My beloved newspaper has been reduced to serving already chewed news.

Media criticism.
Aug. 22 2007 7:21 PM

Already Chewed News

What my beloved newspaper has been reduced to serving.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.

The more I graze the Web for news, the less compelling I find the four daily newspapers that land on my doorstep.

Like you, I visit various news sites during the workday for breaking stories. "Visit" understates the case. I live on news sites during the work day. I monitor my e-mail for news alerts from CNN.com, MSNBC.com, and WSJ.com and follow the links. The drill continues when I go home, as I ignore my fatherly duties to sneak peeks at my computer. Blessed with insomnia, I rejoice when I wake up at 12:30 a.m. because I know that the complete Page Ones for the New York Times and the Washington Postwill be awaiting me when I sneak downstairs.

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I noodle around on those pages, check ESPN.com for the baseball scores and Associated Press write-up of that night's Detroit Tigers game, flip over to LATimes.com for the left coast's take on events, and after saying goodnight to the BBC, the Washington Times, BoingBoing, the GuardianMcClatchyDC.com, and a couple of blogs, I tiptoe back to bed.

Upon waking, I'm delighted to desack the morning papers, discard the never-read sections—classified, food, home, travel, real estate, health—and arrange the buffet before me. But even if all I've pre-read from the Web are the Page One headlines, the print stories don't really pop out at me unless they're packaged with a terrific photo I haven't seen before. Horrible as it may sound, on many days the newsprint front page tastes of already chewed gum.  

I'm not the average reader, but anecdotes convince me that the average reader is becoming more like me every day—reading tomorrow's news today. This time-shift is as historically significant as the great migration of newspaper readers from afternoon to morning dailies, or the adoption of AM news radio by sequestered commuters. Where the newspaper was once considered the day's complete news, it's now just all-the-news-that-fits. The genuine news enthusiast trolls the AP wire, foreign news sites, and the usual aggregators for the biggest picture.

Who can blame him? Some newspaper arts and feature sections go to bed at 10 a.m. the day before they're published, making them seem dated by the time they reach readers. Breaking news doesn't fare a lot better. A late Thursday evening plane crash, mining disaster, or tsunami can't be reported in any depth—and sometimes not at all—until the Saturday editions of newspapers, making it not yesterday's news but the day before yesterday's news. This may be newspaperdom's great secret—that for years it's gotten away with publishing days-old stories and still called it news.

As readers have rejected newspaper rhythms and culture, so, too, have many newspaper newsrooms surrendered primacy to the Web. Not long ago, newspaper editors generally resisted scooping their print editions by first posting big stories on the Web. Veterans of newspaper Web sites complain of being forced to go to war with newspaper newsrooms to win their cooperation. As recently as 2005, newspapers would hoard their breaking stories, investigative projects, and big features until the last minute. But no more—newspapers now play nice with their Web siblings, seeing in Web success their own success and the future of their franchise.

Newspapers once had a one-way relationship with their Web sites, shoveling content to their dot-com versions while rarely accepting Web-produced stories. That's a thing of the past now, as tons of quality Web content ends up in print. Examples: The Wall Street Journal publishes a weekly "Best of the Law Blog" from its daily blog on WSJ.com; the Washington Post sports section excerpts Dan Steinberg's D.C. Sports Bog on washingtonpost.com; the bylines of washingtonpost.com stars Chris Cillizza and Brian Krebs routinely appear in the Post pages atop the day's best stories; and the New York Times repurposes stories from its busy blog, The Caucus.

Newspapers once dominated the talk-radio agenda. Now, radio hosts are more likely to talk about what Matt Drudge or some hot blogger has posted than they are to cite a newspaper story. And forget the broadcast networks' evening news programs, long venues for rechewed morning newspaper stories. Thanks to the Web, much of what you see on the CBS Evening News and its companion programs has been chewed twice and made a first passage through the journalistic digestive tract before reaching your eyes and ears. 

Formerly considered the back end of news distribution, the Web has become the front end, the place where news originates. The newsweeklies have finally woken up to this fact, and I hope not too late. Whatever problems Web supremacy poses for newspapers, they're tiny compared to the problems Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report must now face.

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