Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Death of Chicago Journalism?

The Chicago Tribune next week is going to start hitting up us Chicago news junkies for an extra quarter if we choose to pick up our paper at a newsstand, while in coming weeks the Chicago Sun-Times is going to take an even larger cut out of its already-scrawny editorial staff.

On the city’s South Side and suburbs, the onetime Southtown Economist turned Daily Southtown gained yet another new name, the SouthtownStar, as it merged with the Star Newspapers founded in Chicago Heights, out of their owners’ hopes that putting together one slightly larger newspaper would be cheaper than maintaining two separate papers – each with histories ranging slightly over a century in their respective communities.

Up north, the Arlington Heights-based Daily Herald recently announced that pay cuts that were supposed to be temporary are actually going to be permanent. This happened following a round of layoffs that hit their newsroom.

And in the inner city, the Chicago Defender has been down for so long it can’t sink any lower. The last I heard, the newspaper was literally down to one lone reporter. The last I read, the paper’s pages were filled with syndicated junk.

All these tidbits are being used by those doom seekers who want to believe newspapers and everything they represent are dead. These people – many of whom have problems with the idea of a newsgathering organization that won’t represent their ideological beliefs to the exclusion of all others – want to think that websites and weblogs such as this can replace the daily paper and all it stands for.

Perhaps I wore newsprint-tinted glasses for too long to be objective, but I don’t buy it. I have never seen the website or weblog that can seriously offer a comprehensive understanding of the world, unless it was a website affiliated with a newspaper. Those sites can feed off the content generated to fill the pages of a newspaper, thereby giving them a significant advantage over myself.

Even though my ego is as bloated as anybody else’s in believing that my analysis and commentary on Chicago news is interesting and significant, I must admit this site is a pale imitation of the report that can be put together by a decent newspaper.

Even with the Google News feed offered off to the side of this weblog, there’s no way this site could ever cover as many stories as a serious-minded newspaper.

Of course, the key to understanding the problems of the newspaper industry is to take that last phrase into account. Many newspapers are far from “serious minded.” Many are more than willing to load their pages with trivial junk (did Britney forget to wear panties again today?) or politically partisan babble (think New York Post or Washington Times) in hopes of forcing a certain agenda (usually conservative) on the public.

Newspapers as a whole have one significant advantage over us, and most of them are doing nothing to exploit it. On a daily basis, they have content far superior to what we can crank out. They also have archives going back many decades, if not a couple of centuries. That information has significant value for people doing serious research and for those who just want to be better informed about the world they live in.

Newspapers also have an advantage when it comes to presenting a serious, lengthy piece of reporting or analysis in that a paper can lay it out on the page in one piece, supplementing it with quality photography and charts.

By comparison, scrolling through endless numbers of screens on a website, or having to follow a story link by link, can be a pain in the derriere, and also can deprive a big story of its emotional impact.

Yet most newspaper business people seem to have no clue as to how to exploit these major advantages they have amongst their competitors in the news business. It’s also why I have a hard time feeling much in the way of sympathy for the newspaper industry – even though it is one that I will continue to support with my hard-earned change at the newsstand.

If newspapers really do die off someday (estimated by University of North Carolina journalism professor Philip Meyer to take place in April 2040), it won’t be a murder, with the Internet as a culprit.

The thousands of self-inflicted cuts to the body of journalism will more accurately be ruled a suicide.


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