Wednesday, January 03, 2007

I canceled my subscription to my local newspaper today.

It was a wrenching, if largely symbolic, decision. I've earned my livelihood from newspapers for more than a decade, and I've worked for one newspaper or another almost constantly for 20 years dating back to high school. I believe, at least in theory, that newspapers hold the key to enlightening our society and shoring up our democratic system. I have, through my 5-year-old daughter, the opportunity to pass on the daily habit of going out for the paper each morning and reading the news over breakfast -- a habit I've faithfully exhibited since well before her birth. If anyone has both a moral and civic obligation to support the newspaper industry, it's me.

But, as I've explained in earlier posts, newspapers can make a series of decisions through which they cease to become NEWSpapers and morph into something else, something less. When this happens, maintaining a subscription doesn't support the newspaper industry any longer -- it enables the abdication of standards and responsibilities that current news executives seem to think they can get away with forever.

My newspaper crossed the line -- my line -- with the introduction of supermaket ads tucked into the corner of the nameplate. The nameplate! It's the top of the front page: the newspaper's name, and then today's produce deals. This follows years of unobtrusive but still troublesome strip ads at the bottom of Page One, and irrepressibly annoying "stickie note" ads that get plastered right over top of the news of the day. I've engaged in more than one debate over the impact these ads have on readers, and after years of arguing about it, I'm voting with my feet.

But the ads are just part of it. Over five years I've watched this newspaper deteriorate from a solid local paper that devoted ample resources to local news coverage and, importantly, enterprise reporting, to one that might catch a city council meeting every three weeks or so and visit the school board once a month. Basic news coverage is spotty, and enterprise is virtually nonexistent. The newshole has shrunk to almost nothing. One of my journalism professors introduced me to the edict that the morning paper has to "tell me something I don't already know," and those instances are increasingly rare in this newspaper. As another final straw, the paper went four or five straight days between Christmas and New Year's Day without a single locally generated editorial -- even on the Sunday that marked the last day of 2006. This is a fundamental dereliction of duty.

I don't blame the current rank and file staff, who seem pretty good and committed. They used to have the time and space, and colleagues, to produce innovative and thoughtful journalism now and then. I cite the paper several times in my book for creative work, which has never been the norm but at least showed up occasionally. This paper now is so gutted and stripped, and its priorities are so out of whack, that good journalism can only occur as an afterthought. And I feel sorry for the good journalists who'd like to do more, and better, but can't.

I've held on to my subscription long past the point of losing respect for the paper, because of the obligation I feel to the newspaper industry. I certainly don't want to hasten its demise; I've devoted the last several years to preserving it. But the death spiral of newspapers' terrible decisionmaking in response to readership trends is now pushing even the most loyal readers, like me, off the cliff. Continuing to subscribe would send the message that these decisions and priorities are OK, and they're not.

I oppose killing newspapers, but I'm not going to linger while they commit suicide.

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