When I was around 11 or 12 years old I delivered “The Morning Union” in my neighborhood of Springfield. I think that it was for that reason that I was given a tour of the headquarters of the “Springfield Newspapers”. The Daily News, the Morning Union, and the Sunday Republican were all published out of one location, and the place was impressive. On the outside it looked (and still looks) like any one of dozens (Hundreds?) of newspaper building across North America, and on the inside it was buzzing. What impressed me was how many people were actively engaged in doing things inside that building; the work floor seemed to go on forever and the job descriptions were too numerous to recall.
Today I would imagine that you could stage a jai alai tournament in the newsroom and no one would be in danger of taking a pelota in the face.
We all know what’s happened and, quite frankly, I’m in awe of the people who have managed to keep the Republican going all of these years. I still get the Sunday and Thursday papers delivered. I do it because I want to give them my money. I want to help keep the thing going but most days I don’t get around to reading the print version because, even when I do, I’ve already accessed 90% of the content on my phone or my computer. They joined with an entity called “Masslive” back in the late 90’s. To me it seems like little more than a website template. I have seen a number of nearly identical ones (though only Oregonlive rings a bell at the moment). It has now become an entity unto itself; I have no idea where the newspaper ends and Masslive begins.
In the end the combined Republican/Masslive produces very little content if you compare it to its predecessors because they can’t charge for their online content without cutting their own throats, their heavy print advertisers are either gone (think huge department stores) or have gone online to their own websites (think cineplexes), and online advertising doesn’t bring in the money like print used to. When I delivered papers I dreaded Wednesdays and Thursdays, but loved Mondays, Fridays, and Saturdays. The former were heavy on content, the latter extremely light thereon. I never delivered the Sunday paper, but I know it was a beast. Today my Sunday paper is more like a Tuesday paper used to be: four sections, not too heavy, in an hour you’ve read everything.
Speaking of readability it’s about time I got to the point. These changes in the combined newspaper/online model have completely altered not just the quantity of news we receive, but more importantly its balance. It used to be the television news which was accused of “if it bleeds it leads” editorship. It is still mostly true that the people delivering news on local TV are there for their good looks and, to a lesser extent, their eloquence, but they are most certainly not there for the knowledge they bring to the issues. The television ad model still works however, and I would hazard to guess that WWLP News in Springfield has about the same news gathering operation now as it had in 1990, perhaps larger.
With television news the model hasn’t changed. We know that the large fire, the car accident, or the crime scene surrounded by police tape will lead the news, lacking that they’ll do what it takes to get a cute, young reporter in front of something, somewhere…bam, off to weather, and from there it’s a hodgepodge of commercials and packaged stories.
The problem is that the newspaper used to be filled with more serious content. There were dozens and dozens of stories about dozens of issues. Car accidents, fires, and crime were covered but, at least by the 1970’s, it was understood that TV and radio would always beat print in those areas and that the paper had to specialize in depth and breadth of coverage. Everyone knew that smart people read the news and dopes only watched the news.
Lack of resources have combined with a more nimble platform to make the electronic version of print quicker to reveal breaking stories. It used to be that we could be counted on as a public to be either watching local broadcast TV or listening to the radio. A breaking story was revealed as a break-in or a crawl in the broadcast and wall to wall coverage could start…whenever. Now we get breaking news from our phones.
We all know that dwindling resources have destroyed print media. What needs to be studied is how those dwindling resources have altered what is covered. It is pretty clear that limits to resources have made the news which is cheapest and easiest to cover “the most important” in the same way education now only consists of that which can easily be measured by a standardized exam. Having a reporter sit by the police scanner waiting for a crime to occur in a city of 150,000 people is a pretty sure, and inexpensive, bet. Add to that a “shot spotter” system which identifies and locates gunfire which in the past would have never been reported and what you have is media coverage about cities which is more and more and more about crime at a time when crime has done almost nothing but go down for years and years and years.
What is needed is for a Ph D candidate to do an exhaustive study on mid market cities like Springfield to investigate how similar events were covered comparing old time print media to its new print/online hybrid by taking what is known from crime data and analyzing coverage. If you know that a certain number of armed robberies took place in 1978 in a given city, then going forward in 2016 you could compare the likelihood that a given criminal act would be covered and what prominence that coverage was given.
Year/ Population/ Crimes
Just now I perused the Springfield news feed on Masslive. 6 of 18 news stories in that feed were crime related (three were on a charitable dunk tank set up downtown). In 1992 when the overall crime rate in Springfield was three times what it is now was 1/3 of the content of the newspaper crime related? Was it 100% crime stories as the numbers might lead one to believe IF the rate of coverage was unchanged? How do online and print versions of the same product compare?
For very explicable reasons the type of news we get, the stories we’re told about ourselves, has changed drastically in the last 25 years. Misunderstanding how poorly what we are told reflects how things are is killing our communities and sapping us of hope at a time when it could be abundant.