Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Newspapers' race to the bottom

As the newspaper industry continues to struggle nationally, some papers are succombing more and more to sensationalism. The "infotainment" virus, which has already destroyed television news, increasingly plagues newspapers as well.

Here are two local examples.

Ken Tingley, supremo at the Glens Falls Post-Star, makes regular appearances on WAMC's The Roundtable program to discuss local issues.

On today's Roundtable, the ONLY issue Tingley was willing to discuss was the recent death of former Major League pitcher Johnny Podres, who was the first ever World Series MVP. Podres helped the Brooklyn Dodgers win their only World Series in 1955.

Podres was from neighboring Queensbury and spent most of his life in the region so it was a perfectly legitimate story to discuss.

But was this the ONLY big story in the area? Tingley was specifically asked by the host if he had anything else to talk about and he said no.

Meanwhile, the front page of his own paper today features a rather significant update in the saga of a missing local boy, whose adoptive father was named a 'person of interest' by police.

How about the huge story about a state court ruling that, if upheld, will costs local towns tens of millions of dollars?!

I have nothing against Johnny Podres, nor do I have any problem with Tingley talking about his life. But surely he could've found a minute to talk a little about a missing 12-year old or a hugely significant court decision.

Perhaps this isn't surprising, since Tingley is a former sports' editor of The Post-Star. But it's a sad reflection on the priorities of the managing editor of the only daily newspaper serving much of the southern Adirondacks.

But they are not the only paper in the area to descend into tabloidism.

Take The Times-Union's treatment of John Sweeney.

The Albany paper felt it necessary to run a big non-story about a dispute between the former Republican congressman and a taxi company.

Apparently, Sweeney got a cab ride home but didn't immediately pay because he thought a friend of his had paid the fare for him.

When he was later informed of the discrepency, Sweeney paid the company.

Police were called but before they could even charge him, Sweeney cleared up the misunderstanding.

There's nothing in The Times-Union's reporting that suggests this was anything more than an honest mistake.

So where's the story?

Oh wait, did I forget to mention that he was coming home from a strip club?

I have no sympathy whatsoever for John Sweeney. I voted against him every time he ran for office. I cringed when he went down to Florida in 2000 to disrupt the vote count like some common street thug. I've long felt him a lowlife slimeball, both as a politician and as a human being. His actions in the last year and a half have only strengthened that belief.

But John Sweeney has been out of the public eye since his election defeat in November 2006. He hasn't spouted off on local or national politics. He's expressed no interest in getting his old job back. He's just an ordinary citizen. A lowlife, slimeball, ordinary citizen, but an ordinary citizen nonetheless.

As The Times-Union pointed out: Sweeney's driver's license was suspended in November for six months following his guilty plea to driving while intoxicated. He also was fined $1,000 for the incident. Sweeney was pulled over on the Northway and admitted to drinking at the Envy Lounge in Albany. His blood-alcohol content was 0.18, more than twice the legal limit of 0.08.

I have no problem with any media outlet reporting when he's actually charged with a crime.

But this taxi cab spat is a non-issue that was sensationalized by the paper only because the tawdry strip club aspect... something which was really irrelevant to what little story there was anyway.

(I once wrote a check to a local pizza place that bounced because of a mixup in my checking account. As soon as I was informed of this by the restaurant, I immediately went down there and paid my bill. This never made it to the front page of the newspaper... because there was nothing erotic about it.)

No public interest was served by this being fabricated into a big deal; it was only sensationalism to sell some extra copies and get the T-U some publicity. It's sad, because the daily is actually doing some excellent journalism on the commerce in steroids that seems to be centered in the Albany region. But that good journalism is tarnished by its proximity to the shameless tabloidism surrounding Sweeney.

I'm not the only one to be disturbed by the increasingly superficial tendencies of the local media. Adirondack Almanack did an excellent analysis of how important stories were covered by the mainstream media as compared to by blogs.

There's nothing I need to add to Almanack's commentary except that it's very much worth reading.

Newspapers are at a crossroads. Many are making the wrong decision. Newspapers can no longer compete with television for sensationalism, least of all with cable 'news' outlets. The Times-Union or The Post-Star out-tabloid The New York Post so they shouldn't bother trying. The risk is that in attempting to do so, they will also turn off people who want good journalism.

What papers that claim to be serious need to do is focus on serious journalism. People who want a superficial scan of current events, with a focus on Brittney and the random, upper middle class, photogenic, missing white girl of the week, will watch television because that's the medium that can best feed this appetite. People who want a more in-depth look at real events both in this country and abroad will read newspapers... provided they can find one that serves their needs.

It's a bit like Wal-Mart. Mom and Pop stores will never be able to compete with Wal-Mart when it comes to price because of corporate welfare, Wal-Mart's dubious business practices, etc.

Instead, what small local businesses need to do is find their niche. They need to focus on offering stuff of a higher quality to appeal to the consumers who don't want crap and are willing to pay a little extra for it. Sucessful small businesses are those who try to find their niche, instead of engaging in a race to the bottom that they can't possibly win.

Newspapers would do well to emulate this model.

Update: The most read news article in the last seven days at PostStar.com is a piece on six kids that were arrested for underage drinking. This has received 75 percent more hits than the story on Podres' death, although the Podres' story was posted a day later. The most commented stories on the site were ones about a drunk and stoned driver who refused to apologies to the families of the people he killed (38 comments) and a big felony drug seizure as well as ones about the missing kid (30 comments) and the drinking party. No story about Podres' even hit the 9 comments level. So maybe the paper's readers aren't quite as superficial as Tingley thinks they are.


The Almanack Editor said...

Great post.

There is every indication that the Post Star, the Saratogian, and Denton Publications are missing the boat entirely on the changes in publishing.

After I posted the piece on local blogs vs the local media that showed them nearly tied in google searches for important local stories you would have thought that the folks at one of these papers would have written to say gee, "what do you think we're doing wrong" or even "hey you suck, we are just better than you are , blah, blah, blah."

Instead Post Star reporter Don Lehamn wrote to show just how disconnected he is with the internet and the lcoal blogosphere.

You should check out the comments.. they're getting funnier all the time. Well, a sad funny really.

Brian said...

Just a reminder that this blog will not publish completely anonymous comments. If you are not a member of Blogger, then you should include at least your first name or a nickname (please use the same one consistently) when leaving comments. Thank you.

Mark said...

It's a tough time for many newspapers, even the big ones like the NYT. The internet is really doing a number on papers, and you're right, you gotta find a successful niche, specialize in it, and run with it.