By Pat Reddick for Media Are Plural
Enter panic mode, it’s time to seriously worry about things. Or, better yet, get your thinking cap on and come up with some ideas for how to save an industry.
For the past few months, we’ve seen an outpouring of ideas in Canada about how to save the news industry. Okay, outpouring is a stretch. Basically the ideas are “give us money” and “scale back the CBC, a successful competitor,” neither of which sounds particularly promising given the CBC is one of the most widely read sources of information in the country.
We’ve also heard repeated en masse the idea that news media is essential for democracy – though disappointingly little exposition of the concept, nor any interrogation of whether the current news media are living up to their potential to serve democracy well.
Newspapers come up a lot in these discussions, perhaps because they’ve been the most ravaged by the Internet’s emergence. I get the sense from this public discussion and conversations with friends and colleagues that the average person views newspapers as outdated, obscure objects that only people of a certain age or from a certain era read. This is supported to some extent by cold, hard data: as of 2014 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), fewer than 20 per cent of Canadians subscribe to newspapers according to a 2015 discussion paper by Communications Management Inc.
Look to vinyl to stop the carnage
It’s a bleak portrait, but like all of God’s children, it’s not beyond salvation. After all, for most of my life I would have said the same things about vinyl records.
But, for the past several years, vinyls have had a major resurgence. Last year, the medium outsold digital albums in the UK around Christmastime. Of course, that’s likely due to a Christmas-related sales surge (come on, who buys digital albums for family and friends as a gift?), but the fact it could happen at all – even in an anomalous week – is something to take note of. And while newspapers did note the fact, none of them viewed it as a model to emulate.
Why not, though? Like vinyl, newsprint is an outdated medium that’s been usurped by many more efficient modes of delivery. It’s expensive to produce, and it has to be done with arcane special equipment that’s not easy to get a hold of. But one has found a profitable business model and appeals cross-generationally, the other is rapidly dilapidating and solely associated with a by-gone era.
Vinyl records have an appeal that taps into a wider cultural obsession with vintage things. They’re chic in a way. What kept them going were content creators who never gave up on them – DJs who kept spinning them, collectors who kept buying them, artists who kept releasing music on them. They cultivated the aesthetic, and eventually it took off. It was a slow burn, but fast trends have a way of falling off just as quickly – vinyl is a bit more entrenched now.
It’s cool to have records on your shelf, even if you don’t necessarily use them all that often. To buy a newspaper, though, is neither cool nor encouraged. Even the shopkeeper tries to talk you out of the purchase sometimes. I work in newspapers, and yet if I buy one on a break, I smuggle it into the building and quietly stuff it in my bag as if it were an ounce of weed.
Despite all that, it seems to me that newspapers are poised for a bigger resurgence than vinyl. Newspapers have plenty of content creators willing to stick with them, too, and student newspapers help draw new people to the medium, both as creators and as readers. Certain papers already seem to have the chic appeal I’m talking about, though mainly on a local level.
Also, from a functionality standpoint, vinyls are hard to use and are not portable; you won’t ever see someone listening to LPs on the bus or train. Even in the current crisis, you do still see people reading newspapers on public transit. It’s easy to tuck a copy into a bag or purse, or even just to carry one around. There’s no set-up and take-down process with a newspaper like there is with a record player. And it’s sure as hell easier to start reading at whichever article you choose than it is to pick the right song on a record.
How do we revive newspapers?
We need to be realistic here. Newspapers will never be the dominant news medium again. By “revival,” I’m really talking about finding a way to stop these papers from wasting away and to become sustainable again. The days off massive papers packed with ads are over forever. The future will be different.
In order to do what vinyl records did, newspapers are going to need a major rethink, and they’ll likely have to come from a very different group of people than those currently publishing newspapers.
After all, the vinyl resurgence wasn’t lead by bands from the 1970s who kept doing things the same way until they eventually became cool again. The medium was kept alive by DJs and punk musicians for years throughout the ’90s, and then grown by indie acts in the 2000s. Now, almost every artist releases albums on vinyl.
Artists today play with the medium in new ways. Many produce coloured records, often with cool patterns on them. Imagine a colourful rack of newspapers instead of all grey, with the Financial Times’ pink the odd bird out. But don’t stop there, imagine colourful fact-boxes and related stories breaking up the page and making it look punchier. Larger, and more, photos – photo essays, even. It would take a lot more artistic impetus than most current newspapers have, but it’s neither impossible nor unprecedented.
This will involve thinking of each issue as an attractive object that’s going to be around for a while. Currently, newspapers are meant to be disposable, much to their detriment given most of the information within them is old by the time they’re out for sale. You can easily get around that by viewing them as a longer-lasting product and filling them with information that doesn’t expire by virtue of what it is.
Also, we need to get away from the monstrous behemoths that fill racks today. As Darren Atwater writes in the Tyee on the topic of saving Vancouver’s newspapers, “You can’t read [broadsheet] on the bus, it’s annoying to read in coffee shops or bars and if you’re not reading in those places, where are you reading it?”
Canada’s papers aren’t as bad as some others, such as the 15”-by-22” New York Times International Edition I’m holding above (I think at this point all Canadian papers are 11 inches wide), but they don’t compare to the convenient-to-read free dailies, which are 11 by 15. My personal favourite is 11 by 17. I should add, these sizes are way cheaper to print on than broadsheet, too.
Content matters most
What’s keeping any hope of this potential resurgence quashed is a fatal flaw in the way newspapers see themselves. As mentioned, the form is obsolete as a method of delivery for breaking news. And yet most newspapers are still run as though they are their reader’s main source of news.
Online news services publish information faster, have a capacity for updates, are much more direct, are easier to search and skim, and are more directly connected with their readers. Breaking news will not be in the vintage-chic newspapers of the future.
Look at vinyl – most include a free download code for a digital version of the album and many record players can digitally backup what you’re playing on the machine. They’re very realistic in that regard. Newspapers need to be, too.
They can start by assuming their readers know things. Hell, they can even point to digitally accessible background information above a story if they’re really worried that no one will have any knowledge of anything.
The content needs to fundamentally change, too. Forget cramming four stories on a page and cutting them to fit. Space it out instead, and supplement the content with background information and art. Photos aren’t always practical, so use graphs and tables, sketches and drawings (not by the typical class of newspaper comics though; they need to go first), or whatever else illuminates the story.
Long stories are a pain to read on a computer or a smartphone. Putting them on paper makes the process much less taxing on the eyes and easier to pick up later if you take a break. Those type of stories should be a fundamental part of these newspapers, alongside feature stories, investigations, contextual pieces, explainers and generally anything that has a certain timelessness to it. There’s no reason these stories have to be long, either.
Best part is, it’s not even hard to do
Much like with the conditions that made the vinyl resurgence possible, nothing I’m writing about is unprecedented. Many newspapers in Canada publish stories that could work in this new model. Some of them, including the Globe and Mail’s Saturday Focus section (in fact, most of the Saturday paper), are essentially what I have in mind.
The weekly international edition of the Guardian is an even better example. The stories are not breaking news, they’re contextual and in-depth, they stay relevant for a long time and they assume the reader knows a bit about what’s going on in the world. There are long ones, but there’s also a two-page centre spread of photos and a two-page spread of briefs from around the world on pages 2 and 3. USA Today has a similar feature but for briefs around the United States. In Canada, this would be easier to pull off since there are much fewer jurisdictions. You could do two for each province and territory and still have less content to curate and edit.
For a while, free alt-weeklies essentially filled this role, and it probably sounds as if I’m calling for their return. But so many alt-weeklies have gone under despite strong readership because of a lack of ad sales. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely these new newspapers will be free. However, they should be inexpensive and worth every cent.
They should also be backed up by robust online news services and a unique experience from what’s online. The breaking news, developing stories, timely content, information that might expire – all that lives on the web. The print product expands on that, and in many ways draws people to it.
The future will not be in print, but it’s not impossible to win people back to the medium. What I’m proposing are radical, risky changes that might not make sense for the legacy outfits’ business models. It might take a start-up company to make this stuff happen, and certainly a company willing to quickly abandon the idea if print doesn’t go the way of vinyl.
And, by the way, if you steal this idea, gimme a damn cut of the profits. I have student loans to pay off over here.
Pat Reddick is an paginator with Pagemasters North America who has turned his silly campus radio show into a silly, less frequently updated blog. You can follow Pat on Twitter @Chapter08. This story originally appeared on the Media Are Plural website, and is republished here with the author's permission.