Thursday, August 30, 2012

A sign of the times, as another U.S. newspaper proves it can read the writing on the wall

MGRR News Analysis -
They're cleaning out their desks in Harrisburg, and polishing those resumes

*Updated Jan. 31, 2013*
True, this story has nothing to do with Mexico and Gulf Region affairs, but it will be of interest to anyone and everyone who expects to find breaking news and hot coffee on the kitchen table every morning.

It used to be that people walked out to the front stoop to pick up their news - literally. In my case, I was accustomed to walking a quarter mile up a gravel road to find my rag, the then Miami County Republic, stuffed in my rural mail box (sometimes together with my neighbor's mail). I could read about the Paola High School homecoming queen, or a couple's 60th wedding anniversary, or the tragic demise of a carload of teenagers who failed to yield at the wooden cross bucks and so met their Maker, courtesy of BNSF.

In the glorious springs and summers typical of eastern Kansas, a breath of clean, sweet air on the short walk to my morning news was refreshing and invigorating. In the icy grip of winter, under leaden skies which admitted a gloomy diffused light from dawn to dusk, it was much less so. All of that changed when we learned about a miracle called the internet (invented by Al Gore, in case you didn't know). Trips to the mailbox were replaced by long strings of DOS start-up commands in the language of BASIC, which only techies could understand.

Today the world gets its news electronically, in every language known to mankind. The consumer's demand for continual fresh content is insatiable. Readers are hopelessly addicted to late-breaking information (and hopelessly spoiled on it, too), and if a news peddler can't supply it, they'll simply go elsewhere. Just a decade ago a popular saying was, "nothing's older than yesterday's news." Today that saying is, "nothing's older than the news from an hour ago" (or maybe less).

Printed newspapers have of course borne the brunt of the burden inherent in this relentless advance of technology, and dozens of them have failed in recent years. This week another one did so, for all practical purposes. The Harrisburg Patriot-News announced its hard copy edition will be reduced to three days a week next year. Here's a bite from the official message to the local community and staff:

"The Patriot-News will change its print schedule to three days a week beginning in January 2013. At the same time, the organization will intensify its online and digital news-gathering efforts 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The newspaper will continue to publish on Sundays. The other two days of publication will be determined after gathering input from readers and advertisers."

Not only is the newspaper largely abandoning ship, it's even going to allow readers and commercial sponsors to tell it when to show up on local newsstands. A more humbling business experience one can hardly contemplate. With the collapse of the printed version, surely many jobs will go as well.

This won't be the last such announcement in the American newspaper industry, which seems to have suffered much more than the traditional press in many other nations (including Mexico, where printed papers continue to thrive, probably due to customers' habits and news reading preferences).

All of this is more bad news for U.S. journalists, who these days are understandably preoccupied with updating their CVs. The news belongs to no one - or perhaps it's more accurate to say that the news belongs to everyone - and consumers of the product increasingly understand that a corporate logo above a reporter's by-line means nothing. Last week many U.S. papers and news services, including the big boys like AP and McClatchy ("McClatchy . . . Trusted Voices"), reported the names and ages of the two American officials who were injured when their armored "diplomatic" vehicle was shot up by Mexican troops, in what is now referred to as the Tres Marías incident. Trouble is, those names were CIA pseudonyms, as the Washington Post reported yesterday. Sure, in fairness, it takes time for an unfolding story to be thoroughly investigated and vetted. But the point is that those who believe that a big-name news source invariably has "inside information" not available to the little guy are deluding themselves. And sometimes the most prestigious news sources inexcusably get the story wrong.

Additionally, the line of demarcation between the traditional press and those it should be investigating continues to erode everywhere, even in the United States, and for reasons which often are crassly commercial. Independents are far less likely to cross that line, because doing so gains them nothing.

Modern "newspapers" are rapidly becoming little more than an amalgamation of topic-focused blogs. An excellent example is the wildly successful Huffington Post. Moreover, the electronic format of an enterprise (three column vs. two column, like the Mexico Gulf Region Reporter), has utterly nothing to do with the quality of the content delivered to the news consumer. I loved grandma's three layer red velvet Christmas cakes for the cake, not for the cherry on top (and I loved even two layer versions).

Those who fail to see the new model for news delivery will fail, and many already have. The Patriot-News recognized it just in the nick of time, and so will be officially counted as a survivor. But it will no longer be the same vehicle, and its readers will no longer have to trudge up that snowy gravel road.

May 31, 2013 - Chicago Sun-Times pink slips its entire photo staff
Feb. 14, 2013 - You get what you pay for: a lesson McClatchy is determined to learn the hard way

Dec. 30 - Follow Mexico with MGRR in 2013 - the best is yet to come
June 27 - A free press, independent journalism and who's NOT paying the tab

Oct. 6 - El Pais, Spain's most important newspaper and one of the most prestigious in Europe, has announced the layoffs of up to 150 employees, about a third of its work force. Shrinking advertising revenues is the culprit, said its president yesterday. More proof of a dying medium. Nowadays people buy print newspapers to clean windows, not to read them.

Oct. 18 - Yet another big player bites the dust. The Associated Press reports this morning that "Newsweek plans to end its print publication after 80 years, and will shift to an all-digital format aimed at online users starting in early 2013. Job cuts are expected. Newsweek's last U.S. print edition will be its Dec. 31 issue. With more consumers on the go, media organizations have had to increasingly shift more of their emphasis online."

Nov. 8 - El Pais releases 128 journalists and pushes another 21 into early retirement.

Dec. 7 - The respected Financial Times Deutscland (German Financial Times) has closed its doors after 12 years in business. It printed one final edition today, with a black front page. FTD had 314 journalists and 50 production employees, all of whom are out of a job. The journal's webpage will remain in existence for awhile, but no new content will be added.

Dec. 14 - The Kansas City Star, a McClatchy newspaper, is now charging for access to online content - "beginning at just 99 cents," it says. I've been reading the Star since the 1960s, but now is as good a time as any to quit. The company must be desperate to earn some revenue, but the plan may backfire. The Star is virtually devoid of original content, and the city's once ridiculed alternative paper, The Pitch, frequently offers more creative and authentic journalism - for free. Little wonder that McClatchy shares are trading for under three bucks.

Jan. 31 - Time magazine has announced that it will cut 500 employees. There's noting older than printed news.

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