Tuesday, July 07, 2009
New Media Madness
I stopped taking the local newspaper a few weeks ago. After I recognized how much I was spending per month for the privilege of subscribing to something I read for perhaps five minutes a day, it didn't make much sense to keep it going. Like many Americans, I get most of my news over the internet these days. My reasons why are many. Over the past several years, my hometown paper, The Birmingham News, has been increasingly full of ad content in place of actual hard news. Not only that, the quality and scope of the veritable journalistic institution, which in its heyday was the gold standard of all Alabama newspapers, has begun to suffer mightily.
I noticed this disturbing lack of professionalism both in the writing and in the routine copy editing. Pictures were sometimes captioned incorrectly and the content of the paper increasingly took the form of short one-to-two paragraph blurbs when I was expecting in-depth analysis instead. If the intent was to emulate the country's worst (in my humble opinion) designed newspaper, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, they could not have done a better job of it. Additionally, I've already noticed how, while engaged in conversation with others, people I've talked to increasingly do not refer by name or subject to the op-ed columns written by the paper's stalwart voices, meaning either that they aren't reading them or find other voices much more compelling and informative. Before, people often based their own opinions on a controversial issue on the opinion of the local mouthpiece. I've noted such things in people of all ages, even those who likely keep their subscriptions current, as I did, for no other reason than force of habit.
Most newspapers have been suffering mightily to stay afloat over the years. Birmingham once had the ability to support two papers. I first began to notice the move towards downsizing when the evening Post Herald was dismantled some four years ago, very much following a trend of consolidation that has befallen most large American cities. I find it fascinating that at the turn of the Twentieth Century almost every major U.S. city had more than one paper, and sometimes three or four. Not anymore. Increasingly I also have been reflecting on how generational differences are partially to blame for this change. The younger-than-age thirty set never read the newspaper with the zealousness of generations before them or, for that matter, any regularity. For people my parents' generation and older, the morning newspaper ritual was enmeshed into the proverbial cultural fabric as the morning coffee. From the beginning, most people my age took their news from television, and then embraced the internet when it arrived. I was one of the few in my age group who waited eagerly for the latest print edition to land on the driveway following a busy news day or major sporting event.
Lest you think otherwise, this is not some ode to a Golden Age now growing extinct. Newspapers and the people who ran them had plenty of warning and plenty of time to prepare for the new wave of New Media in the form of electronic publication. Instead, they clung stubbornly to old ideas and resisted embracing internet-based journalism until it began to cut severely into their bottom lines. My local paper, for example, has made a tentative commitment to an electronic edition, but still refuses to make their entire daily edition available online. Part of their behavior is understandable. They built a brand new building at probably the worst economic time imaginable and now are in a panic to pay for it. Desperately clinging to an increasingly aging readership is what they and many papers are banking on for the future, even if they've had to make appalling cuts in wages, hours, and benefits to their workers to do so. The Birmingham News, for example, used to be well-known for being a great place to work. Now the sea change in the industry combined with the recession has gutted its resources to such an extent that it, like many of the dailies, is fighting to stay alive.
Those of us who are part of this New Media revolution have frequently been the target of established media outlets who decry us for our amateurism. And while it is true that some people use the internet to advance unfounded gossip, resort to hyperbole when restraint would be a much better strategy, let innuendo suffice for solid facts, and willfully violate all the time-honored truths of Journalism 101, the irony is that, due to budget deficits, the print media, among others, has been forced to resort to amateurish tactics themselves. It's not been just the gatekeepers themselves who have broken established codes of conduct. A new generation of politicians seems unwilling to work within established channels. The example that comes to mind is that of Sarah Palin's recent announcement that she was stepping down as Alaska's governor, which violated every rule in the book in its timing, delivery, message, and intent. I agree it was also a very bizarre event, but I believe it to be a harbinger of times to come. Depending on what you hold true, we are becoming an informal society to the point of madness, or we are challenging the constraints of rules, both written and unwritten. It's a Brave New World out there, and what cannot be refuted is that whatever comes next will be vastly different than what came before it.