MEDIA WATCH

Selling print to a TV generation

What newspapers need to do is to return to the point at which their collected wisdom said there were things they could do better than TV

GEORGE BAIN June 1 1992
MEDIA WATCH

Selling print to a TV generation

What newspapers need to do is to return to the point at which their collected wisdom said there were things they could do better than TV

GEORGE BAIN June 1 1992

Selling print to a TV generation

MEDIA WATCH

GEORGE BAIN

Is the newspaper a dead duck? Or (which perhaps should have been the first question) is a revolution upon us?

In Britain in the 1980s, there was a newspaper revolution. The conditions that provoked it had been recognized for years. But so long as Fleet Street as a whole continued to keep its head above water, there was no rush to face the almighty row that change would bring on with the luxuriously featherbedded mechanical unions. Then, along came an untrammelled outsider from the northwest, Eddie Shah, with plans for an all-new tabloid, Today. That was in 1985. In 1992, Fleet Street is no longer synonymous with the national press. Newspapers have drifted away, mainly eastward to the old docklands area. In all the newspapers that once occupied the street, computers now perform most mechanical functions. Fewer unions, better attuned to electronics, have displaced the typesetters, engravers and stereotypers of old.

In 1992, a revolution is stirring in North American newspapers beside which Fleet Street’s will seem a mere twitch. That other was in how newspapers are made, something North American newspapers underwent with less trauma 20 years earlier. This one is about substance—what to put in them to make them sufficiently worthwhile to keep them in business. Again, as in Fleet Street, a galvanizing factor is concern for the bottom line, but here it goes to the point of being whether there will continue to be a bottom line at all.

Not to hide the fact, the relevance of the Fleet Street revolution to this column is only as a reinforcing illustration of how resistant people supposedly in the reality business can be to reality. In democratic countries, compelling governments to wake up to facts and act upon them is a principal occupation of newspaper editorial pages. A broader tolerance is accorded their own slow recognition of observable facts about their own business. The recession we still are not quite done with seems to be forcing a change in that. It has been unusually hard on the media, but particularly on the print

What newspapers need to do is to return to the point at which their collected wisdom said there were things they could do better than TV

media. There will be a recovery, although perhaps to a lower level of circulation and advertising than before. The worse fact is that the trend line of the competition between print and television is relentlessly downhill.

According to William Thorsell, editor-inchief of The Globe and Mail in Toronto, the recession has hit harder at newspaper revenues than any other since the Second World War. More important, a 1991 survey found larger percentages of respondents than in previous similar surveys putting television news ahead of newspapers under most headings— for instance, as most informative medium, and more particularly as most tumed-to for international news, national news, analysis of national and international news, and even for weather and sports. Those and other dismal facts—dismal for unwavering devotees of print, as well as for newspaper people themselves—come courtesy of Michael Adams, head of the research firm Environics. Adams and Thorsell were two participants in a recent seminar on newspaper content organized by the school of journalism at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto. That it was thought timely to talk about the substance of the newspaper, as distinct from its function as an adver-

tising vehicle, in itself reveals a new nervous introspection.

The reason for nervousness is not at all new. Every Canadian under the age of 40 is a television-age kid. Many of them may have abandoned all association with print as an information medium the day they left the schoolbooks. As matters stand, newspapers are having to spend unusually large amounts of money to win just enough readers to keep circulations near level with where they have been. Part of the explanation undoubtedly lies in those members of that enlarged population who have not acquired the reading habit. But another part may be that newspapers do not offer them enough that is better—better because it is different, makes more sense, is useful to them or stimulates them more—than television’s bite-size nuggets.

In the beginning, television as a news medium was not much more than radio with pictures—usually pictures of the previous day’s events if the events were close to home and older if they were at a distance. The first influence of television on newspapers was beneficial. It drove anxious editors and publishers to consider how to exploit what TV could not do well or at all. They correctly concluded that it was to provide more depth, and more of what today’s news was likely to mean for the future. From that, there has been—not everywhere, and not equally—considerable backsliding. More unfortunately, it has occurred at a time when television finally has established indisputable dominance over print as the place everyone will look first for big news.

That last has had two effects. First, the front page of today’s newspaper has come to look far too much like last night’s TV—and not just the late-night news but, in local affairs, the suppertime shows. Second, an endless supply of new news, virtually every hour, as on Newsworld and CNN, leaves most people superficially surfeited, with less time and appetite for the undeniably greater substance that print is able to offer. (Having seen repeated shots of crouching soldiers peering over stone walls and shooting at unseen opponents in scarcely heard-of towns in Herzegovina, viewers are not necessarily induced to read through to paragraph 10 in what looks to be the same story in the next day’s newspaper where they might find why the soldiers were shooting and at whom.)

What newspapers need to do is to return to the point at which their collected wisdom said there were things they could do better than television and that those should be built on. One of those was to make events understandable and understood. The philosophy of “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” should be replaced by the more sensible “If you can’t beat ’em, leave ’em.” That will mean newspapers going more their own way, setting their own news priorities and accepting that forever doing follow-ups to what TV puts into play is a mug’s game. It will also mean more stories written to be read because they are intensely readable, rather than read from a sense of duty, which may or may not—the odds always are on not—be present.