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The Future of Newspapers Past

So, Gentle Readers probably are aware that Your Humble Blogger is keen on newspapers and the news. I consider myself one of the minor victims of the collapse of the newspaper, as I have finally given up my daily paper, in response to my hometown newspaper having its content cut so drastically that it wasn’t worth the money. I think that’s how a lot of us newspaper-lovers feel about it from the outside (although I could just be projecting my feelings onto everybody else, the way I sometimes do), that we would like to pay for and read a good newspaper, but we have become the victims of the newspaper bosses who stole the newspaper we like and replaced it with a few pages of wire stories and hastily-rewritten press releases. We know we’re not the real victims. We know that the reporters are the real victims. But that doesn’t make us feel any better. But it does mean that when we face The Future of Newspapers, we feel like we’re not so much preparing to lose the newspaper as we have already lost it.

The whole thing looks very different from the reporter’s point of view, as far as I can tell. There’s an interesting note on Newspapers and Stories, by Tommy Tomlinson over at The Future of Newspapers (which is hosted by the great Joe Posnanski). Mr. Tomlinson talks about writing a story about the Board of Zoning Appeals in Augusta, and how, without a newspaper paying somebody to cover the Board of Zoning Appeals, that story would never have been told. Mr. Posnanski tells a story in his intro about covering the big high school football game, from a different angle. And they are, between them, very persuasive about the stuff that won’t get written if you don’t have an industry paying people full-time to write it. Excellent.

The problem is that both of the stories are from more than twenty years ago. It’s true that if the newspapers go under, nobody will cover the Board of Zoning Appeals, but it’s also true that nobody has been covering the Board of Zoning Appeals for a long time. It’s not clear to me, honestly, that the Board of Zoning Appeals story he talks about is really part of what a citizenry needs to be free and self-governing (to reference Andy Cline), nor is it obvious to me that those are stories that will draw in the customer so that you can include the stories that we need to be free and self-governing, but I could well be wrong about all of that.

Speaking of Mr. Cline, he pointed me to an interesting post that Jay Rosen made over at the MediaShift Idea Lab, in which he asks How Many Homegrown News Stories Are in Your Daily Paper? I keep meaning to tally up my Courant, but of course I no longer have a paper copy at my kitchen table. The point is to find out whether, in some objective sense, there really is a lot of stuff that newspapers are doing now—not twenty years ago, but now—that would be missed.

I’m finding it to be an interesting question of persuasion, as one camp of us newspaper readers are comparing the actual daily to our romanticized idea of the newspaper’s glorious history, and finding we prefer the internet, while another camp (including more actual reporters, as far as I can tell) are comparing their somewhat-less-romanticized idea of the newspaper’s glorious history to the internet, and finding they prefer the actual daily. We’re not talking past each other, but we sure aren’t seeing the same universe.

And while I’m at it, Colin McEnroe over at the Hartford Courant tells us about My Newsthing, his own idea, which involves a physical outlet where food is sold, citizens could talk to journalists and listen or participate in interviews (podcasts, I’m thinking), and there would be art exhibits and concerts right there on the grounds. I think this is brilliant, and could conceivably break even at a level that would pay for some of those full-time journalists we were talking about. There are problems with the business model, but there are problems with the newspaper business model, as well, right? And I think that rather than comparing the golden age of newspaper to either the internet or this morning’s Courant, he’s imagining something else entirely, which is probably a better place to start.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


My hometown newspaper has seen a drastic reduction in size in the past six months. And I miss some of the things that were cut and there's definitely more stock pieces in the Food and Life sections than there used to be, but I'm still a subscriber. They do cover local news that I would not get through other venues. In fact there's an entire section that's state and local news. A lot of that is political, including some watch-dog type articles about tree preservation ordinances and striving for a no-kill animal shelter and the plans and leadership of the local water utility. A lot of what I value in local news is on the arts side, though - a notice about a public lecture that I attended last night, reviews of new restaurants, exhibits at the art museum, and so on. Movie reviews I can get online. I could also go to the museum's web site to see their exhibits and Ticketmaster to see the big concerts (though not the small local stuff) and the sites of each playhouse, but I don't know of any online resource that has the schedules of all of the local plays, concerts, lectures, and museum exhibits in a single place the way the newspaper does.

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