Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 20, 2009

The “Death of the Newspaper”… and the Implications For the Travel Industry

The reliable source?

When I want a comprehensive analysis (in print and on paper) of a news event or some other issue on the planet that I really feel I cannot ignore any longer, I wait by the door mid-week for the Canada Post letter carrier to drop my copy of The New Yorker magazine through the mail slot.

Experience has taught me that what I will get in terms of information will be well-researched, well-written, and in a style that supports what my high school English teacher taught us was the essence of good writing — the CUE Factor (coherence, unity, and emphasis). Unlike other print publications, I can always count on The New Yorker to treat me, the reader, with respect and to engage me in its intelligent discourse. The magazine, its cover especially, does not incite me to a riot of over-the-top reactions to the subject matter. This does not mean that The New Yorker is adverse to going for the jugular when, in the opinion of the contributors and editors, that approach is warranted.

Having said that, I also recognize that The New Yorker is a media outlet that reflects a United States of America frame of reference; but the magazine’s style and journalistic integrity have always made that perspective an added bonus.

However, it was with some trepidation that I began to read Eric Alterman’s recent nine-page article titled “Out of Print: The death and life of the American newspaper” in the March 31, 2008 issue. I guess it was the word “death” that caught me slightly off-guard. Initially, I didn’t notice the “life” in the title.

The article does not disappoint; it is a concise investigative report on that highly valued social institution known as the newspaper. But the facts are rather startling. As Alterman points out, “Since 1990, a quarter of all American newspaper jobs have disappeared. The columnist Molly Ivins complained, shortly before her death, that the newspaper companies’ solution to their problem was to make “our product smaller and less helpful and less interesting.” Yikes! Imagine ending your career and life on a sour note like that.

In the article, he also gives a brief historical overview of the American newspaper and its role as social advocate and critic. But he also tells it like it is. According to Alterman’s source, media entrepreneur Alan Mutter, “Independent, publicly traded American newspapers have lost forty-two per cent of their market value in the past three years…” and “America’s most prized journalistic possessions are suddenly looking like corporate millstones.” The monopoly that a “dominant” newspaper used to have in a mid-size American city, on information or advertising revenue (Alterman refers to it as “a license to print money”) is no more. And, of course the culprit in the alleged offing of the newspaper is none other than the Internet, which according to Alterman “is about to pass newspapers as a source of political news for American readers. For young people, and for the most politically engaged, it has already done so.”

So what?

What Alterman goes on to explore, however, is not quite so simple as “newspapers are dying.” The article is also an examination of the nature of news itself. For those of us who were part of what would now appear to be the old school of media literacy-media studies, questioning what is news and what is not, is … um … nothing new. However, Alterman’s analysis raises new questions particularly of the nature of the traditional newspaper (the “broad audience, with conflicting values and opinions, by virtue of its commitment to the goal of objectivity”) versus “The Web”, which (in Alterman’s words) “provides a powerful platform that enables the creation of communities; [in which] distribution is frictionless, swift, and cheap.”

But before you finish processing those two concepts, you may want to read what he has to say about the historical role of the newspaper as “a nation talking to itself,” and the suggestion that that the online world isn’t the enemy of the newspaper but a saviour if they embrace it — which many print outlets are scrambling to do.

And Alterman’s thesis of the changing culture of news and media in all its hues and shades, especially “the rapid transformation that has taken place in the public’s understanding of, and demand for, “news” itself” is grist for the media literacy mill.

Newspapers and travel “reporting”

Newspapers of course have not just been “hard news”; the traditional weekend travel section has always been a source of information for the public about where in the world to go, how, for how much, and why. The newspaper travel articles, reports, editorials — or however we categorize and define them — have always been a critical component of a destination’s marketing strategy, not to mention the bread and butter of travel writers.

But just as Alterman re-opens the debate over the nature of news, his analysis of the state of affairs of newspapers today also brings into question the nature of travel writing. This discussion is nothing new to those who travel and write about it. What is “true” travel journalism, what is travel “writing,” what is traveltainment (my coinage as far as I can tell) yadda yadda yadda, is also an ongoing debate. For those of us freelancers who accept partially or totally sponsored media trips, are we just another mouthpiece for our “news” or travel outlets? Surely everyone knows by now that any media outlet has an “agenda” — cultural (ethnocentric?), political, commercial, and editorial.

It goes without saying that the Internet has democratized access to information (unless you live in a nation like China which continues to block access to certain websites … um … like the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s), but as Miss Wyatt would have said (my high school English teacher), “Is the information accurate or enlightening?” Just because it is (a) delivered on newsprint or glossy stock through the mail slot or (b) electronically, is it any good?

Sigh. Caveat emptor. Caveat lector.

Whether the “stuff” is communicated on papyrus, on paper, in stone, by passenger pigeon, by telepathy, or digitally, it seems to me that a lot of the same journalistic, qualitative, aesthetic, and ethical principles still apply, albeit with some 21st-century twists. All roads may lead to Rome, but some of them may go through Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan on the way.

To read the complete New Yorker article, click here.

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