Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Worth fixing

Newspapers. What happened?

As a child, I threw a paper route in Ft. Worth. Every afternoon, I would heft a sooty canvas bag filled with the Ft.Worth Press, hop on my bicycle and hope I managed to hit the front porch. Although the Press was the second newspaper in the city, nearly everybody in the neighborhood subscribed. Life was good.

Flash forward to the present. My kids grew up in a newspaper household. They became orphans the day we bought the Westlake Picayune because their parents were working 14 hour days. Or more.

Today, not a single one of my four grown children (great oxymoron) subscribes to a newspaper. Not a one. Yet they are well informed about the nation and the world.

Like so many others, my kids prefer to get their news in a variety of ways. Internet news and cable TV primarily. Like I said, they are generally well informed about the big stuff. But they lose a lot of the little stuff, the local news that helps describe the fabric of their community. For example, they didn't know our favorite hamburger joint had been sold. And if you are serious about your burgers, that's news.

But even before the Internet, there was a seething resentment of the local newspaper. In the interest of full disclosure, I'll tell you that I really dislike the local daily editor because he is a bully and a name-dropper. But that's another story. I'll try to keep my thoughts pure as I ramble on.

Why the wide-spread discontent? Well, for years newspapers were the most powerful game in town. And in some towns, that power bred arrogance in the news room that spilled over into the newspages. Mainstream media was not always burdened with the bad connotation that MSM lugs around today.

I was proud to be a reporter. But would I tell my mother today? Public opinion polls rank reporters below trial lawyers, if you can imagine.

Will newspapers exist in the future? I certainly hope so.

Currently, newspapers are floundering in misguided attempts to corral the new media. Hobbled by old think, they are haviing difficulty with new think.

Here's a radical idea: Why not get back to basics? It's easy to identify the biggest block of current newspaper readers. It's the geezers! Yet precious few newspapers in this country have a beat reporter covering this extraordinary event called aging. The passing of the Baby Boomers is shaking up everything but newspapers barely wink at the need for coverage.

Back to basics! Start writing about the older people, sprinkle abundant photos and stories of the grandchildren and the subscribers will return. With advertising not far behind. And do it on the Net.

I have other thoughts on this subject and you'll hear more from me later, when I am ready.



sph said...

I've had many addictions but one I hold dear and almost sacred is reading a newspaper first thing in the morning. Nothing so early in the day can replace the traditions of how the sections are distributed between the two of us and the dialogue of "you need to read this" or " I don't get Sargeant's cartoon today". Reading a computer feels alone, reading a newspaper feels comfortably solitary. But I had never thought how little print has changed in so rapidly a changing world until you wrote about it......

Jeff Hebert said...

I think SPH has a good point, part of the pleasure of reading a paper is the tactile feeling of touching and rustling the pages themselves. That's impossible to replicate in an online medium. But, I think what you get in place of that is an ability to really customize what you're reading, to email links to friends and family, and to have instant access to more information if you want it.

I wonder what the viability is of having print-on-demand presses in major cities that would print up your newspaper in bulk for that locality every morning/night and distributing it that way, kind of like USA Today does it. It seems like you ought to be able to leverage those small, community-oriented papers like The Picayune or the Georgetown Sun in some way ... I don't know how that would work at all, but it seems like they're bound to have idle time on their presses, and clearly they have a need for more and better advertising. Imagine that you have a web site where they can upload their stories, headlines, and photos into pre-set templates that are automatically surrounded by other national news you've already put there. They can then download the whole package as a PDF that's formatted to fit standard presses, and they can go print that right off.

They get access to superior typesetting, layout, and news feeds they wouldn't ordinarily have, they share in the revenue from the national ads you've already placed, and they can supplement it with whatever other ads they can sell locally. They provide the subscriber lists and do the actual printing of their version of the paper.

I dunno, just talking out of my hat here. It's an interesting observation you've had George, I look forward to hearing more about what you've got in mind.

Denise said...

I work for a daily paper that is considered a "small-town paper" (circulation 8,000 to 10,000). We value our "silver" reading set, but we face the dilemma of appealing to readers in the 18-40 age group. Unless they have a child in Little League or attending one of the schools, they'd be hard pressed to find something of interest in our pages. On the flip side, we have a weekend School section and our students write a column for their schools. Not every school is represented, but enough that the bragging rights are well worth sending in a 250-word column. We give the kids their own photo and byline in the paper, and we're helping create a new generation of readers. We want to beef up our Lifestyle section, and that's in the works. But we don't forget our core base of readers -- the people who grew up here, are rearing their children here and hoping for grandchildren here. We balance that with attracting a new crowd. It's not easy, but there is still a need to know what in the world the school board's up to. There's a need to know if they're putting a stop sign up in the neighborhood and that a developer is planning to put in yet another set of low-income apartment complexes. We can cover that and report on that, and we do. Our most read section is the Obituaries, believe it or not. People stay connected that way and because we're an afternoon paper, quite a few people tell us that when the newspaper hits their driveway, it's time to get a cup of coffee, read the paper and then start dinner. There will always be a need for news; the manner in which we deliver it is changing. We're also working on updating our Web site and we hear mainly from people who've moved away and want to keep up with what's happening in their home town. We try to keep them informed. Still, I'd wager that in most people's scrapbooks are at least four or five yellowed newspaper clippings. I'm proud of what our paper publishes and happy we're continuing to evolve, even though we've been around since the turn of the century. And we're a family owned paper. The Web and print can work together. One thing that won't change is someone has to write those words. And a home-town newspaper is the only place you'll really find out what's happening in your home town. Last night, I was at a chamber of commerce meeting at 6 p.m. and an Extension Service meeting at 7 p.m. finding out about biofuels. It's a great life -- I'm paid to be nosey.

George Phenix said...

Often, the best innovations come from small businesses like the family-owned newspaper you work for.

sic 'em

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