In my daily perusal of the ever-shrinking San Francisco Chronicle print newspaper, I noticed this little blurb tucked away on the front page of the Technology and Business section (now on the back page of the Sports section):
Leaner newspapers = less news
> The staff cuts at newspapers across the country are starting to take a toll on content, according to a study being released today. The challenge newspapers must meet immediately is to find more revenue on the Internet, according to the Project of Excellence in Journalism’s study. Newspaper managers need to find a way to make money from the rapid growth of web readership “before newsroom staff cuts so weaken newspapers that their competitive advantage disappears.” Stories are shorter, the study found, and staff coverage tends to focus on local and community news. “America’s newspapers are narrowing their reach and their ambitions and becoming niche reads,” the study said.
Then a weird thing happened. The newspaper blurb actually started talking to me.
The Blurb: I am a microcosm of all that is wrong with newspapers today. I am a tiny blurb on a complex and difficult subject, and I barely scratch the surface of what this story is all about. I am just the tip of the informational iceberg that you can find in full online. What purpose do I even serve?
Me: Well, you are alerting me and other people to an important new survey from the Project for Excellence in Journalism.
The Blurb: But I don’t even have room for a web address linking to that survey. I am just a tiny blurb lost in a sea of clutter on a page that includes: blurbs on this week’s prominent news events; a comparison between the iPhone and iPhone competitors; a look at travel websites; a look at popular iPhone apps; and a roundup of CNET reviews of waterproof gadgets. Worst of all, I sit below another equally small-sized blurb about Facebook’s redesign. Meh.
Me: Don’t you find it ironic that you’re a blurb about cutbacks in content at newspapers, and there you are: a cutback in content yourself.
The Blurb: Don’t get me started. The Chronicle business section is a study in reduced expectations and content. There are three original stories in today’s business section with two written by staff writers, the other a freelance columnist. The rest of the stories are wire stories, CNET content, a Dilbert cartoon and wire service blurbs like me.
Me: Not surprising, as the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) survey found that 34% of newspapers had cut back on business content, and only 17% had increased business content. Not only that, but 30% of business sections lost reporting resources over the past three years, with just 19% adding resources. Business sections are obviously getting squeezed by the instant info people can find online. Anyone following business news now goes to financial portals like Yahoo Finance or sites like TheStreet.com or Motley Fool rather than relying on local papers.
The Blurb: But why get all blurby then? If papers want to accept their place in print as yesterday’s news, then perhaps they should do longer, more thoughtful pieces and get more magazine-like than strip down naked with tiny blurbs covering their bits and pieces. What happened to the Examiner/Chronicle’s push to be a daily magazine with more splashy graphics, photos and depth?
Me: Probably pulled under by the reality that print infrastructure costs more money, whether it’s paper cost, distribution or just running a circulation department. The web has its costs too, of course, like hosting and development and analytics — but those are relatively low compared to running huge presses and sending out trucks to deliver papers.
The Blurb: I really have to wonder about my future as a print blurb. USA Today has succeeded by running shorter news stories for people who are traveling, but will print papers turn into a bunch of blurbs strung together? Don’t people want depth? I wonder if the people who created me — the editors at the Chronicle — think about what will run in the print paper and what will run online.
Me: At the moment, they are running a longer version of you (the full AP story on the survey) on their website. What’s really interesting about the survey is that newspaper editors have either gained the online religion or they were forced out. According to PEJ:
At larger papers, where staff cuts have been deepest and the newsroom moods darkest, fully 57% of those surveyed say “web technology offers the potential for greater-than-ever journalism and will be the savior of what we once thought of as newspaper newsrooms.”
And only 6% were “worried” about the web. Are they delusional or just the most positive-thinking people the newspaper companies could find to run them? Yes, the web offers potential for greater-than-ever journalism, but why will that necessarily benefit newspaper newsrooms? Can’t any journalist or citizen journalist practice better journalism online?
The Blurb: Maybe, but the newspapers are at least trying out a lot of new approaches to doing news, whether it’s Google Maps mash-ups or databases or mobile journalists.
Me: Yeah, the survey showed that 90% of big newspaper editors thought that mobile journalists (or “mojos”) were valuable to the newsroom, and only 8% said they were less valuable. But of course there are still mojo skeptics:
The editor of a large circulation paper dismissed the entire concept as ÃÂÃÂ¢ÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂsome kind of cartoon character.ÃÂÃÂ¢ÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂ
The Blurb: You know, I could have told you a lot more about the survey, if only I was bigger than just a blurb.
Photo of shredded newspaper by Kelly Meyers via Flickr.