Thursday, March 22, 2012

Extra! Extra! Read a Rather Conflicted and Convoluted Piece, Of Journalism

It's not like I had much say in the matter of when I was born, but excepting, perhaps, the physiological desirability of youth, I'm glad I grew up on the far side of the digital divide.

This isn't to say I have a disdain for modern technology. Quite to the contrary, I readily embrace the expediency, inter-connectivity and environmental benefits provided by the internet, e-mail, cell phones, text messaging, Facebook, blogging, mp3's, Netflix streaming, Google, online maps, YouTube, e-books, iPods, iPads, iPhones, Kindles, digital cameras and other ubiquitous technologies that have largely arisen in the last 10-20 years.

But while it might seem rather arbitrary to the younger folks, I feel fortunate to be old enough to recall when the primary means of acquiring music was the vinyl record, as the cover art (and even the sequencing of album sides) was as much a part of the artistry as the music itself. And shopping for records--at Record City on Oakton Street--was one of the cooler experiences of my youth.

I also can see genuine benefits to growing up when the cost of making a long-distance phone call was still something that had to be considered. When I was away at college or subsequently lived in L.A., I couldn't share my every thought, instantly, with everyone. Thus I looked forward to more substantive, periodic telephone conversations with family and friends. Hard for even me to believe, but I actually wrote people letters. (Couldn't help but think of this pertinent song, "We Used To Wait," by Arcade Fire; nowadays waiting to express yourself, even in a darkened theater, seems quite foreign to many.)

Believe me, I'm aware that every generation can shake its head at how much easier, or just different, new technologies have made things for younger generations. When I see old paintings--such as the one at right by Canaletto of Venice in the 18th century, where the buildings look as they do today but the people are dressed in wigs and tailcoats--sometimes I wonder how people back then filled their days, with no television, no phones, no computers, no cars (not that the latter have much need even today in Venice), etc.

But while realizing I may sound like a fossil, I genuinely believe there are detrimental effects that accompany the benefits provided by the advancements of the digital age. One of these is the erosion of cursory or associative learning due to the simplified processes of finding the specific information one is seeking.

Recently, one of my nephews told me he had to do a school report on Johann Sebastian Bach for his junior high class. This seemed pretty cool, as each student was to do a research report on a different creative genius, something I fully endorse in the name of cultural literacy (although I would have advocated the reports being read out loud, so each kid could learn something about 30 innovators, not just one, but this wasn't the case).

There still appears to be an academic snobbery about Wikipedia--oft shown to be just as reliable, if sometimes flawed, as other reference sources--but I was told the kids could use and another online source. In today's times, I can't really argue with this methodology. But when I was a kid--oy vey!--to do a report on Bach would involve riding my bike a few miles though the streets of Skokie to the library (perhaps stopping at Record City or elsewhere) and then walking past numerous stacks (where maybe some books or magazines might catch my eye) to the reference section at the back of the second floor.

And then even in pinpointing the World Book "B" volume, I might notice articles on baseball or ballet or The Beatles or beetles or Barcelona or backgammon or James Baldwin or birds or bees or blues or bebop or something else that might distract me from learning about Bach, but also conceivably teach me much else in the process. (I was surprised to learn that World Book is still printed, but given Encyclopedia Britannica recently ending its print edition, who knows how much longer actual World Books will exist.)

Now certainly, all the topics I just mentioned can be readily found online, likely covered in much more depth than they were in World Book circa 1980. With Google Earth, one can take a virtual tour of Barcelona and see all its Gaudi splendors in 3D. Anyone interested in backgammon can go to or other game sites and play beginners to masters from around the globe. And any kid with access to Spotify can hear any song the Beatles ever recorded in a matter of seconds.

But accessibility is one thing; the prompting of curiosity is another. And that's the bridge that may not be as readily crossed, if my suspicions hold a grain of salt. Undoubtedly, a child's parents, teachers, friends and siblings play a major part in expanding the sphere of awareness--as they always have--but my guess is that most current high schoolers don't know all or even several of the following names:

Humphrey Bogart, Buddy Holly, Vincent Van Gogh, Shirley Temple, Alfred Hitchcock, Roberto Clemente, Janis Joplin, Scott Joplin, Abbott & Costello, Ginger Rogers, Joe Louis, James Dean

This isn't shocking, nor even particularly distressing, but I'm pretty certain I--and most of my contemporaries--knew all of the above by my mid-teens, despite their fame (and often full life-span) coming prior to my birth or conscious awareness.

So although there are--unequivocally--many advantages borne from modern technology, there are also a number of consequences, some less obvious or acutely related than others. I talked to a few people to gather some insights for this post and no sooner had one friend--Laurence Mesirow, who writes in depth about related topics on his Techno Turmoil blog--shared his opinion that "People aren't living in the world, they're living in their screen," another--Paolo Palazzi-Xirinachs--posted this on Facebook:

To me, there is a definite connection, although it's not as if meanness and thoughtless have only developed in the past 20 years. But I do perceive--at the risk of sounding like a "Get off my lawn!" grump--that...
Our electronic hallucinogens, interconnected isolation and (anti-)social networking-inspired delusions of self-importance have served to not only erode cultural literacy, but public decorum & decency as well.
Now I realize that the three of you who might still be reading this--abbreviated attention spans are yet another consequence of the digital age, along with the aforementioned delusions of self-importance--may be saying at this point, "Wait, I thought this was going to be a piece about journalism."

It is, albeit in my convoluted, roundabout way. And while I'm certain that my college journalism professors would have given this piece an "F" for so circuitously introducing the topic, I believe all of the above helps to explain why I continue to subscribe to a daily newspaper. Although the impetus for writing this piece was recently considering canceling my subscription to the Chicago Tribune.

As evidenced by getting some daily editions where the sections combine to be less than a centimeter thick, the Tribune is a shadow of what it used to be. And for the 4-day a week subscription I was getting since returning to live in Skokie in 2007, with a slated price jump I would soon be paying about 4 times what I did when I started.

Especially for someone still looking for my next employment opportunity, it was getting hard to justify paying so much for something that, to a certain extent, is replicated for free online. Certainly, there is no shortage of ways to get "news" these days.

But excepting the three days/week gap since fall 2007, I have never not gotten a daily newspaper. Growing up at my folks' house, also in Skokie, there was a Chicago Tribune every morning. When I went to college at NIU in DeKalb, I always subscribed to the Trib and when I moved to Los Angeles from 1990-1992, I subscribed to the Los Angeles Times. Since being back in the Chicago area since 1993, including the 12 years I lived in Glen Ellyn, I've always subscribed to the Tribune.

This is due to more than inertia. I have always loved journalism--I was on my high school newspaper, minored in Journalism at NIU, have written numerous professional press releases over the years and consider this blog a form of personal journalism--and have found reading a newspaper to be an essential part of my everyday life.

Though I never made my living directly from the news media, I very much did so indirectly as for many years I was a copywriter specializing in recruitment advertising. I can honestly say that my words have been published in every major newspaper in the country and many smaller ones as well.

One of my favorite newspaper
recruitment ads that I wrote
I certainly can see how the reduction in the size of the Tribune, the slow death march of newspapers in general--longstanding papers like the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer have either entirely ceased to exist or ended print production--and my own career struggles are interrelated.

When the internet became the primarily vehicle for help wanted ads (on CareerBuilder, Monster and elsewhere), as well as general classified ads (on Craigslist) and automotive advertising, newspapers had no choice but to shrink. And with the lower cost of internet recruitment advertising combined with drastically reduced hiring caused by the recession, those of us gifted in creatively promoting job openings through newspaper display ads, well, we're sitting here writing overwrought blog pieces about the decline of newspapers.

According to Clay Shirky, a Professor of New Media at NYU quoted in the recent documentary, Page One: Inside the New York Times:
"Reduction in ad revenue couple with competition for attention, both at the same time, had turned this [the decline of newspapers and rise of online news outlets] from a transition to a revolution."
But just as I've always believed, economics aside, that newspaper Help Wanted sections are a more commanding (and importantly visceral) venue for advertisers to place and job seekers to peruse job ads--similar to my encyclopedia example above, in a printed classified section you see a spectrum of ads, some of which may catch your eye due to how they're designed and/or worded, rather than simple listings of search results--I believe the news sections of print publications continue to offer something of vital importance.

Yes, reflecting the somewhat superfluous tastes of the public these days, the Tribune seems to include a surplus of celebrity news or fluff pieces, and they no longer employ any news or sports columnists that I care to read on a regular basis. But on any given day, in looking through the news, local, business, sports and arts sections, I find interesting articles to read that I never would have noticed online.

For example, in today's Chicago Tribune--which, ironically, I had to read at my mom's house since my paper was missing--I read the piece on front page (shown above) about the lag in Chicago tourism and also the one on how the FTC is cracking down on online ads designed to look like legitimate news stories.

Although I've never been a big reader of the editorial pages, I enjoyed the Commentary piece at left by syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts about Bruce Springsteen--"the new Bruce Springsteen album, "Wrecking Ball," captures more raw emotional truth about the state of the American dream than any politician ever could"--and in the Business section, I noted a small sidebar piece about how there will be new paperwork required for people collecting unemployment benefits.

As always, I took a look at the obituary stories--not the death notices, but the articles about notable people (usually non-celebs) who have passed. These are often great sources of interesting tidbits you don't readily find on the internet.

Whereas the Sports section was always the one I grabbed first in my younger days, now I don't spend much time with it, as the news here is the most readily duplicative of what can be easily seen on the net.

Whether on a weekday or a Sunday, the A&E section is often where I spend the most time; I like the Tribune's theater critic Chris Jones and movie critic Michael Phillips, and though some of the feature pieces can be rather fluffy, there's usually something worthwhile.

Today I liked reading Patrick Goldstein's piece about recent movie & TV flops (John Carter, Luck, Terra Nova) created by notable directors and a story about a longtime Chicago music event programmer, Michael Orlove, who is taking a position with the NEA in Washington.

My favorite piece today, though far from the most newsworthy, was the one shown at right. It's about how the Parents Television Council has its knickers in a bunch over the marked increase in the utterance of "penis" and "vagina" on broadcast television.

In the piece by T.L. Stanley, Tim Winter, President of the PTC, says, "It's a broader reflection of the progression of raunch." But Marty Kaplan, a USC entertainment and media professor, suggests, "Words that you can hear in any 10th grade biology class are probably the most benign end of the spectrum. I don't think there's a danger of growing up culturally malformed by hearing those words."

This last article was actually written for the L.A. Times, which is also owned by the Tribune Company. Online it is on, but not, so this is a case of something only readers of the print Tribune would come across.

All told, I spent less than 30 minutes reading everything I cared to in today's Chicago Tribune; that's about average for a daily edition. I find a bit more to read on Sunday, though there is also an increase of fluff. I acutely miss the old Chicago Tribune magazine that would have in-depth articles about a given cover subject. I also miss, though they've been gone for many years, Calvin & Hobbes and The Far Side; there are no comic strips I read anymore, though I know many value print papers for the daily dose of Doonesbury, Dick Tracy, Blondie, etc., as well as the crossword puzzle, Sudoku and Jumble.

It's been said--I believe in Page One--that newspapers are printed at a loss to the publishers. Even with higher subscription rates and news stand prices, it costs more in ink, paper, delivery services and personnel than publishers recoup from newspaper sales. The real revenues have always come from advertising, and although every newspaper has an online edition for which advertising is sold, according to the just published Pew Center State of the News Media study:
"In 2011, losses in print advertising dollars outpaced gains in digital revenue by a factor of roughly 10 to 1."
Consider this information found on the Newspaper Association of America website: In 2005, newspaper ad revenues across the United States, including both print and digital, were $49.4 billion, with only $1.5 billion coming from online advertising. By 2011, online advertising on newspaper sites had doubled, but still only amounted to $3.2 billion total. Print revenue has shrunk to less than half of what it was just 6 years prior, with $20.6 billion bringing total print + online newspaper advertising revenues to $23.9 billion, or roughly 52% less than 2005.
See full chart here
Understanding that newspaper publishing is a business despite news reporting often seeming like something of a civic service, with numbers like the above and circulation figures that show the Tribune selling about 42% fewer print copies than it did 20 years ago--that it still averages 425,000 in daily circulation is actually a bit surprising--it isn't hard to grasp the economic realities that have affected the quality of the product.

As a newspaper junkie, I like the Newseum in Washington, DC and regularly
check their online gallery of Today's Front Pages (The New York tabloids are
always fun.) is a similar site and also offers a great iPhone app.
Like businesses in many sectors, news rooms across the world have experienced rampant layoffs. The Tribune Company is still under bankruptcy protection, somewhat due to financial choices beyond my comprehension, but undoubtedly caused in part due to the drop in advertising and circulation. In turn, the Chicago Tribune employs fewer columnists, foreign correspondents, reporters and photographers, and its quality is indisputably diluted.

So when, following periodic price increases over the years, they were going to charge me $208/yr. for the 4-day/wk. service I began at $52/yr., I was--despite very much wanting to support newspapers just on principal--intending to cancel my subscription. Though I understand why they had to charge more for an inferior product just to stay in business, I couldn't justify the increased expense.

But the Chicago Tribune made the mistake of messing with my mom first.

As a daily subscriber for at least the 45 years she has lived in Skokie, my mom noticed a recent doubling of her Tribune subscription rate. Resigned to canceling her subscription if the new rate was enforced, she Googled "Chicago Tribune Subscription Offers," entered her zip code and found--direct from the Tribune--an offer amounting to half of what she had been paying and a quarter of the new rate she'd been billed. So she called up the Tribune (1-800-TRIBUNE), they honored the rate shown online and thus, she cut her expenditure in half rather than seeing it doubled.

No wonder the company went bankrupt.

When I was on the verge of canceling, I did the same thing--over the phone, for me, they wouldn't honor the rate posted online, so I just signed up as a new customer and canceled my existing rollover--and am now back to getting the Chicago Tribune delivered to my door 7 days a week for less than I was paying for 4 days. (I could've saved even more with the 4-day price shown online, but I like getting the paper every day and to the extent I can, I like supporting the existence of print newspapers.)

Historic newspapers adorn the walls of the Magazine Museum,
4906 W. Oakton St. in Skokie, IL
As Bob Katzman, who used to run news stands in Chicago and now owns a back-issue magazine emporium in Skokie--I wrote about it here--says:

"I think it's sad that the generation of people who would tuck a newspaper under their arm and go read under a tree is nearing extinction.
"When I look at things on paper, things pass easier into my consciousness than when looking at a screen."
This is echoed by my friend Paolo Palazzi-Xirinachs, for whom a physical newspaper has been a lifelong constant and was once an editor for The Harvard Crimson:
"Newspapers foster a sense of community that electronic mediums don’t."
Although like me, Paolo predominantly gets his breaking news online these days, he also notes that "newspaper reporting is generally much more in depth and it backfills certain information gaps in other reporting."

So while we all want maximum value for our dollar, especially me especially now, and it's unlikely that print newspapers will ever again be what they once were, it's also unlikely that online news dissemination will ever sufficiently replace what I get from the daily paper.

And thus I--even if a bit conflicted about it--continue to get it. While hoping I can for years to come.

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