August 19, 2012

Why Am I Getting the Paper?

Filed under: newspaper,writing — jrice @ 2:54 pm

For some reason, The Lexington Herald-Leader has been throwing newspapers on our driveway everyday for the last couple weeks. We do not subscribe to the newspaper. Nor would we subscribe even if asked. I don’t read the newspaper. I don’t know why we are getting the newspaper. I haven’t yet bothered to call The Herald-Leader and tell them to stop.  I suppose I’ve been too consumed with keeping my two kids from killing each other over a doll or piece of paper with coloring on it.

As you can see from the above picture, these newspapers we receive go unread into the recycling bin. Given the amount of news I encounter daily online, I don’t see why I need a newspaper thrown on my driveway. All major publications publish online. All get aggregated in some way or form and delivered in a variety of spaces. Some have paywalls. Some allow for minimal access. Some allow for complete access. Even The Herald-Leader is online at http://www.kentucky.com There is little reason to hold the paper in my hand or run it over with my car when I’m on my way to the gym at 5 am. I can go online and read it.

The newspaper is an anomaly.  Its mix of news, aggregation, and advertising has been co-opted by a variety of online businesses who often do the work better. Its structure and approach to content delivery has been challenged for some time by notables such as Jeff Jarvis and Jay Rosen, and by a number of journalism schools that now teach social media and other concepts as alternatives to the traditional journalism model. When the earthquake in Haiti occurred a few years ago, The New York Times depended on videos uploaded from cell phones in order to show readers online the damage. I will know what the news is hours before the paper is thrown on my driveway. I will find the news online. Newspapers know that they are an anomaly. They know I get the news before they can deliver it in print. And still, The Herald-Leader throws its editions on my driveway.

What I remember about the newspaper growing up and into my undergraduate years in college (the last time I subscribed to a paper) was that most of its content was aggregated from wire services such as Reuters and AP. I could get The Gainesville Sun, for instance, and know very little about what was happening in Gainesville outside of a few stories in the several page paper. I would know, however, whatever the paid wire service provided the Sun and its sister papers.  I still see this practice when I visit my parents, who – for some reason – subscribe to the local Hendersonville newspaper. When I’m visiting, I see enough local news to fill one page. The rest is wire service. This tally doesn’t count the advice column from an elderly fellow (who looks about 90 based on the picture that accompanies his column) who tells readers the benefits of “being nice.” or why picnics are good each week.  Sunday is still dominated by the hum drum and lacking substance Parade magazine whose cover once featured Brad Pitt and the headline “I’ll Take Risks for Love.”  The comics page, for some reason, still features Beetle Baily and Blondie even though both strips’ original artists died years ago, and each strip’s idea of humor usually depends on sexist innuendo or – in the case of Beetle – Sarge trying to get Beetle to do work. Any publication that puts its subscription hopes on Beetle Baily and Blondie needs a new business plan.

Newspapers and their fans make a lot of noise about the professionalism of journalism, that journalism needs to be paid for, that the Internet is no substitute for the hard core objectivity and insightful commentary newspapers offer. and so on. Whether these arguments are true or not does not interest me. I have found distortions online and distortions in print. I worked at a newspaper and in trade publishing. My own experience in these jobs does not make these claims any truer. What I do know is that seven papers on my driveway each week will mean seven papers in a recycling plant or in my smoker when I fire up the coals in order to smoke a brisket or whole duck.

None of what I write here, of course, is new to anyone who works in journalism, social media, new media, or related fields. We all know that journalism, like other professional areas (education, entertainment), is under economic pressure and struggles to re-conceptualize the way its content is produced, delivered, and paid for. This struggle is met by a combination of anxiety and boredom. I feel that way, too, today, on a Sunday in which I have not read the Parade stuffed inside the Sunday paper in my recycling bin, and I have to find something to do with my kids. I have anxiety. They are bored. They’ve been to the arts fair this morning where they ran around, drank bubble tea, ate churros, and played. One took a two hour nap in his car seat afterward. The other has played an extensive series of imaginary games entitled college, restaurant, and smell my feet. Now, it is 3:30, and I have to find something new for them. I feed the youngest pasta and butter after his nap (one of only three foods he will regularly eat), and offer up the single choice of watching a movie downstairs in the basement (as opposed to my other idea of accompanying me to Home Depot to find a new part for the water system out front). So there they sit: watching Mary Poppins for the hundredth time. Occupied. Busy viewing.  Happy with this repetitive gesture. And I am obviously a bad parent.

And while I am a bad parent who put his kids in front of a TV, I have time to write this blog post follow up to the morning’s Facebook status update about the newspaper. I have time to get in a little more reading before the week starts and the semester begins again. I have time to start prepping again. In other words, I can do a little of my own “work” before I will make them dinner, bathe them, and put them to bed. I’ve settled in to this Sunday routine. And so has a great deal of print journalism. It has its routine. In some cases, it has altered that routine somewhat (podcasts, hyperlocal reporting, video, usage of blogs and Twitter). In some ways it hasn’t (a paper thrown on my driveway that I never asked for). But like me, the Lexington Herald-Leader is a routine gesture: a daily summary of local events overshadowed by wire services and subscription models. Routines are helpful, but they also inhibit. This routine I engaged with today has helped me a bit get some stuff done; but it inhibits my ability to do more productive things with my kids. The newspaper, though, faces greater challenges than I do. I can change my Sunday quite easily. Next Sunday, we can have a picnic. Cook out. Go to the park.  Put on our own puppet show. Or something else entirely. The Herald-Leader, unfortunately, will still be throwing its outdated form of information delivery on my driveway, only to be unopened and recycled.

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