Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Are Newspapers Becoming VCRs?

My dog and I have become paper trained. Call me old fashioned, but I still get the print version of the daily newspaper. Each day I engage in a trivial, but memorable tribal dance with the delivery person. Timing is everything in this archaic ritual, and simple nuances in the unseen interchange between us nag at me all morning like a food particle stuck between my molars. His/her job is to precisely toss the daily rag into a ten foot diameter invisible circle on my driveway at approximately the same time each morning. My job is to retrieve it in a sweeping motion that consumes exactly the amount of time it takes a Golden Retriever to relieve herself on the front lawn. If he fails to hit the mark I notice. If I fail to awaken at the appointed hour my dog notices and becomes an insistent telepathic alarm clock at my bedside.

Since I’m really not that fond of newspapers or reporters (along with lawyers, legislators, and radio talk show hosts) it has struck me as quite odd that when there is a disturbance in the force and my newspaper is not where it’s supposed to be I get inordinately upset. I stand there bewildered and unsettled in my gym shorts and T-shirt wondering why this 50¢ entitlement is not where it’s supposed to be! I call to complain and demand that the circulation staff makes it right.

When that happens, my dog also notices that the time-space continuum is out of balance and she decides to sniff around for a few extra minutes in a vain attempt to find my newspaper. All the while I am awkwardly hoping that my super-commuting neighbors don’t come out to witness what I might look like as a bedmate. I feel their eyes on me as the seconds tick by. How bad is my bed head hairdo? At least the newspaper provides me some cover and a credible excuse for standing half naked in my driveway at dawn. Sans newspaper, they probably can’t figure out if I’m coming or going.

This morning, I dutifully traipsed out to the driveway at sunrise, inwardly smiling with smug satisfaction that my trusty newspaper was “in the zone.” Game on.

So, with my morning coffee I'm reading in The Sacramento Bee about Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos buying the venerable Washington Post for $240 million. The Graham Family finally gave up the ownership ghost after 80 years in the business making Bezos a sole owner with no Board of Directors or stockholders. This follows by a week an announcement that the owner of the Boston Red Sox had purchased The Boston Globe for pennies on the dollar of what it was worth a decade ago.

Question: Are newspapers now becoming the retro playthings for the super-rich just like professional sports teams?

Answer: Probably not. Pro Sports is a multi-billion enterprise on the rise and newspapers can’t turn a profit in a collapsing industry. But maybe they make a kitschy hobby for the hipster one percent.

As I read on, it dawned on me that I already heard about everything related to the Bezos/Post affair from watching the nightly news and catching news items on Internet sources. This news story was so yesterday. Isn't it ironic that one of the people contributing to the 44% decline in Post revenue over the last five years now owns the paper he was putting out of business? That feels like a very hostile takeover to me. Amazon (Bezos) very effectively kindled the fire in people to get their news online (pun intended).

Question: How can the print media stay alive in an Era of Instantaneous Reporting by citizen journalists?

Answer: Maybe by being the master of the content and not a slave to the delivery system the press can keep its edge and relevance.

Seniors are about the only ones actually reading print newspapers anymore (remember now, 60 is the new 50).  They read the obituaries to see if they're in them.  The Pew Center reported two years ago that on any given day in America only about 34% of the adults actually read the daily newspaper. That means if you get hammered by the press, there’s a three-in-one chance nobody knows about it.

For older folks, cars on freeways seem to careen past them at break-neck speeds, so they often self-regulate traffic by locking into 65 MPH in the fast lane to gain a sense of control. It’s the geezer factor in commuting that drives us nuts. With respect to news consumption the same holds true. Seniors are trying to drive in a media market fast lane using a slow-paced device that cannot hit light speed. Newspapers don’t have the horse power to keep up with the Internet traffic. Newspapers are not even 1G in a 5G-Force world.

However, for communicators we are still in that transitional gray area where we cannot decide to drop print materials altogether in favor of e-communications. Old folks (and traditionalists like me) like to get our fingers smudged from the ink on what we read. We also turn out to vote at five times the rate of our offspring.

So if content is key, maybe Mr. Bezos can make good on his initial statement that The Washington Post will not change. It will still be a diligent sentinel for truth and accuracy in a sea of shameless hit-piece sensationalist “news reporting.” I hope that standard can stay intact when the pressure of the marketplace shakes confidence in his $240 million gamble.

Newspapers need to take a lesson from the VCR. We all had them 15 years ago. Now they are relics of a bygone era. They are unplugged gathering dust in the garage. Many of us still cling to libraries of the clunky oversized VHS tapes (mostly Disney classics for our grandkids). Soon those physical relics will become little used collectibles too. But Hollywood is still making movies and TV shows. They control the content and adapted nicely to each new generation of media that came along to show their stories (DVD, BluRay, streaming, Netflix, etc). Maybe newspapers should learn a lesson here. Be the reliable story teller. Be the trusted "wire service" for their community.

Newspapers can decide to stay as VCRs or they can become the reference point for the Internet conversations of the future by presenting an accurate, timely, credible, and objective accounting of the news. Don’t become perspective-driven tabloids to keep up with the Internet Joneses; they can’t win on speed and quantity, so win on quality. The newspaper business should be an honorable profession where getting it right matters more than getting it fast.

Maybe Jeff Bezos has the wherewithal and long range vision to transform the daily newspaper into something that people read with a sense of enthusiasm and dedication. My Golden Retriever sure hopes so because our daily ritual is important to both of us in so many ways.
© 2013 by Thomas K. DeLapp