The Washington Post Is Afraid Of Change

The last week has seen a bombardment of articles from newspapers crying about how necessary they are for the sake of society and community.  Two recent examples out of The Washington Post point out that newspapers coverthe police and the legislature better than anyone else can ever hope to.  In the latter, Marc Fisher writes:

Across the nation, it’s not just that fewer reporters are covering state government; newspapers and TV stations are also devoting far less space and time to that news.

Does that mean citizens are less well-informed? Do blogs and other new media fill in where old media are cutting back? Is it really a loss if reporters cover fewer legislative debates?

“We used to sit here and it was a typing contest,” Lewis says. “A lot of those process stories had a very small audience.”

“When we had four people here for AP, we covered every floor debate, every vote,” Stuckey says. “I’m not sure much quality was lost when we cut back to two people. We focused more on what it all means than on the daily politics.”

In one hour in the Virginia House the other day, I watched debates on raising the cost of vanity license plates (the No’s won), letting employers pay workers with debit cards rather than paychecks (Yeses won), and making it a felony to hang a noose on someone’s property (approved). Hardly earth-shattering issues, but each has an impact on people’s lives. Yet none got any press; a couple of years ago, they would have.

“The smaller the press corps gets, the more you see personality stories rather than pieces about what is at stake for people,” says Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine. “Smoking in restaurants is always going to get covered, but now, when we make big changes in mental health or foster care, nobody covers it. That has a real impact: It would be hard for campaigns to get even more superficial, but they might.”

A combination of media revolution and economic collapse is dismantling our news infrastructure, especially at the state and local levels. “Someday, people will wake up to the depletion of the press corps,” Gibson says. “I don’t know if the result will be corruption or demagoguery, but the interests of the people are not being represented anymore.”

Which begs the question: Which came first, the declining subscription rates and income for the papers or the declining quality of product in the name of cost cutting and profit maximizing?

The title given Fisher’s piece, Bloggers Can’t Fill the Gap Left by Shrinking Press Corps, seems to want to take a shot at anyone who believes blogging will do the job.  But no one worth their salt is advocating blogs as being the new force to be reckoned with when it comes to covering the news, nor should anyone believe this is the case.

Bloggasm recently surveyed the front pages of Technorati’s top 10 blogs and found that original reporting only accounted for 13% of posts.  Bloggers rely upon newspapers and professional media for content.  Bloggers provide supplementary information to what the professionals quickly generate an overview of that is then presented as the “whole story”.

Not only that, the ability of bloggers to gain access to press pools or have the time, money or other resources to find the news in ways that journalists have been expected to in the past is severely limited.  Bloggers aren’t granted the same privileges by associations and organization that don’t view websites as legitimate news sources.  Certainly this may change over time, but bloggers are still severely limited by their lack of resources, support structure, and, yes, training to be actual journalists.

Not that journalists are getting the best training these days.  Many are coming fresh out of school being taught to trust what they see on the web. Email is a proper tool for interviewing sources now and, hey, if you need to describe an organization you can just check out the about page on their website. Nevermind that emails can’t replace actual face to face interactions (you know, the kind that verify the person behind the email address) or that about pages don’t tell the full story in an objective manner.

Many reporters and journalists are now expected to be a jack of all trades, writing and copy editing their stories, providing audio/video supplementary coverage, and needing to be able to edit and put it all on a website in a timely manner.  This lack of specialization in an effort to cut costs leads to a product of lower quality, something that any reader could get for free from going to, well, a blog.

Newspapers and their websites have a higher expectation of quality associated with their product.  As that quality diminishes, so does the ability to charge for it, whether you’re charging subscribers or advertisers.

Newspapers are afraid of the internet. As they should be. But that shouldn’t make them get defensive or ball up in the fetal position and cry until they die. It should force them to confront it and evolve.

Newspapers need to take a good hard look at what their purpose is. Are they public service tool or are they a profit minded business that puts income over content and quality? Can they continue to attempt to be a jack of all trades in terms of content or are they going to have to realize that there are some things they can do very well and do those, specialize accordingly, and let others cover what they can’t?

Radio didn’t kill newspapers. Television didn’t kill newspapers either. Both forced newspapers to reevaluate the way they did things and adapt accordingly. Newspapers should have been adapting for years, but now faced with tough economic times that are further drying up their advertising income, it’s do or die time.

Unfortunately for many, they may not be able to “do”.

UPDATE: How’s that for timing. As soon as I hit “publish” I see John Sarvay’s thoughts on the same articles:

The point here isn’t whether newspapers deserve to die, becuse they sort of do, having pissed away so much of their credibility over the past two decades of corporate stewardship. The point is that their death is going to fundamentally change our ability as citizens to stay connected, stay informed, and to hold our elected and appointed officials accountable.

A great example of just how topsy-turvy the inbalance is between government and an industry dedicated to covering it: There are more paid people working in City Hall pitching stories and spinning day-to-day policies than there are reporters covering City Hall for print, television, radio and Internet outlets combined.

And, so, if I were publisher of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and I were interested in reinventing my brand, I’d probably start asking myself (and everyone I met), “How can my paper position itself to be the catalyst for every important community conversation in the region?”

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