By Jim Brown
Did you know there is only one place in the world where typewriters can still be ordered? It’s a small town in New Jersey and the typewriters are manufactured only for specialized clients in the corrections and government fields.
Somebody jumped the gun in April, 2011, when it was widely reported the last typewriter plant in the world had closed in Mumbai, India. Ah well, that’s why they used to call anything that appeared in newsprint the first draft of history. Always subject to revision.
But it’s safe to say typewriters are not on many people’s Christmas or birthday lists these days.
One moment the signature trademark of journalists and bestselling authors was there, the next it was gone and very few people outside journalism or literature seemed to care.
Computers seamlessly moved in and we barely noticed the typewriter’s departure.
About three decades earlier layout tables started disappearing and with them tens of thousands of good paying jobs across the country. Again, nobody seemed to shed a tear. It was like a bottle factory shutting down across the street, or an independent general store when Wal-Mart moved in. Sad, but few really gave more than a fleeting thought unless the lost job was their’s or a family member’s or a close friend’s.
It’s funny, I thought there would be a big surge of interest when the Guelph Mercury folded in just the past month after 149 years of existence. It was almost as old as Confederation. That same day on the west coast the Nanaimo Daily News also folded, this time after 141 years. Of course, in a sign of the times, both papers’ websites are still operating.
A short time earlier Postmedia consolidated its losing newspaper operations in major cities and laid off hundreds of reporters and less than a couple of weeks ago Britain’s The Independent, one of the most respected newspapers in the world, also shuttered its print edition. Five years ago the Seattle Post Intelligencer went entirely digital and the same year the Rocky Mountain News printed it’s last exclusive. Both papers employed top notch journalists and were Pulitzer prize winners.
The reaction to this depressing tide of news, other than from former journalists, industry insiders and silver haired, stoop-shouldered baby boomers, was muted, to say the least.
It might as well have been a giant collective shrug of the shoulders.
The death rattle has been going on for decades now, though it seems to be accelerating by the day. And again, who cares enough to take notice, other than those of us who worked in the field or can remember a day when kids in bikes tossed tightly wound bundles against front doors. Or at least tried to. When the papers went astray, into rose bushes or puddles or snowbanks, there was hell to pay. Now, more often than not the subscriber shrugs, reaches into their pocket, pulls out a smartphone and gets all the news they need in seconds. Of course there is still a solid subscriber base made up of customers in their 60s and older. But as everyone knows they are dying off by the day.
It’s not as if newspapers didn’t try to survive the digital revolution. They even tried to embrace it, launching online editions and a decade ago putting a lot of resources and money into a strategy called “convergance” in which reporters were encouraged to become news anchors and to post stories across multiple platforms. It mostly blew up.
When print revenues shriveled, publishers tried putting electronic moats around their content – erecting paywalls that tried to get customers to pay for their daily online news fix. For the most part that didn’t work either except for larger, prestige publications such as the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and closer to home, the Globe and Mail. It worked for papers that had a specialized product to deliver that nobody else could, such as insightful analysis of trends in business and finance. For everyone else it was a bust. Can’t get the local news on your local daily or weekly newspaper? Just go to social media – Facebook, Twitter and others. Or maybe the CBC website, which offers content for free and easily accessible and shareable.
Now newspapers, for the most part, are down to gimmicks. It’s almost as if the people who work in the business – publishers, editors, reporters, circulation and advertising staff – are just marking time. It’s almost as if they are in a palliative care ward.
Don’t believe the white flag is being hoisted? Notice dear reader the deference to Facebook and other social media outlets. It used to be stories only mattered when they were given the traditional print and electronic treatment. In other words 15 to 20 inches above the fold on the front, with a jump to an inside page and a colour photo or two, plus maybe a sidebar story. Electronic media – 45 seconds to three minutes on radio or TV.
That’s been upended just in the past decade. Now newspapers and even electronic media routinely declare this story is important because “it went viral” or it had thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands or millions of shares on Facebook. They don’t even pretend to see the trend unless it’s been all over social media first. That’s what I call truly sad and that’s why print journalism, as it is practiced nearly everywhere, is on its deathbed.
Here’s something else that few embittered old timers will say openly – the quality of journalism overall has improved dramatically over the past few decades. Stories are more readable and there has been an explosion of good investigative stories, general interest stories, analysis and opinion, much of it well researched and informed. High brow publications such as The Atlantic, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have found a home to roost on the Internet. There’s a lot of bad journalism out there, but lots of good journalism too, and it’s not all that hard to find if you have a computer keyboard – and much of it is free.
Print stories are tighter, more focused and generally shorter. And the photos have evolved light years beyond standard grip and grins. Don’t believe things have gotten better at the hometown newspaper, circulation 2,500 or so? Check their archives. Go back a few decades or a half century and the proof is right in front of your eyes.
Most stories can be improved just by shortening them. Fifty years ago did readers really get any benefit from 1,200 word features on a new dog pound opening or the launching of a sewing circle at the Legion?
But is it enough for Canada’s struggling papers who aren’t the Toronto Star or The Globe and Mail?
Print journalism has become better but it’s not enough to stem an irreversible tide of decline.
I really don’t know what the answer is, but it can’t be found by forcing casual readers and loyal print subscribers to scale ever higher paywalls. Perhaps the answer is a return to journalism’s early roots – long form investigative work on stories worthy of the special treatment.
Send reporters out into the dark corners where the real stories are. Don’t hold every single story to arbitrary 400 or 450 word limits or tell reporters this is how a story has to be written before the first contact is even interviewed. Give readers something social media and electronic outlets can’t – depth, perspective and a sense of discovery.
If it doesn’t work, at least print journalism will go out with a bang.