MSM RIP

“TV journalism” has been an oxymoron as long as I can remember, but not “print journalism.” My father was an old-school newspaper editor, which is why I still hold print journalists in moderately high regard. But media critic Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post, in a Tim Russert eulogy, explains just how far newspapers (like the Orlando Sentinel) have now fallen:

Under its new owner, Sam Zell, the Tribune Co. earlier this month decreed a 12 percent cutback in content, meaning that the Los Angeles Times, for instance, will be serving up 82 fewer news pages each week. Tribune’s Baltimore Sun announced last week it will cut 100 employees, in part through layoffs, and produce what publisher Tim Ryan called “a more concise newspaper with more local news” — a euphemism for slashing news space.

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Randy Michaels, the company’s chief operating officer, said Tribune has begun measuring productivity by how much copy each journalist churns out — and that the average Times reporter generates a mere 51 pages a year, compared with more than 300 apiece at the Sun and Hartford Courant. Perhaps no one has explained to him that writing in-depth stories — say, prizewinning investigative pieces — takes a bit more time.

Note to Tribune — if “journalists” are measured by quantity over quality, then you really have nothing whatsoever over the web. Your journalists are typically less knowledgeable than many of the people who blog on their areas of expertise. And I don’t see how you can match the web for quantity. Nor price, of course. Once your quality is gone, why should anyone pay for your product?

Lee Abrams, hired from XM Satellite Radio as Tribune’s chief innovation officer, has been cranking out colorful memos: “Newspapers strike me as being a little TOO NPR. I like NPR, and their shows like Morning Edition do well. But NPR can also be a bit elitist. . . . It’s all about being INTELLIGENT . . . not intellectual.

Hence the emphasis on quality over quantity. Oops. But wait, the memo gets better….

“BRAGGING RIGHTS: Ever watch ESPN? They OWN sports. Tiger Woods has a hangnail and they will have the exclusive report. Newspapers need to live in that world a little more. Not sensational . . . but a little swagger . . . I still see stories that, well, are kind of obscure. (aka boring).”

But Tiger Woods with a hang nail is not boring? Of course it is — except to sports fans! ESPN focuses on a segmented market. Newspapers don’t. Print publications that focus on segmented markets are called magazines. The future of the Tribune is not looking good.

It’s hard to argue with the notion that newspapers need more mass appeal and a bit more self-promotion. But one man’s boring story is another’s effort at government accountability. And it can be a short slide from catchy slogans to plain old dumbing down.

One Tribune paper, the Orlando Sentinel, launched a redesign last week [see front page above] that makes USA Today look like the Financial Times. The front page is dominated by big photos, big graphics and a strip across the top with blurbs about inside stories, often featuring some celebrity. Each day there are three stories — some as short as three paragraphs — and sometimes one of them is an opinion column, complete with the writer’s picture. Rather than run a full news story on an agreement for the state of Florida to buy a huge chunk of Everglades land from U.S. Sugar Corp., the Sentinel’s front page carried a Mike Thomas column praising the deal. And there are info-tidbits: A story on lightning season ran next to bullet points on staying safe.

The approach jazzes things up, but also makes the Sentinel look like a magazine that swoons over eye-catching art and brevity. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but if newspapers merely imitate online sites, the Web already does it better.

And faster. And cheaper. Maybe newspapers can’t be saved. And the way they are dumbing themselves down, cutting out news, serious science reporting, and the like, maybe they shouldn’t.