The trash factor: A big reason why newspapers are in trouble? And how can they cope with it?

imageimage Despite the dark humor in my Washington newspaper novel, The Solomon Scandals is also an exercise in nostalgia—taking us back to the oft-glamorous heyday of big dailies. Why are newspapers struggling today, by contrast? No small reason is The Trash Factor, which I’ll get to. That’s trash as in trash room, not trash as in tabloid.

Quick! How much time do you spend browsing through your local paper—and I mean pulped wood—compared to the past? Me? I cut out my Washington Post subscription many months ago and get the Post online on my iPod Touch instead; or at least I try to deal with the less-than-stellar presentation of the news there. I normally don’t want to read about the Redskins or high fashion or zillions of other things with which the paper Post fills itself to please the mainest-stream, if you’ll forgive the neologism.

Stuffed and proud of it

When I was subscribing to the Post, one of the executives proudly said, as I recall, that he liked the heft of the paper. Alas, the recession is taking care of that obtuseness—making his sentiments increasingly irrelevant. But even on an enforced diet today, the Post would stack up just partly read at my place, given all the must-read new sites and blogs online.

So earlier, in the interest of ecology and sanitation and my wife’s worries about her possible allergy to newsprint, I canceled my subscription. I’d much rather have supported a local newspaper. But in terms of packaging, the Post has more or less been blind to my needs. The simple, no-frills mobile New York Times—simple not in its excellent content but in ease of browsing—is my major source of news today, via my iPod Touch. I don’t have to haul "used" electrons to the trash room.

Coping with the Trash Factor

No, this isn’t a diatribe against the actual stories in the Post or its mission. For example, I’m completely sold on L Street’s belief that there are certain things, such as having an Iraq bureau, that large news organizations can generally do much better than bloggers. I’ve witnessed big government close up, have investigated it, have seen what a hassle investigative journalism can be, and just can’t imagine society relying on independent journalists alone, regardless of the many things they can do well.

So what would I recommend for the Post and other big dailies to win back people like me?

1. Let people choose between subscribing to the current Post and a highly slimmed-down version with quick news summaries and short Web addresses where they could go for more details. The reinvented Post would have more zoned editions than the current one does—and many news items everyday about, say, Alexandria, VA, where I live. May the day come soon when pulped wood editions can even be perfectly tailored for individual subscribers. That day isn’t here yet. What I’ve described would be a nice transition, if nothing else, and cut newsprint costs.

postvideogameNew York Times mobile edition2. Stop pretending that the current mobile Post is a video game or electronic slot machine. Simplify the interface and make it as easy to navigate as the New York Times’ edition for the iPhone and the like. Also make the mobile presentation more comprehensive, so I don’t have to go back to the main paper site, which the iPod doesn’t digest that easily despite a good browser for its size of screen. Yes, I could read the Post on my desktop computer. But I spend enough time in front of the usual screen. What’s more, I enjoy the instant-on feature of the iPod. I’m a boomer, but among young people, the people most likely to have forsaken the Post, or have not tried it out in the first place, mobile probably counts even more.

3. Ultimately team up with the Associated Press or others to work out a better interface. Newspapers should pool resources rather than constantly trying to do technical tasks best left to others; and beyond that, some standardization could make it easier to digest the news and help newspapers better compete with Google. Branding could still occur through restrained use of graphics. By the way, the best single mobile interfaces today are very likely within mobile iPhone apps from AP Mobile News and USA Today’s. Why isn’t L Street paying more attention? Is online presentation too prosaic an issue for the Post brass to worry about?

4. For sizzle, yes, go for YouTube style videos, well-integrated with stories, and think about handing out Flip cameras and otherwise experimenting with multimedia citizens journalism, as the New York Times apparently will be doing. I don’t see citizens journalism as a panacea. But it has its place to augment coverage from pros at the local level, where breadth of coverage is more important than completely flawless copy, which even the pros cannot achieve. Pay the citizen journalists at least a token amount. Just as importantly, give them ample training to do the job right—a goal of the New York Times’ experiment with hyperlocal news coverage. The Post, by the way, has also been into hyperlocal; but in the past some have said it isn’t "hyper" enough in that regard.

5. Don’t try so hard to steer me via RSS to the mobile-hostile PDF edition. Maybe the Post has improved in that respect since I last checked.

6. Either put all of the back archives online for free or for a reasonable price. Talk about ways to bind readers to the Post! I can’t even look up obits without the Post nickel-and-diming me. If the Post wants people to regard it as a local institution, then it needs to behave that way. Yes, I’d be willing to pay moderately for special features, but never as much as I did for the paper Post—those days are gone, as well they should be, given the lower costs of E.

7. Work harder than ever to peg advertising to neighborhoods and to the contents of archived stories.

8. Think about more interactivity no only within newspapers but also through alliances with and use of Net sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube—potential feeders, as well as places for cooperative advertising arrangements.

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David Rothman

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