Sunday, January 11, 2009

What if we don't miss it?

Sometime in the next few months, I'm not going to have a newspaper landing in the driveway every morning. I'm not looking forward to that; in cosmic terms, I rate it about one seal short of an apo- calypse. But every Sunday, it seems, the folks downtown go out of their way to remind me that I don't really need a newspaper after all.

The lead story, in case your eyes have fallen out of their sockets, is about one of the local sports columnists. He has a message from Detroit, it appears. Let's see what the story might hold:

When Sports Illustrated asked him whether anybody still cared about Detroit, Free Press columnist Mitch Albom knew what he needed to do.

Take a break from his holiday vacation. Write a personal defense of his city and his state.

Thus was born "And yet ..." -- the signature article in this week's edition of the country's leading sports magazine.

Well, um -- thanks, Mitch. But let's try not to look at this in terms of how thoroughly mediocre a writer Mitch Albom is (imagine Dan Brown as a sportswriter, with shorter paragraphs and the occasional mandate to provide the Bluff Little Guy's view on actual sociopolitical issues). Let's not think about the Freep's Gannett-driven tendency to fill its section fronts with columns rather than news. And let's set aside the shameless recycling that's been the order of the day since mid-November (Albom's "Hey, Congress" column was so good it had to run twice, and "Six Myths About The Detroit 3" was "updated" three weeks later as "Seven Myths About The Detroit 3"). Let's just look at this as an investment of space.

The Freep's A section today is 14 pages, or 84 columns (6 columns per page in today's currency; if you've seen "All the President's Men," you might remember the scene in which space is allotted among the various desks at the budget meeting). We can divide that space up as news and not-news, which requires some value judgments, or more simply as paid (anything some person, business or governmental organization has bought) and unpaid (everything else).

Four pages are gone to full-page ads (o tempora; a decade ago, a fat Sunday A section would nearly have covered those Monday and Tuesday issues that the Freep won't be bothering to deliver anymore). 2A is mostly unpaid, but none of it is news. 1A is almost entirely unpaid, but ... well, it's not really news either, is it? I'll spot you the Macy's elbow on 9A in return, even though 75-85% of an elbow page is paid. So let's say we're down to 8 pages for everything in the world.

Let's throw three more pages out; the Albom piece (not to belabor a point, but the Albom piece reprinted from Sports Illustrated) eats up the double truck (6A-7A) and slops over to 8A, which is about two-thirds open. 10A is auto show jumps and 11A is inaugural jumps. There's a fairly good story about the Chinese economy on 9A (again, flash back a decade and multiply by six; half a dozen elbow pages could have meant half a dozen stories about developing economies).

What's left? Well, 12A has two stories about the economy and the largest visual image in the A section: a 4-column shot of the Tuileries, labeled "Polar Paris." Apparently there's snow in Western Europe, but no indication of why this is the day's most important image (or why it's buried down in the ad stack, where it's hard to tell from ... an ad). And that leaves us with 4A -- six columns for anything else that might have gone on in the other 49 states, or the rest of the world, worth a little digesting and reporting in a daily newspaper. A little more than a third of what went into the Albom wankfest, if you're scoring along at home.

Mitch Albom's epic mediocrity isn't why people are shooting at each other in the Near East. But it's one of the reasons that -- should you have to rely on the Freep for your news -- you don't hear about places like Gaza before they blow up. It's one of the things that make sure you won't hear about other international or internal conflicts before they get really destructive. I'm trying to think again of exactly what I'll miss if there isn't a sports paper with an occasional page of news landing in my driveway every morning.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

How come you never seem to pick on the News? Is it that much better, or that much worse? Or does it just not circulate at Wayne State?

1:48 AM, January 12, 2009  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Ah. That eternal conundrum: is a crappy paper better than no paper? Back in the old days the answer was "probably" but now we can get our news lots of places.

Still, it's very sad when papers fold.

10:57 AM, January 12, 2009  
Blogger fev said...

Clarification, for those from outside the area: We aren't actually losing a paper (I don't think anyone rules it out, but we're certainly not as imminent as Seattle looks). The Freep and News are going to three-day home delivery (two for the News, which doesn't publish on Sundays). The other four days will be single-copy only: A "more compact product ... with an easy-to-pull-out sports section, provocative commentary and enriched lifestyle coverage," as the Freep said last month.

Why Freep over News here? Mostly inertia, I guess. Interesting things are more likely to look interesting when they start to form patterns. And I used to work at one of its used-to-be corporate cousins (K-R sold the Freep to Gannett the year before McClatchy bought K-R). Why, should we spread the net wider in the coming year?

12:06 PM, January 12, 2009  
Blogger Old Word Wolf said...

Our little news hole is consumed almost entirely by USAToday-style shorts from each state: brawls in a county sheriff's district no one 50 miles away ever heard of, lottery winners, and missing cats. For variety longer news, the local desk uses the top four grafs of whatever is lying around -- usually a long-winded feature -- so readers never really get their RDA of W's. Thank goodness for the Internet -- even local soccer kids and middle school thespians now post their accomplishments there ...

3:55 PM, January 12, 2009  

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