Save the Paper: Letter to David Shribman, Part II
"Everybody in politics lies, but they do it with such ease it's troubling." (David Geffen, on Bill & Hillary Clinton)
"Barack Obama is Bob Casey without the five o'clock shadow." (Anonymous)
Do newspapers, such as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, have a future? They don't if they continue down the traditional path presenting a combination of unfocused, episodic "news" and unreflective opinions.
They may have a bright future if they give people complelling reasons to read them. If they can help people make money (or reduce expenses) and save time, they'll justify their existence. Changes in format and various types of gimmickry will not do the job.
In yesterday's column, I suggested that in terms of providing valuable information, newspapers have an advantage over the electronic media. Today, however (February 23, 2007) CNN made me reconsider some elements of my thesis.
On February 23, beginning with its 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. "early show," featuring Soledad and Miles O'Brien (unrelated co-hosts), CNN began a day-long effort it called "Fight Back Friday." It focused on problems people have with customer service, and it provided solutions for viewers. The emphasis was on how to fight back against providers of bad service.
One reporter talked about common rip-offs experienced with auto repairs, including: flushing out oil systems and cleaning engines -- both expensive and usually unnecessary. A repairman cited several ways to find a good place to get your car fixed: (1) see if the shop is clean and orderly; (2) check with people who have had work done at the place you're considering; (3) call the Better Business Bureau to see if there have been any complaints.
Another correspondent discussed ways to avoid getting cheated on home improvements. First, find out if the company has the proper license and insurance; second, don't pay more than 25%-30% up-front -- in case the contractor mysteriously disappears after getting your money; third, have a written contract; fourth, check with your local BBB to see if there have been any complaints.
CNN's business editor talked about the problems Americans have with cell phone, of which there are now more than 230 million. He noted that "Errors on cell phone billings are the single biggest complaints consumers have."
To solve the problem, you have to call the phone company. When talking to a representative there, you must avoid the tendency to vent or debate -- and instead focus on getting the problem solved. That won't happen unless you determine if the person you're speaking to has the authority to make the adjustments necessary.
The reporter pointed out that, when you call the company and get the right person, you do have leverage. For one thing, you can threaten to leave and go to another company. In addition, if you don't get satisfaction, you can inform the person you're going to call the FCC, which has authority over cell phone providers.
The CNN examples I've cited took place in about one hour. The advice given was was excellent. In terms of value to viewers -- including this one -- the program was an excellent investment of time. It was empowering in its strong indication that we do have recourses when enountering bad service.
With viewers and readers, people providing information need to establish the worth of what they're presenting. Consumers want an answer to the WIIFM question: "What's-in-it-for-me?" In other words, they don't want to waste their time viewing or reading things of little benefit to their lives.
I know: many newspapers (and maybe even a cable outlet or two) believe they're presenting "food for the brain." However, our brains are like some other organs in that they benefit most when used wisely. Frankly, today's 24X7 presentation of information -- "all news all the time" -- doesn't seem to have produced a better-informed populace. Admittedly, we do know a great deal about Anna Nicole Smith and Howard K. Stern than might be necessary.
Generally, the electronic media -- if capable of shame -- should be ashamed of themselves. Someone asked the other day, "Does TV make too much of the doings of celebrities?" The respondent, a professor of media said, "It makes too much of everything!"
The example of CNN's "Fight Back Friday," with its insightful presentation of useful information shows what the electronic media can do at its best. On the other hand, we all fear it will soon be back to its worst (Anna Nicole! Car bombing in Baghdad! Keith Olberman's and Chris Matthews' Opinions!)
Yet another correspondent on CNN talked about protecting yourself from identity theft on the Internet. He had many good ideas (don't ask a site to preserve your credit card number, test the site -- by testing it with a bogus card number -- to make sure it isn't fraudulent). Yet his effort to show a sure-fire way to enter unique, but memorable, passwords was a failure.
CNN showed his hands keying in numbers, but the process he was advocating was unclear. Fingers moving quickly over a keyboard weren't enlightening.
In fact, precision is something where newspapers have a big advantage. The print medium allows the spelling out, in black-and-white, of something like various methods of creating memorable passwords -- ones you can use without fear that hackers will figure them out. The networks can use block print on the screen, but it always seems to disappear before the viewer can find a pen and piece of paper.
Information on paper may end up wrapping the remains of yesterday's fish fry. However, paper is preservable. If you read something important, you can keep it around. Frankly, in a world where everything moves so quickly, things in print can have a very long shelf life. I still have the September 12, 2001 P-G, and I doubt I'm alone in that.
Granted, people don't really want to fill their heads with the musings of Reg Henry and Dennis Roddy. They want to reserve brain space for information that they value, that makes their lives better, that informs them in ways relevant to their existence.
For example, Tracie Mauriello of the P-G wrote some eye-popping pieces on exactly which Pennsylvania legislators (Mike DeWeese being featured) were extracting huge amounts of "expense" money from taxpayers. For Pennsylvania voters, Ms. Mauriello basically wrote a Voter's Guide. Frankly, taxpayers need to know who's misusing their money (Rep. DeWeese and others) and who's not (Rep. Jim Marshall and others).
Yes, newspapers need to tell us what happened -- but also WHY it happened. The "why" part leads to a large point: if something bad is happening (such as the endless stream of homicides in the Black community), the paper has to suggest both causes and ways to reduce its occurrence.
Otherwise, regularly reading the newspaper becomes an endless exercise in sadness and frustration.
This is part of a continuing series. One future piece (next week) will deal with the deficiencies of the P-G Sunday "Forum" (Opinion) section, especially in its new (and profoundly depressing) incarnation under the editorship of Greg Victor.