The Incredible Shrinking Lantern

I was in the OSU campus area yesterday, and the security desk for the building I was in had a small stack of papers on it.  I glanced at them and saw that the flag on the front page said “The Lantern.”

Wait a second . . . this is now the Lantern, the Ohio State University newspaper?

When I attended the OSU School of Journalism in the late ’70s, the Lantern was a full-sized, broadsheet newspaper published five days a week.  It carried pages of national and campus news, had an editorial and op-ed page, and multi-page sports and arts sections.  The paper was chock full of display ads and had a lengthy classified ad section, too.

The current edition of the Lantern is far removed from those days of yore.  It’s now the same size as those free shopper publications that people are always annoyingly leaving on your doorstep, and the copy I picked up was only 8 pages long.  Eight pages!  There was no editorial page, only a handful of display ads, and all of five classified ads.  The guy who was the business manager of the Lantern in the old days, whose sales force kept the paper filled with ads and classifieds, must be shaking his head in disbelief.

I know many newspapers have fallen on tough times, but I had no idea how significantly the Lantern had been affected — and diminished.  It made me wistful and sad.

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Dog Bites Newspaper

Today the Columbus Dispatch carried a story noting that Columbus ranked number 8 in the country in the number of dog bites of postal workers.  There were 43 dog attacks on postal workers in Columbus in 2015 — more than twice the number of dog attacks the prior year.

ambulldognnewspaperWhat’s weird is that the Dispatch considered this to be news at all.  Literally, it’s a “dog bites man” story, and therefore is the classic definition of non-news.  Dog bites happen regularly in our humdrum, everyday lives.  Postal workers get bitten by dogs so often they train postal workers to deal with it, and they even keep statistics on it.  And when Columbus isn’t even at the top of the dog-bite list, but comes in at number 8 — which is a pretty undistinguished number, too, when you think about it — and trails Cleveland in this dubious category, its clear there is absolutely nothing noteworthy about it.

From the Dispatch‘s publication of this quintessential non-story, I think we can safely assume that today was a slow news day in Columbus, Ohio.  Tomorrow we’ll probably crack open our newspapers to look for breathless front page reports that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.

Boots On The Trail

Hey, have you heard about Marco Rubio’s “cute boots”?  What, you haven’t?  What’s wrong, don’t you read the New York Times?

rubio20bootsBecause the NYT is featuring three — count ’em, three — articles on Marco Rubio’s boots.  One bears the headline Marco Rubio’s Shiny Boots Stir Up the Presidential Race.  Another, by the “Times Insider,” is headlined Marco Rubio’s ‘Cute Boots’ and Other Campaign Issues.  And the third, by “First Draft,” is headlined Marco Rubio Reacts to Those Boots That Were Made for Talking.   Hey, I get it — that’s a play on the Nancy Sinatra anthem, These Boots Are Made for Walking!  Pretty clever!

And in case you haven’t had enough of Marco Rubio’s boots (I use his full name because apparently the NYT style manual requires that headlines bear a candidate’s full name when the subject of the article is footwear) from those three testaments to quality journalism by the publication that has pretensions of being America’s Newspaper of Record, you can run a Google search and find articles where the other Republican candidates are razzing Rubio for the coverage his boots have received.

As for the boots themselves — well, they’re boots.  To my untrained eye, they look vaguely like Beatle boots, rather than cowboy boots.  And in any case, who gives a flying fig about boots?  With the Middle East teetering on the brink, North Korea just claiming that it exploded a hydrogen bomb, and the stock market suffering through its worst start to a year ever, the New York Times thinks Rubio’s boots are worth three articles?  Have I somehow been transferred to an alternative universe?

If you’re wondering why America’s newspapers are struggling and losing circulation, look no further.

Without Dispatch

An era is ending in Columbus.  The Dispatch Printing Company is selling the Columbus Dispatch, our local daily newspaper, to the New Media Investment Group, a holding company that is headquartered in New York City.

The Dispatch has long been identified with the Wolfes, an influential Columbus-based family that has owned and published the newspaper for more than 100 years.  Indeed, the Wolfes are so associated with the Dispatch that when the sale was announced this week the current publisher, John F. Wolfe, wrote a letter to the community explaining why the family would part with their flagship publication.

Wolfe’s stated reasons are familiar to anyone who follows the newspaper business:  he believes that independent, locally owned newspapers cannot realistically compete in an era where media conglomerates have the advantage of economies of scale.  Such economies are crucial in a business where the costs of acquiring, printing, and distributing a hard copy newspaper — to say nothing of providing it with content — put the daily newspaper delivered to your doorstep at a clear disadvantage compared to digital outlets that don’t have to buy paper and ink, maintain printing presses, and pay printers and delivery people.  When you combine the cost disadvantage with overall national trends of falling subscription numbers and declining advertising revenue, you produce a witches’ brew that ultimately has been fatal to many independent dailies.  The Dispatch has tried to cut costs, by shrinking the physical size of the newspaper among other steps, but ultimately it, too, succumbed to the inexorable forces of the marketplace and the reading habits of the American public.

The Wolfe family has been a central force in Columbus forever, and whether you agreed or disagreed with the Dispatch‘s editorial positions or approach to the news you at least knew that their hearts were here, in Columbus, and their focus was on their newspaper.  Now the Dispatch will be operated by a faraway conglomerate that owns 126 dailies in 32 states.  For those of us in Columbus for whom the Dispatch has been synonymous with the Wolfe family, it is a stunning development — and now we will see what those economies of scale will look like, and how being one newspaper in a corporate stable of more than 100 newspapers will affect news coverage, content, and the focus of local reporting.  We can safely predict that Columbus will never be the same.

The Obit Writer (II)

Here’s the latest work of the Webner family obit writer:  Mom’s obituary, which was published today in the Columbus Dispatch and in the Akron Beacon Journal, Mom’s old hometown newspaperMom hasn’t lived in Akron for 40 years, but we know she still has good friends there who would want to know about her passing.

IMG_5049The on-line versions of the obits appear on legacy.com, which must be a kind of national clearinghouse for obituaries.  The website versions of Mom’s obit also include links to an on-line “guest book” where people can give their condolences and share their memories, and directions to the funeral home where we will be having calling hours later this week.

The website also offers a link to ancestry.com and information about how many Webners were recorded in the 1920 census and fought on the Union side in the Civil War.  Other links provide information on funeral etiquette, such as helpful advice that you shouldn’t wear flip flops or glittery clothing to a memorial service.  It all shows how news websites are far more flexible — and provide far more advertising opportunities — than print newspapers.  People die, but the wheels of internet commerce roll ever onward.

Our family would like to thank everyone who has shared words of encouragement and support and kind thoughts about Mom.  They are all much appreciated.

When Should Newspapers Use Profanity?

Recently the New York Times carried an interesting opinion piece about when the news media should print profanities, vulgarities, and other offensive terms — the actual words, unmistakably spelled out in black and white, and not euphemisms like the “f-word” or “a racial epithet.”

The writer argues that in modern society the use of profanities has become increasingly commonplace, whether it’s in a diplomatic faux pas or on the floor of the U.S. Senate, and often the use of the word itself is what makes the story newsworthy. Why run the risk that the reader might not actually understand what the word is? In addition, because cuss words have even invaded the titles of books and plays and other literary works, what are newspapers supposed to do when they review those pieces? And the writer also notes that journals in other countries, like England and Australia, are not shy about publishing offensive words in full.

Sorry, but I’m not convinced. We’re exposed to more than enough vulgarity in our daily lives — and so are our kids. Why shouldn’t newspapers strive to maintain a semblance of decorum? The fact that powerful people use profanities may be a news story, but that doesn’t mean we need to have a full frontal exposure to the obscenity itself. I don’t buy that there is a risk of confusion about precisely what the offensive word is, either. When people see the “f-word,” they’re not going to think that the article is talking about fracking. And in response to the argument that Aussies and Brits publish offensive words, my mother would ask me if I would jump off a cliff just because all my friends were doing so. I never came up with a good response to her argument.

I’m sure this makes me seem like a fuddy-duddy, an out-of-touch codger who is arguing for a senseless fig leaf that has no place in our hip, wide-open modern world. But I’ve seen how our culture has grown coarser, and coarser, and coarser as my adult years roll by, whether it is shock jocks on radio or sex- and violence-saturated TV programming or stand up comics who routinely use the “seven forbidden words” without the wit of George Carlin. I don’t like the direction we’ve taken, and each little modification seems to open the door to more coarseness to come.

So, I’m willing to draw a line. In my view, newspapers should aspire to a higher standard, and should draw the line to preserve a small enclave of decency and taste in an otherwise obscene world. Leave the profanities for the internet.

The (Sigh) News About The News

The news business in America has been in the news a lot recently, and unfortunately the news is pretty much all bad.

Two of our most storied newspapers, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe, have been sold for a small fraction of their value only a decade ago.  The New York Times, which bought the Globe in 1993 for $1.1 billion, sold it to billionaire John Henry for only $70 million.  What’s worse, the Times retained liability for the Globe’s pension obligations, which reportedly total more than $100 million.  If you do the math, that means the Times basically lost its entire $1.1 billion investment over 20 years.  Although the Times tried to justify its sale as an effort to focus on its core “brand,” it’s obvious the sale sought to unload a money pit that the Times didn’t know how to turn around.

The Washington Post and related publishing businesses were sold to Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, for $250 million.  Although the price was higher than the pittance paid for the Globe, it still shocked the journalism world because it was much lower than the Post‘s expected value and because it ended the long-time ownership of the Graham family.  Both the Post and the Globe have been troubled by the same trends that have plagued other newspapers — declining circulation and a business model based on paper, with all of its attendant costs, when the rest of the world is moving full throttle into digital communications.

In addition to the fire sale prices paid for these two legendary publications, recent journalism news has seen continuing layoffs of reporters, editors, and other members of newspaper staffs.  Last week, for example, the Cleveland Plain Dealer laid off about one-third of its editorial staff.

One sign of the desperate times in the news business is the effort to see the silver lining in Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post.  Some people in the journalism industry hope that Bezos, who has taken Amazon from an on-line bookseller to its current status as an ever-expanding conglomerate powerhouse, may be able to figure out what has stumped others in the journalism business:  how to make the daily newspaper something that everybody will read, and happily pay for, again.