October 12, 2005

Newspapers

The Minneapolis Star Tribune unveiled a significantly re-designed newspaper and website yesterday. I bring that up because while I am just a lowly internet writer who occasionally dabbles in print stuff, I have always been fascinated with and longed to be involved in the world of newspaper journalism.

While in the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism, I met two accomplished journalists, Chris Ison and Paul McEnroe, whom I greatly admire. In addition to being great men, outstanding teachers, and world-class journalists, both Ison and McEnroe exude an enthusiasm and passion about their line of work that is simply exciting to be around.

They are the epitome of what is great about newspaper journalism, from their skills as writers and ferocity as reporters to their impeccable ethics. If every newspaper had people like Ison and McEnroe on staff, and more importantly in positions of power, they would be much better off than they are now. Instead, as more and more talented and creative people move to other forms of media, the newspaper business is slowly falling apart.

According to a Star Tribune article by Eric Black that accompanied the announcement of the paper's new layout:

Newspaper readership is down. Fewer young people are picking them up, and the average age of a newspaper reader is now 55, according to a Carnegie Corporation study. Many papers have been losing circulation at alarming rates across all age groups.

Newspaper profits and the stock prices of the companies that own them were also down during the first half of 2005. The biggest newspapers are cutting staffs, closing foreign bureaus and taking other steps to meet their owners' profit goals.

As I've documented here, my personal experience trying to break into the newspaper business was extremely frustrating and ultimately soured me on my lifelong dream. While that individual experience certainly doesn't say much on its own, in talking to both aspiring journalists and veterans in the field I have come to the conclusion that the entire newspaper business is out of date.

ESPN.com's Bill Simmons, who is one of the best and most successful sports writers in the country, talked with the Boston Sports Media Watch about his own frustrations with pursuing his lifelong dream of being a Boston newspaper columnist:

I tried to do this conventionally. I spent three years at the Herald and even tried to make my mark at the Phoenix. The bottom line is that newspaper unions have killed this business -- writers stay too long and never leave, and young writers who would kill to have their jobs never have a chance.

[...]

Clearly, I was good enough to do this for a living, but there was no way I was ever getting a chance doing it conventionally. That's what pisses me off. I never even had a real chance. I mean, this is the only industry where companies pay people to leave. Look at what just happened at the Herald -- they had to spend four years worth of salaries to dump all their dead weight. This is a good system? If I suck for the next two years, you know what happens? ESPN doesn't renew my contract and I'm unemployed. With newspapers, you could basically hand in scribble for 20 years and they have to keep paying you. It's bad business. That's why so many newspapers will be going under soon, if they aren't already.

I would love to follow in Simmons' footsteps, finding a great niche as an online writer after having a difficult time breaking into print writing. However, much like Simmons describes below, having a column in a newspaper will always be my dream:

I will never fully get over the fact that I didn't get a column at the Globe -- it was my lifelong dream and it's never going to happen. On a much, much, much smaller scale, I feel like Letterman and how he didn't get the Tonight Show -- sure, he has his own 11:30 show on a major network, and it's gone great, but it's not the Tonight Show.

[...]

Now it's too late -- I would never work for a newspaper. People are leaving newspapers to write for Internet sites or host radio shows, not vice-versa.

This broad subject is always in the back of my mind, but I began really thinking about it again once I saw the Star Tribune's re-design. It strikes me that the two things the newspaper business has focused their attention on of late are playing down the quality of non-traditional forms of media and re-designing their product in largely superficial ways.

In the Star Tribune's case they've changed the look of their paper, from the fonts and headlines to the pictures and sections. They've also added additional content, of course, but for the most part it is a re-shuffling of sorts. While I'm sure tons of money and man hours went into the paper's new look, in the end it is little more than putting a fresh coat of paint on a rusty car.

I don't read the Star Tribune because it looks good. I don't care what font they use, what size the headlines are, or how big the pictures of the columnists are next to their columns. I don't care if they fill each page with a whole bunch of boxes and sidebars or plaster gigantic, full-color pictures next to each article. In fact, the truth is that I barely read the Star Tribune at all.

The beauty of living in 2005 is that you can read whatever you want from wherever you want. The hold newspapers had on people is all but gone and no one has to settle for what falls on their doorstep each morning. Meanwhile, newspapers like the Star Tribune continue to think it is about something other than the content. You can re-design as much as you want and make the paper look like an extraordinary work of art, but you've still got to offer me something I want to read.

The Star Tribune's sports coverage would be my section of choice, but what exactly is bringing me there? Sid Hartman taking up a page every day with useless babble? Jim Souhan penning columns with the sole intention of cracking lame one-liners? Beat writers providing cookie-cutter injury updates and quotes without any sort of meaningful analysis? Why do I need to read that, when I can find great, substantive writing in so many other places?

Newspaper is king and will remain that way for a long time. That's just how it works when something is able to establish such a strong hold on the marketplace. But how many people read the Star Tribune's sports section each day? I can tell you that 2,500 people come here each day to read the work of exactly one person and 15,000 people stop by The Hardball Times each day to read the writing of a bunch of "amateurs."

And those two sites are relative blips on the internet radar. Now think about the bigger sports websites, like ESPN.com or FoxSports.com, and the incredible traffic they get on a daily basis. And now try to imagine how the traffic at all of those sites, both small and large, will compare to the readership of the Star Tribune's sports section in a few years. Let's say 2008.

Assuming he's still alive, Hartman will be writing about his "close personal friends" and how the Gophers are going to sweep every championship in the Big Ten this season. Souhan will still be crow-barring ridiculous pop-culture references from three years earlier into a column about the Twins. And you'll still be able to find all the cliches you want, in the form of quotes that come straight from the mouths of brilliant thinkers like Mike Tice.

Studies will come out about how the average age of newspaper readers continues to rise and readership continues to fall, and newspapers across the country will launch gorgeous re-designs with beautiful fonts and lush colors. People will come see what the big changes are all about and discover that it is nothing more than a new way to package the same old crap from the likes of Hartman, Bill Plaschke, Mike Lupica, Jay Mariotti, Bill Conlin, and any number of other "respected" columnists who waste perfectly good ink with their words.

Meanwhile, guys like Simmons will be at places like ESPN.com, pulling in readers from all over the world -- not because his column is delivered to their home each day on a piece of paper, but because his writing is so good that they hunt it down. When it is all said and done, that's really all I want in my newspaper: Writing so good that I have to hunt it down. And when I find it, I don't care if it's printed on a re-designed page or the screen of my laptop.

While Rome burns and the newspaper industry stands by twiddling their collective thumbs, the good writers -- from Bill Simmons at ESPN.com all the way down to young, inexperienced guys like me -- will take "no" for an answer from newspapers and flock to the places where they can be hunted down.

The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.


- Thomas Jefferson

Today at The Hardball Times:
- Player-Seasonal Notation, 1946-2005 (by Steve Treder)

Today's Picks (118-104, +$1,340):
Houston (Oswalt) +140 over St. Louis (Mulder)


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