Sunday, November 8, 2009

USA-ification of the News

While journalists minds are focused on the "Death of the News as We Know It", management is busy trying to catch up the print product to electronic news standards. USA Today recognized the salience of this approach to news reporting when it began in 1982 - the short stories (with only one jump from Page One of each section), "pertinent to readers' lives" headlines and colorful design mimicked then-emerging cable news channels' styles of reporting.

Today's challenge is even greater - what news is being consumed by the vast majority of younger readers if balkanized and customized to an unprecedented degree - delivered directly to your inbox by sources as varied as Yahoo! and Facebook. Digg and Reditt enable bloggers to show up the same way. Google Search and now Bing offer Web surfers to seek expertise to a very specific degree.

So what's a newspaper to do? The latest to strip off the trappings of traditional news reporting and jump into the ring of redesign is The Venerable Washington Post. Seems "venerable" is now a bad word - that long, in-depth reporting and deep investigation are Bad Words has become incontrovertible TRUTH. The new design features a framed format: stories are lined off from one-another to give them that trendy "school newspaper" look, as if readers might otherwise be unable to tell where one story ends and another begins. The center hole of the front page, beginning above the fold, boasts a large color photo designed to draw the reader's eye and evoke a particular emotion (a recent edition showed one candlelit mourner of the Fort Hood massacre with a tear tracing his cheeks) that could tell the entire story without words. Apparently, a reporter's crisis is good news for the photojournalist.

Experimental give-away versions to tease younger readers who, say, ride the Metro to work everyday seem to offer crumbs of news and more activity listings or lifestyle news, with still more color pix (often badly reproduced). The Express is The Post's giveaway paper: theoretically, a trifle to whet the appetite for the daily's filet mignon. How many consumers of cookie-cutter news convert to Chef Katharine Weymouth's five-course, white tablecloth banquet remains to be seen.

Further accentuating the trend of McNews: columns in The Post now sport thumbnail photo-sketches of their authors. This seems to be so that fans of, say, Mike Wilbon's sports commentary can recognize their fearless commentator on TV - where the Post can further profit from his appearances. Even such lesser mortals as E.J. Dionne or Richard Cohen, who have much to say on serious news can become Post "brands" when they appear in other media, both online and off-. Personality journalism does not reside solely within the cover of "E" or People anymore.

Not that The Post had an original thought in creating this visual fingerprint for its regulars - the Wall Street Journal originated the trend. WSJ seems intent to prove itself as the only member of the mainstream media that can monetize its own online product by leaving its content accessible only to subscribers. Whether the purveyors of this brand can indeed see their strategy become profitable remains to be seen, but it is also true that, if one searches for a specific online headline and byline hard enough it may often be picked up and repackaged by online aggregators for free access.

It's a crap-shoot that newspapers are betting will save the brand, offer more ad sales opportunities and keep the news viable. Whether newsprint will survive the onslaught from its many digital options is debatable.

Before the funeral begins, perhaps we should undergo an examination of all this "new" news and its many sources to determine whether the heralds of doom have the story right. From citizen journalists to bloggers drawn from the ranks of former mainstream reporters, there is evidence of new momentum to telling the story of our lives. It may look different in a news generation, and there's no question that delivery channels have grown. It might even be Good News, that reporting and reading are more democratized than at any time since Thomas Paine's Common Sense or Poor Richards Almanack in the early days of the Republic.

Any way you look at it, the trend towards many sources of news beats state-controlled media where free speech is stifled and the only sanctioned news is what "they" say it can be.

The News Is Dead, Long Live the News.