A group of 20-somethings sit in a dimly lit living room, sipping cheap champagne drinks. Perched painfully on the edge of a time-worn futon, I swish my guava-pineapple bubbly concoction. I am, with a sense of oppressive awkwardness looming over my head, hanging out with “young journalists” – new hires and co-interns from the newspaper I work for over the summer. We talk about Eminem and shopping and Thai food. That is, until the real reason for this get-together rears its unpleasant head.
Prompted by the most senior in attendance (a short 25-year-old, with, not surprisingly, a face for print journalism), we launch into a discussion about the grim future of newspapers.
To make a long, description-filled story short, I quickly finished my drink and made a beeline to the kitchen for another.
Why all the uneasiness and self-medication?
Thinking about what lies ahead for my proposed profession – newspaper journalism, if you haven’t figured it out yet – is discouraging, at best.
We all have heard the stats: As of November, newspaper circulation dropped 2.6 percent in just six months. One of the worst-off papers, the San Francisco Chronicle, saw circulation fall more than 16 percent. Ad revenues aren’t doing much better. Profit margins may not be basement-level quite yet, but then again, my former employer – the one that gathered the young reporters, including me, together to talk about the future of print journalism – recently offered dozens of buyouts and may soon resort to layoffs.
Shareholders of Knight Ridder, the second-largest newspaper company in the country yet still in financial trouble, is looking for somebody, anybody, to buy the company at what they deem a reasonable price.
Even more disturbing, The New York Times is now making us pay to read its commentary online, and a subscription to the Sunday Times has gone up by $5. The horrors.
But it’s not the floundering of the newspaper industry that makes me reach for the cabernet sauvignon. Rather, it’s the futile attempts to save the dying breed. It’s the desperation that reeks from e-mails asking interns and young staffers not to pour coffee and run errands, but to come up with story ideas with teen appeal or form a de-facto taskforce to brainstorm ideas to save the company.
At face value, the kid-centric approach sort of makes sense.
Newspaper readers are getting older. They are also eventually dying off. But unlike in the past, they aren’t being replaced by younger readers who have a dime or quarter to spare. The solution: pander to the age group.
Yet the problem with this strategy of attracting young readers with youth-oriented material is that it assumes that the reason we aren’t buying newspapers is because we don’t want to read what’s already there. Maybe we’re too stupid or too lazy or too apathetic.
I’m no cultural anthropologist, but I can’t imagine that 20- and 30-year-olds today are so degenerate that they don’t care about the news as much as the Baby Boomers or Gen-Xers did. That’s just insulting.
To be honest, I’m part of the problem. I read 75 percent of my news online, at zero cost. The only exceptions to this online rule: The Michigan Daily (already free) and the copies of the Wall Street Journal found strewn along the sidewalks. The last time I actually paid for a newspaper was right before a job interview.
By now, we’ve grown accustomed to reading off computer screens and navigating through blogs. We get our information through RSS feeds, expect it to be near-instantaneous and handpick our news sources: Slate.com for stinging commentary, Nytimes.com for Maureen Dowd, Washingtonpost.com for election coverage, Freep.com for the Pistons.
In other words, the traditional newspaper, especially the type that caters to its local constituency, is in big trouble. Kids these days just aren’t used to paying for news – kind of like how we don’t like paying for music or movies.
But as much as I mourn the soon-to-be lost tradition and romance of newsprint, it’s really not the end of the world. All the things we expect from newspapers – even muckraking and whistle-blowing local news – will find a home somewhere else, probably on the Internet. And if newspaper companies can find a way to go with the flow and stop blindly clawing at the past, they might be able get their act together. Instead of hiring interns who rescue the company, the young’uns can do what they were brought in to do: make a killer cappuccino.
Go can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.