Empty Newsstand


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I’ve seen an empty newsstand like this many a time, but never because The Times didn’t produce a paper to put in it, as is the case now.

It would be hypocritical of me to complain too much since I’ve been an on-again off-again subscriber for years, and am currently off-again. If the reason they went from seven days a week to three days a week is dropped subscriptions, I helped contribute to their problem.

But it’s more than just declining print subscriptions, and it’s not exclusive to Huntsville. It’s the current state of print journalism.

When the change was announced earlier this year, I didn’t know I felt about it (see my post from back then, The Latest News). I still don’t, not completely. But a few thoughts I do have:

On the one hand it’s sad, especially for those who love print. A lot of my feelings toward printed newspapers has to do with nostalgia — things like memories of ink-stained hands after a Sunday afternoon of flipping through the entire volume and being enthralled with the content I had found. I fell in love with newspapers at a very young age and even though I no longer partake of them the way I used to, the memories are fond.

Times have changed. Technology has changed. People and industry have both been drivers of that change, as well as victims of it.

Personally, I’m just not convinced that papers have to respond by making themselves less relevant. Instead of printing less often and forcing people to go online or to other news sources, papers should make themselves more relevant by doing what only newspapers can do, especially what only a local paper can do. Being relevant in the digital realm is important too. I just don’t see why it has to be one or the other.

But, hey, they didn’t ask me, and what’s done is done. Guess we’ll just wait and see how it plays out.

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The Latest News


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I was just 16 years old when the Huntsville News printed its last edition, pictured above. But I already had a healthy appreciation of newspapers and a small inkling to want to write for one someday.

The Huntsville News was the morning paper, and The Huntsville Times was the afternoon paper.

It’s hard to believe that this city used to support two newspapers.

But that was before the Internet. Everyone likes to blame the Internet for the downfall of newspapers right?

I don’t know what I think about the Times (and other major newspapers in Alabama) downsizing to three days a week and the huge swathe of layoffs. I’m kinda shocked. The slow demise of newspapers as we know it isn’t anything new, but I never thought I’d see the largest papers in my state make such a move. I’m tempted to call it a stupid move because I don’t think it will work, but then I’m not sure what they’re trying to accomplish. If they’re trying to slowly kill the print edition and shift to online only, then it just might work. If they’re trying to salvage the print edition, making it less relevant by publishing less often and forcing people to go online for news — that doesn’t seem like a good strategy.

Of course, aside from saving the institution as a whole is the impact to the content available. Half of the Huntsville Times newsroom was cut. Half?? What kind of content will we even have Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, or daily online?

I just never thought that someday my last edition of the News might be joined by a last edition of the Times. At least not in my lifetime or on my watch. Now, I’m not so sure.

A new “day in infamy”


Today is one of those days where everyone remembers where they were — where they were when the first plane hit, where they were when the second plane hit, where they were when the towers fell.

I was at work, still in the newspaper industry back then. We had just broke from our morning meeting, going over the details of what would be in that day’s paper, other things we were working on, etc. Our education reporter, who sat caddy-corner behind me, was doing an interview for a “where are they now” valedictorian story. The woman she was interviewing lived in New York City. Reporters across the room were working on the overnight police news. I believe I was writing about the night before’s city council meeting.

News of the first plane crash came over the wire and word spread around the newsroom. There was talk — oh my, what happened, how could that happen, where do we put it in the paper, etc. — and one of the sports guys turned on the TV in the sports department to get the latest. Hearing the commotion and curious, I stood around the TV, with several others, watching the news coverage when wham! the second plane hit. I, like so many who watched that second plane hit on live TV, was shocked at what I saw. What?!? I couldn’t make sense of it. What was actually happening — terrorists attacking America — never entered my mind.

I was naive.

“Terrorism” was not a word I encountered all that much back then. That was something that happened somewhere else, in other countries, not at home.

The seasoned writer who sat on the desk next to me said very matter-of-fact that this was obviously a terrorist attack.

A “terrorist attack”? What is that even? I remember looking at him all confused like and asking, “terrorists? really? how do you know?”

I feel so ignorant having been so naive then, but I had never been exposed to anything like that. I had heard, of course, about the Oklahoma City bombings and recalled an earlier attack on the World Trade Center and a bomb at the USS Cole. But those were car bombs (or boat bombs), not airlines full of people being used as bombs. Who would fathom such a thing possible?

The rest of the morning and day gets a bit blurry. After the second plane hit and everyone realized this was no longer a random accident but now the story of the day, the editor called us all together to come up with a new plan for that day’s paper. Assignments were made — call the mayor, call the local military base, go to the corner coffee shop and get local reaction. And remember that education reporter on the phone with the valedictorian in New York? That became our lead story because now our “where are they now” hometown hero was on the front lines of a major terrorist attack on America. All of this unfolded between 8 and 9 a.m. at a paper that was to be printed and on racks by lunchtime. Our staff bustled to get as much local reaction as we could round up, and by lunch our readers had the latest from New York but also the initial reactions from our city. We came out with a second edition a few hours later and worked the rest of the day on 9/11 related stories. It would be several days and weeks before we would return to any of the stories we had been working on that morning.

There was a run on gas that day and that was one of the stories passed along to me — go to the gas station and talk to people about their reactions to the day and about the run on gas and the apparent price gouging.

Even as young and naive as I was, I quickly figured out that Sept. 11 was my generation’s Dec. 7, another “day in infamy,” the kind of day that when it comes around every year you remember where you were “when.”

Newspaper front pages from Sept. 12, 2001

Originally published Sept. 11, 2010.

Marshmallows


I read Newspaper Blackout today and was inspired to create a poem like the ones in the book. The book is a quick, quick read (less than a day, start to finish) and highly enjoyable because it’s just poem after poem like this one, except the ones in the book are way better. I highly recommend it for a light, fun read.

Oh, and what do you think of my poem? Not bad I thought for my first try at it. I had fun; try it!

No Privacy


At the newspaper we had certain justifications for printing certain news, especially news that seemingly invaded one’s privacy. For example, once you chose to be a public figure, either as an elected official or other choices that made you a prominent citizen, anything you did was up for grabs. Things that were no one’s business for a regular Joe became front page news if you were a public figure. In general, we respected someone’s privacy unless they gave us a reason not to either by choosing to be in the public’s eye or doing something publicly.

All that an introduction to the idea that in today’s world of blogs, facebooks, camera phones, etc., privacy as we know it no longer exists. On this very blog I have written about individuals without their foreknowledge or permission, and they may not have wanted me to do that. I don’t know whether they did or not because I didn’t ask. According to that logic, if you’re just in my life you should have no expectation of privacy. I may not use people’s names, or if I use names I may not use full names, but the point is that on my blog I write about personal experiences and that may sometimes including writing about the people in my life and often without their permission.

On facebook, people can upload pictures and “tag” me, and that picture can then be seen by all my friends. No one gets permission from me before tagging me – I’ve never asked permission from anyone before tagging them. You can remove tags, but that’s not part of this discussion. Recent photos  — taken with digital cameras — have been tagged of me eating at a work luncheon, opening presents at Christmas, and playing shuttle pilot at space camp. But the ones I find most relevant in terms of privacy are the pictures of me from high school. In high school, photos were taken on film and they were actual prints that might have been shown to a few people and then put into an album to rarely be seen again. In high school, we had no way of knowing anything like facebook would exist and that photos we had long forgotten about would be posted for all the world to see. When a friend took a photo back then, there were cultural norms and expectations and limitations of what could happen to the photo. Today? You have no idea or control over how a snapshot photo of you can be used. And it can be used and spread world-wide immediately.

It’s easy to say that if you don’t want potentially embarrassing photos or stories out there then don’t do anything you might be ashamed of or might not want publicized. But when I say that privacy is gone, I’m not talking exclusively about embarrassing or questionable things — just anything. Trivial things even. And for that matter, was privacy ever really there, and is it just the various Internet applications that I have chosen to be a part of that are just now making that more apparent to me. Dunno.

Like the “Web 2.0 … The Machine is Us/ing Us” video I posted here last week, such things certainly do give us more to think about.

Media Coverage of the First Day of School


There are some good questions and some interesting responses posted here on CJR’s discussion about the media’s coverage of the first day at a new school for the first-daughters-to-be.

I think the media certainly had the right to be there, and if they chose not to because they thought it was better for the girls or because they had other news to report, then that’s their right too. I don’t think the Today show should be penalized for not covering it. I do think it was a little juvenile of them to say “We’re here at the school before they get here to say we’re going to leave before they get here.” The story could have been reported without the live feed from the school and been just as useful and to the point.

Some of the commenters make the point that Obama showcased his children during the campaign so that makes it OK for the media to showcase them now. And I agree. He’s chosen to be in a public position and thus made that choice for his  family too. As previously stated, the media has the right to do report on or highlight the president’s family and children. But having the right do something and being required or expected to do something aren’t the same. The media has the responsibility of providing news to its viewers/readers. Was it news that the president-elect’s daughters were starting their new school? Sure. Was it worth noting on the national news programs? Yes. But I don’t think it was worth live feeds and paparazzi-like treatment.

Overall, I think the news agencies handled it well, even if they didn’t all do the same thing. In fact, it’s great they didn’t all do the same thing! Who wants cookie-cutter news? (Not I.) I particularly thought ABC’s Charlie Gibson added a nice human side to the story with his own personal tale about his first day at the same school.

GIBSON: Today was their first day in a new school. Sidwell Friends, a private Quaker school….Don’t we all remember our first days in a new school? I am a Sidwell graduate, started in seventh grade, went through high school. My first day, many years ago, but you remember every detail of something like that. Would anybody talk to me at lunch? The teacher gave us a mountain of homework, I couldn’t finish it all. I remember the first person who did talk to me, and the girl across the aisle in home room didn’t talk to me. Hopefully the president’s daughters will have an easier transition.

How Much Are You Willing to Pay for News?


Columnist Brian Till says the salvation of newspapers is that people stop free-loading news and pay for it. I tend to agree. Newspapers spend money to produce the news; why should the news be free?

On a little bit of a tangent but one I think is relevant, let me explain my opinion that newspapers do not have an obligation to provide news nor to provide equal opportunity access to news. Newspapers are their own entity and can do whatever they want to do, public interest notwithstanding. Now before you journalist folks get all defensive, please note that I acknowledge that many newspapers (and writers and editors and publishers) subscribe to the higher calling of informing the people and being the government watch-dog, and some even go so far as to be an advocate for community issues (for me the latter is going too far and a possible misuse of “power,” but that is a discussion for another day.) I wanted to — and did — write for newspapers because I was so excited to tell people about the stuff going on around them that they otherwise may not know. Reading the newspaper had that affect on me and I wanted to pass that on to others.

But the newspaper industry is just like any other industry — it’s a business with expenses and revenue that must be balanced, and at the end of the day it has to make a business decision about what moves are best for its business. Certainly this must be balanced with its’ goal to inform and educate and make a difference, etc. but you can’t do one without the other. If your business dies (i.e. you can’t afford writers and newsprint) then how can you inform or educate or make a difference?

A decade ago newspaper Web sites required subscriptions, and I was right there with people who thought it should be free because I have a “right” to know the news. How can you charge me money to exercise one of my rights. But I was wrong. It is no one’s obligation to provide people with news except the organization that decides it wants to do so. Sure, the government has certain obligations to inform the people about what it is doing, and it may use a newspaper or television station or web site to do so. But a newspaper itself does not have that obligation unless it chooses to.

So if news isn’t a God-given right and it shouldn’t be free, how much should we pay for news? And how high a price would turn people away rather than lure them in? In the column referenced above, Till says “I’ve yet to find a member of my generation — as enthusiastic as many are about blogs and “new media” — who’d rather see the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times fail than cough up $100 for a subscription.” So $100? Well, as it turns out I currently pay $150 a year for a daily annual subscription to my local newspaper, so I’ve already met his $100 and raised him $50.

The big issue here is online news. One big newspaper can’t just decide today that it’s going to start charging for online access and successfully transform the entire industry. Readers will just go to another web site and get their news. As Till says, it would take collusion — newspapers plotting together in a great conspiracy to band together and take back their industry!

Till writes, “The news industry is in collapse; a critical piece of successful democracy is in jeopardy.” Are we willing to pay for what we consume and save this industry that (most of the time) serves us so well?