Wednesday, January 18, 2006

All Jarvis, all the time

Over at Buzzmachine, Jeff has posted a hit list for what newspapers have to stop doing in order to transform themselves into something that can compete in the 21st century. While some of his prescriptions seem to make perfect sense, others appear to be somewhat ill-conceived. Let's go through the list, shall we?

1. Stock tables: I agree -- get rid of 'em. If you have money in the market and you're not getting your numbers real-time at this point, then you're a damned fool.

2. National business news: See above. What are you going to read in a general newspaper that won't also appear in the WSJ or Financial Times?

3. Local business news: Jarvis says push this stuff online, but there's a problem with online content at the regional and local level that I'll address at the end.

4. Personal finance: Again, I agree with Jarvis. Get rid of it.

5. Critics: What the heck is Jeff's problem with professional opinions about the arts and entertainment scene? I think his animus against highbrow culture and anything even remotely intellectual is jaundicing his view of the value of informed criticism. If I want to know what the public thinks about a movie I can wade through the Talkbacks on Ain't It Cool News, but if I want some thoughtful analysis informed by someone who sees more movies in a week than I do in a year, then nine times out of ten I'm going to want a critic. Ditto for television, food, and the rest of the arts. Jarvis smartly pauses before calling for a purge of local critics, but he insists that they should be compelled to keep their reviews on the "uniquely local", forgetting that the regional-level critics constitute a farm league of sorts for the national syndicated arbiters of taste. Inveighing against too many critics at the local level is like saying that we shouldn't have Little League because it's repetitive and wasteful. I mean, we have Major League Baseball! Why throw away money on a bunch of kids who really can't play all that well anyway?

6. TV listings: Ditch 'em.

7. Movie listings: Not quite sure why Jarvis wants to keep these, when Moviefone and its ubiquitous clones do a much better job. Buh-bye.

8. Entertainment listings: This one's a little harder to get rid of, due to the myriad activities which would fall under the general heading of 'entertainment.' I still say your weekly alternative newspaper is your best bet in this regard (here in Boston we have the Phoenix).

9. Sports columnists: Jeff sez--
Most sports columnists are, according to sports-fan-friends of mine (I’m quick to caution that I’m not one), a waste of ink. Are you better off paying their salaries or syndicating the best?

To which I respond, who are these sports fan friends of yours? For every Peter Gammons at the national level there are myriad local talents who take sports writing from the stuff of grunts at the water cooler to articles that appeal to heart and head alike. While there is room for a dispassionate analysis from national writers on the sports beat, local writers speak as much as fans as they do lovers of the game in the abstract, and therein lies the magic of a Tony Massaroti or Dan Shaughnessy.

And again there is the question of where the next generation of national sports writers will come from, if we decimate the entry-level ranks. Certainly the blogosphere can provide alternate avenues for new voices to be heard, but the problem nevertheless remains. Recruit local voices on the 'net or at your local newspaper, but you still need these people to cut their teeth before they can write a column every day that isn't spew.

10. National sports coverage: I agree. The barest-bone synposes will suffice.

11. Comics: Jeff sez--
Comics are a killer. Every time a paper changes so much as a hair on Beetle Bailey’s head, the editor's office is overrun with angry mobs. Yet comics take up a lot of paper with no advertising; they strictly support circulation. Hmmmm. What do you think?

I agree with him to a point. But instead of getting rid of the funny pages entirely, why not fill it with local talent? For every syndicated cartoonist there are hundreds if not thousands who use their own money to copy their work at Kinko's and distribute them through the neighborhood comic shops, while holding down crappy jobs (usually at Kinko's) to keep themselves in ink and paper. Local newspapers should be cultivating these unique talents by giving them a platform.

12. Synidcated features (Dear Abby and the like): I agree. Can 'em.

13. Food, home, fashion, and travel coverage: Now food and home I would separated from fashion and travel. By all means let the latter go to syndicated columnists or be dropped entirely, but every region has its own food quirks, and the nosy neighbors of every town love to get a peek into the homesteads of the rich and obnoxious. And instead of articles about Tahiti, why not focus on travel within one's region?

14. National news: Let the newswires handle this. I agree with Jarvis 100%.

15. Local news: More, please. Yes, this is indeed the "marrow" of what a local newspaper is and should be. Moreover, this principle should inform all of the decisions an editor makes regarding #1-14 above. First and foremost should be the cultivation of local talent, and this is where I have to respectfully disagree with Jeff's assertion that newspapers have to stop trying to be all things to all people.

The local newspaper is the postmodern commons. A little too granular to be covered thoroughly and consistently enough by the new media, cities and towns straddle the threshold of the printed and the digital. Good newspapers would not try to force themselves into either realm entirely but try and take advantage of that liminality, for it can be as much a blessing as it is a curse. I admire Jarvis for not wanting to throw out the baby with the bathwater on this one and seeing that despite the infatuation with all things electronic there's still room for such things as newspapers, although again I wonder why budding critical voices need to be shut out of his vision of the 21st century broadsheet.

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