I once gave a talk to a group of business executives about coverage of 9/11. My assignment back then was to profile the hijackers. My editor’s instructions were to go wherever I needed to go and stay as long as I needed to stay. Neither of us imagined the reporting would take three years and require travel to twenty countries on four continents. But it did. In the middle of my talk one of the executives interrupted. “This is fascinating,” he said, “but I can’t help asking: How does it cost out?” It doesn’t, of course. There isn’t much a newspaper does that pays for itself. I suppose you could think about this sort of reporting as brand management, reminding your readers you’re a serious organization. But without the subsidy of the monopoly profits, there will be less and less of this kind of coverage, if any at all.
Ours is a newspaper family. My wife and I met in a newsroom. She takes her BlackBerry to bed so she can read the next day’s New York Times the night before. We have three papers delivered every morning. I read them in thirty minutes, thirty-five if there are box scores to scrutinize. Clearly, there’s much more looking than reading going on.
Which isn’t to say I don’t read. I read a lot, but selectively. When I’m working on an extended reporting project, I tend to read exclusively on that subject. This does not a well-rounded person make. Or a well-rounded news consumer. In truth, though, I’ve never much liked reading news, even when I was reporting it. I’ve written a couple, but haven’t read a murder story in years, or a campaign-trail dispatch in many more. I’m a big sports fan but almost never read newspaper sports stories. Here’s why:
Cliff Lee looked like Neo on top of the building at the end of the Matrix. Like the game slowed down just for him and he could see everything in ten different ways while the Yankees were stuck in their little three dimension [sic] world.
This was Craig Calcaterra, a lawyer with too much time on his hands, blogging on The Hardball Times about the first game of last year’s World Series. This is almost the perfect beginning for a blog post. It assumed you knew what had happened. It cast its subject into pop culture and it was dead-on smart. Compare it to any newspaper game story and tell me which you would rather read. Yeah, me too.
Even when I still worked for a newspaper, I was already spending more time reading things that were connected to the news, driven by it, but that weren’t newspapers. This has only been exacerbated since I left the newsroom. I used to argue that newspapers ought to return to their mass-medium roots—the high-voltage days of the penny press. That now seems silly. Newspapers have a product that is mismatched to their audience, but becoming more of a mass medium is no longer possible. There is increasingly no mass to be mediated. Everything’s been blown apart. It’s as if somebody set off a bomb in a crystal museum; there are shards of audience scattered from here to kingdom come.
The shards, though, are empowered to reassemble outside the museum. I and thousands of others have built our own newspapers out of rss feeds. I subscribe to about a hundred different Web sites and have organized them in Google Reader. The material is automatically fed into a system of folders that I designate. Think of the folders as newspaper sections. My A section is science news. My B section is sports, baseball and professional basketball only. The C section is politics. D is books and movies.
After I spend my half hour reading the three newspapers, I spend a solid two hours reading through my subscription list. It’s customizable, specific, highly organized, idiosyncratic, and immediate. How can a newspaper compete with that?