Survival Techniques for the Print Media: An Open Letter to David Shribman
The general view of the print media is that it's no longer economically viable and will go out of business in the next decade or so. Mr. Sulzberger of the New York Times recently said as much -- eliciting a strangled cry of dismay from one Tony Norman, associate editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I recently re-subscribed to that newspaper for six months, so if the end is near, I hope it won't occur before mid-July.
The print press is not equipped to give us, unlike MSNBC, CNN, and FoxNews, wall-to-wall coverage about the disposition of Anna Nicole Smith's body -- or about the latest moves into and out of rehab by Britney Spears. However, the print media can do many things that the electronic version can't -- mainly discuss in depth issues of great importance to many people, if not not to most.
What does the print media have to do to survive? It has to present information of value to the intelligent people of America. The stupid people of America, roughly half of the adult population, don't want to read newspapers or weekly magazines. Rather, they want to find out what's up with Anna Nicole, Britney Spears, and Paris Hilton. In regard to such celebrities, they want "breaking news," which consists of trivial developments ("Cororner says Anna Nicole's body is deteriorating!) or "reports" (rumors about whether Britney is reconsidering the value of wearing underwear or about whether X-Fed is seeking custody or not).
To succeed, the print press must emulate certain aspects of my blog. For example, I've suggested ways users of prescription drugs can save hundreds and perhaps thousands of dollars on their medications. I've indicated -- and done the math -- that if many people followed my advice the nation could save tens of billions of dollars. I've told people what questions to ask their doctors and pointed out what drug stores (Wal-Mart, Target, Giant Eagle) offer the best buys. I've indicated what drugs (Avandia, Lipitor, and others) are wildly over-priced and, for most people, are terrible values.
The information I present is a more intellectualized version of what the wonderful Yvonne Zanos does on KDKA-TV. She tells which Internet-advertised products work well -- and which don't. Recently, she's been telling viewers what seasons of the year are the best times to buy certain products, including furniture and automobiles.
In short, the idea is to have people fork over their 25 cents or 50 cents for the paper -- and to receive several dollars (and maybe a lot more) in return. It's okay for newspapers to appeal to people's minds, but it's probably wiser to appeal to their wallets.
It has to make economic sense for people to read newspapers. If you're not saving money -- or increasing the amount you already have -- then go watch the entertaining stuff (Anna Nicole! Britney!) on cable.
Modern newspapers are full of material that almost nobody reads, and the P-G is Exhibit A. Do we really need additional columns by Maureen Dowd telling about what a smuck George Bush is? Do we really need more grumpy essays by George Will pointing out that American politicians in general are not as wise as, well, George Will? We badly need some fresh perspectives, and this town is full of people who can provide them.
We desperatedly require diversity of opinion. Right now, there is some, including the columns by Jack Kelly. We need fewer iterations of the obvious. In the case of the P-G, by moving some of its columnists (especially Sally Kalson and Dennis Roddy) back to the news-gathering field, it has performed a public service.
The newspaper already does some of the things I'm suggesting. For example, it provides movie reviews and book reviews, but they tend to have an academic patina that's off-putting to mere mortals. The emphasis should be on saving people money and time. (The same general point is true of more idea-based writing, which I'll discuss in a later column.)
An example of the money-time issue: Bob Hoover, the editor of the book-review session, wrote a review of Richard Ford's new book, Lay of the Land. He and I communicated back and forth about the value of reading that volume. I did read it -- twice -- and found Mr. Hoover had described its virtues and failing very well.
It's a 500-page book, and reading it carefully requires almost a week's worth of time. Time is in fact money. As poet Delmore Schwartz put it, time also "is the fire in which we burn." Was it worth burning up a week of my life to read Ford's novel? Hoover made the case for my doing so, and he turned out to be right.
Most days, my P-G is "full of an accumulation of horrible moments." In the thinking of editor Shribman and others, "that's the way it is." A mother and her children die in a terrible fire in Greene County. American women are dying in large numbers from heart disease. Pennsylvania leads the nation in inmates sentenced as juveniles with parole.
What readers should know is the ultimate answer to an overriding question: What can we do about such things? When bad things are happening, how can we eliminate or reduce their occurrence? What steps can we take? What actions can we initiate not only to save money but also to save lives?
In fact, some of the observations I've made in recent months on drug prices -- a critical concern for many Americans -- have come in part from information I've gotten from newspapers, newsweeklies, the Internet, and books. Almost none of it has come from the televison or radio media
I don't expect the newspaper to have all the answers, but it has the resources to provide at least some solutions. CNN isn't going to do it, so the task lies to the print arena.
There will be more about this subject in the coming days.