Monday, May 16, 2011

No News is Bad News

Peter D. flipped open his morning paper and scanned the headlines as he sipped his coffee.  He shook his head and clucked in dismay, causing him to dribble coffee on his shirt.

Here is the opening paragraph from a front page story in today's The New York Times:

ATHENS — His face contorted with anguish, Anargyros D. recounted how he had lost everything in the aftermath of the Greek economic collapse — the food-processing factory founded by his father 30 years ago, his house, his car, his Rolex, his pride and now, he said, his will to live.

and here's one from today's The Boston Globe:

WALTHAM — Lights dimmed, a hush fell over the hallway as Nicole Porter, cradling Ava in her arms, walked gingerly toward the powerful imaging equipment that would allow researchers to peer into her baby's developing brain.

These are both from the dead tree editions, but the online versions featured the same text, as of this morning.

These are both prestigious newspapers, with large circulations, multiple Pulitzer Prizes, etc.  Yet they both have front page stories (below the fold) that start with anecdotes about random strangers.  We don't know who Anargyros D. or Nicole Porter are and, ultimately, most of us don't care.   This style of journalism dates from the days when writers were paid by the word, so Dickens could begin a story with a list of oxymorons ("It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ...")  The days when newspapers still had the "The" in their titles. The days when people sat on the front porch of the general store, feet up on the pickle barrel, and swapped stories.

Actually, I don't know anyone who's ever done that, but you get the idea.  This is journalism for people with free time.  Not just free time, but free attention span.  People who can say to themselves, "Gee, I wonder who Anargyros D. and Nicole Porter are, and what will become of them."  In a sense, it's for people willing to be led by the writer or editor.

But with today's media, nobody wants to be led by a writer.  We want to pick and choose our news, scan it quickly for important points, and move on.  We want photos, graphics, and short videos and animation, since they're quicker to absorb.  Not like TV news, which is all fires and rapes.  We still want hard news, but it's got to be in fast-acting caplets.  (Oh, and it shouldn't challenge our existing beliefs and opinions.)

That, as much as cost, is why newspapers are so threatened by new media.

Sorry if I took up too much of your time.

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