Honey, Get Me Rewire

The summer before we entered journalism school, the dean called us freshmen in for a pep talk.

Get out, he said. Now. The future is grim. Your chance of being and remaining gainfully employed in a low-paying profession is even grimmer.

This was 1977.

CNN didn’t exist yet, never mind the Internet. The bogeymen were newspaper chains like Gannett, and they hadn’t even launched USA Today.

We, of course, ignored the dean’s advice, graduated four years later, worked at a small community newspaper for eighteen months, and decided we’d rather run away and join the circus. And here we are.

And whenever we read thumbsuckers on The Fate of Newspapers in The Internet Age, we think of the dean. Nobody in the industry should act surprised. This has been coming for a generation.

We also think of our dad, who worked in the local paper’s circulation department all our life. Somebody’s got to wrangle the paperboys. For that matter, somebody has to wrangle the web press, which is a fucking behemoth. Oh, and somebody has to pay for that behemoth, too. And the giant rolls of newsprint that feed it. And the supercool old farts running that monster, who make neat newspaper hats for the little wide-eyed boys watching it run.

The first rule of journalism: You’re not the one paying for it. Your subscription covers a small portion of the cost. Your local furniture store is really footing the bill. Or used to.

Forget everything you’ve heard about Craigslist killing classified ads. Newspapers were starting to die long before Newmark launched his website in 1995. We’d peg it around 1980, in fact. That’s when grocery stores started printing their own inserts. Or even worse: mailing them.

Time was when the local paper made a huge chunk o’ change through “display advertising” — everything except classifieds. Safeway would order up two or more full pages a week, and send instructions about images and prices. The layout was labor-intensive, and newspapers could charge a healthy premium. And why not? They owned the local market. You try getting that ad distributed without a newspaper.

Which is what they did. First, major stores started printing their ads regionally, sending the finished product to newspapers for insertion. Newspapers could still charge for the service, but not nearly as much as an ad printed on its own pages. Then, as a hedge to keep the newspapers honest, major advertisers threatened to mail those inserts themselves.

Thirty years later, welcome to your mailbox. It wasn’t always stuffed to the gills with junk.

Meanwhile, as advertising has dropped, newsprint prices have done little but rise — denuding forests is expensive. Newspapers have always been a very capital-intensive enterprise, of which actual reporters are a relatively small expenditure. Reporters themselves used to be blissfully unaware where the money came from (it’s a profession, dammit!), but we suspect that has changed in recent years.

In fact, there’s little news in a newspaper, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. We were expected to write six stories a week (two per issue) at our community paper. And we were the only news reporter there. There was also the sports reporter, of course. And the features reporter. And the editor who also covered the city council. And lots of filler.

Your mileage will vary at a metro daily, of course. But almost everything we know about newspapers, and the business model that sustains them, stems from an era when they had monopoly or near-monopoly control of their local markets — for advertising and information. (All those hyphenated names are ghosts of a much earlier era of local competition.) That’s the era our J-school dean saw coming to a close, and it was clear enough to a grizzled vet like him even without whizbang cable and digital technology.

So when we hear about Google wanting to help the newspapers it’s also helped to render irrelevant, we wish them luck. We understand that you can’t have Google News without, well, news, but you also can’t have newspapers with Google News. Fact is, you can’t have them anyway, Google or not. It’s thirty years too late.

The economics of newspapers in two charts [Ezra Klein/WaPo]

the ratbastard has been in the paper business for 25 years, at the mill level.
his income has dropped 20% due to the disappearing newspapers.
looky around you. there is still lot and lots of paper, so i’m not skipping lunch. i remember our first computer that had windows…1984? before ads? and thinking this is an advertisers wet dream. i’m sorry i didn’t jump on that bus. anyway, this is sad news otherwise. i like a newspaper. i like the way it feels and smells. the kindle? i’ll never own one, i like books too much (i’d be on the hoarders show if they weren’t stacked neatly in bookcases) google wants to help the newspapers? yeah right.
he still buys and sells paper of every kind and ships it by the boatload and trainful all over the world. that 20% loss has driven him to the middle east to replace what has been eaten by the lack of newspaper.

fun fact: all the cash register tapes in turkey are shipped there by RB.
/now get off my lawn.

I knew something was up when they replaced the paperboys with contractors driving vehicles loaded with 1000+ papers. My bike could carry 30+ tops. Bastards would have taken the candy out of my mouth if I had been a paperboy then.

I was a paperboy for a couple years before everything started to change.

I never got the nostalgia. and I am a news freak. every roommate I ever had complained about the accumulated news papers I produced.
I understand that many people are invested in the industry and I feel bad for them but its a new digital day. buying a paper copy of the news seems as dumb and environmentally wrong to me as the old people I see in the supermarket buying 10 cases of 10 oz bottles of water.

its sad. we need real reporting that we are not getting from tv news or the internet but I dont think that even if papers wanted to do it they are in a position to because of all the things you said.

See, its ironic, that seeing “And Justice For All” made me want to go to law school (OK, also The Verdict, which made me hope someone would sic Charlotte Rampling on me as a honey-pot). It would be like seeing “Network” making someone want to go into journamilism.

I don’t think there is a cynical movie about newspapers, though, hell, there was a noble-myth movie as recently as 1994, The Paper, about the brave editor defying the owner and stopping the presses in the interest of truth and there were “scoops” and everything, yay.

@Prommie: The Front Page. Not the thing at the top of this page but the play which is pretty hilarious made into His Girl Friday which is softened but still pretty good. Also The Lost Honor of Katherina Blum though being foreign probably doesn’t count. But we here in the US are about as heavily invested in the fearless reporter bucking the odds as we are with Our Brave Troops bringing peace to foreign folk.

Here’s an interesting bit of print journalism; Thai dissident General, shot in the head, while a New York Times reporter was interviewing him: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/14/world/asia/14thai.html?hp


well there you are
if it was CNN there would be video.

@Capt Howdy: Interesting point of view there, in that article, huh? Must be awkward, having to call yourself “this reporter” and never be the subject of the sentence in which you mention yourself, always the object.

I had a lot of fun as a reporter, and when the fun ran out, I bailed and went to law school. Journalism then law was always the plan, although that could have changed had I not failed the foreign service exam by one point (in English). Mrs RML never had a Plan B and is now stuck in a dying industry. The work she made the focus of her professional life does not exist anymore.

A few rules I picked up:

– Put your most inflammatory stuff up high.
– To special interests: Want your point of view put forth exactly as you said it without any “editing”? (For some reason, Palinists/TBs/RW unsophisticates – ok, rubes – fear “editing”.) Buy an ad.
– Go look at the presses. Those monsters put out every comma you write, so you have the responsibility to do the best you can.
– Journalism is a blend of public service and entertainment. Educate the readers, but don’t bore them to death.
– You’ll see a few bodies. You may find yourself out in front of the SWAT team at a stakeout.
– Gang moms always stick up for their kids.
– Reporters fill the space between the ads.
– Designers and photographers believe that the story is a design element, little more than the grey stuff between the pictures.
– Journalists are held to an inhuman standard of perfection as regards accuracy.
– There is no such thing as true objectivity. The best we can do is to be fair.
– The credo to “tell both sides of the story” has been exploited by those with no truth on their side who will say anything because they know the media has to report it.
– Done properly, journalism is a way of life.

I actually used to call in stories from the road that I wrote on a legal pad propped up on a steering wheel of a city desk car at 5 am while the photographer slept in the passenger seat after an all night drive and a 3 am interview. We also had a computer called a telebubble that transmitted over the phone with the handset in a pair of cups.

i don’t get that…i read it ONLINE.
i miss separating the sections to be read in a certain order. makes me sad.
and old.

but I do not miss the black shit on my fingers

@Capt Howdy: Well, if there’s no video, then it didn’t happen, per teabagger logic.

@redmanlaw: You see that the Wall Street Journal ran a photo on its front page today, a picture of Elena Kagan playing softball. Way to stay classy, Rupert. I didn’t see this on your list, the implausibly deniable gaybashing?

@SanFranLefty: Oh, come now, even if there is video, if the video comes from a liberal mainstream media source, then it still didn’t happen, and its all part of the secret progressive conspiracy to force fascist socialism down their throats, also.

@ManchuCandidate: My dad was actually in charge of “motor routes”, but those were all outside city limits back in the day, and there was no other means of delivery.

But eventually the Eugene paper also rolled up 60-paper walking routes into larger units, and handed them off to adults. Grown-ups, alas, proved more dependable than snotty paperboys like me. Especially for a morning paper.

@Benedick: The thing at the top of this page is the version I know best, but that’s because of timing. I saw His Girl Friday recently, and well, I just didn’t like it as much. I know that makes me a bad person.

Just called to cancel my subscription to the local rag. When you press 4 to cancel, the robot voice asks if you are a “winter visitor” (i.e. “snowbird” or “motherfuckingslowassgeezer”) going back to the home state.

@nojo: Darling, not a bad person. Not bad. Perhaps misguided.

Of course there are some very good things about it but everyone’s so old and it so lacks the snap crackle pop of the play. But Wilder was always top drawer and the actors are pretty formidable. They’re just really old. I like the Grant/Russel pairing. She always makes me laugh and I love it how everyone talks so fast it sounds like Italian.

But even at its roughest it’s hardly what one might call an expose.

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