Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Where have all the newspaper pages gone?

I went back to North Carolina for the holidays and was saddened when I picked up a copy of the Winston-Salem Journal; it has continued to shrink over the years since I worked there as a reporter but now it's downright puny.

I've looked at the paper's web site, JournalNow, in recent years, but the web site seems cushioned from the stark, skeletal reality of what is now its paper edition. The Local section? It had been merged that day into the last two or three pages of the National section, signified only by a red box at the top that says "Local." Other sections were likewise combined, like Business/Sports. I think the Style section was part of B/S, as well. 

Some of the reporters who remain there seem to be filing two articles a day. And the paper's weekly "Relish" entertainment section seemed to be written entirely by its entertainment reporter, Ed Bumgardner, with the rest of its space filled in by AP/wire stories.

The paper's managing editor, Ken Otterbourg, wrote about some of the earlier job cuts in a November 14, 2006 post on his blog. Gone, at that point, were the movie critic, the NFL sports writer, the outdoor writer, cuts he took pains to justify. (Who has gone since then? And how was it decided who remains? The youngest/cheapest? The irreplaceable/local beats?)

Yes, yes, everything is available on the Internet now; movie reviews can be had on imdb.com and Netflix as well as national newspapers; sports news can be gotten on the wire and reprinted. And who goes outdoors anymore, anyway, what with Rock Band, the Internet and all those charming reality shows to watch on TV?

Maybe it's only nostalgia on my part, but I'm already missing the idea of the local, daily newspaper as the voice of the community. It was never the whole voice, never offered the cacophony of voices that blogs and other electronic mediums have made suddenly, universally available. 

Perhaps that's what I'm missing—its non-universalness, how the community newspaper used to be anchored in one place and time, and wasn't just a compilation of wire stories filled in here and there with local stories filed by harried writers; and how reporters had the opportunity to take all that could be written about a place and filter it through their experience and expertise, so that the most important and newsworthy were sure to be documented.  

The best thing about an active, well-staffed newspaper is that most stories are not filed entirely from a solo perspective (as so much Internet writing is, including this blog), but present an educated, group perspective. Layers of editors there read through and discuss/edit the stories, adding additional perspective and content along the way, and other reporters have the time to discuss their stories and share information and contacts.

I'm not sure this is happening anymore or is going to happen for much longer. We'll have to rely upon thousands of voices of citizen reporters, preoccupied with documenting their own lives, or the few remaining reporters who have only the thinnest layer of expertise guiding them when they cover multiple beats, and write only about the most obvious or the most easily found. 

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