By Jason Gillikin | November 6, 2011
A few years ago, during a Scotch-fueled reminiscence with my friend and former editor Alaric, we discussed the transition of our former newspaper, the Western Herald, from a daily broadsheet to an “online first” publication that issued semiweekly tabs.That conversation jumped top-of-mind after I digested the details of the consolidation of Booth Newspapers into the “online first” MLive Media Group. The experiences of the Herald may foreshadow the fate of MLive Media.
When Alaric and I respectively helmed the Herald, we presided over a franchise with a 75-year history that for more than a decade published eight- to 16-page broadsheet newspapers Monday through Thursday, for 12,500-issue press runs, with a Weekend Scene tabloid insert in Thursday’s edition. Loosely affiliated with Western Michigan University, the Herald was governed by an independent board of directors comprised of faculty, students and community representatives — an arrangement that meant that no interest group could force changes without the consent of a meaningful chunk of other major constituent groups. The editor in chief, appointed directly by the board, was a salaried employee of the newspaper — which was entirely self-funded, from advertising revenue — who supervised eight full-time paid section editors and more than 50 part-time writers, columnists and photographers. The Herald was not a lab paper (in fact, we often had to un-train the journalism students from the bad habits they learned in the classroom) and the discretion of the editor in chief was absolute, subject only to retrospective wrist-slapping by the board. Better yet, the paper was printed under contract with the Battle Creek Enquirer, so even if the WMU administration wanted to pressure us, they had zero control over the printing and distribution of the press run, and since we paid fair market value for our office space under formal lease, we couldn’t be locked out of our offices, either.
I left the Herald in early 2005. I recall some tough conversations during my tenure about the slow but steady decline in ad revenues; fewer people placed classified ads, and traditional big display advertisers — particularly bars and housing complexes — moved to other marketing channels. In 2008 or so, the Herald transitioned away from daily broadsheets to an online-first approach that emphasized Web reporting, with selected stories pushed out twice per week in stripped-down printed newspapers.
Alaric and I watched. And lamented.
In our day, spanning the late 1980s through the mid 2000s, the Herald did a good job of presenting a mix of news, sports, arts and opinion programming. To be sure, some years were stronger than others, apropos a paper whose editorial leadership turns over each spring. But overall, the paper strived to cover the important news of the day, with a focus on Kalamazoo news but augmented with state, national and world news through direct access to the AP Wire (we even had a satellite dish feeding NewsEdit Pro with wire stories).
In the Herald‘s post-”online first” era, several unpleasant truths revealed themselves that are likely to also bedevil MLive Media Group:
- The eyeballs on a Web story are fewer than the eyeballs on a print story. Thus, the push to file clean, concise copy declines in favor of filing “fast” copy — or even of letting Twitter substitute for breaking news stories. The phenomenon isn’t all that different from TV and radio news Web stories: They convey snippets of information, but often read as if they were drafted by a sixth grader. Check out your local TV station’s news feed on its Web site — you’ll be amazed at the subpar writing. The emphasis among online outlets is on getting it first and getting it right later; the benefit of newspapers is that they get it second but correctly. As print newspapers, with their slower cycle that permits fact-checking and editorial debate, continue to collapse, soon no one will be left to serve as a recognized arbiter of factual truth. In the long run, this is dangerous for consumers of news.
- The lack of space constraints on the Web means that the need for writers to fit content within a specific number of column inches evaporates. This relaxed discipline tends to reduce the pressure to organize stories in an effective inverted pyramid, and it means writers don’t have to filter and craft compelling narratives within a very specific word count.
- Web channels focus on niche markets. Thus, a Web presence for the Grand Rapids Press should push news related solely to the G.R.metro area. Any state/national/global news readers want will be supplied by more appropriate Web properties. If readers want the latest about Iraq, for example, they will look at news organizations like AP, the BBC or al Jazeera for information. Not MLive. And thus, the benefit to local readers of a single-source news instrument curated by professional journalists has been swept away. Content curation responsibility transitions from editors to readers, a trend started with technologies like Google Reader but now becoming increasingly salient as the papers themselves abdicate curation duty. Whether this is good or bad is an open question, but it’s probably not helpful that the transition is regrettably ad hoc.
- The value of “news” is that it’s fresh and relevant. Online news sources proliferate like rabbits nibbling on Spanish Fly; paper-and-ink newspapers proliferate like aging sea tortises. Pushing to an online focus feels more like a 60-year-old woman getting plastic surgery to keep attention at the bar: In the end, you’re fighting the inevitable, and you lose dignity even as no one really believes the transformation is anything more than a desperate, fleeting grasp to remain in the spotlight. And when the ontological status of the local TV and radio stations becomes parallel to the Web-focused newspapers and (by extension) prominent bloggers, the danger is that local news becomes an echo chamber among the competitors, leaving the readers in a “pick one and run with it” mindset that doesn’t exactly favor the paper. I think local blogger Derek DeVries makes a cognate point in his reflection on the Booth consolidation.
- Abolishing space constraints means there are really no significant costs to publish new content. The implications of this include: Less competent writers are getting published, less relevant content is pushing and the signal-to-noise ratio increases. Alaric and I noticed this with the Herald: Copy that neither of us would have agreed to print proliferates the paper’s website, and the material that does appear online is riddled with grammar, style and logic errors as well as an astonishing amount of selection bias. Want something worth reading? Good luck finding it. The website reflects content that’s supplied, not content that’s demanded.
- As the expertise required of journalists diminishes, so also does their competence and the competence of their supervising editors. Nowhere is this more apparent than in copy curation; Web-focused news sites tend to focus on news that comes to the writers rather than on what the writers identify as being newsworthy. Thus, major content areas come and go according to the whims of writers with site privileges. Alaric and I saw this with recent Herald budgets — university news was non-existent and arts programming read like the press releases we saw every day. And, interestingly, I see the same phenomenon with The Rapidian, the community-sourced hyperlocal news site for Grand Rapids: Content skews in favor of writer hobbyhorses without a broader editorial strategy governing scope and completeness of content by subject area. The readers lose.
So — now Booth is doing the same thing the Herald did. The major Michigan newspapers, including The Grand Rapids Press and the Kalamazoo Gazette, will transition to two- or three-day delivery with a focus on “digital subscriptions.” The new president of MLive Media, Dan Gaydou, argues that this is a financial decision; with ad revenues shriveling and fixed costs remaining high, consolidation into Web-focused properties reflects the future of Michigan media.
Maybe he’s right. But I suspect that the end result for MLive will be the same as it was for the Herald. When newspapers transition from daily newsprint to occasional newsprint or even Web-only content, their mindshare with the community declines. Their relevance fades, too. Why bother going to mlive.com when you can find other sources of info that are as fast, and likely more accurate? The value proposition for a printed newspaper is clear: Readers get a mix of curated news stories from local, national and international sources, prepared by professional journalists, as well as commentary and ad content. What’s the value proposition for the new MLive Media Group?
The death sprial begins. When Booth laid off long-term, salaried reporters a few years ago, people noticed. When fewer editors governed content for the papers, people noticed. If you’re an aspiring writer who has the chops to be successful, do you really want to be relegated to a website? Or will you compete for more prominent mastheads while less-qualified writers take over at the Web-focused “newspapers” and the distinction between professional newspapers and hyperlocal journalist collectives begins to blur?
Newspapers that cannot persist in print form ought to think about shuttering entirely instead of playing the “online first” game. Readers deserve a fair shake, and the recent Booth consolidation doesn’t cut it for Michigan readers.