A good part of the reason I started blogging was because I went to a history conference at a UT branch up between Dallas and Fort Worth and found that, contrary to belief, many well known academic historians have found community history projects to be invaluable because of their focus and details. Photos rated high. Photos with details rate high. Interviews with participants in events rated high. Interviews with older people rated high if you cover their experience and perspective.
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The last place you will hear about the new American labor movement is in big American outlets.

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Giving Up The Third Habit

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post. A copy of this was mailed as a letter to the editor this morning.

My parents always subscribed to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, so I grew up around newspapers; they were as regular a part of our household as our cats. As a kid I’d look at the Sunday comics, and later on the 1980 Browns would prompt me to grab the newspaper every day. I first started reading “real” news in 1984, when the front page of the second section had a columnist slot called “Focal Point”. Mike Royko was featured three times a week, and when that year’s Olympics rolled around he touched off a huge controversy with a series of columns about how he and his buddies decided which of the women’s teams to cheer for based on which ones had the nicest butts. (Memorable headline from a column he wrote at the conclusion: “The Bottom Line”) When his column moved inside to the Op-Ed pages I moved with him. So yes, I first started going to the most high-minded section of the paper when my teen eyes were lured there by T&A.

In college I lived a few houses down from a convenience store, and it was my source for a newspaper in the morning, beer in the evening and cigarettes just about any time. I always thought the first of these would be a constant, though I’ve since given up the others. Instead it was interrupted by a couple of years in Tanzania, a wonderful time that unfortunately also required me to substitute my morning newspaper and coffee with short wave radio and indifferently brewed tea. When I got back to America I eagerly resumed my ritual and it has since been a fixture in my life. But it is with genuine sadness I now write that this habit will go the way of the latter two.

I think papers are best for analysis, investigative pieces and long-range, trend-related reporting. Basically anything that can’t be summarized in two minutes gives newspapers an advantage over TV and online reporting (which may end up with its most popular use in the “email the headlines to my Blackberry” model). They seem to be going in the opposite direction though, trying to “prove” they can summarize news as quickly as their electronic competitors. To me that’s a losing game since newspapers will never be as immediate, and it’s a shame that the industry seems to be so rattled by the “gee whiz” novelty of the Internet. A newspaper is an astonishing piece of technology and can deliver a certain kind of news very efficiently. Its basic form hasn’t substantially changed for several centuries for good reason. There seems to be no confidence left in that fact.

Instead they have engaged in a race to the bottom. In the same week the LA Times announced its latest round of cuts the PD gutted itself and called it a redesign. The result is almost literally unreadable. The sports pages seem least affected (make of that what you will) but there is now a single forum page. Competing for space on it are letters, editorial cartoons, editorials, charts, statistics, and syndicated writers. Even distinctive in-house voices like Elizabeth Sullivan’s are increasingly banished to remote electronic outposts. The front section now has lots of little stories delivering little news. Business is a Potemkin section with a front page and nothing behind it, and Arts & Life is a reduced and chaotic mess. Start to finish I now go through the paper in about fifteen minutes.

Over the weekend the public editor wrote “[n]ewspapers do not have the luxury of standing still…The challenging part of that responsibility is that it often runs headlong into a reality that every newspaper editor learns early in his or her career: Readers Hate Change.” His slightly condescending tone seems to put those of us objecting to such wholesale diminishing of the paper with, say, the cranks who were pissed off when Marmaduke was dropped.

Rightsizing” seems to be the trend, though, and what ails the PD is ailing most newspapers now. But clearly these new models are not designed with people like me in mind. I may well be a dying breed - someone who wants to sit down at a table and spend at least a half an hour every day reading articles (not summaries) and interested in hearing a variety of voices on lots of topics. Maybe the vast majority who plunk down money for a paper want it packaged to go, as convenient to hold and consume as an Egg McMuffin. If papers have no other choice, if they can no longer cater to my kind, I understand even if I’m not very happy about it. But they won’t have me along for the ride anymore either.

Please cancel my subscription.

Reader Comments (7)

Having grown up with the Los Angeles Times and watching its rapid decline, I feel the same way. We have gone from a weekly subscription to a weekend only, primarily for the Arts and Culture listings.

And still the quality deteriorates. I used to a take a leisurely Sunday to work through that day's paper. I am now down to 40 minutes, and much of what arrives on Sunday is advertisement. We used to be inundated with weekly calls for subscription renewals, to which I told them how the paper was deteriorating before my very eyes. It won't be long before we cancel the weekend only.

The greed and short term thinking of today's Titans of Industry are destroying the very goose which laid their golden eggs.

July 10, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTom Paine

Thanks for writing Tom. Sounds like we're in the same boat. It's hard to believe that even a market as big as LA may not have enough like-minded readers to support the kind of daily we're used to.

July 10, 2008 | Registered CommenterDan

I grew up a hundred miles east, in Erie PA, and as young person there, the local paper took about 15 minutes to get through. It's now down to about 5, getting pretty close to the Greensheet and Penny Savers that arrive unsolicited in my mailbox. They've ceded coverage of all but local news to electronic broadcast.

I now enjoy the LA Times, but it too is in decline. In part due to some blockheaded columnists (Jonah Goldberg et. al.), but mostly due to cutting the quality, it's rarely worth the 50 cents invested, and so I usually read a second hand copy found occasionally in restaurants.

The real problem is the audience. The number of people who want and are willing to pay for the lengthy presentations that newspapers (used to) do well is declining, and so papers are faced with either cutting the quality, or coming up with some other business model.

If a local paper is the public forum for that locality, then this speaks much about the quality of civic engagement. One more sign of our decline as a nation.

July 11, 2008 | Unregistered Commenteralyosha

I've watched with sadness as the once proud San Jose Mercury News commits slow suicide. Management has responded to financial difficulties by cutting the staff who write the content that made the paper worth reading in the first place. These days the Merc seems to serve mostly as a vehicle for "Mr. Roadshow", a fun column on local traffic, which has floated from back pages up to A2, as the rest of the paper has sunk. I find it inexplicable that, as a McClatchy paper, they haven't even run McClatchy's own special reporting on Guanatanamo, one of the few bits of great American reporting these days.

On the upside, I can now read the whole paper, front to back, in about three minutes.

July 11, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDN

alyosha:

The number of people who want and are willing to pay for the lengthy presentations that newspapers (used to) do well is declining, and so papers are faced with either cutting the quality, or coming up with some other business model.
That's it in a nutshell.

July 11, 2008 | Registered CommenterDan

My own local paper, the Allentown Morning Call, has been sliding downhill fast for several years. In the last week, it has gone off the cliff with a redesign that eliminates all but a few traces of national and international news. The news that Senator Stevens had been indicted was buried inside the paper; the front page that day was devoted to 3 local, rather trivial, stories. The editorial pages are gone, only LTEs are left with a note that readers can go on line to read op-eds. Yes, the idiocy has reached such heights that the paper is paying to put on line op-eds that one could read any number of other places. The sports section remains intact, and there are twice as many large ads.

We need newspapers, but papers such as these deserve to die.

August 2, 2008 | Unregistered Commentersmintheus

Thanks smitheus. I've noted the same thing - saying "we don't have it in the paper anymore, but you can see it online" is practically an invitation to cancel the subscription.

August 3, 2008 | Registered CommenterDan

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