Monday, July 17, 2006

Readership decline: Why?

Don Surber dissects a media critic's analysis of declining newspaper circulation, and makes some good points, especially in his conclusion:
The problem is new readers are not there. People can already get the news and opinions elsewhere quicker. Quality does not matter. One look at shows more heat than light are generated by the blogs.

In 25 years of newspapering in West Virginia, management has tried its best to attract young readers: More sports, more entertainment, more personal finance. I’d go back to the basics: Who, what, where, when, how and why.
Don, as usual, is basically right. But let me add my $1.89 worth (inflation has been tough on the old "two cents worth").

Three major reasons
for declining newspaper circulation
1. TV
I am constantly being shocked at the way people plan their lives around television. There is only one show ("America's Most Wanted") that I consider must-see-TV. I don't watch much TV (life's too short), but when I do, I prefer news and documentaries. I have zero appetite for the poorly-written crap that passes for "entertainment" on TV nowadays.

I remember when there was so much buzz about "Ally McBeal," with everyone raving about how fresh and innovative it was. Then, by chance, I happened to see an episode: simple-minded twaddle. And don't even get me started on "reality" shows.

TV, which was condemned in its early days as a "vast wasteland," has gotten so much worse in recent years because it now panders to a pre-fabricated audience that was weened on TV. Extensive early exposure to television (and the average kid nowadays spends endless hours glued to the tube) stunts the imagination and corrupts taste. No one ever explained why this is so better than the late Neil Postman, and if you haven't read Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death and The Disappearance of Childhood, you most certainly should.

A child who, as toddler, learns the habit of constant TV-watching will automatically acquire certain associated mental traits. The child may be bright, and may learn to read, and may even be a "good student." But he will never learn to read for pleasure. To the TV-trained child, pleasure is forever something that comes from a TV screen.

Most adults over age 40 don't understand this. "But ... I watched TV when I was a kid. Didn't hurt me." Yes, but when we were kids, TV meant three network-affiliated broadcast channels, PBS and maybe, if you were lucky, a couple of UHF stations. Prior to the late 1970s, few Americans had cable TV, and broadcast TV in the pre-cable days was not generally geared toward kids. There was Saturday morning cartoons, and "The World of Disney" on Sunday night, and maybe an hour of cartoons at 4 p.m. on weekdays. The rest of it was mostly soap operas in the daytime, comedies and detective shows at night.

Since about 1980, however, the TV-viewing environment for kids has changed dramatically. First, there was the advent of cable, then VHS, now DVDs, so that children now have almost infinite options for satiating their immature appetites. They need never sit through a "boring" (e.g., non-animated) minute. Second, the multiple-TV household has become the norm. TV in the living room, TV in the kitchen, TV in the car (!), TV in every bedroom, so that no one in the family ever has to argue over what to watch.

Certainly, no one under 30 today can imagine the situation of my youth. At 6 p.m. nightly, Dad watched the news, and if you didn't want to sit quietly and watch the news, you weren't going to watch TV. (Same thing with college football on Saturday afternoons.) Because there was only one TV in the house, and a limited selection of programming, children either learned to enjoy "grownup" shows (my Mom loved detective shows, which may explain my continuing interest in Court TV and other "true crime" fare), or else they went and did something else ... like read.

There were huge swaths of my childhood during which there was nothing on television that any boy would be interested in watching, and therefore I learned to read for pleasure. For the past 25 years, most American children have been raised in a TV-saturated environment in which there is always something fun to watch on TV. And so the habit of reading as a pastime is something they've never learned. This obviously shrinks the potential readership for newspapers.

2. Public education
One thing that shocks me is why more journalists don't share my hostility toward the public education establishment. Our nation's schools are content to hand diplomas to semi-literate philistines who are almost completely ignorant of history, philosophy and literature, and then "media critics" wonder why newspaper circulation is declining.

Yet, despite the devastating impact of these "schools" on the newspaper business, most journalists defend the government's universal youth detention system (which is what public education has in fact become). Whether it's "creative spelling" or "rain forest math," the schools can pawn off any poppycock pedagogy or curricular claptrap as "innovation" and "reform." Most journalists -- practiciing a craft where skepticism is a prerequisite -- seem completely gullible whenever some education "expert" starts preaching the miracles that will be accomplished via some new "innovative" curriculum.

The theoretical bases of such "reforms" (can you say "NCLB," boys and girls?) usually contradict observable facts and ordinary common sense, but most journalists just regurgitate whatever the experts say. It's a disgusting thing to watch.

I am literate and, though I am now middle-aged, I still have pretty clear memories of how it was I became literate. Today's public education establishment seems to have declared war on literacy. If the government-certified experts who operate American schools had set out with the explicit intent to ensure that our children never learn to read and write fluently, they could scarcely have matched what they have accomplished over the past 30 years.

Please don't send me e-mails telling me about that wonderful teacher of your acquaintance, Mrs. So-and-So. This is not about personalities or anecdotes. It is about systemic failure: The public school system is broken, and every attempt to repair the damage via "reform" seems only to aggravate the problem. Therefore, we may expect further declines in literacy, which will lead to further declines in newspaper circulation.

And yet almost 100% of the idiot reporters and editors who cover education are cheerleaders for the status quo.

3. Bad journalism

From the most prominent publishers (Gannet, Sulzberger, etc.) to the most obscure reporters, there seems to be a resistance to what I consider the most essential element of journalism: Appealing to the reader.

If you have to commission a marketing study to figure out what makes people want to read a newspaper, you are probably too stupid to be in the newspaper business.

What do people like? They like drama, conflict beauty, excitement. They like sex, sports, politics, war, crime, celebrities, scandal.

Years ago, when I lived in Georgia, I was occasionally tasked to compile the "years ago" feature: Go to the library, scroll through the microfilm, and look at what was in the paper 50 years ago (25 years ago, 10 years ago, 5 years ago) that week.

If you go back to the 1950s or '60s, you'll notice that newspaper editors used to know some basic truths about human nature. For instance:
  • Everybody loves a pretty girl. Newspapers used to run, without apology, what used to be called "cheesecake" shots. There would be a pretty model in a swimsuit, with some kind of prop or seasonal backdrop, providing the merest pretext of a "news" hook for a photo caption. For instance, the Eufala (Ala.) Watermelon Queen posing with some fine specimens of that year's crop (and the Watermelon Queen was usually a fine specimen herself). The one newspaper in America that seems not to have forgotten this principle is the NY Post., which is always finding some excuse to run photos of beautiful models and actresses. To be fascinated by beauty is not "sexist," or else every great artist or poet in history was "sexist."
  • Famous people are interesting. Aristotle understood this, which was why he insisted that the protagonist of a tragedy must be a Great Man. USA Today does a good job of covering famous people though, again, nobody does this better than the NY Post. A good celebrity-news page (or half-page) with lots of pictures is a reader-friendly feature. But a smart local newspaper editor can turn local politicians into "celebrities" (again, think of how the NY Post covers politicians). With the right treatment, a small-town sports editor can turn a high-school point guard into a local celebrity. And people like to read about celebrities.
  • People can't resist a good crime story. Truman Capote knew this. So did William Shakespeare, William Faulkner, Hunter S. Thompson, Mario Puzo, and Mickey Spillane. This is why, for instance, the Disappearing Blonde is always a ratings winner on FoxNews. But a good writer can turn a dead crack dealer into a good story. Give me a first-class cops-and-courts reporter, and I'll give you a popular newspaper.
  • Funny is good. Jay Leno ain't going broke. Neither are Dave Barry or Ann Coulter or Mark Steyn. The best cartoons are always the funniest cartoons, and if something funny happens in the news, you ought to try to get that in the paper. People love to laugh. They even like to laugh at themselves. When Doonesbury is actually funny -- even if the joke (as usual) is at the expense of Republicans -- not even most Republicans will be offended.
  • Write with the reader in mind. After 10 years as a news editor in Washington, I know a thing or two about reporters who want to "write for their sources." Capitol Hill reporters want to write for Capitol Hill staffers, and it is a rare Supreme Court reporter who understands that his job should be to turn the arcana and esoterica of constitutional jurisprudence into something that Joe Blow can understand. Clarity and concision are the basics of good news writing; people will not read what they cannot understand.
Most big-city newspapers nowadays are pretentious and boring affairs, with stuffy snobs for editors. I am reminded of the insufferably grandiose Bill Kovach, who tried to turn the Atlanta Journal-Constitution into a "world class" institution and damn near ruined it. Howell Raines was another such type, the kind of editor who's always plotting a 12-part Pulitzer-bait series about some trendy PC subject:

The Human Cost of the Health Care Crisis

Uggh! A pox on "Eat Your Vegetables" journalism.

Give me Watermelon Queens and Disappearing Blondes! And corrupt politicians, too!