Street Smart Chicago

Life without Newspapers: Are dailies dead?

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By Brian Hieggelke

I am a lifelong newspaper junkie. Growing up, my dad always read the newspaper, and when his dad was around, he read the newspaper. I understood implicitly that grownup men read newspapers.

After school, I went to work for Goldman Sachs, where it was drilled into the trainees that keeping up with news was a fundamental component of success. I indulged, almost excessively. In my twenties, I subscribed to the daily editions of the Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. And, because I “covered” Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa for my sales job, I subscribed to both Milwaukee dailies, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and the Des Moines Register. I think I personally took down a tree a day.
When I left Goldman, I symbolically quit my WSJ subscription, but picked it up again a few years later. Over time, my addiction to newspapers became as much a burden as a pleasure. Stacks would pile up, and time would disappear as I plowed dutifully through every edition. Finally, when the Sun-Times couldn’t deliver consistently to my Loop apartment, I dropped it. I dropped the New York Times to save time. With the advent of the Internet, and the incursion of email, I started losing even more time. Eventually I dropped the Journal, leaving only the Tribune. Ironically, the Trib is my least favorite of the four, and for years I subscribed to it over the Sun-Times only because its delivery service was virtually flawless and, frankly, because it had the good comics.

Newspaper reading is a ritual for me. I wake up, make coffee, get the paper and hit my chair. In earlier years, I’d get agitated if someone messed with my papers, out of fear that I might miss a section, and my long-discarded bad behavior lives on in reputation with my family. Now, I read the Tribune in a repetitive manner on most days—first Sports, of which I read little but scan for scores and major news, then Business, Chicagoland, Tempo and the main section. I discard Classifieds, Automotive and Real Estate, along with ad circulars, without even opening them. I am personally embarrassed that the new Personals page of celebrity gossip—in the main news section—is one of the sections of the Tribune I read faithfully, but guilty pleasure it remains.

Newspapers are like throwbacks to another time, with “family-friendly” profanity-free copy, aw-shucks columns and Blondie cartoons. Reading the newspaper is like limiting your television watching to a steady stream of “Leave it to Beaver” reruns. I am sure that for some segments of the population, perhaps for that mysterious “Red State America” out there, this is a good thing. But for me, the pleasure of reading comes from magazines and books.

I’ve been an early adopter of the Internet, and read dozens if not hundreds of stories a month online. But I’ve done so in conjunction with my daily newspaper habit. Over the last year, I’ve grown more pessimistic about the future of the print newspaper, a notion supported by the growing consensus of countless pundits contemplating the crashing earnings and circulation figures flowing out of the once-mighty emperors of ink. For me, the proliferation of the wireless Internet has been the lynchpin, as I’ve become addicted to perpetual connectivity and have seen my lifestyle changing to reflect it. And I’m from the newspaper generation; those behind me lack any allegiance to print.

I decided to go cold turkey for a month and give up print newspaper subscriptions altogether—to try and get my daily news fix from the web, and see what happened.

Day One
Although I look forward to a more varied news diet, and fully expect to dramatically vary my menu as time progresses, I decide to start with the familiar and head to Chicagotribune.com. After reading one of the top news stories about Dick Cheney’s wayward shotgun, I click on what looks like big news on Lollapalooza and get exiled to a login/registration page. I’ve already registered but, of course, can’t remember which password I used, so I have to get it emailed, then login, then back to the home page to get to the story again. Not an auspicious beginning.

I skim and scroll a lot, replacing the similar process of skimming and scanning that I use with my newspaper. Many stories are just headlines, and in most cases, I don’t want to invest the time to click and see if they are interesting. This is especially true of columnists, since I don’t have any particular favorites at the Tribune. In print, I’d scan all the stories and perhaps read something I would not have expected to, based on the headline and the lead paragraph.

Overall, I’m somewhat disoriented, despite the familiarity. I don’t really look at sports, and don’t know where the celeb gossip that I read in print is.

One thing I observe today is that while the news is theoretically as fresh as it can be, “fresh” news seems to be mixed in with older stories, especially on the section pages. I see headlines to stories I read in print Monday, or even Sunday. With print, you might not have the latest news, but you have a built-in sense for how fresh it is, and make mental adjustments. With the web, you rely on posting times, which you usually have to click on a story to see, or you live with confusion. For example, Tom Skilling’s weather forecast today projects a high of 42 and a low of 32, but when you scroll down the page, the seven-day forecast shows a high for today of 52 and a low of 37. Which is the most current forecast? Is one just a keypunch error?

Another observation: with print, you have a somewhat defined beginning and end, which helps contain the time you spend with the news. With the web, there is no such finiteness, allowing you to spend as much or as little time as you want. I fear that this will end up costing me more, not less.

Suntimes.com immediately seems like a better-organized site—like a print tabloid, it’s more linear in its organization, allowing for more methodical scanning of stories. It offers email editions, of which I sign up for several. And quick access to columnists where, unlike the Tribune, I do have favorites.

Day Twelve
It’s almost two weeks since I kicked the print newspaper habit and, truthfully, I’m not feeling any pain, or any more optimistic for the future of the daily newspaper. I still spend as much or more time reading news in the morning, but my consumption has changed fundamentally. I do feel a tad disoriented, like a brand-new vegetarian might feel after a lifetime of carnivorous behavior.

I’ve already settled into a routine. I start every morning with the New York Times, thanks to their email service. They’re in my box long before I get started around 6:30am; the Sun-Times email usually arrives after I’ve finished. So I now take all of my national and international news from the NY Times, as well as most of my cultural coverage. After perusing Doonesbury, Dilbert and Boondocks online, I turn to the Sun-Times for local news and columns. I like the linear organization of the Sun-Times site; it makes for simple and (seemingly) complete navigation. Columnists are listed next to the main news well by name, but only listed if they have a fresh column that day. I read Feder, DeRogatis, Lazare and Zwecker whenever they’re posting. From there I head to the Tribune and see what local news they’ve covered that the Sun-Times didn’t have; usually not much. I check the weather on the Tribune, which is sometimes all I read on the site. Organized a bit like its broadsheet big brother, the Trib’s site doesn’t offer especially friendly navigation. Things I would always read in print—Blair Kamin, local arts and entertainment coverage, takes some effort to find.

I’m a headline reader now. Head and subhead are often enough to get the gist of the story. With print I would likely have scanned the first paragraph at the very least, and often got sucked into the whole story. Now that manual (click) commitment and the time it takes to load the page puts the burden on the headline package to really convince me. I usually just move on. The importance of the headline and teaser are paramount to web news, yet so many stories are given ambiguous one-line treatment that offers the reader no real information. And the craft of writing these little morsels is essential: I get the Salon newsletter every morning with the New York Times, but, as lively as the writing is in the publication, I find little to click through to from the newsletter.
So what’s missing? I sometimes feel a lack of completion; that, in spite of the time I’m spending, there is important news I would have read before that I do not read now. And I often take note, as I walk by the newspaper box on the way to the train, of the modulation in type size of the very headline I’ve earlier read online. When the headline is especially big and bold, the story takes on more importance. That’s a role editors play, using modulation to help readers prioritize the reams of information we’re getting. And one they’re not playing the same way on the web.

Day Thirty-One
Today my month-long “vacation stop” ends, and there is my newspaper, like clockwork, outside my door. I find it easy to return to my routine, with my chair, my paper, my coffee. But something has changed. I’ve grown accustomed to a new manner of digesting news, and especially fond of keeping up with the Sun-Times. And I’m reading the New York Times again, and realizing how much I missed it.

At the suggestion of a Tribune editor a couple of weeks back, I signed up for their email newsletter, Daywatch. It’s a fine product, with its own byline for the veteran Charlie Meyerson, but it has two drawbacks: 1) you have to be a paid Tribune subscriber to get it and 2) it comes out midday rather than early morning.

In fact, it’s possibly too late for the Tribune with me. Habits have already been formed online. I still have my chair and my coffee, but now it’s the laptop. And, of course, all the news sources in the world, a mere click away. The web is a news junkie’s heaven—and hell.

And my print subscription? I cancel it, effective at the end of the month. When I call, the friendly customer-service rep warns me that I’ll lose the perk of my email subscriptions. I can’t help but think that it will actually be their loss.

So are daily newspapers dead? Of course not. But their world is being rocked, and will continue to be rocked, for at least the next decade, after which they won’t look much like my father’s newspaper.

A few years back, I spent many hours on the Internet conference circuit, spending time with the “pure” new media types and the online newspaper folks alike. The newspaper guys were addicted to the mantra that newspapers weren’t going anywhere until you could take your computer to the bathroom with you. It was disheartening on two levels; one, that it seemed to place so much value emphasis on the physical character of the medium, and it did not take a crystal ball to visualize a portable computing future, which was well underway; and two, that it connected its value to bathroom diversion. Fortunately, and unfortunately, you do not hear this argument anymore.

In fact, it is the newspaper, especially in the broadsheet format like the Tribune, that now suffers from an unwieldy format. So much so that the “quality” newspapers in London have made the revolutionary migration to tabloid, a development many foresee in the United States as well.

Earlier this year, a large shareholder knocked the last vestige of complacency out of the newspaper world when it almost nonchalantly called for a sale of Knight-Ridder, one of the nation’s biggest and most respected newspaper companies, and Knight-Ridder complied without much of a fight. The much smaller McClatchy Company emerged victorious, but the whole affair left the industry feeling shakier than ever. In an unusual move, McClatchy CEO Gary Pruitt felt compelled to pen an editorial in the Wall Street Journal that walked the conceptual tightrope of arguing that the future of newspapers was bright, but at that same time he was getting a steal in his purchase of Knight-Ridder. Much of his argument was obvious, self-serving and, in some cases, dubious: comparing the audience of the Super Bowl broadcast on a single television network to the Sunday circulation of the entire newspaper industry, for example. But he raised an interesting point about a larger role played by newspapers in our society:

Self-government depends on continuous civic conversation, which in turn depends on people having a common vocabulary. Without a shared sense of what the problems are, there’s little hope of finding solutions. That shared middle—a place where people basically agree about the facts and the issues, even if they differ over what to do about them—is where we believe our responsibilities as newspaper owners lie.

Pruitt’s point is that the value of the mass media is (or more likely was) simply its mass. I don’t know whether he’s right, anymore than I know whether my life in whole is much better since the Internet changed everything. I just know that it changed everything.

Halftone Clarity

A few notions about the future of newspapers online, some large and some very small, from a newspaper junkie gone cold turkey:

Some newspapers will still be printed for a very long time. Newspapers that survive in print will be the nationals—the New York Times and USA Today—and the specialties: Wall Street Journal for finance, Washington Post for politics, the LA Times for Hollywood. Sounds like Britain, with all its national dailies, doesn’t it? In addition to broadsheets converting to tabloid format, national tabs might emerge at the “lower end.”

Newspapers will survive, and thrive, on the web, but in different ways and at different scales. Like the shrinking department stores who saw market share dwindle once they joined the specialty stores at the mall, so too will specialty web sites carve away key revenue segments (like Craigslist is doing with classifieds). Daily newspapers today are very big companies, and like big ships, they don’t change course very rapidly. Those classified ads that Craig Newmark and Co. have taken away might make more sense on the Internet and the advertisers certainly appreciate getting them for free, but their revenue used to pay a lot of journalist salaries. The revenue underpinnings of print newspapers are complex structures that have evolved over decades, yet are eroding over months. Consequently, newspaper companies are likely to become either much smaller and more specialized or much more diversified at the corporate level if they are to survive.

Like the TV networks these past two decades who saw once-astonishing market penetration dwindle but revenues soar, the newspapers’ proportionate scale in a rapidly fracturing media world will still offer advertising efficiencies to larger entities seeking a “mass” if less demographically attractive audience.

Formatting traditions will continue to evolve as the world gets “flatter.” Unlike newspapers today, which deliver content in a three-dimensional space—the height and width of the page multiplied by the number of pages—the Internet works best in two dimensions. That is, in spite of near-infinite depth, we enter a story through a headline either emailed, sitting on a home page or turning up in a search engine. Headline writing, especially, will evolve as an art form into a mix of wordplay and punchy digest writing.

As newspapers shrink, they might get personality back. Before World War II, newspapers were the domain of larger-than-life press barons like William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer and Chicago’s own Colonel McCormick. Many were relentless and even unscrupulous in their pursuit of stories, of circulation and of profits, and they unabashedly had personalities that matched their owners. As the organizations grew and founders passed on ownership to often-disconnected heirs or public shareholders, the professional journalist came of age. Many of the changes that era brought were for the greater good, and journalism reached its zenith when it helped bring down the corrupt presidency of Richard Nixon. But the cautious commitment to “family values” in the newspaper, matched with an unrealistic ideal of objectivity, turned the professional newspaper into a rather bland, soulless thing. Magazines, whether glossies or alternative weeklies on newsprint like Newcity and the Reader, stepped into that void, establishing more intimate, more committed relationships with their audiences. Online, newspapers will give up the advantages gained in the postwar era; advantages of scale and subscriber inertia. Online, brand loyalty is a frictionless click away.

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