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.
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 Guardian, McClatchyDC.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.
Obviously newspapers are dying, but—as I've written before—they've been dying their long Spenglerian death since the 1920s, what with the advent of radio, talkies, TV, FM, cable, videocassette, satellite radio, and all the rest. But they always reinvent a place for themselves in the media ecology. So, what are newspapers to do? Newspapers aren't dying because people aren't interested in news and reporting any longer. They're dying because people are hungrier for news than ever and are spending more time consuming it elsewhere.
As my friend William Powers puts it in his recent study, "Hamlet's Blackberry: Why Paper Is Eternal" (PDF), "digital reading has become a part of everyday life, yet for most people it hasn't replaced reading on paper." Paper allows what one researcher calls "flow-style reading," which is worlds apart from the intense foraging we do on our computers. The Web is a great place to look for things we're interested in, but it's still not the best place to have found them.
As good as the Web is at keeping apace with the current, it isn't very good at telling me when my news tank is full. The final editions of well-edited newspapers still do a better job of conveying the most vital news than does a browsing of the Web. It gives readers a yardstick with which to measure the news before they dive in. If I had just 10 minutes to catch up on what's happening, I'd rather fan through the paper pages of the Times and Post than click my favorite sites. For decades, the Wall Street Journal has kept its busy readers abreast of the day's most important stories with its Page One "What's News" column. The idea is ripe for adaptation by other newspapers. (Sidebar: I really like the way the Times Reader measures news consumption.)
Following Powers' logic, I'd like to see newspapers do a better job signaling via text or layout whether pieces contain new news, terrific insight and interpretation, or just more of the same old bollocks that I can get elsewhere, presumably the Web. The Financial Times imposes rigid discipline in reporters by prohibiting any stories—even those on Page One—to jump to another page. The paper assumes that you're up to speed on the news and don't require the complete back story every time it publishes a story. It's a perfect use of print.
In the Web era, I find myself spending more time with the inside pages of newspapers, probably because I've not tainted my consciousness by previewing many of them on the Web. Those inside pages tend to have a magazine feel to them because of their greater independence from breaking news. In recent months, I've noticed the Washington Post place heavier emphasis on graphics to illustrate the inside news, taking advantage of big pages whose acreage dwarves that of the average computer monitor. All to the good.
Powers writes that "the public exodus from newspapers is not a rejection of paper, but an objection to using it for hard news and other utilitarian, quick-read content … that gains little or nothing from arriving in that format." Ceding supremacy to the Web has been an important first step in the daily newspaper's evolution to its next state. The newspaper is dead. Long live the newspaper.
The Web is dead, too, but that's the subject of a future column. Send birth, death, and bar mitzvah announcements to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)