Flushing Readers

Newspapers give up on the news thing.

By Shannon Rupp 18 Oct 2007 |

Shannon Rupp was a Tyee contributing editor. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at) 

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Let 'em read 'consumerpapers.'

As a cultural critic, I've always felt kinship with Cassandra, the cursed Trojan princess who predicted the future but was doomed to be ignored. Too pessimistic, was the consensus. Or, as they phrased it at the time, "mad."

But Cassandra was the only realist in the city, and as someone in the newspaper game, I've learned it's crucial to be a realist. Especially when discussing the industry itself.

With that in mind, I've long argued that it's futile to keep trying to insert news into daily papers run by publicly traded corporations. The owners are legally obligated to maximize shareholder profits -- which spending money on reporters, editors, and the fact checking necessary to avoid lawsuits, won't do. Besides, even if subjects can't win a court case, writs follow news stories like tabloids follow Britney, and just telling a plaintiff to piss-off can cost a whack of dough.

In short, corporate papers have a duty to print faux journalism, ersatz news, and other forms of filler that won't detract from the bottom line. If they're smart, they print stuff that will actually attract advertisers. Puff pieces on restaurants, condos, and cars, for example, or flattering stories about New Age wingnuts promoting some bit of nonsense.

As long as they don't mislead readers, I'm a fan of a newspaper version of the mag-a-logue -- catalogues that are designed to look like magazines. (I guess we should call them "cata-papers?") They provide pleasant work for writers, and who can argue with that?

Whatever we call them, earlier this month The New York Times reported that marketing consultants are advising big dailies to give up on readers when the real money is in connecting shoppers with advertisers.

Get rid of news readers!

The plan: boost profits by eliminating the "wrong" subscribers -- those who don't live close enough to the big box stores that pay for flyer inserts, the richest revenue source.

I'm not joking. And before you dismiss the idea that any paper would ditch readers in favour Wal-Mart shoppers, one already did.

The Dallas Morning News subscribers who don't live near major advertisers had their papers ripped from their porches when the marketing wonks decided there wasn't enough money to be made in serving them. Adding insult to injury, the paper advised annoyed former readers to get their Morning News online, thereby robbing them of the traditional expression of outrage -- cancelling a subscription.

"It's a rational business decision of newspapers, focusing on quality circulation rather than quantity, shedding the subscribers that cost more and generate less revenue," explains Colby Atwood, president of Borrell Associates, a media research company.

So what the Brits used to call a "quality paper" has devolved into a "quality circulation paper."

Shoppers rule!

I'm weirdly cheered to know that marketing gurus are openly advising publishers to aim their goods at shoppers. This candid approach is much more respectful of readers, and will spare innocent journalists naïve questions like, "Why does [name of paper deleted] review the same restaurants over and over again?" (Are they kidding me?)

Like anyone who values democracy, I used to worry about the evolution of newspapers into consumerpapers, because it seemed to be happening covertly.

But now I see that it was all part of the marketing plan. The braintrust was just waiting for somewhere to send readers (all hail Web 2.0) before they openly admitted to the strategy for squeezing more profit out of consumerpapers

Signs of this grand marketing plan have been there 20 years, as John Armstrong details in his hilarious memoir of newsroom life. But most of us mistook it for the death of journalism. Little did we know that forcing the news out of newspapers would actually free journalism from the clutches of people who say things like, "we have to monetize the editorial."

(Incidentally, Armstrong's stories about that paper are no comic exaggeration. Although seeing the stuff of bar gossip in print made me realize that Armstrong's book is yet another item on my growing list of things that have made satire redundant.)

Puff or fluff?

I used to think that papers ran puff -- that's newspaper slang for articles that promote something or someone -- because it's a cheap way of filling whitespace. Researching, interviewing, editing, fact checking for accuracy -- it all takes time. But faux journalism that flatters someone looks like the real thing, at a fraction of the price. Of course, among journalists, calling a story puff used to be derogatory term indicating contempt for the laziness and whoring that led to such drivel.

But I knew the paper biz was evolving just as I had predicted when I saw that Simon Fraser's Writing and Publishing program is offering a course called "The Lucrative (Sort of) Art of Puff" -- defined as "light journalism." I spit out my coffee, laughing. Was it sponsored by the Vancouver Sun?

No, but it is taught by one of the Sun's contributors, Kevin Chong.

I shared the joke about changing times with a J-prof pal on the other side of the country.

"Yes, writing puff used to be an embarrassment, now they're teachin'em how," I chortled.

Ever the even-handed academic, she suggested SFU and Mr. Chong must have just got the term wrong -- they meant "fluff."

But then my eyes fell on the Sun's Arts & Lifestyle section with half a page devoted to product shots of things like moisturizers. I assured her that Mr. Chong, an accomplished writer with a master's degree, knew whereof he spoke. Puff was precisely what papers wanted in their whitespace and I mailed off some clippings to prove it.

It's genius: Daily catalogues wrapped around flyers. Talk about selling synergy.

News, why force it?

Oh, sure, there are a few cranky old hacks who will still force news into daily papers, under some silly notion of serving the public good, but soon they'll retire and the transition to consumerpapers will be complete.

As for journos, these days we can go to the web and hang out a shingle, as the marketing wonks suggest (albeit indirectly). Thanks to the Internet, one lone muckraker with a passion for the craft can produce good journalism for a reasonable profit. Certainly Sean Holman's blog Public Eye Online, is a fine example of how journalists can deliver real news – which is defined as "all the stuff they don't want us to know."

I'll even have to reconsider my contempt for marketing wonks since this time they've got a vision that is good for both readers and journalists, and proves that this Cassandra is far from mad. Send the audience for news to the Net and make it clear that consumerpapers are the place for subscribers who want to be sold a bill of goods.

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© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)  [Tyee]

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