At a Tuesday rally marking the demise of the print edition of the Seattle P-I (and the bulk of its newsroom) Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat showed solidarity with his fellow journalists, telling them “It’s not your fault.” You didn’t create the Internet, Westneat assured his fallen colleagues, and you didn’t destroy the business model that had long supported print media.
And on one level, Danny’s absolutely right. The P-I’s staff isn’t out on the street due to anything they did wrong, and they certainly didn’t lose their long struggle with the Times because they produced an inferior product. Hearst blinked first; had they not, it could have been Danny being consoled by friends Tuesday evening rather than the other way around.
“The Seattle P-I may be going out of business, but the Times is an equally troubled company, and possibly even more troubled,” said Alan Mutter, a former newspaper editor and Silicon Valley chief executive who writes the Reflections of a Newsosaur blog.
But on another level, Westneat’s elegy is consistent with a profound sense of denial that seems to afflict the entire news industry, and is crippling its efforts to effectively respond to dramatic changes in technology, economics and consumer tastes. Yeah, sure… the P-I’s collapse isn’t the fault of its former staffers, any more than the dedicated, industrious craftsmen of the buggy whip industry can be blamed for their own economic displacement a century before, but to merely fault the Internet or a broken business model misses a larger point: newspapers are losing subscribers and advertisers because they have not been giving customers what they want… at least, not something for which they are willing to pay a high enough price to sustain current operations.
And I hate to get all Adam Smith-y on my friends in the newspaper biz, but isn’t that the way the market is supposed to work?
I’m sure it is comforting to blame Google and Craig’s List or even the woeful mismanagement of your corporate overlords (the Times’ own finances would not be nearly as precarious if Frank Blethen had not over-leveraged the family business to finance his ill-advised invasion of their ancestral homeland), but for all the chatter about business models, I’ve seen very little self-examination amongst working journalists about reimagining the product itself. I’m not talking about layout or redesigns or ink versus electrons, but actual, you know, words. I just don’t hear much talk from journalists about reevaluating their devotion to the sort of flat, objective, personalityless, dispassionate prose that has long made the news pages of the Times and the P-I virtually indistinguishable from one another… and nearly every other major daily.
Don’t get me wrong; I love newspapers. As a child of Watergate I grew up worshipping journalists as heros. But by golly, much of what we read in the papers has always been godawful boring, even when the subject matter is not. Forget for a moment all the brainstorming about new ways to present, distribute and monetize journalism, and focus instead on the reporting itself. Surely there’s more than one way to cover an event, and more than a little room for even the best reporters to grow as writers, but there’s been almost zero innovation in terms of the craft of reporting since the beginning of the J-school era. Tastes have changed, but the daily newspaper most definitely has not.
Let the business model brainstorming continue, but in the meanwhile editors need to give, and reporters need to embrace, the freedom and encouragement to innovate both in substance and style. For if you simply keep pushing the same-old, same-old in the face of market rejection, at some level, at least partially, it really will be your fault after all.