by John Stoehr
No doubt many are already familiar with the woes of the newspaper industry. Especially daily newspapers. Circulation is down. Readers are aging. Advertisers are going elsewhere. It's not everyday you can point to a national trend as reason for a personal decision. But it seems I can. For the past six years, I covered arts and culture for the Savannah Morning News, the daily newspaper in Savannah, Ga. Now I'm the arts editor of the Charleston City Paper, a paper and a city I've admired from afar.
I had a mind to return to alt-weeklies (I started writing for them from the beginning of this journalism career thing), but I didn't know when. The nationwide decline in daily newspapers -- the hiring freezes, the ever-shrinking news hole, the gutting of cultural reporting, and all the rest -- prompted a sped up return. So here I am.
But there's more to all this than mere career interests. Ideology is involved, too.
There are many reasons for mainstream media's injuries but mostly they're self-inflicted. Dailies, in particular small-town dailies, are struggling to adjust to lost revenue, lost authority and lost respect. The kids are all right but the kids don't need to read the daily to get by in life. They have niches now and these niches don't make any sense in a business climate dominated for decades by a Mass Media Mentality, which did the following: It tried to be all things to all people.
Which is something media savvy readers -- that is, readers like those who read the Charleston City Paper -- aren't buying. And they're not buying the Mass Media Mentality in both senses of the word. They're not buying into the notion that daily newspapers represent and reflect their interests or the interests of anyone they know, and -- it goes without saying -- they're not buying daily newspapers.
As dailies struggle against the niche-oriented world of new media, they tend to throw whatever ideas are hot at the moment against the wall. It's a panic move. That's why you see so many dailies blogging and podcasting without really knowing how to do it. You're also seeing them becoming more conservative in their coverage. I don't mean politically conservation, though that's obviously the case for some papers. I merely mean they are aiming for the safe bets, avoiding confrontation, dodging conflict.
You'll hear a lot of talk about something called "hyperlocalism." It's one of the latest buzz words in the newspaper industry. I suppose there is some kind of intellectual framework at play in this concept, but it's never been adequately explained to me. The goal of hyperlocalism seems to be boosting circulation by putting a lot of pictures of dogs and kids and parents romping through the county fair in the newspaper.
It's absurd, but it's also very cheap journalism to produce. If hyperlocalism is the focus, newspapers don't have to challenge authority or take a stand. Newspapers don't have to do the hard work of critiquing local theater and then justifying the critique the next day when the theater people complain. For these reasons, and others, I wanted to go back to alternative journalism. When the chance to work for the City Paper came along, I seized it. So, again, here I am.
I described the City Paper in a blog I write called Flyover. It's hosted by ArtsJournal, a digest of national and international news. You might check it out. Anyway, here's what I said last month when I talked about my new role.
[The Charleston City Paper] is a newspaper that requires creativity, innovation, intelligence and good narrative writing.
It's a newspaper that has a tradition of speaking truth to power, saying what needs saying and analytic journalism, a concept I've written about numerous times.
It's a newspaper that puts the arts at the center of its editorial mission -- and that means reviewing, reviewing, reviewing in the mode of literary criticism, not propaganda writing.
It's a newspaper that provides an informed, critical, educated and dissenting point of view, whether the issue in question about art or politics or the proper way to prepare, serve and eat Lowcountry Boil.
It's a newspaper that is postmodern in the sense that it makes room for all kinds of writing styles, points of view, subject matter and whatever -- as long as it's good, which is the point at which it breaks from the school of postmodern thought.
It's a newspaper willing to make a judgment, take a stand, stake out the moral, ethical and aesthetic high, middle and low ground, draw a line in the sand, say that this is good and this isn't and here's why and what do you think, dear and valued reader?
It is a newspaper that aims for solidarity with the community more than authority over it, though it is not naive enough to think for a second that it doesn't have authority of some measure. That authority, however, comes not from standing watch over the gates of mass media but instead from earning it with our collective creativity, sense of humor, intelligence and sweat.
Another way of putting it: It's a newspaper that sees the necessity of someone sticking his dick in the mash potatoes.
One should always be cautious about the extent to which one's personal experience reflects larger social currents. But I can't help thinking my move to a newspaper that reflects in its editorial mission all the many things we've talked about here in Flyover -- thinking smaller, thinking local, engaging the community while leading it, fearless and informed criticism, investigative and narrative pieces, valuing what's good without the Pre-Hippie hang ups about "unreconstructed" privilege and socio-economic difference -- is prescient.
Of something, anyway. Maybe.
There are so many changes happening in the daily world. Hopefully, after the dust settles and everyone can see more clearly, daily newspapers will pick up on some of these ideas. MinnPost [this is a web-based newspaper to be launch soon; it features award-winning journalist laid off by the big dailies in the Twin Cities] is already going in that direction. Meanwhile, I can't wait for things to change. I have a life to lead. I'll write to you from Charleston.