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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Dumbing Down

How Print Journalism Survives…or Not

Fascinating piece by the Public Editor of The New York Times this past weekend taking the gray lady to task for not preserving “its dignified brand,” while covering popular culture.

Arthur Brisbane wrote, “The culture is headed for the curb, and The New York Times is on the story.” Brisbane went on from his exalted perch as “the readers’ representative” – the watchdog of the watchdog if you will – to criticize the Times for running three pieces in five days, two book reviews and a feature, on “The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt.”

For the culturally unhip that is the title of a new memoir about, I gather, a New York guy who wears women’s clothes and confuses and confounds his family and friends. One of the Times reviews called it “vaguely sad.” The Public Editor was suggesting that such a book, with a $750,000 advance to the author one Jon-Jon Goulian, is certainly news, but perhaps the newspaper of record had overplayed the whole thing just a tad.

OK, OK, NPR reviewed it, too – “very funny but frustratingly shallow.”

Brisbane’s larger point, I think, and a fundamental point for mainstream journalism in an age of shrinking newsrooms and circulation. is a question as old as the craft: do we give the reader what they want or do we give ’em what we think they need?

Somewhere, I suspect, some people are making a lot of money telling newspaper executives what to do to re-imagine the content and financial model for old paper on the front step. The Times recently put a tentative toe in the pay wall water and its website is a must visit for news junkies even if it messes with its brand by writing silly pop culture pieces that are better left to the Huffington Post.

The old Seattle P-I went out of business some time back as a cut-down-trees product and is now entirely online and mostly local. One of the more intriguing experiments is unfolding in Tampa where Gannett is testing “hyperlocal” content in a series of new websites.

My own bias, as the last guy on the planet who will relinquish his grip on old-style newsprint, is for local news organizations to try their own versionof the Gannett Tampa model. Go even more local.

An old journalism prof told me once, admittedly this is ancient history – BC (before computers) – “that people like to see names in the paper.” He meant that readers want to read about their neighbors, their kids, people they know, their community. Such stuff has long been the content staple of good weekly papers

If I were editor for a day – or a month – at a small to mid-sized paper, I’d junk the daily national and international news, or perhaps run just a few headlines, and put all the newsroom resources on the community. Go back to covering the school board meetings. Report on what’s new at the Saturday market. More local culture, more local politics, more of everything local. I’d localize national and international stories more in the interest of getting local folks to comment on the news. I’d take a page from the Times and create a local Bill Cunningham, the photographer who rides the streets of Gotham on his bicycle recording the look and rhythm of the city.

Sounds easy and I know it’s not. It requires boots on the ground and reporters and editors completely invested and interested in their place. But this much is true, I can get the national political news, and do, from lots of sources all day long and into the night. We have many fewer options to find out what’s going on close to home.

The headline on the Times Public Editor piece this weekend was “Loitering on the Fringes.” Here’s hoping that struggling newspapers strike the right balance on the old “what they want and what they need” question and give us more of what answers both questions – more local content. More coverage where we live and most of us don’t live on the fringe.

By the way, Publisher’s Weekly said of that book the Times has given so much attention to: “Through all his flashy attempts to grab the reader’s attention, Goulian’s story never seems interesting or serious enough to deserve it.” If that blurb is true – who cares about this slice of pop culture?

Not interesting, not serious, not exactly the standard definition of news in The New York Times or elsewhere. In every town the school board still makes news.

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