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2008

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Conversations: Newspapers Don't Have to Suck

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Poet & Editor
Issa Lewis, Poet
Janet Pickel, Journalist
Kenn Rodríguez, Poet & Music Writer

JANET PICKEL: Instead of thinking themselves as historians writing from on high, journalists must be engaging readers. We can be such snobs, writing on topics and in styles that we believe people "should" embrace, instead of what they're seeking.

As an editor, I tell my reporters to write a story like they'd tell me about it. No one wants to read a term paper. Tell a story. Share the drama.

Also, don't get muddled in official-speak and jargon. I know that seems like Journalism 101, but those who spend their days with politicians and officials often forget those folks aren't their audience.

The motto at the paper I work for is simple: "Don't tell me what it says; tell me what it means." Simply and clearly explain how a situation, a bill, a meeting, a political convention affects real-life people. Candidate A is pitching a tax plan that will save the economy; tell me if and how it'll work for me. Candidate B is offering a health-care program that cure hospitals' ills; tell me if and how it can happen.

Newspaper journalists are distracted by economic and electronic threats. But if we remember the basics, the reason we're here, we'll survive.

ISSA LEWIS: I feel I have an interesting perspective on this topic, as I'm married to a man who's worked as a journalist for the past six and a half years.  We actually talk about this a lot.  His paper is a small community journal that's circulated more or less county-wide (actually, the publisher is an umbrella that houses three small papers which, together, cover the entire county).  It's published weekly.

Although there is a larger, daily paper based in the major town just south of where we live, and it poses considerable competition to my husband's paper, I think the small press is where people ought to seek out their news (at least on a local level).  I've watched the Allegan County News over the years, and what I appreciate most about it is the staff's dedication to offering news that is relevant to its readership.  Writing style aside, content is the first factor that draws me to read news of any kind.  I want to know what's happening in my town, or how national issues are affecting my area.  The larger paper has the ability to cover items of national or global concern, but in doing so, I feel it sacrifices the concerns of the average person, no matter how globally conscious he/she is.

Smaller papers with weekly runs have the disadvantage of decreased space; this means they have to make priority decisions about what gets in each week (always considering the placement of the almighty advertising).  However, they are composed and edited by people who live in the immediate area, whereas larger papers often hire out to stringers, run nationally syndicated columns, or use AP-generated articles.  In addition to creating an "out-of-touch" voice for the paper, this also damages the paper's ability to monitor quality (and sometimes even accuracy) in reporting and writing style.

GUY LECHARLES GONZALEZ: I, too, prefer a distinctly local voice when it comes to newspapers, whether daily or weekly.  Here in Bloomfield, NJ there's a pretty good community weekly that, while lacking a bit in style and polish, makes up for it with a laser-focus on local issues, both great and small.  Also, the advertising is extremely relevant, a key component of any good publication.   In contrast, the Metro's initial jump into the crowded NYC market a few years back with its free daily was a perfect example of a truly sucky newspaper.  Its reliance on AP stories, cookie cutter design and tacky advertisers were all major turn-offs, and I gave it about two weeks before dismissing it as a waste of trees and haven't picked up an issue since, preferring to pay $.50 for the Daily News or, on a quiet sports day, simply making do with my stable of online news sites.   The ideal non-sucky newspaper would be a weekly that combined a distinct editorial voice (I'm fine with bias as long as it's out in the open), a good proofreader and the ability to filter national and international news through a local lens.  It would be in tabloid format, not broadsheet.  It would balance the murders and political scandals of the week with parallel human interest stories that put a spotlight on the positive, and would give them equal time on the front page.   There would be at least one full-time investigative reporter with a regular column and 6-12 in-depth feature articles/year; sports would remain on the back page and would be covered fully; there would be a cultural section of no less than 24 pages that covered every major artistic medium; and the celebrity fluff would be left to the internet except for two gratuitous pin-up shots, one of each gender.  Also, the Op-Ed and letters to the editor section would be no less than six pages and include a varied selection of editorial cartoons.   If such a newspaper existed, I'd subscribe to it at full price.  

KENN RODRÍGUEZ: By saying “Newspapers don’t have to suck,” we generally agree that they do suck.

But why?

There are plenty of boogeymen and straw men that we can whack away at when we make accusations of why newspapers aren’t any good – corporate owners,  corrupt editors, lazy reporters.

But to me it’s pretty simple – I blame it on the reporters.

From high school to college on to being in the newsroom, I was surrounded by writers who disdained AP style. They yearned for the freedom of writing “Magazine style.” AP style was too restrictive, they would whine. The phrase “I want my personality to come through in my story.”

Which is fine if you’re Hunter Thompson or Norman Mailer or any of the “New Journalism” gods. But not so much if you’re a student reporter at a high school or college newspaper or a cub reporter at a metropolitan daily.

To be sure, I was one of those clamoring for “my voice” to come out in the writing., thinking I was ready for Rolling Stone after only a year of writing for my college paper.

But we all missed the point.

As one of the greatest innovators in music history, Miles Davis didn’t find his voice without knowing the basics – those tedious scales all beginning musicians play, fingerings, music theory. You know, the boring shit.

Jimi Hendrix did amazing things with his guitar – but not before he apprenticed as a rhythm guitar player on the “Chittlin’ Circuit” for a few years.

In general, the best musicians learn the ropes first and subsume their ego and individuality before they can innovate.

It’s also the case in writing and surely the case in journalism.

Too many young writers ignore the lessons that AP style teaches – brevity, structure, focus – while trying to become storytellers. Musicians don’t create without knowing their scales, the formation of notes into forms that most music is based on. Why do writers think they can instantly become great story telling journalists without knowing the structure AP style teaches them?

I’ve heard instructors and professors in many disciplines tell students “If the foundation is faulty, the structure will eventually fall.” I feel this is the case with American Journalism. Our foundations are all faulty to a certain extent.

Thus, the current state of poor journalism (And that’s just the writing. Never mind what’s being called “reporting” in national media, especially in the Beltway. Current journalism students who think that reporting in Washington D.C. is the standard of good journalism should be disabused of that notion immediately).

Add to that fewer opportunities for writers to hone their craft once they get a job (how many newspapers send reporters to conferences or give them critique sessions these days?) and you have a bad situation not getting any better.

Reporters are often told to “Follow the money,” meaning to go to the final source. If we do that with poor newspaper writing it leads back to our formative years as journalists.

GUY LECHARLES GONZALEZ: Blaming reporters and journalists for newspapers sucking is like blaming poor kids for not doing well in school.  It's focusing on the symptom instead of the actual illness.   Newspapers suck (mostly) because the people running them don't have a clue, are egotistical narcissists, and/or have an agenda to push and are okay with losing stacks of money to do it until some other sucker comes along to buy it from them.   The publishing industry is changing dramatically and newspapers have been hit the hardest because they've been the slowest to adjust to those changes. 24-hour cable news and the internet have resulted in steadily decreasing circulation and ad revenue, but most newspapers haven't significantly changed their business model, still reporting (if you can even call it that) a broad range of news 12-24 hours after it's already been covered elsewhere, usually without any additional information or insight.   The Boston Globe had an interesting article — which I came across online via a link from one of the sites I follow in Google Reader, my personally customized news source -- about the Christian Science Monitor and how they've made adjustments to stay relevant in a changing world:   "First off, the Monitor picks its spots, quite cannily. The paper continues to invest in foreign coverage... maintain[ing] eight foreign correspondents and a healthy network of contributors, or stringers. The Monitor maintains a well-staffed office in Washington, D.C., as well as five national bureaus.  It is selective in what it covers.  Its specialty is timely, analytical journalism, unleavened by the cynicism of the ink-stained wretch.  What's in those 20, small-format pages?  Book reviews, recipes, and a decent op-ed section."   It all goes back to a question of focus.  Where the NY Times seeks to cover "All the news that's fit to print," I find the Monitor's mission "to injure no man, but to bless all mankind" and their approach to fulfilling it much more interesting and relevant.  

ISSA LEWIS: A very interesting point has been raised regarding what actually belongs in newspapers.  Some of you have addressed this in terms of exercises or advice that can encourage journalists to expand their perspective and write about what matters to them; and yet the argument has also been made that readership should determine newspaper content (i.e. what they actually want to read, rather than what we think they "should" read).

I think we can all agree on the fact that canned pieces with no local or personal relevance "suck," by definition.  But we also have to acknowledge that the newspaper business IS a business--one that needs income to survive.  Advertising is an important part of this.  Increasing circulation is the other.  And circulation increases only when people believe there is something in there that they should read.

But there's the rub: the definition of what sucks is relative.  For instance, there are people in this world who think e-mail forwards are an acceptable source of information, while others know them to be inaccurate, sensationalist, and annoying.  Do we grit our teeth, trying to make a living on what sells--or do we hold our heads up high, publishing the human interest pieces that only a few will take the time to read?

 

KENN RODRÍGUEZ: Janet hit the nail on the head when she wrote this: “But if we remember the basics, the reason we're here, we'll survive.”   Reporters are basically here to tell stories. However, we’re also here to provide information. This is where things get complicated because newspapers are not in the business of reporting anymore.   Newspapers have long stopped existing as businesses focused on reporting. The only section most newspaper owners care about is the classified section – because that’s where they make the lion’s share of their money. But it’s largely a myth that the owners of newspapers are in the business to provide the public with information.   Pulitzer, whose name is attached to the newspaper industry’s greatest award, was a muckraker and opportunist. So was William Randolph Hearst. Hearst used his newspaper to enflamed the country with his yellow journalism and aided the U.S. government in starting the American was against Spain (in an even more direct way than the media helped Bush/Cheney finish the Iraqi War.)   But this isn’t a history lesson.   Newspaper owners, by default in history, have been about making money. And therein lies the rub, doesn’t it. It’s a business. And that is inescapable.   So if the owner and editor are focused on the “bottom line” and trying to keep their newspaper profitable they’re already not in the “newspaper business.” They’re in the business of owning and running a newspaper. That leaves the actual writing to reporters and editors. And that doesn’t always work out because the bottom line is the bottom line.   My experience with a small, community newspaper was not any better than writing for the big city paper. We had a small staff and had more writing to do because of the “Special sections” the paper turned out. Sure these sections celebrated the community in some way, but they were really a way to bump up advertising.   So instead of spending time crafting stories for the main section of the paper. I found myself often just spitting out copy as fast as I could to keep up.   My editor was so busy putting the paper together – she did layout in addition to occasional writing and managing the staff – that I rarely got in-depth critique of my stories. And we as a staff were too busy on our own beats to give each other much critical feedback either. IN essence we were driven away from the ideal of good writing by the business end of the newspaper.   I feel this is one of the central dilemmas we face in newspaper writing – separating ourselves from the business end – which isn't always possible.  

GUY LECHARLES GONZALEZ: Giving readers the information they want along with that which they need is a tricky balance for any publisher, but the challenge seems to be particularly heightened when it comes to newspapers.  While circulation has been steadily dropping in recent years, print advertising has been declining at a much more rapid pace, thanks primarily to the Internet's myriad classifieds killers like Monster, Craigslist and Ebay.   Ironically, while many pundits believe the future of newspapers is on the internet, the American Journalism Review recently ran an article touting The Politico's success — a politics-only news Web site that launched a couple of years ago and is getting 25 million page views/month — but buried in there is the alarming fact that 60% of its revenue comes from its laser-targeted, thrice-weekly 27,000 circ print edition, without which, the site would not just be unprofitable, but as The American Prospect's Ezra Klein noted, it would be "losing catastrophic amounts of money."   Going back to this Conversation's theme, "Newspapers Don't Have to Suck", one is left with the feeling of standing in the middle of a circular firing squad.  The dominant business model for newspapers doesn't particularly encourage strong journalism (at least not on a consistent basis), nor does it compete well against the internet, resulting in sucky newspapers fewer and fewer people want to read.  Meanwhile, models that favor solid, focused journalism have, by definition, a limited appeal to readers and/or advertisers and are generally better served as a magazine or Web site.   So no, newspapers don't HAVE to suck, but realistically speaking, the majority do and probably will for the foreseeable future.  

JANET PICKEL: It's interesting that everyone knows why (many) newspapers suck – or at least why they're becoming less popular – so why haven't the problems been fixed?

Oh, I don't have all the answers, but I see the same must-haves over and over: local tales, bright writing, solid and ethical reporting, easy access, convenient format (print and/or electronic). At the same time, we can't escape that newspapers are a business, so we need to feed our customers what they want to buy. Those things can't be exclusive.

I hope society hasn't gone to the point where no one's going to pay for reporting and instead relies on its "news" (as Issa referenced) via popular yet horrifyingly inaccurate e-mail chains. Yikes. Lazy readers, lazy thinkers everywhere. But we can't be lazy and survive.
Thanks, everyone. Good luck out there.