Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What's the story?

So, here's the concept of this blog: Newspapers, we all know, are drowning. There are reasons for this, numerous reasons, some complicated, some very simple, some interesting, some boring as sin. The times are changing. The economy is in the tank. Readership is breaking into niche audiences. The business model is broken. Print is dying. Newspapers lost touch with readers. Readers lost touch with newspapers. On and on and on and on and on.

People also feel very differently about what's happening to papers. Some say good riddance. Some worry for the future of Democracy. Some believe newspapers wrote their own death notice with their greed and stubborn reluctance to adjust to a changing world. Some believe this future was inevitable, that the overpowering newspaper business that once existed could not survive, it had to be picked apart piece by piece like the fish in "Old Man and the Sea." Some believe that a technological breakthrough and an economic turn can put newspapers (or whatever they will be called by then) a new life -- there are more readers now than ever before. Some think that if you hooked up a heart monitor to the newspaper business right now, you'd get a straight line.

I suspect that if this blog gets going, then we will discuss all these topics at some length. But, for now my idea for this blog is a bit different. What I am hoping it can become is a collection plate for ideas, thoughts, schemes, designs and general philosophies about the future of newspapers.

And by "newspapers" I don't mean the newsprint and ink product that may or may not get thrown into your driveway. If there's one thing everyone can agree on, it is that the future of newspapers as we know them is no future at all. No, by newspapers, I am talking more about how people will get their news -- and who will be the ones delivering it -- as the future becomes now.

I'm hoping to do very little writing on this. What I would like to do is find smart people -- business people, editors, bloggers, writers, readers of all kinds -- and have them rant about the business any way they would like. Do you believe that newspapers are dying because of their political spin? Do you think the Kindle is the future of papers? Do you believe that newspapers are simply going down because of the incompetence of the bosses? Do you just want to write a bit about what newspapers have meant to your life?

I would love to have these stories or essays -- long or short -- describe what you think has happened, and more where you think it's going, if anywhere. I hope this thing can become a bit of a slot machine, where you never know exactly what you will get.

So, for that, I am hoping to go on the inspiration of friends, strangers and everyone in between. You can email me here if you have something to say, anything at all, about newspapers. And that's how this will begin.

Anyway, maybe this goes nowhere. We'll see what happens.


  1. Let's start with: Who are you? What is your experience with newspapers?

  2. We will give "Anonymous" a break since Joe's identity is a little hidden on this page. But Google "Kansas City Star" or "Joe Posnanski" and I think you can find some info.

    And Joe, I think this is a great idea.

  3. Well... let's start with the KC Star that chooses its only suburban columnist for conservative Johnson County to be an ultra-liberal. Of course, every day he writes columns that anger the majority of that readership. Then, the Star wonders why people continue to cancel their subscriptions. Personally, I still subscribe, but if the Star wants to survive, they need to realize that they're in a conservative area, and need to quit pushing their ongoing ultra-liberal agenda and start presenting a fair and balanced form of journalism.

  4. It's a great idea. While I'm thinking of what I might email to you, I'll link to this on my Creative Instigation blog with a post next week. Thanks!

  5. I just don't buy that the KC Star, or other papers, are losing major readership because of their political agenda (the right always says because of their liberal agenda, but hey, conservative newspapers are dying too). Newspapers have always leaned left or right and they haven't been dying like this until now.

    What I'd be interested in knowing is if newspapers are dying because they're publicly owned and the investors keep wanting more of a return than newspapers can produce. In the last few months I've read that many papers are making a profit, just not enough of a profit. Does anyone know if that's accurate?

    It's important, because if papers are still making a profit but not enough of one, maybe print will survive on a smaller scale. Possibly papers will again be privately owned and not make as much money as they used to.

    Of course if they're not really making money now than that possibility is irrelevant. What are the facts about newspapers and profitability?

  6. A few starter links to recent expositions on this subject, for the uninitiated:

    Steven Berlin Johnson
    Clay Shirky
    Freddie DeBoer
    Jack Shafer

  7. Weeklies might be making a profit. Dailies are hemorraghing (sp?) left and right.

    And to be sure, privately held newspapers are struggling just as much as publicly held ones. You just don't hear about that because, well, their private.

  8. Jo Po, you are the best and I can't wait for your book about the Reds!
    You must read this man:
    Jeff Jarvis

    I am sure you are close with Peter Abraham of the LoHud Yankees.
    And Just for a kick to Buzz Bissinger, you should get Will Leitch to chim in.

  9. I really think it's everything that the blogger said.

    * The political divide is real. If you disagree with a newspaper's political views, you have many other reading options today than you did even 10 years ago.

    * Kindle, or something like it, could save "papers" but as you say it is the information that has to get out somehow. Who and how many will be around to provide it?

    * There are well-run news organizations and also very poorly-run ones. Most are in trouble.

    * Newspapers have meant a lot to me because I worked at one for a quarter-century and before that was a voracious reader of them. But now, I don't get much out of the print and still manage to find what I need. Time has marched on and the news industry, largely, has failed to keep up. They will be around, but unfortunately will decrease in relevance.

  10. Grunthos,

    Thanks, from one of the uninitiated, for the links. I read the posts/blogs/articles/whatever-they're called and got some information and perspectives I hadn't seen before. I appreciate it.

  11. I think one of the problems with newspapers is the fact that this discourse is occuring online, and not in the editorial pages of a newspaper. This medium is just so much easier and interactive. It's immediate gratification.

  12. I'm 24 years old. I read newspapers growing up, but have no affinity or habit of picking up a paper every morning. I only buy papers when I travel. For me, it's far more entertaining to read a blog that delivers the news but puts a more humorous slant/opinion/spin/whatever you want to call it. The problem is that these blogs get their news from traditional media outlets. They don't really report firsthand (but some do). They are really just complie news from these traditional sources. I don't know how to get around this and make a profit while giving away the content for free (with ad banners as revenue).

    I think that papers are going to have to be more opinion based. I hate the "Around the Horn-ization" that has taken place on TV (whether sports, politics, news, etc.), but I think that newspapers are going to have to follow suit. Maybe a daily can't do this, but there is a place for this type of content.

  13. Joe-
    I still remember when the C-J died in Columbus. I couldn't really conceive of a world without the evening edition. At this point, I'd bet most people don't even know that evening editions existed.

  14. First thing- cash in with a prestigious sports magazine- and after that get your own radio show with some corporate conglomo and use those forums to rail against the demis of newspapers and honest journalism - then cash your check and drive out to your suburban home and feel really great about what a noble guy you are-

    oh wait that idea's been taken

    I got nothin- but I'm guessing it begins with more emphasis on truth and accuracy than corporate profit and control- offering something no one else does anymore - investigate-challenge -speak truth to power- have reporters who don't make stuff up and plagerize -
    in sports here's new idea - the story is not the columnist but the sport itself-the game-
    strive to be better than TV , quit competing with TV and give depth to stories

  15. So I kind of meant this as a joke on your other blog, but the papers totally need to up the puzzles/crosswords. If I knew a paper had two crosswords in it, I would absolutely buy it.

    You should try to get David Simon to weigh in. If there was one thing made abundantly clear by the final season of "The Wire", it is that David Simon had plenty to say about the newspaper industry.

  16. Well, first of all, as you say, the newspaper as we knew it is dead. The question is, how good are the media that have replaced it at doing what newspapers used to do.

    It seems to me that, outside of classifieds and household hints (both of which the internet does better, btw), the big three things a newspaper does are the following:

    1. Report the facts from the big obvious story ("AIG Hands Out Gigantic Executive Bonuses"; "17 Car Pile-up on I-70").

    I'm not particularly convinced that TV news doesn't do these stories just as well as newspapers do. Sure, every once in a while there is some deeper angle to the 17-car pileup that TV doesn't have time to capture, but let's face it, the road was slick, and some dude slid into some other dude. The perky blonde with the microphone can probably convey that.

    2. Opinion Pieces

    At its best, the internet is far, far better at this. At its worst, the internet is a sewer, but the most fascinating opinion writing I read is online. This is true of political writing too, I think, but since Joe is a sportswriter, let's talk about sports.

    (Warning: here I'm going to start to sound like an English Professor, which is what I am). Anyone who reads a Bill Simmons column about the NBA vs the column of a national syndicated newspaper columnist can't help but see that simply because of the new possibilities entailed by the internet (no size restriction; less need to worry about offending the easily offendable) someone like Simmons is able to vastly expand the parameters of what the genre of sports opinion writing can do. Or, to come at it a different way, ever since Joe Pos started producing his blog, every time I read his Star column I feel like I'm reading a neutered version of Joe. On the blog, Pos has more room to write, a forum where he can be a litle more chatty and vernacular, and an implicit sense that his readers will be responding to him directly and immediately. The result is, in my humble opinion, much more exciting and vital writing than what he produces in the paper.

    My point here isn't that "MSM sucks" or some peurile nonsense like that, but that the internet allows for new ideas of what the genre of opinion journalism can look like. All of which is to say that the function that the op-ed page performed isn't going anywhere, and frankly, the smartest voices on the internet are actively using the available technology to communicate opinions in ways that print journalism never could

    3. Investigative Reporting

    And here, of course, is the problem. I mean, let's face it, Investigative Reporting never made money. Nobody subscribed to the Star to read investigative exposes on City Council malfeasance. People subscibed to the Star so they could do the crossword and clip out some recipes and read the box score from the Royals game. The box scores and lawnmower ads paid for the City Council expose. Now that websites of various sorts have peeled off the box score and lawnmower ad business, I'm not sure where the money to fund the City Council expose comes from. And this, to me, is the danger that the demise of the newspaper represents. I don't know how the public sphere that the internet has produced could produce something akin to the Woodward and Bernstein investigation of Nixon, and to some extent, the success of democracy has, since its birth, been predicated on the existence of a public sphere capable of speaking truth to power. And I don't know if internet/TV world allows for that.

    But, of course, maybe I'm wrong, and it is worth noting that the newspapers of the 18th Century (when the democracy we know was invented) looked more like the front page of Daily Kos or National Review Online than the New York Times.

  17. I'm 30 years old, and I can hardly remember a day in my life where there wasn't a newspaper in my driveway or I picked one up at some point. Thinking about a day where the printed paper will not be available is one I'm not looking forward to.

    There is quite a bit of demand for what's happening - although it's becoming more and more of an "a la carte" demand, and people are being given the ability to filter out things that they don't want to read.

    This however, is a scary thing for me as well - part of what I like about reading the newspaper is being exposed to stories and ideas that I wouldn't normally set up to fall into my field of vision. It's the same reason I like NPR - it puts new thoughts into my head instead of just reintroducing and recycling the existing ones.

    Keep reporting on things in the world and bringing me human interest stories. Dig into government and public policy - inform the masses as to inconsistencies with our elected leaders and corporations whose policies drive our economic engine.

    The capacity for information distribution has grown so exponentially over the past decade or so - yet our ability to consume, digest, process, and positively process it hasn't, at least not in my opinion. I find myself subscribed to so many RSS feeds that I can't keep up -- the ease of access and free nature are the main enablers -- I could never afford to subscribe to as many newspapers or magazines as I do RSS feeds.

    Right now we are in a point where we lack alignment between content and delivery methods. Clearly the idea of the once-a-day newspaper has run our of steam.

    The wireless devices - PDA, BlackBerry, iPhone, etc. are stepping in to bridge the issues of connectivity and readability, yet I don't know if I would find it comfortable to read a full-bore newspaper article on a 2" - 3" screen.

    The laptop computer continues to make powerful computing mobile, and gives a bigger canvas on which to write and a bigger lens through which to view the world. It's great midpoint for the moment - but it's still not as practical to carry around as something pocket-size.

    The Kindle is a great midpoint, but still lacks the convenience of size and the power of a laptop.

    I think the key is for newspapers and other media outlets to specifically tailor their content for viewing on the small screen -- 2" - 3" -- make pages easy to navigate, text easy to read, and content easy to follow.

    Handset makers will have to step in as well to continue to develop screens that are easy on people's eyes and give them the ability to view the information - audio, video and text - that they want to.

    Network providers will have to develop the systems by which data is transmitted. Keep increasing bandwidth and speeds while keeping access costs affordable.

    Wi-Max and the 3G network (and subsequent innovations) are the new delivery guy, the PDA is the new printing press. I'm not necessarily a fan of it, but change is inevitable - either embrace it or get run over by it.

  18. Glad you did this, Joe.

    It's great to see someone with ...gravitas? is that too much of a stretch for a sports writer?...a certain amount of local and national authority chiming in on a discussion that (at least locally) has been so far muted by the lack of participation from the daily rag.

  19. I think the future of "newspapers" will look a lot like Pitch and The Riverfront Times, etc.

  20. Nickolas Kristof in today NYTimes (March 18) reports in "The Daily Me" that by reading like-minded blogs we become more insulated and polarized, less tolerant. When we are always our own editors, "God help us." A good newspaper makes sure we see a divergence of commentary. (Of course, I read Mr. Kristof online. But I also paid for home delivery of The Blade.)

  21. I Love the Sunday Paper. It is the only edition I feel a need to buy. I love how thick it is, the extra sections, inserts, the magazine that comes with it, the comics in color, ect. I don't think I'd notice if the Monday through Saturday editions disappeared, but the Sunday paper is my baby.

    When the papers do disappear I'll miss all of the tactile pleasures associated with them. In some ways I feel about newspapers they way I do about books.

    I would much rather have a book in my hands (and take it where I like) rather than be umbilically chained to my computer trying to work my way through a novel or a Sunday edition. I believe I read much less content on a computer than I do in any printed medium. I suppose it is the tediousness of having to stare at a computer screen. I don't have a printer and the idea of printing everytime I want to read something seems like a waste.

    I don't know how I would feel about a Kindle. I have no idea how they are. I do know that I like flipping to random pages, I like underlining, making the occastional note, I like looking at the pretty cover, staring at the author's face every now and again. I love that the book is three dimensional and if it's paperback that you can bend it a bit or sometimes put it in your back pocket, though I haven't done that much. I love tossing it into my backpack, I love seeing it on the shelf.

    However, when I am done with newspapers they go into a stack, which yellow and brown waiting for their moment to become my all purpose dog sh*t picker upper. I don't miss papers once I've read them. I suppose they are disposable and forgettable and that is their ultimate fate. Here for awhile, gone tomarrow or next week. In that case maybe it is better that they are digital, less waste.

    Also, how may people recycle their papers? Is there a statistic? Would the end of printed newspapers be an environmental blessing? But I do love every wasteful and decadent thing about the Sunday paper, environment be damned.

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