m not saying that the print medium is better than electronic. I’m saying that much of the original journalism still done today comes from print reporters who work at newspapers.

      Reply
  5. Tux

    I understand newspaper nostalgia… who hasn’t enjoyed a leisurely Sunday morning with a newspaper and breakfast? But the fact remains, newspapers are incredibly wasteful and provide a service that can be provided much more conveniently and economically by electronic devices.

    The good news is that internet news is begging for serious quality journalism (not that there isn’t any, we just could use more), so there are lots of opportunities for up and coming journalists to make a name for themselves without selling their souls to a media giant.

    And just as a personal aside, I’m all for anything that puts a dent in Quebecor. They’re a bunch of supervillains.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      But the fact remains, newspapers are incredibly wasteful and provide a service that can be provided much more conveniently and economically by electronic devices.

      And they would be more than happy to shut down their presses and home delivery systems if they could get the same advertising and subscription revenue. But even with all its waste, print advertising represents 90% of ad revenue, and the print product makes money while the online product bleeds it.

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      1. Josh

        “and the print product makes money while the online product bleeds it.”

        Really? By which measure? And at which papers?

        This isn’t a compelling point, because we live in a world where, right now for the overwhelming majority of newspapers in North America let’s say, the print product exists alongside the online product, and it’s impossible to separate the two in a dollars-and-cents sort of way. If only the online product existed (and again, I mean for the overwhelming majority of papers on the continent), some of the ad money that right now goes to the print product would presumably move to the online product. And operating expenses would significantly decrease because you wouldn’t have to, you know, physically put out a newspaper everyday or every week or whatever.

        How much would online revenues increase by in this mystical world? How much would expenses decrease? No one knows for sure because we just aren’t there.

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        1. Fagstein Post author

          The amount expenses would go down is fairly clear: just calculate the cost of printing and distribution, and other things like customer service, copy editing and page design that would be unnecessary or less necessary in a free online product.

          But the loss of revenue would be much higher from advertising. Perhaps some print ads would move online, but many more would just find some other print medium, whether it’s a competing daily or a community weekly or something. Many print advertisers are just not yet interested in online, and shutting down the print product won’t change that. At least not yet.

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          1. Josh

            “The amount expenses would go down is fairly clear: just calculate the cost of printing and distribution, and other things like customer service, copy editing and page design that would be unnecessary or less necessary in a free online product.”

            You’re right – I forgot how clearly media people have been able to see into the future up to this point regarding their revenues, expenses and business models. I guess there’s no reason not to think that they wouldn’t be able to predict their future expenses accurately.

            “Perhaps some print ads would move online, but many more would just find some other print medium, whether it’s a competing daily or a community weekly or something.”

            I feel like you’re repeating me. Perhaps I was unclear: that is precisely what I was getting at when I wrote the thing about a magical world where only the online product exists for the overwhelming majority of papers on the continent. If and when that world comes, no one knows how (un)profitable newspaper websites will be.

            What are a newspaper’s online expenses – how is that defined? Web design and content management staff, and computer servers for sure, but… beyond that, do you include the salaries of ad sales staff who also sell ads for print? Reporters who also file for print? Editors who also edit for print?

            The two products are so tied together (and the online product is produced – largely – using content that would otherwise be produced for print) that it’s possible to make a case that as long as you’re covering the salaries of your web-specific employees with revenues generated from the website, anything else is really gravy. And you can also make the case that without a website today right now, the print edition of the Gazette would lose relevance and revenue, and wither and die. (Or if you’re more of a cynic or cheap-shot artist, you might say that it would lose relevance and wither and die faster than it already is.) And if you’re of that mind, then a website isn’t a medium that’s losing your business money, it’s a medium that’s helping sustain your business.

            For all these reasons, it’s really oversimplifying it to say that “the print product makes money while the online product bleeds it”.

            Reply
            1. Fagstein Post author

              I’m not making any predictions about the distant future, or even the near future. My main argument isn’t about comparing the different business models. It’s simply that newspapers (and by that I mean the company, not necessarily the product) still provide a lot of the news we use.

              I don’t know if online advertising alone will provide sufficient revenue eventually to sustain a viable journalism operation locally. But I know it doesn’t do that now. The NDG Monitor isn’t prospering online, neither is the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. We don’t have more examples of an online-only newspaper, but I expect they’ll follow the same path.

              I define a newspaper’s online expenses as web staff, IT infrastructure, and the journalists who provide the content. Obviously they overlap with print. But suggesting that the cost of journalism shouldn’t appear on a newspaper website’s balance sheet kind of proves my point about how newspapers are subsidizing news online right now. That can’t last forever as a business model, especially as print readers move online (or die off and are replaced by online-only readers).

              Reply
              1. FatJimmy

                To prosper online you have to follow the big machers’ lead. Citynews is a little wig (under the Rogers umbrella albeit) but does well with hits and comments and is alive as a news worthy organism while some news sites don’t prosper because they don’t follow that golden goose model. Then again, I’ve noticed in Seattle they like it viral. They have a lot of offshoot viral, unedited trailer camper radio that does very well and pays the whiskey and marijuana bills.

  6. Bobby

    newspapers, books, and libraries are right up at the top of the pinnacle of human cultural achievement. Too bad society doesn’t value these achievements anymore. If libraries were invented today, media lawyers would do their best to stop them from existing. The printed newspaper was and remains the key ingredient to democracy, so when the newspapers go down, democracy won’t be far behind. There is no freedom online from gov’t monitoring over we citizenry and what we read or look at, it is only if you are reading the printed word that you have real freedom of thought – having no higher authority filtering, recording your usage, or otherwise poking their fingers into your private life. Go newspapers! Newspapers rock! Newspapers are freedom. Montreal is still a very good city for newspapers. (of course, this all depends on people reading –being able to / choosing to or not to read– which’s another story altogether.)

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    1. Jim Royal

      Bobby said: “The printed newspaper was and remains the key ingredient to democracy…”

      Really? I thought that key ingredient was freedom of speech and freedom of association. Or are you saying there is no way to have public discussion of issues without one specific kind of printed document?

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  7. Singlestar

    I won’t diss papers in general, but the Gazette is far from a good paper.

    First, there is the writing. While it may be gramattical, it is dull. Last summer on a 7-hour plane ride home from Britain, I kept my nose in one fascinating edition of the Saturday gaurdian and still didn’t finish. Each article was well-researched and was a pleasure to read. When was the last time anyone said that about a Gazette article.

    Yes. today’s paper has a bunch of original stories. But a good number of the journalists you mentioned haven’t had an original thought in years. And some of those that do tell me that the management won’t let them cover the aspects that they would like.
    In politics or business, the whole spectrum from A to B is covered. As if nothing was ever changing.

    The Gazette’s editorial policy is somewhere to the right of what it was when the Montreal Star was still alive. Of a million thoughtful pieces available for op-ed stories, the Gazette chooses the dullest. The choice of letters to the editor reeks, if only to show us how ignorant many Gazette readers are.

    In the sector in which I work, La Presse has much more coverage, much better coverage and much better analysis (it would be an exaggeration to say the Gazette has any!) And this is an area of serious interest to the Gazette’s “core” readership.

    Sure some parts of the paper are nice and some of the features are useful, but those are mostly magazine-style features. No person who reads only the Gazette gets a working knowledge of whgat happens in most of Montreal, most of Quebec and most of the world. (Favorite recent anecdote: a headline writer says Zambia rather than Zimbabwe. All those African countries have confusing names….)

    The management (if one takes ones clues from the surveys they send their on-line readers) seem to think that we want more fasion and travel supplements. And the most recent survey was trying to pry out of us how much more we would be willing to pay before crying uncle.

    And now I hear that the publisher of The Suburban wants to buy the Gazette??

    Reply
  8. Em Green

    I’ve just started reading your blog, I found it through a Transit message board that I frequently am on, (http://cptdb.ca)
    I grew up in a city with only one big Daily newspaper, The Hamilton Spectator, it was called some horrible nicknames, amd it is really not worth buying everyday anymore in my opinion, but they do have an excellent website, and when they do do special investigative reports I definitely DO buy it if I can, as they are excellent at that sort of thing, and I do still read the website everyday, now that I live in Toronto, I’ve been here for nearly 3 1/2 years, I have met quite a few of the current and former Spec writers over the years, infact myself have been in the paper a few times! lol. I may hate Hamilton as a city, but I’m still a hometown girl when it comes to the Spec, I’ll defend that thing to the end..
    There is infact a free weekly in Hamilton too that I like, its called View Magazine, its pretty good too.

    Ok, now onto Toronto..

    We have all the big Dailies, The Star, The Sun, G&M, NP.

    I like the Star mostly, I do on occiasion read G&M, but the Sun is just a ragsheet in my opinion, its pure crap, just total waste of paper, yes, I hate it, totally, for one thein, the portrayal of a scatily clad woman as a major colour feature, disgusts me, this is 2010, do we really need to still go as low as to try to sell sex, in a daily newspaper? its 80-90% ads everywhere else, its pure garbage…

    I actually have been to Ottawa more than a few times and have been able to read the Gazette, I like it a lot, good stories, good long pieces (at least back about 3 years ago) and decent sized font..

    There are a very few places here in Toronto where I can occiasionly get the Gazette, but its expensive and rare that I can find it.

    Also just to let you know, I’m Legally Blind, I also use a white cane and screenreading software on the computer, when I read a newspaper, its about 1 to 1 1/2 inches from my right eyeball, so yes as my Mum used to tease me, I look like a raccoon after reading one, ( I get my nosetip blackened by the printing ink) I Love Reading, infact when I was a child, thats just one of the ways I learned to read, I’d get hold of a newspaper, (usually the Spectator) and try to read it, using a pen to find words I could read, then try to read and sound out new words, I have very fond memories of that.. I didnt like the comics section, except Family Circus and For Better or for Worse by Lynne Johnston, didnt like Snoopy much till later on in life…

    Ok, sorry for the long comment, but I’ve been reading your blog most of the past evening and latenight, and this morning, and I like it a lot, your now in my Favorites.. I will certainly be back.

    Reply
  9. FatJimmy

    Sorry but newspapers are dead. You don’t need the “iDiaper” to tell you they’re dead. The greasy pages and ink-stained hands aren’t even the core problem. It always boils down to the costs. It’s too expensive to run the whole shindig: kit and kaboodle. Freelance journalists are expensive and from what I’ve read at CNN, they actually make up 4% of the industry: the rest of the news stations and papers buy up their stories and rehash. That’s why the bigwig news agencies can retain these investigative journalists that get the dirt on what’s going on.

    The news is going online because of:

    rapid updates
    easy to template structure stories, pics and videos
    and even more importantly: the comment section*

    *comments are important because it gives online users a sense of “ownership” over the website. Look at the CBC and CNN or even Citynews: the comment section on some stories runs in the thousands, even tens of thousands (note Aljazeera has THE most comments I’ve ever seen and is so viciously racist, anti-everyone-and-thing and rarely do the editors take their thumbs outta their assholes that it remains the “viral” yet official news agency of the Middle East). People will become return customers and come back to see who has responded to their comment, how many likes they get and how many disagreements. Now you’ve got actively participating members who give you their real name, email and a portal to looking them up on Facebook and even (possibly) selling advertisements to them. With a database of millions of legitimate emails news agencies are very happy. With all the repeated clicks, banner ad companies are happy (and charging more to boot!), but so are advertisers who are getting a wider audience.

    Lastly, you can’t quite get a hold of whose looking at your newspaper. Sure you know the house, but who? Is the 15 year-old iPod chimping XBoxer (probably not)? The dad and/or mum (which is it)? Or maybe it’s the grampa from “Up”? Online, you’ve at least got an identity, regardless of the public seeing a pseudonym. Aha!! So now you’ll be able to tell that Master Bateman from Tallahassee is logged in comfortably in his basement at 42 years of age while his mum is warming up his cheese bread.

    Reply

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