Redesign your way to relevancy?

Newspapers hemorrhaging readers, reporters

Today's Los Angeles Times carries a frightening analysis of the future of daily newspapers, "Black and White and Read by Fewer." The story is pegged to the announcement of mass layoffs at prestigious dailies around the country and to the release of data showing exactly how precipitous newspapers' circulation declines really are.

An industrywide circulation drop of 1.9 percent for the six months ended in March was one of the biggest in recent times and continued a fairly consistent two-decade decline. Daily newspaper circulation has fallen nearly 9 million from its 1984 peak of 63.3 million, while the U.S. population has grown by about 58 million. The country lost 306 daily papers, 17 percent of the total, between 1960 and last year.

A Media Management Center study reached an even more alarming conclusion regarding younger readers--estimating that by 2010, only 9 percent of those in their 20s will read a newspaper every day.

A dramatic flight of advertising has followed the circulation losses--with classified ad revenue dropping 15 percent from 2000 to 2004--dragged down largely by an almost 50 percent decline in employment advertising.

Especially on the (literal) eve of the Star Tribune's youth- and soccer-mom-targeted redesign, there are so many, many things to be said about this. And perhaps we here in City Pages' newsroom should schedule a round of Rock, Paper, Scissors to decide who should write the exhaustive feature story on The Future of Our Media. We could say a lot about profit margins, the long-term effects of non-local ownership, no-jump policies, and the fact that Katherine Kersten makes us lonely for Kim Ode in unanticipated ways.

But just at the moment, I can't stop thinking about an exchange I overheard in June in a bright blue Super Shuttle packed with reporters and editors headed to the airport from the hotel in Denver where a conference had just ended. It was 4:00 in the morning, the sun was just beginning to rise, and the Rockies were, as ever, proof of the divine, and yet in the front seat an editor from Detroit was yammering on about her paper's intended redesign. The possibility she might wield some hiring authority was probably the reason a 20-something from a paper somewhere near Bay City or Saginaw managed to seem engrossed.

The editor's paper was undergoing a redesign that sounded pretty familiar. New presses had been ordered, and as a result, the actual paper was going to become narrower. The skinnier front page was being recast in a way that sounded something like a menu: It would no longer carry any stories per se, but rather a jillion little tastes of the day's mix. There would be indexes and summaries and--here she sighed and nodded--an ad. The rationale for all of this was to create "points of entry" for as many kinds of readers as possible, especially young people, she said. And gosh--that made her wonder, what was this young man hearing about newspapers from his peers?

Poor kid, he started trying to soft-sell the truth. None of his friends read the paper, he said. They find it boring and irrelevant and hard work to get through. The editor was prepared for this, and countered that it was too bad they were too self-absorbed to grasp the importance of public affairs.

The young reporter bit. His pals weren't shallow, he tried to reply, they read deeply, online, in magazines and books, on topics that interested them. They just found the daily paper boring. The paper had comics, the editor countered, and a policy of encouraging reporters to use anecdotal leads--those two or three paragraphs at the start of a story that describe a person's plight, usually with loads of milquetoast pathos, before sliding in the inevitably predictable segue to the news peg: Shadrack Q. Roundy is just one of several hundred Rotarian glue-sniffers who, until recently, suffered in silence....

Even at dawn, it takes an hour to get from downtown Denver to the airport, and the woman pontificated the whole way on the sorry state of today's youth. As she yapped, she allowed as how her newspaper would need fewer writers when it had been reinvented, how they would tell fewer stories, and the stories they told would be shorter. To make room for more points of entry, I inferred. And, I guessed--to get back to the LA Times story we started with--to find ways to cope with the layoffs that are forcing talent out of newsrooms. Not once did she mention passion, or energy, or anything that amounted to more than trying to make a shrinking newspaper all things to all people.

Here's what I wanted to tell her: The only risk I heard mentioned was the positioning of an ad on the paper's front page. The rest sounded a lot like the kind of packaging you see on cable lifestyle shows--you know, where two minutes of home-improvement or makeover action is sandwiched in between two minutes of recapping of everything that happened before the last commercial break and then of everything to remember while the next flight of commercials are airing. It's the media equivalent of putting bread in the hamburger to stretch it the way our parents did in the beef shortage of the '70s. There was no grit in her reality.

I'd been at another conference the month before where a gifted writer who worked for the paper in question had told me that he had spent weeks working on a story about two lesbians who had adopted a Russian girl only to realize a year later that she was pining for her best friend from the orphanage where she'd spent her early years. The writer chronicled the women's efforts to women track down and adopt the second orphan. His magazine-length account made his editors cry. Not so much, however, that they stopped to really think before they cut two-thirds of the story and sent him back out to find some racially diverse straight families who were adopting, too, so as not to make it seem like they were catering to lesbians.

There's a lot of talent over on Portland Avenue--and a lot of overthinking. I can't wait to see what tomorrow's Strib brings. Can you?

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