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.)

1 comment:

Diane Silver said...

Thanks so much, Erin, for this post! After I posted this, I realized that the New York Times is attempting some of this with its Time Select service. Periodically they post what they call "Talking Points" essays.

I'm one of the fools who paid $50 for Time Select, and I find these essays to be invaluable. It will be interesting to see if this business model can work for the NY Times. The key to all of this has to be finding something that will work economically.