April 2, 2005

Pix and Fonts Newspapers Won't Make It

GLENN REYNOLDS points to the now common tale of newspaper circulation woes published today in the Wall Street Journal: "Newspaper Circulation Continues Decline, Forcing Tough Decisions." The article cites the new numbers coming out on the decline in newspapers circulations across the board that are dire enough to be called hemorrhagic. And while it is obvious that something has to be done to stop the bleeding, everything that is being done seems to open the vein wider.

You know this if you still take and are paying at least passing attention to your local newspaper. It has, you've probably noticed, become more colorful and jazzy in the last few years. It has gone from "Just give the news please" to "Here's a lot of nifty color pictures, graphs, and charts and other PIX along with a fresh selection from our bottomless FONTS collection." I call this the PIX & FONTS DAILY -- a way of presenting something that is supposed to be a "paper on which is printed the news" as a dog's dinner of "Graphics Gone Wild." Pulling the news out of this fornication festival of visual white noise is becoming, really, far too much of a chore. And yet the papers, scared out of being themselves by television news, persist in trying to reinvent themselves as TV news that doesn't move and has no sound.

The sections on pop culture have become popsier. The sections on the home have become homier. Large headlines have become larger, pull-quotes more numerous until they march across the page like some many infolet islands. If it has a comics sections more panels have come in and it has probably expanded to two pages jammed with gag strips but fewer continuing story strips. The front page, especially above the fold, has become not a quick scan of the important and interesting news of the day before, but a kind of carny display of fascinating featurettes you will find inside if you will only ("Please!") take the time to read them.

The net effect of all this jazz is similar to listening to an orchestra play some insane John Cage music where all the instruments sound different themes at the same time with no melody or beat to be heard. You just think, as I do most mornings when looking at my local newspaper, "Oh, who's got the time?" The answer, more and more it would seem, is that fewer and fewer outside of the retired and the hard-core unemployed really do have the time.

What should newspapers do to reverse this slow swoon unto death? For one thing they can stop listening to and stop worshiping the boffins at the top of their Circulation departments who keep coming up with "new" studies -- pretty much the same as the studies from the early 90s -- that show that circulation will improve with only always a few more PIX and a jazzier approach to making the front page more frenetic (The latest craze is to toss in, a la women's magazines, a plethora of numbers -- "15 Ways of Fixing Your Roof!", "35 New Restaurants That Serve Raw Food", "568 Lab Tested Methods of Getting the Big O!")

It is the nature of all circulation departments at all newspapers and magazines to be filled with... well, not the sharpest tools in the shed. Circulation is not a part of publishing that attracts or holds the best and the brightest. Some may pass through but few with any ambition stay. By default Circulation becomes, over time, a department that has the least insight into the problems of circulation. Still, when circulation goes down, publishers expect Circulation to fix it. This is like asking the patient to operate on himself -- it usually becomes more bloody than it has to be, the pain is substantial, and you have to send in paramedic and expensive consultants to clean up the mess every time. Then you do it all again -- and patch the wounds with PIX & FONTS.

What can really be done to stop and reverse the decline of newspapers is to simply become what they once were -- papers on which is printed the news, in an interesting way and in a clean, easily accessible format. Glenn Reynolds has it exactly right when he remarks:

I would suggest that reporting interesting news that people can't get elsewhere might help. I suspect, however, that we'll see more focus on "edgier" presentations and more colorful graphics.
Like most recovery programs, it is at bottom a simple thing -- knowing and becoming your own true self again and getting rid of the shadow of that thing you are not.

I take the Orange County Register, but only because they offered me thousands of weeks for $7.00. I started with it last week and already it is too much to even begin to read on a daily basis. As a result I've taken to carrying it from the driveway to the recycle bin without opening the little plastic breadbag it comes in. The bag is tinted orange -- a typical and desperate thought of some besotted luncheon between a circulation manager and overpaid marketing consultant. "We'll make the bags orange for 'Orange County Register'!" "That's it! That's it! Pass the Pinot Noir again."

If I want to be glutted with PIX & FONTS, I'll click around the CNN, FOX, MSNBC horn rather than pick it up in my driveway.

I'd love a paper in simple black and white with the news on the front page compressed into small but accurate and bias free squibs. Maybe with a picture or two in black and white and one or two long stories of human, technological or business interest in the middle, a good index to the stories inside in the corner, and only two -- maximum three -- slim sections.

Humm, maybe I'll take the Wall Street Journal up on their "Come back! We love you!" offer.

Posted by Vanderleun at April 2, 2005 6:52 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

" . . .a paper in simple black and white with the news on the front page compressed into small but accurate and bias free squibs."

i.e., the NYT circa 1958.

Posted by: ricksamerican at May 2, 2005 8:53 AM

The "Question of the Day" at the Wall Street Journal Online is, "What is the main reason for the decline in newpaper circulation?" Of course the answers are multiple choice and everyone is responding it is because of online alternatives. The other choices are: 1) diminished quality; 2) hassle of recycling; 3) biased reporting, and 4) something else. Can I send your article to the discussion area?

Posted by: Barbara Spalding at May 2, 2005 1:44 PM

Fine by me.

Posted by: Gerard Van Der Leun at May 2, 2005 4:22 PM

Gerard, I recall your post - maybe last spring - maybe a year ago where you do a by-the-numbers analysis of popular blogs vs weekly and monthly magazines. I remember thinking that your post was about fifty thousand dollars of free consulting advice to the established media - offering them some creative tie-ins via the web. I'm sitting up here in Seattle watching our Seattle Post Intelligencer daily turn into a foled insert of the International Socialist Workers Daily (but not as coherent as that fine broadsheet). Oh well, why bother to self examine when it is easier to blame it all on James Dobson...

Posted by: Doug Anderson at May 2, 2005 10:20 PM

To follow up-I didn't get to the WSJ on time. Perhaps a Question of the Week could be of use.

I know you are a writer addressing the written media. And, I want to say I think TV news is even worse. When did Hollywood become part of the evening news? How much analysis of the "Runaway Bride" can people stand?

I very much look forward to reading your prose. You are right up there with Peggy Noonan and George Will (my favorites)in my opinion. Thank goodness for the internet; thanks for your hard work and honesty.

Posted by: Barbara Spalding at May 3, 2005 9:25 AM

Is anyone collecting complaints about newspapers in some centralized organized fashion? And posting them?

My personal (un)-favourites:
-stories too often continued to some other page.
-poor indexing.
-no advertiser indexing.
-want ads so expensive the 'media' papers get badly out-competed by the local bargain or trader papers.
-either the reporters/editors are stupid/illiterate or the stories are so abbreviated as to be incomprehensible.
-non sequential page and section numbers. How the bloody blue blazes am I to know that page 'HL-12A' is part of an insert in a 'Home Living' section which is not section 'H', which sometimes is an entirely different thing. Like I said...poor indexing.
-intentional bias and lies.
-unintentional bias.
-sorry, but too many journalists are stupid. Them what can't, teach; them what can't teach, write about it.

Posted by: Fred Z at May 3, 2005 1:00 PM

Great piece, Gerard.

Barbara, you may want to read "Breaking the News" by James Fallows. It's an excellent book, and he explains how the news operations at the Big 3 networks became absorbed into the entertainment divisions about 25 years ago. More emphasis on ratings, on bottom line profit, which meant closing internationl bureaus, which led to lack of coverage overseas, etc. A contemptible move, in my view -- I have no use for news that worries about ratings and can't afford to keep a reporter in Cairo or Moscow.

I'd rather they just killed it. Which, of course, is exactly what they ARE doing, although very, very slowly.

Posted by: Jeff Brokaw at May 6, 2005 4:52 AM