First Thing We Do, Is Kill All the Newspapers

Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, has called for all journalists to suscribe to the daily paper, as a “duty” to the profession. He argues that doing so would prop up the news business until new economic models can sustain news reporting that appears on the web or elsewhere.

Clark is, by all appearances, a very bright guy with a distinguished career. But I hope he wrote that entry because traffic to his blog has been light and he wanted to kick up some dust. Or maybe it’s satire but, like so many in the news business, he has no touch for satire.

I say this because I’m not sure I’ve read something as wrong-headed on this whole print-to-digital transformation issue. Sustain the operation 50 cents at a time until the folks in the newsroom corner offices can either retire or noodle their way to a new business plan when some cataclysm–forced layoffs of half the newsroom, going Sunday-only, killing sports or comics, etc.–finally forces their hand.

As others have written in response to Clark’s column, journalists actually have a duty to cancel their subscriptions as a way to expedite change, of detonating the creative destruction that may–who knows?–save quality journalism in the digital age.

But donating 50 cents at a time to slow that change down is actually mean-spirited, like pulling the legs off a spider so it suffers longer. It’s like keeping a brain dead patient alive on the heart-lung machine not because there’s hope, but because you loved him. Time to pull the plug, administer morphine, have the cremation and get on with the cycle of life. Life, as Thorton Wilder has taught every sixth grader via Our Town, is for the living. Newspapers are not living.

In fact, I propose it’s not enough for journalists to cancel their subscriptions and refuse to buy the paper at Starbucks. It’s time for journalists to undertake acts of civil disobedience in order to save the journalism they believe in (not the pulp-with-ads package that has for so long delivered it, which is an entirely separate thing).

To ensure the principles of journalism–and the reporters, editors, visualists, and others who have the skills, passion and track record to produce it–move as soon as possible into the digital age, we must take action to destroy the hulking structure that stands in the way.

Today, every journalist who cares about news should put 50 cents in a street box, pull out all the papers, and throw them in the trash. Repeat daily until you get caught by the cops. Spend your night in jail, and have colleagues organize rallies and press conferences on your behalf when you are released.

You were only breaking a small law to make a big point, they’ll tell the assembled press. (What did you destroy, $6.50 in property, retail?) You were trying to save an institution vital to the democratic process. You had to turn to extralegal means only because conventional channels blocked civic progress, they’ll explain. Put the press conference clips on YouTube, and game Digg to make sure it gets circulated widely.

The day after your release, gather your colleagues en masse and bring bolt cutters, liberate the street boxes themselves, and take them to a landfill (burning would make better video, but it’s less environmentally responsible). Lock arms, light candles, and submit to mass arrest.

Journalists have done jail time to protect the First Amendment before, and that’s what they need to do here. If journalists don’t band together to preserve journalism in the digital world immediately, the marketeers, bloggeurs, real estate developers and technotweak gazillionniares will fill the news gap by creating “online newspapers” in communities everywhere. It is, of course, happening already.

Do not for a moment think these folks will launch electronic “news” operations that will hold government accountable, explore the messy guts democracy and speak truth to power. Their “news” operations will be designed to aggregate audience and monetize it. The content? Hire some of those producer kids just out of school.

If you think the paper barons of today don’t understand the value of real journalism, just wait until these clowns take over.

There will be no responsible press in the near future unless the folks who love it and believe in it force it into the new era as soon as possible. This push will not come from newsroom management. It will have to come from The People.

That’s my proposal, at least.

I sure hope it brings me some blog traffic.

Or–who knows?–maybe I’m just being satirical. It can be very hard to tell.

Explore posts in the same categories: journalism, media, news, print-to-digital

5 Comments on “First Thing We Do, Is Kill All the Newspapers”

  1. Roy Peter Clark Says:

    Thanks for this modest proposal in response to my essay. I’m delighted to be your muse for the day. And I applaud acts of guerrilla activism. When the city of St. Petersburg put up a bunch of signs that misspelled the Poynter Institute, the former president and I, wearing Richard Nixon rubber masks, went around the neighborhood and corrected the spelling with metallic tape. Think of it as guerrilla copy editing. Cheers.


  2. Not all of us are money hungry clowns. I have five years at Ball State University (very good journalism program) and seven years at a mid-sized daily.

    Lisa Williams, Barry Parr, Geoff Dougherty and *many others* are doing great journalism with little to no budget.

    Yes, there are people who are approaching the ‘citizen journalism’ type sites (I hate that term, btw…) with a corporate business model (wanting eyeballs, not members of a community), but not all of us are like that.

    I invite you to a new site I have going – http://www.localjournalism.net – where a handful of us are sharing ideas and helping each other shape the future of journalism.

    There’s hope for journalism, but it’s not inside the current system, it’s out here in the trenches, on the web.

    Enjoying a traffic spike as well,
    K. Paul Mallasch – Grassroots Publisher


  3. Well, in my town, there are enough traditionalists to warrant a traditional print run. However, the quality of the websites for most local papers is rather appalling and requires a kick in the butt. I just don’t think anything radical is in order- simply hiring a few more competent people would probably do the trick.


  4. […] Craig Stoltz Today, every journalist who cares about news should put 50 cents in a street box, pull out all the […]


  5. […] the author of a blog entry titled, “First Thing We Do, Is Kill All the Newspapers,” I am in no position to mourn the passing of a daily newspaper (though I hope its staff […]


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