Friday, March 9, 2007

Saving newspapers - Part 2

By Erin Solaro

Dumbing down newspapers is a self-defeating strategy.

Until very recently, much human technological development was driven by people instinctively seeking quality, not just in their own lives, but in their work, because fine craftsmanship in any field is a statement about the human dignity and the worth of manager, worker, and customer.

Our lives are made of time; work is often what we use that time to make, and money is the fungible medium of exchange: when maker and customer each offer value given for value received, they honor the times -- the livess -- of all involved. To offer little or nothing is to rob the maker, just as to offer garbage is to rob the customer, and both are acts of contempt for that portion of their lives that went into making and selling the product, or earning the money to pay for it. For this reason, I, a great scavenger of used bookstores, have come to regard it as a moral imperative to buy books new whenever possible, because buying quality creates a market for quality.

But if you don't know what quality is, you lose your ability to appreciate it. My friend K., a fine horsewoman who I suspect (never having made use of her professional services) is an equally fine nurse, collects sewing machines.

(Her husband C. is also a nurse who built, by hand out of scavenged wood, a wonderful weekend cabin six miles off the power grid. When he tired of hauling diesel up for the generator, he decided to create his own solar bank. C. explained to me that I, too, could also create such a solar bank, and that it would be economic to do so.)

The pride of her collection is a Singer from about 1910, all black enamel and gold and red decals, gleaming like jewelry, in its original fine wood cabinet with graceful ironwork gears to transfer power from the treadle to the needle. Nothing about this machine is not beautiful, including the stitches it sews.

K. explained to me that unlike modern computerized machines, it can only sew a straight stitch, but because the internal gears are machined to finer tolerances than modern ones, its stitching s more precise, even after a century of use. She loves old manual typewriters for the same reasons: the precision of their manufacture and their ability to do only one thing extremely well.

But appreciating fine sewing and printing, like fine writing, is very difficult to do if you are drowning in a sea of garbage. For one thing, quality simply becomes hard to find and so, whether you are a producer, a consumer, or, as most of us are, both, your senses become dulled by a constant diet of coarseness. You lose the ability to appreciate fine work and understand why it can cost money, just as you lose the skills needed to make fine work, or manufacture the tools used to create such work.

This is why dumbing down newspapers is a race to the bottom that amounts to no more than industry suicide. If people do not have good writing available on a daily basis in their local newspaper, perhaps the single thing most people are likely to read and to lead them into exploring other writing on a huge variety of subjects, they will lose the ability to appreciate it.

Editors, I have come to believe, must take the lead in explaining to their readers what is at stake in newspapers written for their readership as if they are citizens with a stake in the Republic. They must say this loudly, clearly, and constantly, or they will destroy their market, and that in a time when people need more than ever ready access to good writing that speaks to them as if they are citizens.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Saving Newspapers?

By Erin Solaro

I've recently had several conversations about the fact that I am trying to go into journalism at a time when many papers are shedding readers (see the New York Times article on the subject).

Then I received a virtual suicide note from an editor: "Thank you for your interest in [my paper]. Your letter arrived at just about the worst time in recent memory to be looking for a newspaper job and, unfortunately, [we are] no exception.

"We're in the middle of a hiring freeze that shows no sign of abating any time soon..."

When I read that, I felt this busy man, who took the time to write me a kind and personal note, also deserved an answer. (I will be sending him a copy of this.)

Everyone knows newspapers are dying; it's been going on for decades, so rather than fail by what has become a common-place formula of dumbing it down, trashing it up, and shipping it out to a readership you think won't notice, I thought I'd propose an alternative.

You can't get rid of the garbage, like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. It's too common and it brings in too much money. So, continue to make money off it, but also start offering a premium version of the paper, written by and for serious people.

By serious, I mean bringing comprehensibility to complex issues.

I am proposing a fundamentally new genre that is neither an op-ed or a feature article. I call them critical essays, harking back to the idea of the old military critic, offering more information than is normal in a newspaper, but not as much information is common in specialist publications. They would be in the realm of the magazine article, but a bit shorter than something you would find in The Atlantic or, for that matter, The National Review: about 1,500-3,000 words.

The key to the writing would be both a lack of ranting and the pseudo-objectivity of dueling quotes by opposing experts, often leading to the impression that no solution may be possible. And when readers finish these articles, they should come away saying: I understand the problem or the issue.

Again, the goal of these essays should be critical comprehension on the part of both writer and reader, not ranting or the pseudo-objectivity of balanced quotes or straight reportage, devoid of "ideology." Indeed, if the writer is rational and thoughtful, an ideologically informed opinion can be a good thing!

Given that my own ideology is to revive the idea of citizenship to include women, my bias is that these articles should be written by the writer for the reader as a conversation between citizens. You could organize these articles thematically, with several targeting different aspects of an issue, and indeed not always agreeing with each other, with an overarching editorial bridge.

In short, these articles would fill a gap: between newspaper and magazine, between academic and trade journals, and the general reader.

Now for financing, because newspapers are running a business: people have to be paid, after all, and this included the writers of these essays, if they are not staff. Quite frankly, even if publication means exposure, it costs the writers to write them: the newspaper staff is getting paid and so should your freelance essayists; this is simply a normal business expense. These articles should be available to the readership at a premium charge, and targeted to your more thoughtful (and thus usually more educated and affluent) readership. Then sell advertising space, including for literate infomercials. You could probably get premium advertising dollars for placement in premium venues.

You can always fill a page with garbage, but that's a race to the bottom no one wins. Not the newspapers, composed as they are of people who often genuinely care about the written word, not the communities they serve and the citizens who live in them, least of all the Republic that depends upon an informed citizenry.

(A slightly different version of this was posted on The Woman Citizen in December.)

Welcome guest blogger Erin Solaro!

By Diane Silver

I am pleased to welcome Erin Solaro, author of Women in the Line of Fire, to Becoming The Change. She will be guest blogging over here for a bit. First up are her thoughts about the news media and the death of newspapers.

The news media are an important topic for this blog. We can't promote progressive change in society without having a free, open and functioning media. If newspapers -- or more importantly, newspaper style journalism -- is dying, then this country is in big trouble.

As a former newspaper reporter, I know all too well the problems in the industry. However, we dare not allow the newspaper style of journalism to choke to death on the demands of Wall Street.

Independent investigation and a willingness to go into issues in depth keep a democracy healthy. Although newspapers have been known to fail at those tasks from time to time (well, often many times), at least newspaper editors still believe those are priorities. Whether that style of journalism survives in hard-copy print, on the web or in some other form, it has to continue or else our society will become a democracy in name only.

Thanks so much to Erin for offering her thoughts on this vital issue and on other issues to come. Erin also blogs at The Woman Citizen.