Evaluating the Star‘s Position In A Shifting Media Landscape

IMG_1668We’re frequently hard on the local paper of record around these parts, but our complaints are spurred by our great disappointment in the apparent demise of a once-great institution. The Fourth Estate is a vital part of both our culture and our democratic republic, and it saddens us greatly to see newspapers around the country facing bankruptcy — or worse. We understand that financial necessity often dictates who can and cannot stay on staff at a newspaper, and we further admit that each of us was a liberal arts major, making us woefully inadequate in the world of business analysis (even if we do contend that most business curricula are shockingly ill-conceived and irrelevant). However, a visual interpretation of the Star and two print cousins makes for an appropriate and rather disturbing case study. After the jump, visual comparisons and a bit of a discussion about just why this is so bad.

Now, I’ll go ahead and admit that I may the wrong person to tackle this project. I read three printed newspapers a day, and read five or six more online. I’ll also admit that I am something of a media snob, and yearn for the halcyon days of page after page of text with little interruption by garish advertisements. But take a look at the three photos below, of pages A8 and A9 of the Star, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal. These pages were selected at random. Notice anything disturbing?

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These end up being pretty satisfactory representative samples, because each paper has chosen to use A9 for a full-page ad. And despite the aesthetic offense, it’s a perfectly reasonable decision. But look at the Star‘s A8: it’s very nearly another full-page ad, with some cursory text thrown into the northwest corner. Contrast that with the NYT and WSJ, which still do a full page of text on the non-ad-dominated side.

The problem with the Star is that its parent company has deemed it necessary to achieve salvation through cost-cutting. If we continue to reduce expenses (the most obvious means of which is layoffs), the thinking goes, then we can compete with lower-cost online alternatives. What doesn’t get factored into this thinking is the prospect of exactly what happens when people are shed: the material suffers. When you get rid of metro reporters, arts critics, etc., you necessarily have less content to offer on a daily basis. And why would I go the Star for national wire stories?

Eventually you’re left with something like the above example — which resembles a printed ad sheet more than anything else. And what’s the point of that? The equation is something like this:
Fewer advertisers as a result of economy + smaller staff via layoffs = less content and more advertisements
In other words, you’re eliminating content by eliminating content-generators, and subsidizing production costs with more ads to support what’s increasingly just a paper of ads. So the ads support ads, while content slips a little more each day. Finally you’re left with examples like page A8, which is almost laughable in its total lack of substance.

Then, in an attempt to decentralize content and broaden appeal, you bring in more national columnists and do ludicrous things like the “Pro/Con” editorials from other papers. We don’t want pithy examples of what other papers are saying — we want our hometown paper to take a stand on issues that affect our city. Today’s pro/con, e.g., concerns the invokation of Ted Kennedy’s name in health care reform, and features opinions from the Seattle Times and the cartoonish Jonah Goldberg. Because… why, exactly? First, that’s not exactly the heart of the health care debate. Second, why do we care what the Seattle Times or Jonah Goldberg think? If we needed to know that, couldn’t we merely read it online? We’d much rather see more firm editorializing from the staff of the hometown paper.

Too many ads. Bad firing decisions. Milquetoast opinion pages. Cost-cutting scourges all, and all a threat to the future of the paper. Find all the advertisers you want, Mr. Zieman, but eventually they’ll realize that they’re paying to advertise in something no one has any interest in reading — because what are we reading?

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