Thursday, July 31, 2008

Newspaper suicide; book "souvenirs"

I got an email from Jenny yesterday. We had been having an email exchange recently about how newspapers are committing suicide in anticipation of their own demises in the transition to an electronic world. Our discussion began when news was released of the cutting of 150 editorial department positions at the Los Angeles Times where she and her husband both work. She wrote me yesterday to tell me that her husband is among the 150.

What do I mean by suicide? Newspapers are largely run by corporations these days that are not satisfied with the small profit margin that newspapers have traditionally offered. So they cut in the only place that really saves money: staff. It's so far centered on incentives for early retirement, but also includes forced retirements and layoffs. Who goes? In most cases it's the names you'd recognize--the longterm book critic or film reviewer, the editorial cartoonist, the guy who writes about television or sports. These, of course, are the names your dwindling readership identifies with. Once you've set those big names adrift, your readers increasingly lose loyalty and feel fine dropping that subscription.

I'm an Austin native and I've worked for the Austin American-Statesman three times, first as a general copy editor for news, features and (now defunct) neighborhood sections, then as an assistant entertainment editor and last as a free-lance film industry columnist. Oh, my actual first job there was as a paperboy way back when. Recently I cut my subscription to weekends only. Why? To save money, and because I, a guy who writes for two newspapers, get more and more of my news online. I also figure to check out the newspaper at work on someone else's dime.

The Statesman is luckier than most major metropolitan newspapers. The Dallas Morning News, where I'm a free-lance film industry columnist, announced a third wave of staff reductions recently. Over at the Poynter Institute, Romenesko's regular column reads like an obituary: staff cuts, cuts cuts. The Lexington Dispatch is going so far as to chop off its own toes by deleting its entire Monday newspaper.

The Statesman's Cox chain has yet to slash into its staff, but just you wait. The signs of decay are already there. Show World, the weekly listing of television shows was dropped. I guess it was assumed only old people kept it near their rabbit-eared televisions as a guide to programming. The rest of us watch the guide channels offered by cable and satellite providers. The classified ads, once considered a reliable indicator of the state of the economy, are another goner. Craig's List stole it all. Another buggy whip for the museums. Like the phone books that keep piling up at my house untouched when the Internet is so much easier.

Why all the melancholy navel-gazing? Part of it is that email from Jenny. Another part comes from reading this article about the future of the printed word, primarily books. One person interviewed in the article suggests books will become souvenirs given out for free when authors talk. That's not too far fetched. Will all our reading soon be multimedia? Maybe so. I know I'm not ready to give up on newspapers just yet. And I'll keep on writing novels with paper and ink in mind, thank you very much. I just hope the publishers are not giving up on themselves too soon.

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