Monday, March 2, 2009


YOU CAN KEEP THE BONES: It’s official now. Every columnist and blogger in the nation and the state has put in their two cents about the demise of newspapers.

And even those that pillory the commercial media mourn the death of the technology that has been its chief enabler.

Certainly something will be lost as the corporate media consolidation continues it’s dirty work The only question is do we keep the bathwater and tub along with the baby?

Newspaper reporters’ resumes litter the job websites. Many either find PR work, start their novels or go on-line and work for free. Or they wait tables.

There are many reasons expounded upon as to why news dailies are dying and most center around the lack of adaptability of the advertising-supported business model inherent in the new on-line news world.

But local and regional newspapers have had a dirty little secret for at least a decade. In-depth investigative daily coverage of business and government has been replaced in our cup by freeze-dried crystals of pap and fluff seasoned flavor enhanced with blood and sex.

Oh sure they still give out Pulitzers every year. But there are far fewer eligible articles and series and the ones that do win are no, er, prize-winners but rather usually a result of a reporter stumbling upon a disaster, finding a tear to jerk or skewering some other equally insipid subject matter..

Locally, among the dozens of Honolulu Advertiser and Star-Bulletin firings (ok-layoffs) in the last few years are some of the best reporters around. But any one of them will tell you they never did get to do any investigative pieces – or even got to cover those types of stories.

The truth is that if a story isn’t a very short burst of “now” information– preferably with a couple of “he said she said” opposing quotes- editors at both papers don’t want it

Result? Over the last few years you can count the number of investigative news pieces on one hand.

There were probably two last year- Rob Perez’s charities piece and Derrick DePledge’s Superferry document prowl. And neither was really more than a on-and-off.

Even the political coverage at the papers is horrible – both Richard Borreca at the Star Bulletin and Jerry Burris at the Advertiser are dry as dust and less perceptive and incisive in their coverage. Their analyses make conventional wisdom look like radical rants.

Certainly some if not many of those reporters on the unemployment lines are no big loss to the profession. If they land a flack-catching job as a mouthpiece for a big polluter or a corrupt pol it’s because that’s probably appropriate given the kind of journalist they were.

But there are experienced reporters out there who do have the skills- and the fire in the belly- it take to take on powerful authorities and speak truth to them.

Many keep their chops up on-line where they find out another open secret- there is not now and there never will be a way to transfer the commercial and advertising model from newspaper dailies to on-line news.

We keep hearing that the oxymoronic :”newspaper web sites” haven’t figured out a way to get enough advertising revenue on-line.. yet. But that’s simply the physical nature of the beast and the fact that no one has come up with one apparently means there just isn’t one.

You can force the eye to an ad in a newspaper because just the act of turning the page and looking for the article causes the reader to have to examine the page just to find the article. Not so on a computer screen where one can more easily focus only on the central list of content on an index page or the one-article-per-page text and never really “see” even the one or two ads on a page,

As the future unfolds the only way an original news proving web site is going to survive is that we are going to have to start paying for it.

The big question is, what is “it”.. Is it that crap that passes for reporting these days packaged around, the latest gruesome car crash, the murder of the day, the baby with a terminal disease and “news” of the wonderful new restaurant down the block?... and don’t forget weather, sports, entertainment and Sudoku.

The “important” stuff in commercial newspapers has already died in many places such as where local papers on the mainland contract out coverage of their government meetings via TV to India. And what is reported is provided sans context.

Well guess what?- no one’s gonna pay for that. It’s too ubiquitous and anyone can provide it. And it’s not like that’s the kind of “news” for which we need three different views or want to avoid having a single voice reporting upon.

But that’s a good thing Because if they’ll pay for anything what people will pay for is good in depth and investigative reporting. That’s something they can’t even get now- perhaps when they see it again they’ll remember what it was.

As luck would have it everything is lined up to help make a venture to provide that service- the one thing that all the pundits agree on is people will actually miss when commercial newspapers die.

First of all there just happens to be a glut of good experienced reporters ready willing and able to do that kind of reporting.

Second it just so happens that the means of physical production involved in the “business” of providing news has made the switch away from requiring hard assets like printing presses and office buildings (and transportation to get there) that consume a forest of paper and oceans of ink every day. It now requires little more than people sitting in home offices linked by computers and telephones.

The business models possible in this new world are many and varied, By the piece or by salary, any model from a corporate owner-editor-reporter system to a co-op or consortium of reporters to a non-profit, reader-sponsored entity- or anything in between- could succeed..

Today Denver, tomorrow Seattle, next week San Francisco. As newspapers disappear- and their web sites with them- the content people are looking for is going to settle into two on-line groupings.

First is the commercial stuff where most of what is reported today will most likely stay free. Business and government have an interest in keeping that kind of drivel going and for the most part it is interchangeable. It’s not hard to produce and any number of entities who will continue to do it.

They will find a way to provide the bread and circuses for those who crave it and we have confidence that even if advertising dies they’ll do it, as they do now already, through content.

And even if there’s only one source, no big loss. One crossword puzzle or movie review in one paper isn’t that much different than the next and the need for more than one “voice” escapes us..

All that will leave is something minimal like $5 a month looking like a good price for the kind of local and regional reporting that comes with lots of legwork, sitting through hours of meetings and some mind-numbing document rummaging... all the stuff that costs money to pay reporters to do it.

As, as luck would have it that’s the stuff that fulfils the reason d'etre for a free press which we all hold to be essential.

If 1/10th of the people “subscribe” in a region of a million people, $6 million a year should be plenty to hire a few dozen reporters and editors and buy some computers with broadband connections, all with enough left over for a Lexis-Nexis subscription..

We doubt those who are qualified will read this and jump head long into a brave news world. But as the circumstances move from future tense to the present perfect it just might be the only way for real reporting to survive.

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