20 November 2008

I heard the news today, oh boy

Here's my personal reaction to a film I saw at Starz Denver Film Festival last weekend:

Stop the Presses! The American Newspaper in Peril

As a home-based worker (a writer and mom) I rely heavily on the newspaper for my initial hit of what's happening in my world. I straddle two major demographics as I have my feet planted firmly in both the print and online worlds. In the audience during the panel discussion that followed the screening of Stop the Presses!, Mark Birnbaum and Manny Mendoza's documentary about the decline of the newspaper industry and the need for new solutions for its ills, I saw how vast the gulf between those two worlds can be.

Listening to that panel discussion, I arrived at my own personal conclusion about all this talk of newspapers losing their audiences, the single-copy subscribers: I have had it up to my eartops with being lumped in with any other enormous group, whether it's the dinosaurs who only read newspapers and magazines, or it's Generations X and Y, who get their news exclusively online, or from talking with friends. We're not so one-dimensional, we the people. Take me for an example: I get the local daily delivered to my door, the Sunday New York Times, The New Yorker comes to my mailbox weekly, and I read books I check out from the library. We don't get cable nor do we have a TV in our living room, so we don't watch much, and what we do watch is mostly Netflix DVDs (I still feel badly for abandoning my local shop).

But I have also started using social media tools like Facebook and Twitter of late, which means I get and can provide instant updates whenever I want them whatever or whomever I choose to befriend or “follow” as long as they “tweet” or post brief messages on Twitter. Along with trolling for periodic updates by intriguing and popular people, I also signed up for CNN, NPR, BBC, and a few other newsgathering organizations. I am not much interested in watching movies on my iPhone but would consider watching TV episodes that way. I'm too cheap to buy a lot of stuff from iTunes. I still like to have the CDs for music I like, although I can see how those days are numbered. I still like having a physical artifact. I also prefer to do my crossword puzzles in pencil; doing them online isn't quite as satisfying.

See what I mean?

How will newspapers attract and keep readers like me, who value a variety of information streams and formats, without condescending to us or trying to give us too much of what we don't want or need? How can they make their news feeds indispensable, and get a return on their investment of staff salaries and benefits? Stop the Presses! doesn't answer the question, but it doesn't make any condescending presumptions, to its credit. I for one am anxiously waiting, watching, and even examining how I can personally can help solve this problem. It still seems like the world is still waiting for that killer news app.

One person during the panel said an argument has been advanced by an NYU prof that "there is no business model for newspapers, because there's nothing else like them.” Suddenly I feel we're getting warmer. What if that were the one assumption we took back to the empty drawing board? That whatever the model, it may not look anything like the previous one. What would we do differently? How can we support the Third Estate as one of the important pillars of our social world and reward people appropriately for the effort and risks involved in reporting stories? I think folks like Spot.Us and The Poynter Institute are on the right track; it's just convincing individuals that it's in their best interests to buy investigative reporting as well as books on Amazon and trinkets on eBay. A tough row to hoe in this barren climate.

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