Friday, October 17, 2008

For anyone under 30, the paper is -30-

If there was any doubt about the fragility of the newspaper business, look no further than the strike by Winnipeg Free Press workers, now in its - aw, forget it - has anyone under 30 even noticed?

Back in 1977, I was a carrier for the Winnipeg Tribune; I'm fairly confident that it was 1977, because I got the route so that I could collect Star Wars figures, which had just come out that year. As far as I was concerned, the only way I could ever drive a landspeeder on Tatooine was to first deliver papers out of a wagon in Winnipeg.

It was a hard work: it was my job to get the paper delivered in rain, sunshine, sleet, and snow sometime every night between...oh, 6 and 10 p.m., if I didn't have anything better to do. OK, it wasn't hard work, but it was "work" at a time when other kids were often described as "drug-crazed" and acted as though shoplifting Mojos from 7-Eleven was a way of life.

And - no kidding - for some people along the route, it was like Christmas when they got their paper. It was common to see folks waiting in their front door for the paper to be delivered, having waited patiently all day and most of the evening for YESTERDAY'S news. Quaint, eh?

Despite being a Tribune delivery boy, the Free Press was the paper I loved to read. To me, movie reviewers Paul McKie and Leonard Klady were as great, if not better than, Siskel and Ebert. Gordon Sinclair was on par with 60 Minutes. The movie and concert listings were the only way to know what was up on the weekend. And anyone lucky enough to actually be covered in the paper was a celebrity for the ages.

That was before the dark times. Before the Empire.

Last night, Neil Young played MTS Centre. The concert was great - much better than the last time he did a solo show here - and he briefly talked about how his father, Scott Young, once worked for the Winnipeg Free Press. Young said that he still has a photo of his dad in a press room, drinking a bottle of Coke.

"If no one's going to write about this show," said Young, "I guess I'll just have to write my own review."

And that pretty much sums up why - yipes - we don't need the newspaper anymore. The Internet proves that there are limitless numbers of people who will be reporters for free. A question I ask my students every year when we talk about newspapers and print journalism: "Do you need to wear a shirt and tie and have a notebook to still be considered a journalist?" Increasingly, the answer is "no."

1. The only thing that keeps newspapers alive is ad revenue.

According to a friend who works at the Free Press, ad revenue was down a whopping $500,000 in September from the previous year. It is often said that Free Press reporters are the highest-paid reporters in Canada. How can a newspaper continue to pay out more money than what it takes in?

2. Why do we need a newspaper when we have eBay, Pollstar, and Craigslist?

3. The idea that the newspaper funnels information to "everyone" is dead. We all want to be our own content supervisors now.

4. And how, exactly, does reading about a plane crash in the paper on a Tuesday help me when I read about it online on the previous Saturday?

I fear that we're getting closer and closer to the last-season, last-scene of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Would the last reporter out of the building please turn out the lights? -30-

Further viewing

As I mentioned in a previous blog, the state of the newspaper business is nicely (and depressingly) summarized in a documentary on the DVD set of the last season of the Wire, and on a really great episode of Frontline, called "What's happening to the news?"

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