Do you recall that one girl in high school who was too friendly?
I mean the sweet girl who really just wanted to be liked, the girl whom all the jocks would take behind the gym after school to rehearse birds-and-bees lessons, but they would never take her out on a date or acknowledge her in a crowded room full of other students.
Nowadays, newspapers are that girl. And everyone who takes their too often free content online for granted is a jock.
Yeah, I know that this example will not convince anyone anytime soon to offer me the job of modernizing Aesop's Fables, but it's the analogy I gave a reader who emailed me several days ago to ask the question in the headline of this post. So it'll have to do.
The reader's question was prompted by news that my paper, the Miami Herald, had slashed jobs this week in order to help parent company McClatchy cut overall budget, and by news about other papers on the verge of disaster from coast to coast.
My first instinct was to reassure the reader, the way a parent who'd just lost his job (or taken a pay cut) reassures his teenager that everything will be alright and that the people still want the news done well and delivered in some form of print...just not necessarily on paper.
But then I thought about it and decided that sort of response to the reader would have been disingenuous.
Things have change inside and outside newspapers.
For example, I've been trained to shoot and edit video now. Ten years ago if an editor had asked me to even consider such training I'd probably have given a saditty answer to the effect of "I'm a writer. Let someone else do it."
Now, for the sake of maintaining until the news delivery method that will save the industry is found, I'm ready to get my commercial driver's license and add newspaper delivery truck driver to my repertoire.
So instead of coddling, I figured I'd tell the reader some of the truth...as I see it:
- The radio and TV talking heads' argument that newspapers are struggling 'cause average Americans stopped reading them 'cause papers are politically biased is bogus. I'm not saying there isn't some bias sometimes in some papers. But newspapers are struggling 'cause the economy is terrible and businesses aren't advertising as much as they used to. If it was a matter of simply reaching the public, in South Florida, for example, the Herald still reaches more consumers than any other local media outlet, print or broadcast. But it's more than reach. Businesses don't have big ad budgets.
- Newspapers are also hurting 'cause they haven't figured out how to fully capitalize on Internet traffic. TV stations and networks haven't figured that out either. But you wouldn't know it, since they never report their problems the way we do. True, only the Googles and Yahoos and porn companies of the world are making big bucks online these days, but if I had my way every news organization in this country - print and broadcast - that has a Web site would set a date and time and simultaneously begin charging for content. It might stem the tide of content theft and "borrowing" between organizations. And if there's no free alternative online, then maybe readers will finally, even if grudgingly, begin registering on their favorite sites and setting up billing accounts. You can't get the paper at the newsstand for free. You can, but only if the guy running the newsstand isn't looking. And you can get a free subscription to some papers, but only until that trial period runs out and you start getting the bill in the mail. So why shouldn't you pay to read it online? Some working person researched, gathered, and compiled that info.
- With our society becoming one big reality TV show, where consumers like to feel they have a connection to the people on the screen, I sort of feel like newspapers failed to borrow from the broadcast news formula and offer up print journalists as "personalities," so readers could follow and establish a loyalty to their favorites, the same way they do with favorite evening news anchors. Yes, newspapers have columnists and in recent years bloggers. But they're still a minority of print journalists.
Again though, I'm not a professional analyst. I'm just a squirrel trying to hoard a few nuts in case, as Young Jeezy says, "it's gonna be a cold summer."
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to get "fitted" for a mop handle and learn to operate the scaffolding that the window cleaners use.
Just kidding...I think.
PS. Follow me at http://twitter.com/jamesburnett