Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Big Peach & The Demise of Newspapers

Poynter has posted an essay written by the late John Walter, a founding editor of USA Today, in which he blames three people for newspapers' demise. It's a good read by an intelligent writer. I'm not sure I agree with all of it, but Walter makes several salient points, which Charles Batchelor nicely summarizes in the comments section:

1) It's not wise to discount the product and then ask people to value it. People expect the price to the price.

2) Many newspaper publishers (& especially their ad staffs) in many one paper markets became "dull as dog poop" because they ere arrogant, greedy and lazy after the merger mania. (This did and continues to make the web even more appealing than it would have been otherwise.)

3) Features with pretty pictures are easier and more fun to do that hard news, but many newspapers will not invest in the creative talent to pull it off in a compelling way, and instead are "soft and squishy as hell."

4) Investors are looking for the best return, not just a good return. If one day brass widgets make more money than publishing, that will be the day "when Wall Street wasn't going to love" newspapers. Short term investors are a problem for every firm--including newspapers.

One of the people Walter blames is a layout editor at The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal. This also caught my eye:

And there was the San Francisco Chronicle, which had large headline type, too, and a sports section printed on green paper and a classified section printed on bright yellow paper.

When I was growing up, The Des Moines Register published its sports section on peach colored paper, at least on Sundays. It became known as the Big Peach. I did not know other papers did similar things. I don't recall seeing it an another paper. I'm really sorry they stopped.

And, just like that, newspapers started to abandon the ugly, hodgepodge look of their vertical columns and went into the magazine business.

They lost, thereby, a sense of urgency, and the thing that made them look like, well, newspapers. And it got worse; eventually layout editors were replaced by something called design directors, and design directors took to running pictures of large vegetables, first in black and white and later in color, and newspapering went all soft and squishy as hell.

I've long enjoyed looking at old newspapers on microfilm, mainly because their design seemed so much more "newsy" when stories weren't spread across multiple columns. Perhaps its just nostalgia, for that is the design I grew up with, even in my hometown daily. Of course, the newspaper page used to be much larger. I'm not speaking of tabloid format. No paper I read as a child through college published in that format.

Today's Springfield News-Leader looks much more like a small college paper or a small town weekly than a metro daily. I understand the economics behind the changes, and I suppose I should be happy fewer trees must be cut to make today's papers. But I wonder if these changes haven't weakened the metro newspapers' standing in their communities, and contributed to their demise.