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The daily and the dodo

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Has the daily print newspaper outlived its useful life?

You’ll notice few of the dailies are doing what they call “streeters” on this — asking your average man on the street what he thinks of the day’s news. It’s the kind of task routinely handed to cub reporters so they can learn a valuable lesson — there are many, many crazy people out there, and your job is to write stories that they want to read.

That’s not an exaggeration, either. In my younger days, I had to do my fair share of these; once, when asking passers-by why they preferred a local ice-cream shop to others, I got treated to some ideas of the real stories I should have been covering, including how the 9/11 hijackers personally knew the president and how global warming was a right-wing (!) conspiracy intended to help connected Republican congressmen make lots of money through solar. I’m sure the people reading this blog are nothing like those people, who hopefully don’t have Internet access, or the whole World Wide Web would become a highly divided, partisan sniping ground that would push our two political parties even further apart. Can you imagine?

Anyway, the news out of central Pennsylvania today concerns the Patriot-News, of Harrisburg, fresh off a Pulitzer for covering the scandal at Penn State, going non-daily, in line with some other Advance-owned papers. Print journalists, of course, are getting really, really good at writing their own obituaries, not without good reason, and this has set off a tidal wave in Twitter and beyond.

It’s nice to be sentimental about newsboys shouting “Extra!” and papers with evening editions, but for those who couldn’t see this coming, please put down your mass-reproduced Norman Rockwell paintings and actually look at that flimsy thing that was dumped on your driveway this morning, assuming you even subscribe anymore. People don’t get their news from print so much as they do the websites of those papers, and since papers have been giving the milk away for free — or putting up easily defeated paywalls — for so long that changing reader habit is going to be a tough sell.

So far, newspapers have coped with the challenges of online by carefully studying how readers go through the paper, what kinds of stories they respond to, how they consume news and the degree of interaction they do through saliva-soaked forums, and they respond by slashing and burning their editorial staffs. Surprisingly, the resulting fewer stories, fewer (and smaller) pages and plunge in detailed reporting has not righted the circulation ship, which has led to more and more cuts.

I can’t say what Advance’s long-term strategy is here, and no newspaper — certainly not this one — has figured out what it takes to hit a revenue-generating home run online. But if we can squeeze more detailed journalism and keep more journalists on board at three-a-week papers, with shorter online stories on news of the day and deeper stories reserved for print, these papers might stand a fighting chance. It’s at least worth more than the knee-jerk reaction these moves have elicited.

Otherwise, the trusted local sources are going to cede to the crazy people outside the ice cream stores. You might complain about The Star-Ledger now, but where will you go when it’s gone?

I’m even more irreverent on Twitter @joe_arney.

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