Does Covid-19 spell the death of local newspapers, too?

Jack Shafer of Politico magazine recently aired his argument against including newspapers in stimulus aid for companies hurt by what he calls the coronavirus apocalypse. As his title says, “Don’t waste stimulus money on newspapers. You wouldn’t put a dead man on a ventilator, would you?”

It’s a harsh assessment, coming not from a right-wing fanatic but someone who values the experience of reading the news on paper. He knows all too well the precarious state of the news industry even before the Covid-19 devastation, and I hate to admit I have to agree with him.

If you want to see my take on some of the deep systemic financial problems, just turn to my novel Hometown News, available as an ebook.

For a little perspective, you have to realize you can’t even purchase blank newsprint for the cost of your local paper, and that’s without anything on it or delivery to your doorstep or favorite store or the box on the corner.

Shafer is not talking about the handful of national papers that are thriving, thanks to a surge of online subscribers during the Trump nightmare. He’s talking about the local papers across the country, many of them now owned by hedge funds and similar short-view gaming investors. The kind of enterprise that has gone from family ownership with roots in the community to a global conglomerate that sees money in liquidation, as in who-are-you-all-anyway and why-do-you-matter when it comes to the locals.

Well, with oil companies lining up for relief aid, newspapers definitely should be higher on the list. But I digress.

In some ways, the papers are a canary in the mine shaft, or a dinosaur looking into the eyes of an approaching train, if you care to mix metaphors. Remember what happened to the railroads, after all, when the Interstates were built … with public money. Again, I digress.

The biggest question for me is what happens to local communities if and/or when the local papers expire.

First, of course, is that the public loses an essential watchdog on grassroots level politics. Believe me, local officials act differently when they know they’re under scrutiny. It will cost you dearly when they’re not.

Covering their meetings and the impact takes time, knowledge, ability, and courage. If you’re simply blogging in your spare time, you can be bullied or miss the follow-up phone calls. ‘Nuff said there. We’re facing a threat to ground-level democracy, OK? How many of us can really afford a lawyer?

Second, though, is the loss of local identity. I think most newspapers have fallen down here, failing to raise distinct columnists you just have to read first thing in the morning, but that’s not the only problem. How important is your neighborhood and the general area to you, anyway? Do you even know your neighbors?

A third problem involves the local economy. For one thing, there’s been a huge shift in local retailing, from mom-and-pop stores to the big-box intruders at the mall or Miracle Mile and then online, as in Amazon. The mom-and-pops are the lifeblood of newspaper revenue. Those glossy inserts pay next to diddly. And when’s the last time you saw anything from that monster Amazon or even Craig’s list, which is killing the classifieds?

The obvious shift would be from on-paper publication altogether to online presence only, but no newspapers have figured out how to manage this. It requires subscriber-paid content. Web users are way too used to getting everything for free.

By the way, I hope television and radio are not included in the assistance packages. Yes, they, too, are suffering loss of ad revenue and audience. Rotsaluck. Their news coverage, meanwhile,  often rips off a lot of newspaper stories and then act as if they actually had reporters there. Who will take up the slack? Again, rotsaluck.

Which leads me to one more thought. Sports radio. That once hot-in-the-ratings screaming format that pushed broadcasting from music to talk and then to professional, mostly, athletics – with regional loyalties and identity. What’s happening there, now that nobody’s playing?

Where are you getting your community news?

Coronavirus fuels a news storm unlike any other

The Covid-19 pandemic is an ongoing news story unlike any other we’ve seen.

Most news reports are about things that have happened – past tense – but this one is more a matter of watching things coming our way, threatening to happen in the near future.

Add in the two-week period between the time of infection and the appearance of symptoms, there’s even a sense of something ghostly in the air, a present tense that’s uncomfortably ethereal.

The closest similar coverage I can think of comes in sportswriting, as in anticipating an NFL game coming up, say, next Sunday. There, though, there are only two possible outcomes, it’s a limited time span, and a score will settle the matter.

The unhealthy emphasis on public opinion surveys regarding upcoming political elections might also fall into this future-tense focus, though we still see reports of candidate appearances and policy positions along with charges and countercharges.

With coronavirus, though, the scope spreads across many beats rather than something only on the sports desk or political reporter. It’s not just medical and health fields but also stock markets and economics,  education, transportation, technology, even lifestyles as well as sports and politics as we go into lockdown and shelter-in-place. Americans aren’t used to being confined anywhere, especially with their mate.

Well, we are also seeing potential major changes in the way we do many things in the years ahead. How much will online meetings catch on, for instance? Or what will happen to local retailing? It’s all fascinating.

~*~

There’s one other ongoing story that might emerge along these lines. Climate change.

Let’s see if experience with one leads to an increased interest in the other.

The shrinking newspaper page

Cost-cutters have long found ways to shrink the product to meet rising costs or boost the profit. As was said years ago, “It’s getting hard to find a nickel candy bar for a quarter anymore.” I hate to think what it costs now, much less in a vending machine.

Newspaper pages are no exception. The first jolt to tradition came back in the mid 1970s when there was a newsprint shortage. The Canadian suppliers, for whatever reason – a labor strike? – just didn’t have enough to meet demand. One solution was to narrow the width of the page.

In recent years, as the Internet has disrupted the business model of the news industry, the pace of cost-cutting has quickened.

The ones around here are now 11 inches wide, versus 15½ when I started in the business or one paper where I worked where the page was nearly 18 inches wide.

In other words, today’s broadsheet is as wide as a tabloid was back then, only longer. It’s lost two columns of news on each page – or a quarter of its surface. It’s so skinny I wince.

We never had enough room to print everything we wanted as it was.

DRIVING INTO THE SUNSET OF PUBLIC SERVICE

When I first entered the newspaper business, profit margins of 20 percent to 30 percent were not uncommon. Some papers were even reported to take 40 percent of their earnings down to the bottom line.

Not that much of that income went to the reporters or editors, who as a group ranked at the bottom of professional categories. Below school teachers and ministers, in fact. In addition, we worked nights and weekends and holidays – no wonder the divorce rate was high. The field could be depressing, as other surveys acknowledged. Or maybe it just attracted depressed individuals.

When right-wingers rub their “liberal media” smear across us, they mock the sacrifices we’ve made in trying to serve the public. For accuracy, the mass media  are ultimately capitalist machines – or, as they used to say of newspapers when I began, they were machines for printing money. That’s anything but leftist. Can’t be more conservative than that money-grubbing side, can you?

Some of the more astute critics at the time argued that the industry wasn’t reinvesting enough in growth and development, that it was in fact “eating its seed corn” when it came to salaries and wages, especially. How could we attract talented minorities at this pay, for one thing, when there were far more lucrative alternatives such as law? How could we build new audiences and new products without them – much less support these as they grew?

In the past decade or so, the business model has essentially collapsed in the advent of the Internet. Why should anyone pay for something they can get for free? The need for detailed coverage of public affairs remains, more than ever, but there are fewer and fewer professionals on the job, and most of those who remain are approaching minimum wage. You can’t live on that, especially not if you have a family.

I keep thinking of a skilled colleague, one of the best, an editor who quit to become a bus driver. The shift had better hours and better pay, even for a college graduate.

REVIEWING THE BUMPY TRUMPY HORROR SHOW

During the presidential primary run, his Republican rivals had reason to complain that Donald J. Trump was garnering all of the coverage. It was, as it turns out, all about him, mostly from his point of view, that is, largely unquestioned. From a headline perspective, their problem was simply that they weren’t saying or doing anything new, meaning reporters and editors had nothing fresh to report on those candidates and their campaigns. A policy statement, let’s be candid, is news just once, when it’s released. Trump, in contrast, was providing outrageous grist for the mill – he was a truly unconventional, unpredictable, and unkempt subject. To their everlasting remorse, his opponents failed to take him on full-force, much less seriously, which would have at least landed them comparable headline presence. If they had only done their homework, they would have had many of the factual details that are finally coming to light against Trump and his ways. Gee, the recent New York Times report about Chris Christie’s forgiving Trump $25 million in overdue state taxes could have taken down two candidates at once, had Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or any of the other dwarves been on their toes.

News media coverage is not the only route to primary victories, by the way. Most of the Republicans were relying on very expensive direct-mail advertising flyers, at least from what we endured in New Hampshire. You may have read some of my household’s reactions.

In contrast, on the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders was gaining ground by flying under the radar, sticking to a successful script that included little new material while hammering his points home in speech after speech. He was certainly helped by strong organization and a vibrant (dare I say organic?) grassroots social media presence.

When Nacky Scripps Loeb was publisher of the New Hampshire Union Leader, she liked to quote her late husband’s adage than negative publicity was better than no coverage at all.  I know the basis of the argument, especially for an upstart, but I’ve also seen its downside: sometimes the attacks really inflict damage.

You didn’t hear Trump complaining about the billions of “free media” exposure he got on his ascent, but maybe none of his inner circle could see it would eventually come with a price.

My, has it!

We find ourselves waking in the morning with an obsession to discover the latest. It’s not just the New York Times or Washington Post, either. Team Trump has been stimulating a stunning parade of  splashy tabloid headlines, from the New York Daily News to the Huffington Post and Politico. Done well, there’s an art to these, I’ll confess with admiration. Not that my journalistic training or practice ran in that direction.

Almost every day now has delivered a new, well, Trumpage that stirs up the question, Is he really trying to lose? Is he even running on Hillary’s behalf? In the latest round, the pundits are sensing his new strategy is to circle the wagons and focus on his core supporters while hoping the Libertarian and Green parties erode enough votes from Clinton to give him an edge. As they acknowledge, it’s a very risky approach, especially for someone who may be recognizing he’s really losing.

Step back from the daily revelations and you can see Trump’s bigger story is fitting into a classic type of fiction or biography or history – a rise-and-fall epic of tragic proportions. (Remember, true tragedy is what happens when a character challenges the gods and bears the consequences.)

In American literature, Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick come immediately to my mind, along with Peter Matthiessen’s less conventional Killing Mister Watson, which opens with the well-earned finale for a character who has a lot in common with Trump.

The Trumpster provides plenty to focus on as a character-driven story, especially of the psychological nature. He’s a spoiled bully full of inner conflict, anger, bombast, self-delusion, insecurity, social-climbing, hostility, and more, all abetted by the proverbial silver spoon.

There are other classic structures the story could also develop, including the idea novel, which starts with a question; the event tale, where the world is out of order and demands correcting; or the milieu narrative, which would require the protagonist to emerge a new person after traversing the strange landscape of American politics, big business, and celebrity entertainment posturing.

Each day, we’re reading and hearing more bits of the unfolding story.

Now into the post-convention stretch of the White House quest, Trump is still the primary subject of the media coverage. This time, though, as the plot line is well into the “fall” half of the equation, it’s been to Hillary Clinton’s advantage to be flying under the radar. Are we watching a death by a thousand self-inflicted wounds? Are all of his previous falsehoods, fraudulence, and flatulence finally resurrecting and running up behind him, like monsters from a horror show?

We’re still quite a few pages away from the final pages, and it’s possible Trump will somehow pivot into a new, unanticipated, denouement. Deus ex machina would be a huge letdown, to say the least, as would anything having him live happily ever after.

Not after all this.

WELL, IT REALLY WAS NEWS TO ME

This morning’s newspaper had a headline that sent an “Oh, gee, I haven’t seen that before” running through my head. As I mentioned the other day (Why Woodpecker Can’t Keep Up, June 14), so much of the news can be same-old, same-old variations on a theme. But this one really was new:

Motorcyclist Hits Bear.

As I also mentioned (Harley Heaven on Lake Winnipesaukee, June 16), we just had the nine-day Laconia Motorcycle Week, which attracts swarms of bikers to the Granite State, and racing along mountainous roads is one of their joys. Every year the event is accompanied by accidents and usually a few fatalities, but I don’t ever remember seeing one involving a bear. This one happened in the afternoon. Broad daylight on a perfect day.

Unlike moose, which are slow and dumb, convinced they can continue ignoring oncoming traffic, bears can be fast-moving, when necessary, and alert. Moose-car accidents are, in fact, commonplace throughout northern New England, while bear-car encounters are also a standard news item, though less frequent. I suppose I’ve seen a few moose-motorcyclist crash stories over the years, or at least should have.

This time I found myself recalling a report I’d edited and written the headline for back on my first news desk position right after college. We were Upstate New York, which has its own mountainous terrain. That time, a motorcyclist ran into a porcupine on a dark highway, and the results were fatal. As a city-boy, porcupines were still a curiosity, rather than a critter I often acknowledge in my journeys.

In this morning’s dispatch, the driver was airlifted to a hospital and reported to be in critical condition.

~*~

Another item making the rounds also seems to slip over from one of the routine categories — in this case, political survey results — into the I’ve-never-seen-that-before status. In the race for the White House, a Democrat, and a woman at that, is polling evenly with Donald Trump in the overwhelming Republican state of Utah.

~*~

This reminds me of another reaction I often have as a novelist: “This wouldn’t work in fiction.” Accompanied by “You couldn’t invent this if you tried.” Life really does take some bizarre turns if you look.

Really.

THE DESIRE FOR DOCUMENTATION … OR AT LEAST CONFIRMATION

My career of editing newspapers often introduced a tension between trying to be the first to present important developments to our readers (that is, news) and their desire to have us run the olds – photos and lists of names from activities days or even weeks previous. My feeling was that their club and church items were usually of interest only to those who already knew about them – hardly the stuff of urgent news – and rarely added to our paid circulation. I’d met enough people who wanted others to read their publicity far more than they themselves were willing to extend the same courtesy to others. Put another way, if the “names-is-news” imperative had much merit, the telephone book would be much more thoroughly read than it is – and much fatter than it keeps getting in an Internet age.

More recently, though, in my retirement I’ve become involved in public events that could make the news spotlight – and haven’t, even when the TV cameras were turned on us. I’d love to show folks around me what we were up to. It’s confirmation we were there, actually. And that, I suspect, is what those readers wanted all along.

Curiously, that’s where social media are filling the gap in documenting everyday life. In the examples I’m thinking of here, the photos of us look great, for starters. The only problem, personally, is that I’m always somewhere in the corner, often cut in half. I guess it just goes with being in the bass section.

Well, maybe I could start taking selfies and posting them here. On second thought, though … I’ll spare you.

~*~

As a footnote, I’m also remembering one locality where everybody was willing to sign up for an event, especially as the committee chairman. Or more accurately, chairwoman. And as soon as the promotion announcement appeared in print, they all somehow vanished, leaving the two newcomers to the group with all the responsibility for actually pulling it off.

We never ran a follow-up to that effect, either.

ABOUT THE TIME WE’D THOUGHT WE’D HEARD IT ALL, SOMETHING WOULD COME UP

One thing about being in the news business was how much that we covered was more or less routine. Yes, there were the variations on the given theme, but you could easily fall into a formula in covering them. Think of elections or a football game, for instance. Somebody wins, somebody loses, and you quote from both sides.

There would also be developments that simply fell outside the realm of what we’d covered, and when I started out as a journalist, community tastes were stricter than what now fills the coverage. Pedophile priests and sexually abusive parents, for instance, were never mentioned. Ditto, the private lives of politicians. And pit bull dog attacks were way off in the future.

Not so now, and it’s one of the reasons I burned out editing the low-life stories. After all, not even Hustler magazine would have touched much of the grossness that was now appearing even on the front page.

My goals in journalism were far loftier than soft porn, even in a courtroom setting.

~*~

Still, I was surprised how many times I felt I’d seen and heard all the basic stories, only to be hit by something that seemed completely new.

One of them was the arrest of one of our sportswriters on charges of pimping. Ouch! A professional with children? Somebody we knew?

And then the other day a report took that a couple of steps further.

Seems a man responding to an advertisement for a “social-type service” went to a local motel room only to be met by the woman, as expected. But there he also discovered another man and a pit bull dog, neither of them anticipated on his end.

In the ensuing events, as the story goes, the customer was beaten and robbed before escaping and being chased bleeding and naked by the pit bull into the parking lot before a phone call from the front office summoned police. (There was also something about brass knuckles that were tossed aside in the fray, but let’s stick to the basic outline.)

I keep wondering about the old “honor among thieves” code among outlaws. Aren’t there supposed to be some strict standards of behavior involved? Even among crooks, doesn’t a double-cross draws contempt, as does betrayal? In the case of prostitution, for instance, doesn’t that mean the pimp remains out of sight – or better yet, out of the room? And no dogs, unless they’re part of the, uh, proclivities of the john?

For the record, prostitution was not among the charges mentioned in this case. I raise the issue here more in the theoretical sense of illicit dealings. We could as easily substitute drug purchases or any number of other monetary exchanges. Remember, basic standards are assumed or the economic trade falls apart. Nobody would answer an escort-services listing if this was common practice.

So here we are with the new twists being the presence of the second man and the chase by the pit bull, only to find the ultimate recourse falls back on the police and criminal justice system.

As I said, it’s not your everyday news story. I’m left wondering how we would have handled such a police report in the “old days” or whether we would have published it at all. Or even if things like this even occurred back then.

FAREWELL TO THE SWITCHBOARD

At the office, we had the farewell to the switchboard operator who’d been replaced by the new phone system – someone who had been there when I arrived two decades earlier.

Oh, the weird calls we’d get, the ones she usually screened yet some still managed to slip past her.

The woman from California, “Can you tell me what state New Hampshire’s in?” and I wanted to reply, “How the hell did you get this number?”

All of the ones wanting to know my opinion, as if it mattered.

Or the drunks or the individuals convinced of this conspiracy or that. Especially late at night.

As the publisher told one, “What do you think this is, a call-in radio show?”

Listen. We’ve got work to do, rather than yap. Piles and piles of work.

~*~

Oh, my, the telephones! They become a chorus of their own in my novel, Hometown News.

Hometown News