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Saturday, July 18, 2015

Newspapers as a charitable contribution

The Raleigh News and Observer just completed a design makeover on both its print edition and its website. The trend in media design these days is lots of white space, big headlines, big photos, and less text in the body of items. The N&O followed that recipe to the letter. On Thursday I took the time to measure the number of square millimeters of hard news text compared to the Thursday before the makeover. The "news hole" is 20% smaller now, and the difference appears to be less copy from Associated Press and the McClatchy ownership syndicate on national and world news.

The makeover is a rational business decision by the publisher and the editor, but it also marks the completion of another 360° in the graveyard spiral of the paper. The N&O is collapsing slower than most other dailies in medium-sized cities because the Triangle has been growing so rapidly and, aside from 2008-2012, has been prosperous. The data here describe the situation overall, however. Except for the top 10 nationwide like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, it's an ugly and ominous portrait.

Newspapers play, or can play, an important role. They inform and they persuade, but that's no longer a unique function — blogs and twitter feeds do that too, although I find that it takes more time to consume the content that I want and like from blogs and twitter feeds than from a well-edited newspaper. (Disintermediation has its downside.) Obituaries are another example of helpful data aggregation that newspapers do well. But most importantly, local papers look for malfeasance, misfeasance, and nonfeasance in government and the institutions of our society. No one else does that, and we need it as much today as 100 or 200 years ago.

I'm coming to look at my $100 annual expense of subscribing to the digital edition of the N&O as a hybrid of civic duty and charitable contribution. As long as the paper fulfills its watchdog role and doesn't jack up the annual fee to something outrageous, I think I'll stick with it. Perhaps the financially-incentivized CEO of McClatchy and the Publisher of the N&O, Orage Quarles, don't like being understood as a benevolent not-for-profit; I suggest they warm up to it.