A little while back the American, a magazine of think pieces about business published by the American Enterprise Institute, ran a lengthy essay by longtime Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley. It’s about the future of newspapers, and also about Yardley’s past in them—he recalls the now-strange-seeming moment in the 70s when dailies were expanding so rapidly that an ambitious book critic could practically write his or her ticket around the country. Back then, “a newspaper as fat and prominent as the [Miami] Herald could easily afford to take on someone to handle duties that most reporters and editors regarded as peripheral, at best, to a newspaper’s chief obligations.”
It’s interesting reading (if a little dispiriting for somebody in the trade now), but when Yardley starts talking about a business model that will work for newspapers, things get a little wobbly. His argument, in essence: Shrink circ, go to a tabloid format, play to elite audiences, put more analysis-driven pieces up front. Yardley writes:
To survive and regain some measure of profitability, the print end of the newspaper business has to start thinking small. It has to stop worrying about the size of its circulation and start worrying about the quality of that circulation. It has to identify people within its reach who still want to read the news—read it, that is, not pick it up in quick online hits or hear it in bits and pieces on television or radio—and who want to read it on paper. Instead of dumbing down—making stories shorter and snappier, assuming that readers have the intellectual curiosity of couch potatoes—it has to smarten up.
Sounds nice. But the Post‘s parent company already does this, and it’s not working. And though I understand the value of targeted readership, there’s something that feels inherently undemocratic in Yardley’s proposal—whether it’s in print or online, the value of a newspaper is in its ability to bring relevant information to as large a proportion of its community as possible. Catering to the segment of that community that’s more likely to go wine shopping regularly is very good business sense. It’s also tearing up your mission statement.
Yardley concedes this, a little, toward the end of his piece: “[I]t gives me no pleasure at all to contemplate the fragmentation or demise of the traditional newspaper. For one thing I’ve been a small-d democrat all my life; I want to bring good things to as many people as possible, and I consider the newspaper a very good thing.” I greatly admire Yardley, who was one of the first book critics I read, but the dying newspaper is a problem well beyond a book critic’s ability to solve. Perhaps even beyond a newspaper owner’s ability.