Newspapers: “Woe is me”

I guess Don Luzzatto got up on the wrong side of the bed. His Friday editorial in The Virginian Pilot was an interesting juxtaposition of how a movie company is like a newspaper (huh?) thinly disguised as an attack on bloggers. I’m not sure what someone slipped in his latte but despite “how many people spend their day keeping [him] from looking like a fool,” the rant made up for it.

Unpaid bloggers are not going to donate a Tuesday night to watch a four-hour hearing on the tax rate, and then a couple of hours more to communicate what they saw to everyone else. They’re not going to slog through 400 pages of documents to figure out that a city employee spent public money on new tires. Let alone do that over and over again.

I don’t know what blogs Luzzatto has been reading but the Virginia blogosphere is full of examples of bloggers doing exactly that. But bloggers aren’t the problem, Don. We are just a small part of the evolution. Just as TV eclipsed radio, so has the internet eclipsed newspapers. Radio isn’t gone, though, and newspapers don’t have to become extinct, either.

I subscribe to The Virginian Pilot . I have for about as long as I’ve lived in Norfolk – 30 years next month. (Not being a morning person, I actually used to subscribe to the afternoon paper, The Ledger-Star.) And I read the paper every day. Do I read it the same way I did 30 years ago? No. The primary reason my reading habits have changed is because the content of the newspaper has changed. I actually read the same stuff in the paper today as I always have – the local news, the obituaries, the op-ed page – but there’s just a lot less of that in the paper now than it used to be. More and more of the Pilot is a reprint of other newspaper articles, generally stuff I’ve seen online before it gets reprinted. Before the internet, most folks didn’t have access to The Washington Post or The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, or even The Richmond Times-Dispatch. We had to rely on the Pilot to read George Will or Molly Ivins or E J Dionne. That is no longer the case, yet the Pilot continues to act as if it were.

The availability of information over the internet is not the fault of bloggers. The news organizations are all pushing their content out that way. Heck, I have an AP feed in my sidebar, for goodness sake! Don’t blame the bloggers for using that information. Besides, I think you give blogs too much credit. Most folks, even those who get a lot of their news on the internet, have never even read a blog. (According to Wikipedia, the 2007 circulation of the Pilot was nearly 200,000 readers a day, more than that on Sunday. The largest blogs in Virginia average about 1.5% of that. And you’re worried about blogs? Maybe down the road, but not today.)

I have said before that I think newspapers in general and the Pilot in particular have got to remake themselves in this changing environment. More than anything, the newspapers have to become relevant again. Newspapers have to give us what we can’t get elsewhere. I can think of two things.

One – education. That huge story on DePaul that was on the cover of Sunday’s Business section? Pretty graphics and not a single new piece of information. Even the quotes were the same. How about explaining the process by which hospitals are given beds, Norfolk’s role in the selection process, etc.? How about a story about the Dillon Rule, given that I read LTEs almost daily that say “when I lived in (XXX), we did (YYY),” yet no one explains why it can’t be done here. (Of course, this also assumes that your reporters understand this stuff. But that’s why you pay them the big bucks, right?)

Two – concentrate on local. I can’t emphasize this enough. I’m quite familiar with the adage “if it bleeds, it leads,” but does the bulk of the local coverage have to be crime or wrongdoing? To read the Pilot is to come away with the impression that we live in a crime-ridden area and all of the local government is incompetent or corrupt. Give us some stories about government working as it should. And since regionalism is important, ditch the separate local sections (Compass, Clipper, etc) and bring that stuff back into the main paper.

Doing this well – covering local news, commenting on it – takes an expensive organization.

Well, then, put those resources to good use.

I know that many at the Pilot are concerned about it being for sale. And I have no doubt that this issue was weighing on Don’s mind when he wrote his op-ed. But the folks at the Pilot need to take a good look at their operation and make the changes necessary. The paper’s survival depends on it.

And Don – stop picking on bloggers 😉

UPDATE 07/10: It has been pointed out to me that I misspelled Don’s name in this post. I have fixed it, as well as fixed the spelling in the comments below, since no doubt all of you used my error in making your comments. (Of course, being that the Pilot manages to misspell my name at least 90% of the time, I probably should have just left it alone 😉 )

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11 thoughts on “Newspapers: “Woe is me”

  1. The striking line from Mr. Luzzatto’s editorial, I think, was this one:

    With a few exceptions, bloggers spend their time complaining about or amplifying stories traditional journalists have written. In newspapers.

    This was where the entire logic for Mr. Luzzatto’s column fell apart: yes, a ton of what a lot of bloggers do is rehash or amplify the stories the mainstream media is already covering. This blog post is actually a perfect example of that: it rehashes a Virginian Pilot editorial with the addition of the blogger’s opinions. But it illustrates a very useful lesson for the journalist: I would not have read Luzzatto’s column had Vivian not linked to it, “complained” about it and “amplified” it.

    Honestly, how does more people talking on the internet about something interesting they read in the newspaper hurt your cause?

  2. Eh. Let them bleat. They’ve got real competition*, and no one really gives them the benefit of the doubt (that they’ve been exploiting for years) anymore.

    Anyway, they’ve only got themselves to blame for this.

    *Sort of. Honestly, 99% of blogs are complete crap/reprint services. But that 1%? Better than most anything you can find in print.

  3. I used to subscibe to the Pilot (and like Vivian at one time I preferred the Ledger Star), however a couple year’s back I cancelled by subscription. For me it was a money saving thing. Since I was the only member of my household that read the Pilot, and something like 90% of my time was spent on the road where I might purchase USA Today to get my news, my wife argued, and I had to agree, that it didn’t make sense to keep paying for it. The overwhelming majority of the papers delivered were never read at all.

    If Il spent most of my time at home instead of on the road, I would probably still subscribe for local news coverage.

    Now, the complaints about bloggers. Let me offer this rebuttal. Even if most bloggers only piggy-back on the work of journalists, it offers additional value to society. It offers the blogger the opportunity to write a “letter to the editor” without having to face the judgement of the editor that what is written is worthy of being printed. Every blogger gets to be his/her own editor.

  4. When I’m visiting the peeps down there, I’ll pick up the Sunday Pilot, and half the opinion pieces, although sindicated, were in the WaPo the previous Sunday. It’s like deja vu all over again.

    Still, it’s good to read the local stuff now and again, and to check the obits to see if see if I’m dead yet.

  5. I love newspapers, and I would love to see the Virginian-Pilot succeed. What’s going against them, however, are several irreversible trends.

    First, newspapers show their bias every day. We’re a decade post-Murdoch, and it’s way too late to be crying about the supposed objectivity of newspapers. Bloggers may be biased, but their biases are clear and upfront, unlike the insidious bias of newspaper reporters and editors. Bloggers are just balancing out media bias, and offering a much-needed chance to keep the media honest.

    Second, timeliness. I read a story on Yahoo News when I check my e-mail, and a day or two later it’s printed word for word in the Virginian-Pilot. Same for editorial columns, plus the obvious lack of anything but conservative voices. And not even responsible, thinking conservatives, just mindless hacks like Thomas Sowell and Cal Thomas. This is the newspaper, after all, whose editor said something to the effect of “We don’t need a liberal columnist. We have Maureen Dowd.” (Hillary fans, on MoDo, you and I agree.)

    Third, regardless of content, the medium of communication has just changed, period. People aren’t going to spend the time looking at the newspaper when they can get the same thing, and more, on t.v. or the internet. You could have the best newspaper in the world (and despite the best efforts of its staff, the VP is not the best paper in the world), and it would be affected by this change.

    Fourth, and this is where MY bias comes in, how about the Virginian-Pilot/Bob Molinaro/Roger Chesley give up the War on Soccer? For example, thousands and thousands of kids are in leagues around the area. About 10,000 participants and even more onlookers participated the Sand Soccer tournament in Virginia Beach last month. One of the hottest issues is the lack of adequate space for the many area teams to practice. Meanwhile, the Pilot has a sports writer and an editorialist who never miss a chance to tell us how much they hate soccer. We got it, guys. WE DON’T CARE whether you like soccer. We do, and we expect our newspaper to cover it fully and fairly. Do you have any idea how silly you sound?

    It would be interesting to compare how many column inches the Pilot has devoted to deploring the sport of soccer as opposed to, for example, street gangs. (Not that I am willing to drive my son to street gang practice; if that’s the recreational outlet of his choice, he’ll have to arrange his own transportation.)

    Being old school, my husband and I usually send an e-mail or letter to the editor when this comes up to try to persuade the Pilot to give up its quixotic War on Soccer. I gotta tell you, the younger people coming up now are simply not going to bother. IF they read this junk, they will laugh, put it down, and not read it again.

    Yes, that’s a lot of soccer discussion, but I think it’s a pretty good example of the Pilot totally missing the boat on an important local activity, and even showing its bias by acting against it to the extent it has the power to do so.

  6. Mr. Luzzatto is in a tight spot. I guess a certain amount of thrashing about is to be expected. I subscribe to the Pilot, but except for the funny papers, I read the online version, my wife reads the ads. His industry is undergoing a lot of change and some fear and resentment are to be expected.

    But he should not take it out on bloggers. On the contrary, the blogs should be regarded as the conscience of the major media. A conscience is a valuable thing.

    For example, in the weeks after the death of Det. Jarrod Shivers and the arrest of Ryan Frederick for first degree murder, the Pilot’s reporting and TV coverage were little more than unquestioned repetition of the police department’s releases. It was`only after discrepancies between the statements and the search warrant and inventories were reported by Libertarian blogs, including Infrequently Asked Questions, The Agitator, and Tidewater Liberty, that the Pilot and WTKR began looking at the case with the proper skepticism.

    And lets not forget that the fraudulent documents used by CBS to question George Bush’s Air Guard service were first spotted by bloggers with a geeky interest in fonts and typewriters.

    One thing the major news media cannot afford is to be proven wrong on major news items after the fact. Having an army of volunteer fact checkers and balancing commentary on hand to keep them honest is something the Pilot should appreciate and embrace. Everyone makes errors, and everyone can be taken in some of the time. When errors are made, finding them and correcting them early protects credibility, without which, the traditional media are doomed.

  7. I find it beautifully ironic that I recently advised bloggers including research or reporting in their writing to follow the practices of a good journalist: to fact check, and check again, to use multiple sources whenever possible, to seek out primary documents rather than secondary and to cite accurately and in a consistent style – WITH attribution.

    Years ago, I sought my facts in the newspaper. I depended on them, and trusted their integrity and journalistic pride. Today, I use the internet to check what I find in the newspaper. There are good journalists, accurate reporters and interesting columnists. But the emergence of “info-tainment” has touched the newspapers as well as broadcast media, and the results are not good.

    I try to hold myself to the highest standards possible when I put words to page. More and more often, I find the standards I cherish being met on the internet rather than in my local newspapers. Sometimes I wish it weren’t so – I do love my Sunday paper and coffee – but more and more often people are indulging themselves in Sunday coffee-and-computer to find the variety and quality of news they seek.

    As for Mr. Luzzatto’s specific comments regarding bloggers, I’d be more than happy to have him sit with me at 2 a.m. as I struggle to ensure that my writing is “accurate, full and thoughtful”. Since writers do need editors, I must serve that function as well as being my own research staff, art department and design staff. Unpaid I may be, but pride in my work never has been dependent on a paycheck.

    I confess I was most taken by this statement by Mr. Luzzatto: “But you should see how many people spend their day keeping me from looking like a fool – editors, colleagues, people who design this page, or take my picture. Without them, I’m just a barely literate guy with half-formed ideas.”

    Indeed.

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