Pile the dead-tree media on the pyre

A Canadian blogger, David Eaves, and I have been exchanging views on the newspaper industry. I doubt from his posts that he quite grasps the points I’ve tried to make, but that can wait for another day. What interests me at the moment is a comment by one of his readers:

“Couldn't agree more re the (non) importance of dead-tree media or corporate journalism.”

This comes at about the same time that Alan Mutter announced on Newsosaur that he would not longer approve media-bashing comments on his blog. But he offered one last specimen of the genre, a masterpiece that will repay your attention. You can almost see the spittle gathering in the corners of the author’s mouth.

The Internet is filling up with that sort of commentary, in which reliance on cliches about “dead-tree media” and “dinosaurs” masquerades as analysis.

There are a few things to be kept in mind during this crisis in the business.

Many newspapers are still making money. The biggest problem at the moment is that corporations — which relied too much on economies of scale in running multiple newspapers and counted injudiciously on continued profit margins of 20 to 30 percent — got caught with an enormous debt load as the recession accelerated the loss of revenue. There are many papers that are operationally profitable but unable to meet the payments on corporate debt. Whether they will survive the recession and in what form are questions of some urgency.

The other point that gets overlooked is that newspapers still have readers. True, they are readers subjected to the contempt of the electronically fashion-forward, but they are still customers and presumably have every right to receive information in their preferred medium. (I’m not a Luddite. I’m delighted to be able to look things up in the texts of books that are increasingly available on the Internet, but as I move steadily through Robert Remini’s 786-page biography of Henry Clay, I prefer reading it in a book printed from dead trees, and I’ll thank you not to sneer at the choice.)

Moreover, newspapers have a multitude of readers of their electronic texts. There’s this one, for example. Elizabeth Large has tens of thousands of readers of her restaurant blog every day, and the death this week of one of her readers has produced an outpouring of shared grief. Read about the passing of Robert (the Single One), and then tell me that newspapers can’t create interactive communities of readers.

Not that newspapers lack for faults. Let’s be clear: I have been looking at corporate journalism from the inside for nearly 30 years. I have witnessed asinine decisions and colossal ineptitude in management. I have worked for newspapers that not only produced low-grade writing — excessive reliance on handouts and press releases, sloppy fact-checking, shoddy grammar and usage, reliance on cliche and jargon, and egregious self-indulgence by would-be belle-lettrists who imagined themselves to be Flaubert — but expressed pride in the product and awarded themselves prizes for it.

(God be praised that the Internet has spared us all that.)

But over the past three decades I have worked alongside scores of copy editors who have fought a daily rear-guard action against error and opacity and excess. Our victories have never been total, but you have no idea how much we accomplish unless you see the “before” product as well as the “after,” and nobody wants that.

You dead-tree- and dinosaur-denouncing people, perhaps you could to take a moment to tell me what happens after you have tossed the last newspaper onto the bonfire. Where is the money to come from — wages and benefits — to support people to gather the information that newspaper reporters have done? Who is going to edit that information to give you some assurance of its reliability and clarity? How is it going to be presented to you in a compact and — let’s say it —user-friendly form?

When you figure all that out, I can steer you to some qualified copy editors who can help you turn out a better product than you would otherwise have achieved.



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