Monday, May 11, 2009

The Trouble with Newspapers

Howard Kurtz's column in Monday's Washington Post offers up yet another elegiac analysis of the recent collapse of the newspaper business, and I suppose I should feel sad too. After all, I got my start as a newspaper reporter, though I didn't stay in the business very long, and my time as a reporter remains vivid to me. Newspapers taught me to write clearly, to value objectivity, and to cast a skeptical eye on the passing parade. 

Clearly, they're dying. A friend of mine who works for NPR sent me a link urging me to join the "Save the Newspapers" group on Facebook. As far as I can tell, neither of us joined. A few months later I read that NPR was trying to save money by canceling most of its newspaper subscriptions. So much for the good guys doing the right thing.

Maybe it's time to put aside nostalgia and comment on the emperor's outfit.

Truth be told, most newspapers just plain suck. I'm not mainly talking about the quality of the journalism: they just produce a lousy product. The only reason they've been around so long is that they've had an audience held captive by the technology of print. Now, the audience is no longer captive, and newspapers are going out of business in a hurry. The only way to stop the collapse, as I see it, it to come up with a better product.

How do they suck? Let me count the ways.

Delivery—How much do you really enjoy walking out the front door on a rainy morning to pick up a soggy newspaper in a plastic bag lying in a pool of water at the end of the driveway? Even in good weather it's inconvenient to get your paper. When I was a kid, we trained our dog, Hambone, to fetch the paper in the morning, but once the papers got fat and they started wrapping them in plastic it proved beyond his ability. It was the beginning of the end.

Most newspapers scrimp on delivery: they contract it out to a carrier who drives through the neighborhood in the early morning, slinging papers into people's yards. Our carrier installed a newspaper box next to the mailbox, but he never used it—it was too much trouble for him, and he preferred aiming for the puddle. If you weren't paying for such a service, you would call it littering. How hard would it be to put a dry, ready-to read paper on the doorstep or doorknob, where people could get it in the morning? If newspapers actually put some money into the delivery service—hiring somebody who would stay in the job, rather than independent contractors, and putting the carrier in a uniform like the mail carrier or UPS guy, rather than allowing themselves to be represented by a greasy, chainsmoking sociopath in an old Chevy van, it might make a difference.

Junk—Somewhere along the line, newspapers ceased being a vehicle for news and started becoming a junk mail delivery system. I'm sure I sound like Andy Rooney in saying so, but the invention of advertising inserts, though doubtless profitable in the short term, ultimately harms newspapers as a product. The inserts are invariably of different sizes and textures, designed to fall out of the newspaper like blow-in cards fall out of a magazine. To read the paper, one must strip out all the junk. Once a week, on Sunday, this may not be too much to ask, but most of the time the ratio of junk to news is pretty high. 

If, like me, you recycle your trash, the sheer volume of wasted paper in a newspaper begins to strike you when you stack a week's worth of papers in the recycle box. When one begins to regard the newspaper not as something to read, but rather as something to sort and recycle, it seems a less vital part of the morning ritual. 

Format and Design—Should newspapers become more like magazines? Printing technology no longer holds them back from producing a more compact and readable format quickly. While there's something to be said for the pleasures of picking through large sheets of newsprint, looking for nuggets, most newspapers are poorly designed. If the point-and-click world has taught us one thing, it's impatience. Newspapers need to be more skimmable, easier to hold in the hand, and designed with a less random structure. One ought to be able to page through them quickly, identify which articles deserve careful reading and which can be skipped, and then find the desired articles quickly.

Voice—Now we begin to get to the journalistic issues. For many years, newspapers have had a corporate voice. It's dull. Sure, individual reporters may have bylines, but the main impression of a newspaper is that of an aggregate of voices, none very distinctive. Editorials tend to be anonymous and corporate. Op-eds, which feature distinctive voices, often attract more readers. The editor's touch is visible mostly in the headlines and the selection of stories, not in their writing. 

But recently we've come to expect a more personal kind of news, and newspapers need to adapt. When one looks at the best blogs, like Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo, what distinguishes them is an authorial voice. Marshall is presently trying to build up the reporting staff at his TPM site, and professes to want to de-emphasize the blog that serves as its public face. My prediction is that he won't be able to. People read the blog to see what he has to say, much as they used to listen to a radio personality like Paul Harvey; his staff's good reporting gives him interesting stuff to write about, but my guess is that few readers go to TPM to read Zachary Roth or Moe Tkacik. They want to see what Josh has to say.

When a writer at a newspaper develops a distinctive voice, he or she often gets promoted to the job of "columnist." That's fine, but it's still just one voice, writing two or three times a week. And the columnist still has to go out and find stories. Perhaps newspapers need to move more toward the magazine model here too, where the story is reported by a number of staffers, but it is written by an editor who imparts to it style, attitude, and a distinctive voice. 

Well, enough of this for now. I'll probably have more to say later. Maybe if I had a staff . . . .

Monday, May 4, 2009

Spin: A Consumer's Guide

Trying to define "spin" is rather like trying to define obscenity, in Justice Potter Stewart's famous evasion: we may have a difficult time saying exactly what it is, but we're sure we know it when we see it.

We're "spun" all the time, of course—in politics, in advertising, in the language of business and organizations, and on television—we're constantly barraged by messages aimed at influencing us. It's hard to be oblivious to it. Perhaps that's why, for the past two years, dozens of undergraduates have enrolled in my course, "Spin: A Consumer's Guide," as a way of coming to terms with all the messages directed their way. Along the way, I have seen them wrestle with what, exactly, we're talking about when we talk about spin. They're all convinced that they know what it is, but trying to get them to actually nail down a convincing definition always ends up raising as many questions as it answers.

For example, is spin really any different from rhetoric, the classical art of persuasion? Stanley Fish doesn't think so. Writing in his New York Times blog, he savages a book on spin by Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Brooks Jackson, arguing that "spin – the pronouncing on things from an interested angle – is . . . the very content of thinking and judging." In other words, he argues, each of us spins our own world into existence whenever we think about it and whenever we try to communicate our vision of that world, so it's a delusion to think that you can neatly separate "spin" from "fact" or "truth."

In a sense, Fish is right. It's impossible to avoid spinning.

To see why, consider the metaphor of a major-league baseball pitcher, with a variety of pitches in his arsenal. If he imparts topspin on the ball as he releases it, the result is a sinkerball that drops suddenly as it approaches the batter. If he imparts underspin to the ball it tends to sail, or seem to rise as it nears the batter—a rising fastball. Curveballs, screwballs, and sliders result from different kinds of side-spin. All of them are meant to be difficult to hit.

Ah, but what happens when the pitcher throws a knuckleball—a pitch with no spin at all? That's hard to hit too, as it behaves unpredictably, and dances around as the winds affect it. So no spin can be just as "deceptive" as extreme spin. In fact, the only way to make a pitched ball easy to hit is to impart to it a gently predictable rotation that steadies it against the breeze but doesn't make it dive or rise. In other words, you have to spin it to make it easy to hit. To bring the metaphor back to language, you could say that clear communication requires effort and artifice—effort and artifice that, by definition, produces spin.

Okay, so far Fish is right. But, as you can probably sense, he begs the real question.

To return to our baseball metaphor, when a pitcher throws you a curveball, or a slider, or a high hard one that rises out of the strike zone, his intention is to make you swing and miss. Spin, in the popular sense that we're used to thinking about, similarly seeks to make us miss something. That's what I'll be writing about here.