Yesterday afternoon I wowed myself by not getting lost riding Muni. I needed to at least make the impression that I am a punctual being. Kioko was anxiously awaiting her unveiling in my bag. ‘Twas orientation for the SFBG interns!
We were greeted into the program by Tim Redmond and his ponytail. He is everything you’d expect of an alternative weekly editor, fast-talking, quick-witted, asks questions to draw interns into his anecdote. A political news guy at heart, he of course brought up the current financial situation and how it’s affecting the overall newspaper industry. (In case you didn’t know, everyone is screaming “Print is dying!”) The SFBG has been independently owned and operated for 43 years, which makes its situation a little different from other newsprint publications that are owned by big bad corporations. As a weekly, it doesn’t demand the staff that a daily needs, but it does rely heavily on its advertising.
Second in the lineup was the cultural icon of the day, Bruce Brugmann. Brugmann is a walking caricature of a man. He and his wife formed the SFBG in 1966, and they’ve been involved in the publishing and editing process every day ever since. He looks something like Santa Claus with his white beard and huggable nature. (I didn’t hug him. I have my limits. Or do I? Keep reading.) Diehard San Franciscans, the ones who’ll slap your wrist if you call it “Frisco,” know Bruce Brugmann by his writing, his cultural institution, and his idolized face.
So Bruce-Bruce takes the stage, and like Redmond before him, he brings up the current state of newspapers and newspaper readerships. You’re reading my blog, so it’s likely that your daily intake of information and news is similar to mine, mostly electronic either via blogs, online magazines, or The Daily Show. The trend across the world, even before the recession was announced, is that there are fewer people reading newspapers than ever before. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Didn’t your elementary school run newspaper campaigns hoping to instill the habit of leafing through papers to you? Did it stick? Do your parents still subscribe to papers? Do you only read them when someone leaves a relatively clean-looking copy behind on BART?
When Redmond was speaking to us, he asked how many of us still read dailies. Maybe four people timidly raised their hands.
But when Brugmann posed the question “How many of you read newspapers?” suddenly everybody in the room had started devotedly reading newspapers in the forty minutes prior to his arrival. Hands shot up with more confidence than they had with Redmond.
Except for mine.
I don’t read newspapers.
I also happened to be sitting right next to Brugmann. Perhaps he was just shocked to be sitting next to such a dissenter, or maybe he just expected me to be less honest than the brown-nosers around me, but he looked at me with surprise. “You don’t read newspapers?” I couldn’t see all the other interns over my shoulder, but I’m sure they were pissing their pants for me.
“Off and on,” I said, which is the truth. “I get them sent into my e-mail, so everything’s in electronic form.”
Brugmann moved on to other topics, eventually landing on how the Guardian has supplemented its print self with its Web self. He rounded off the discussion with how print needs to win the interest of the younger generations. Then, turning to me, he basically said that I am their project, I am their goal, they are going to try to get me to read newspapers.
I played along, because I believe in the cause of bringing back newspapers. Make the daily newspaper matter to me! I would love that!
So here’s the thing. I don’t think print is dying. I think print just needs to get smarter if it truly wants to win over younger generations. The future of print, in my opinion, is solely dependent on great content through great reporting. Additionally, every newspaper needs to establish a Web presence comparable in quality, and must pledge not to fall down the tabloid scandal route in attracting new readers.
Redmond posed an excellent rhetorical question to us, “What can replace a daily?” Nothing. Cities need daily newspapers because there is nothing like daily newspapers. Having staffs makes a huge difference in what dailies are capable of. Citizen journalists fall short – not by any fault of their own, but – because of their lack of resources and access, while writers at bona fide publications have the advantages of time and backing in their investigations.
I didn’t claim that I read newspapers because newspapers aren’t a part of my daily routine. I don’t subscribe to any titles and I don’t have any newsprint to recycle at the end of every day. The New York Times is delivered to my inbox while I sleep, and I skip over plenty of articles when I’m choosing which links I’m going to click on. I follow specific writers as opposed to the entire sections they’re a part of, whether it’s through their personal blogs or RSS feeds of their columns. Then I hop over to Google Reader, where the often less news-y stuff that I love to read every day waits for me.
The medium of the news has changed in that we have more options these days, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing. There are definitely merits to paper. I love print layouts. I love designing them and I love seeing how people organize graphics and text in functional ways. I still think having your name in print is much cooler than seeing it on a website. I have a couple of old copies of The Stranger that I keep for nostalgia. Print is the best form for perusing when I have the time.
But that’s just the thing, I don’t always have time for print. I grew up multitasking, and flipping through newspaper sections isn’t as multitasking-friendly as is opening multiple Firefox tabs and separating my searches in Leopard Spaces. Imagine an Internet where you have no links…Newspapers just aren’t surfable in the same way the Internet is. I grew up in the “Silicon Valley,” my first blog is old enough to enroll in third grade, and I work in social media. It’s anachronistic enough that I like to read my books and write in them, too.
I’d love to see newsreels make their way back into the previews before movie screenings. I don’t see newspapers going down the same bleak route as the cinema newsreel, but I do think it’s up to this generation of disgruntled writers to spark the interest in our fellow citizens to pick up a paper.
I’m probably reading way too much into generational studies when I don’t have a lot of experience in that area, but I’m going to go ahead and hypothesize that in such frustrating times, we’re going to see an outcropping of earnest go-getter journalist types who want to aid us all in making it through the muck. (That was a really long sentence that I’m not going to bother editing down.) I’m hoping that the aspiring investigative reporters I met today forge the long and ever-pioneering careers that they dreamed of. I actually think we’re all really lucky landing gigs at the SFBG at this time of extreme duress, when everybody’s wondering “What’s the future of print?” There’s a number of them in that group that want to save newspapers and dailies. I think they can.
Until then, to one Bruce Brugmann, I will forever be the newspaper intern who doesn’t read newspapers.