A sign of the times

Nestled on the corner of Sixth and Main, in Hays, stands a building that once housed a pillar of any small community, the newspaper. What once stood at the epicenter of culture and information, has become a relic of the past. Last Friday, the Hays Daily News laid off six employees, some of whom had been there for more than 25 years and were both a staple of the paper and respected community voices.

These layoffs are a sign of the times; the written word is dying. For the Hays Daily News this is a slight drizzle from the continuously building, ominous clouds that loom overhead. Spirits are tattered and wavering, as many see this a just the beginning of a slow and agonizing defeat for the paper industry.

The layoffs have left the paper with three news reporters, a single sports reporter and no photo chief. The last 10 years have been tough on newspapers, not just the Hays Daily, as even some of the most prominent names in the business have gone belly up and others merging to produce what would have once been called a monopoly.

These kinds of layoffs have become the norm in the newspaper business over the past years as the attention span of my generation dwindles down to something resembling a mouse staring down three pieces of cheese. It is for the same reason baseball is no longer America’s favorite pastime; it is not continuously exciting. We do not want to wait for the homerun, we want one every pitch. We do not want a 1000-word article written by a Pulitzer Prize winner, we want 300 words of quick and easily digestible information.

As members of the up and coming generation of journalists, I as well as my peers at the Tiger Media Network, have been in awe, watching the fight from the sidelines wondering what our positions might be in this current media war when it is our turn to step into the frontlines.

We grew up with the 24-hour news channels that have resorted to one-sided views, shouting matches and anchors that are louder than they are creditable. We, sadly, had to witness reality television shows grow from The Real World to Keeping up with the Kardashians. Our views on reality and what news is, and how it should be delivered, are skewed, to say the least.

As we force our perceptions of the world, and how it should be, on businesses and news outlets, we are sadly and perhaps unknowingly slipping a noose around the neck of an outlet that Gutenberg made possible more than 560 years ago. Newspapers are too long for us, they cannot retain our attention like the bright lights of television or the internet. We are addicted to screens; we don’t know life without them.

As my generation claws for a spot at the adult table, we are unwilling to conform to the norms of our predecessors. Our faded jeans and wrinkled dress shirts are considered work attire. We don’t wear our watches on our wrists; we keep them in our pockets like an old handkerchief, where we keep the phone numbers of loved-ones we never memorized, photos of drunken nights long forgotten, and the calculator that teachers ensured us would not be there.

In that same pocket lays access to the entire World Wide Web, a plethora of information ready to be consumed. The problem is we don’t want to read or spend time on anything that takes too much time. We want it quick and easily digestible, like our McDonald’s burgers. As long as it looks real and has the illusion of taste, we will consume it. We get to pick our facts now, like the fast food industry we grew up on. Quick and nasty cloaked in a façade of reality.

The Newspaper Association of America’s 2013 revenue numbers show a 6.5 percent drop in the overall advertising revenue in newspapers, which includes an 8.6 percent drop in print advertising. Digital advertising among newspaper increased 1.5 percent and passed television broadcast revenue for the first time according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau.

As the news-hole continues to shrink and the number of reporters on staff begins to dwindle, it is clear, as in the case of the Hays Daily, that a wire service has become more of a necessity than a choice. Even the Associated Press wire, the most popular and trusted news wire in the world, is out of reach for struggling papers. The Hays Daily, who used the AP wire until recently, switched to the McClatchy-Tribune wire, a more affordable and less-known wire service.

Another number to rise last year was circulation revenue, which is the second straight year for growth in circulation. It rose 3.7 percent from 2012, due largely to the online-only subscriptions that saw a 47 percent increase over the year according to the Newspaper Association of America.

We do not invite respected and informed men like Murrow, Cronkite or Rather into our homes to update us on world and national events; we turn on Comedy Central with our over-flavored, sensory-consuming pints of ice-cream for our news. Vanilla just will not do for us.

Comedians like Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart have become the news-givers of our generation. Their quick and witty humor has the power to keep us engaged long enough to inject us with information that is vital to democracy. They adapted to the times, they saw a problem and found a creative solution.

Our unwillingness to conform is met by an equivalent unwillingness of traditional daily newspapers to meet us halfway. Mismanagement, and either an inability or resistance to change, has crippled the industry. There is no creative effort to solve the revenue problem, they are sticking to the old ways of trying to muscle through.

As attention spans shorten, media is forced to take drastic measures. Organizations delivering information over multiple modalities, mastering none, are at the precipice of the news industry. Sites such as ours, which produces content for the web over various modalities and release it free, have become the go-to for my generation.

This is perfect for my generation, we want to be able to look it up on our phones and digest the information while waiting in line at Starbucks. If it takes longer than that, we are out. We want talking points, not in-depth analysis. We want something we can add to the adult conversation, without having to put in effort or think on our own. We have never had to learn to think on our own and we are unlikely to start now.

A recent “innovation” report commissioned by the management of the New York Times was leaked in early May and called for a complete restructuring of the most stoic print organization in the world. What it leaves out is serious ideas for solving perpetual revenue problems. The same problem the Hays Daily has been facing.

These revenue problems have come with the lack in print advertisers combined with an unwillingness of traditional advertisers to switch to online ads. Another fault of the Daily is their pay-wall. For traditional media outlets to compete with faux-journalism produced quickly and without style they need to have a strong and free online presence.

The firing of these professional journalists that have become the voice of the community and a staple of the brand for so long is not the answer. They are, perhaps, the one thing traditional outlets have that online outlets cannot compete with, experienced storytellers that can mold words like a piece of clay, artists of the written word.

As traditional outlets, like the Hays Daily, begin to release their A-Team for cheaper, younger talent to keep costs down, the online media sources have a chance to make an exponential push forward by hiring these writers to provide a much needed service to their viewers. Building for the future is key in any industry, but fixing the single part of the company that is not broken will not solidify the future.

That is not to say some online outlets do not produce good copy, but preserving talent in the industry will just raise their level with longer stories, better quotes and sources. These reporters have already solidified their place in the community, they have the connections and there is no learning curve. They are who my generation needs to guide us.

As I finish this, 1500 words later, I am reminded of the obstacles I will be faced with in the near future. Long pieces of writing like this will not garner the attention of my generation. This marathon of type will be daunting and send chills up their spine like the day their high school English teachers’ assigned Moby Dick.

As we begin arriving in a business shaken and torn by years of transition and uncertainty, still unsure of what the future holds for our industry or if we made the right career choice, there is one thing we need to remember: People need to be informed and informed well. Different models will come and go, organizations will be built and destroyed, but news is necessary.

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  1. John Pennington on June 13, 2014

    I had not heard about the layoffs at the HDN until your very well written piece appeared and appealed to me on Facebook tonight. I’m curious who the six are, since I worked at the paper from 2002-2005. My first newspaper job was in 1977, so I go way back in print journalism. My sister has worked at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch since the mid-70s and is the TV critic there. The venerable Pulitzer paper is still alive and kicking, but a mere shadow of its former glory.

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