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Do newspapers 'deserve' to die? Not so fast

Andy Ihnatko | June 11, 2013
Though I write stories about technology for the Chicago Sun-Times, I have no inside information about the thinking behind the Sun-Times' decision to cut its photography staff. What I have to say about this move is only informed by my observations about the modern realities of print publishing, and could apply to any great city paper with a long and proud history.

Though I write stories about technology for the Chicago Sun-Times, I have no inside information about the thinking behind the Sun-Times' decision to cut its photography staff. What I have to say about this move is only informed by my observations about the modern realities of print publishing, and could apply to any great city paper with a long and proud history.

Here's the go-to meme that way, way too many bloggers and other commentators have latched on to:

The leadership of The Chicago Sun-Times believes that a reporter with an iPhone and a few hours of training can do the same job as a fulltime photographer with twenty years of experience and thousands of dollars of specialized equipment. The Sun-Times deserves to die.

Which is... patently stupid. I wish that last sentence weren't a direct quote from someone I know, like, and respect.

Nobody at the Sun-Times has said anything even similar to that. To twist the editors' actual reasoning into something different that can be mocked with far less thought and effort than the truth is a desperately cheap shot, and beneath anybody worthy of a reader's respect.

There's a business part to a newspaper that tries to keep the money rolling in and the lights on. And then there's the part of the company that focuses on the contract the paper has with its community: a mandate to serve and inform. Most of the editors and journalists I've known (at my paper and others) have a devotion to their purpose that surpasses their devotion to their jobs. It's akin to the level of religion you sense when you speak to a career librarian. They believe.

They're passionate about their mandates and they serve it as best they can, given the resources provided to them by the business part of the institution.

The Sun-Times' legacy stretches all the way back to the Great Chicago Fire. They've spent all but the last fifteen years of that time building and refining a machine that's optimized for the world that we all lived in until about 2000. It's a world in which news is printed on bundles of paper, and consumed by an audience that can't access information this fresh, broad, or deep in any other way, and one where even when you read the news of the start of a world war, you're reading stuff that was written by someone who lives in your own city.

I'm sure you're aware of what changed fifteen years ago. The last puzzle pieces that made the web into an actual functioning thing finally clicked into place. As good as the newspaper's old machine was--and it was superb--it was no longer suited to the world.

 

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