All Trees No Forest
November 2009

by Beverly Spicer

photo by Eli Reed

There is a saying in Texas used to refer to the kind of blustering rancher whose actual holdings don't measure up to his talk: "All hat and no cows."

A similar linguistic formula with a slight twist could describe the mental landscape of the newspaper industry and its so-called death. All trees, no forest. We know every little detail about the demise, but it's hard to get the big picture. Not only is it hard to see the forest for the trees, it's as if all the trees are burning and destroying the forest altogether. But is it really dying? I don't think so.

True, one by one the components of the newspaper industry are collapsing, and yet, the industry itself persists. Whether it is the failing economic structure, decimation of editorial and news-gathering staff, reduction of circulation, changing demographics, diminishing quality or outmoded print vs. digital publication, it is easy to fear that all is lost. Trying to hold on to traditional structures is fruitless, and those trying to do so are in a precarious position. No one can envision the printed newspaper surviving or digital news economically thriving, yet we cannot imagine a world without news as it has always been for the greater part of the last 100 years. Transition and transformation are at hand.

During this process, we are barraged with meaningless bits and bytes at a staccato pace and we're bombarded by a national conversation that has turned into a shouting match. The change has already happened. Nothing is the same as it was, and there's no going back.

The print industry has been disabled by economic crises and overrun by a free Internet, and many in the industry have been reduced to a state of 'learned helplessness,' a psychological term now picked up in political discourse that refers to a state of impotence and disempowerment so devastating that the best one can do is 'hope for the best.' Amidst information overload, however, many smaller, quality publications have been quietly creating a robust digital news infrastructure, networking with other online entrepreneurs, pooling newsgathering services, and sharing information.

In retrospect, newspaper giants may have been a myth of their own making, i.e., the claim that The New York Times printed all the news that was fit to print may not ever have been true in the first place. Has a free press ever been free, and if it has, has it always been used for taking advantage or promoting special interests? As an arm vital to our system of checks and balances, has it ever really been the Fourth Estate for more than a few bright and shining moments? In theory, yes, but, in reality? I'm not so sure. As far back as 1908, H.L. Mencken sarcastically declared, "A newspaper is a device for making the ignorant more ignorant and the crazy crazier."

We keep trying the same old formula and sometimes it seems to work. UK's news magazine called The Week launched a printed U.S. edition in 2008 with attendant Web site that is part free and part reserved for paid subscribers. The publication has no reporters but is a digest of U.S. and international news that claims to publish "the best of the U.S. and international media." The Week gives the reader the experience of earlier versions of Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report – magazines with both national and international news that used to contain very little celebrity fluff or sensationalism. Relatively refined and sober, The Week touts a sort of philosophical kinship to The New York Times, containing "All you need to know about everything that matters."

Life, a long-comatose giant, still lives online, and a relatively small staff of caretakers regularly revives and publishes photographs online from the massive archive. It recently presented a collection of 25 classic Life photographs entitled "When Newspapers Mattered." Shown below is L.A. gangster Mickey Cohen, whose reputation as the kingpin of crime was created by the headlines you see in newspapers surrounding him. His story thrilled and fascinated the public, and he was rumored to be a great friend of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. The godfather of yellow journalism, Hearst purportedly said to an illustrator he sent to cover a revolution that wasn't happening in 1898, "You furnish the pictures, I'll furnish the war." Click the photo of Cohen to see Life's series of historical photos that now seem to lionize the importance of the newspaper industry in days gone by.

Circulation at 379 newspapers reduced almost 11% in the last six months, a staggering death knell of a figure. But on a brighter note, Australia's Business Day reported newspaper stocks are rebounding and there is new confidence due to reassessment and the prospects that newspapers will be able to charge for their online editions. Business Day also reports that analysts believe the industry is "inching toward a new equilibrium," much like movie studios did when the film industry was threatened by the advent of television in the 1970s. And as more and more news moves out of print and onto the Web, at least one beneficiary is the environment. The Center for the Study of Physical and Intellectual Pollution estimates that the death of newspapers would result in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 897,465,000 tons annually.

Following is a discussion presented by PJTV's "Trifecta." Scott Ott (Scrappleface), Stephen Green (Vodkapundit), and Bill Whittle (Eject Eject Eject) ponder newspapers in financial crisis, the death of their credibility and how to save them from themselves. Ott suggests that journalism has suffered by masquerading as an information service while essentially acting as a political action committee. Fundamentally, he says, the challenge comes from the Internet, and he calls for intensification of local news reporting. Watch "The Gray Lady Sings the Blues: New York Times Leads Newspapers in Death Spiral."

Colin Mulvany, multimedia producer at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, wrote a blog entry on Mastering Multimedia called "The Death of Newspapers Doesn't Mean the End of Journalism." But he notes that throwing journalists off the staff as a way to bail out water from a sinking newspaper ship only makes the ship sink faster, since it is journalists who keep the thing afloat in the first place.

No individual can do anything to prevent collapse and transitions in our largest news institutions, so we might all benefit from hoping for the best. However, being alert for opportunities to help oneself find a new niche is the answer to helplessness in the face of profound change and seeming disaster. And don't forget education, education, education, plenty of which is available. A great way to keep up with media and technology transitions and innovations is by watching Shelly Palmer's daily podcasts. In five minutes, you have an update that isn't necessarily all you need to know about everything that matters, but it might help to see the forest as well as the trees.

Right now, it may seem like every man/woman for him/herself. I don't think it's always going to be that way. Articulate voices are beginning to speak eloquently, and visionaries are coming out of the woodwork, finally, and by invitation. The larger picture is coming into view just a little bit more every day. Pretty soon, we'll all see it, and we'll all know what to do. But in the meantime, good luck, buena suerte, and bon chance, mes amis.

© Beverly Spicer

Beverly Spicer is a writer, photojournalist, and cartoonist, who faithfully chronicled The International Photo Congresses in Rockport, Maine, from 1987 to 1991. Her book, THE KA'BAH: RHYTHMS OF CULTURE, FAITH AND PHYSIOLOGY, was published in 2003 by University Press of America. She lives in Austin.

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