Like most educated people above the age of 40 in the Washington metropolitan area, I have theWashington Post delivered to my home each day. But I don’t read it carefully the way I once did, and I can’t remember the last time a colleague mentioned to me a piece he or she saw in the paper. This partly reflects the way in which new media, especially cable and the internet, are competing with more traditional outlets for the attention of consumers. The Post’s own web-site is more colorful, current and comprehensive than the hard copy of the paper can ever be, and much of the time people like me would rather get our information from less conventional sources anyway — like andrewsullivan.com, for instance.
However, we can’t blame the steep circulation declines that papers like the Post, Los Angeles Times, andBoston Globe have experienced in recent years solely on new media or shifting cultural patterns. Their decline also reflects a failure to connect with the interests and sensibilities of younger readers, who for better or worse are the future of the business. The front page of today’s Post is a case in point. In a amazing example of editorial misjudgment, the Post staff gave the passing of Apple Computer’s founder a single-column headline, and decided the latest dreary dispatch from Yemen was a little more important. This decision confirms my longstanding suspicion that the paper is actually edited by members of the Foreign Service for the diplomatic corps. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough people in the diplomatic corps to justify the Post’s current advertising rates.
Seriously, though, is it any coincidence that the paper with the strongest circulation numbers in recent years, the Wall Street Journal, threw out its usual front-page format to run a banner headline about Jobs dying, while the Post thought Jobs merited only a one-column headline? It’s clear the Post had an extended-length obituary already waiting for the fateful day, and there wasn’t any other big news to report. So today’s layout reflects a news judgment, and it’s the kind of judgment that helps explain why my kids never look at the paper, even when I thrust it under their noses at breakfast. It’s not that they don’t ever read hard-copy publications — my son loves Wired and my daughter favors Rolling Stone. But there wasn’t much above the fold in today’s Post that would have caught their attention, even though one of them was greatly saddened by Steve Jobs’ passing.
I love newspapers, in a way that nobody after me probably ever will again. I remember the Washington Evening Star and the Baltimore News-American, and a host of other papers you probably have never even heard of, like the New York World-Telegram and Sun, and the Newark Evening News (which once had one of the largest stables of foreign correspondents in the business). I understand why those papers are gone, and why one day soon the hard-copy versions of the papers that still survive will probably be gone too. It isn’t their fault, really, the world just changed. What I can’t understand, though, is why editors who know their papers are facing a tough future don’t make more of an effort to connect with the younger people who one day will be the only audience they have left. Steve Jobs did a lot to shape the sensibilities of those younger people, and he deserved better treatment from the Post on the day after his death.
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