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Shallow Reporting or Hidden Agendas: A Rant About Newspapers

Our biggest complaint with newspapers is the shallow reporting that is regularly printed in the name of news. For an example of such reporting, we turn to the world of independent bookstores.
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There has been a lot of noise coming from newspaper companies lately. Most is complaints (people don't value news) and points fingers at the alleged villains (Craigslist and Google). Some of it is accompanied with a heavy dose of guilt (you will miss us when we are gone). The fact that newspapers are in trouble is not news, but what really baffles us is the failure of newspapers to recognize the winds of change and do something constructive about it.

Our biggest complaint with newspapers is the shallow reporting that is regularly printed in the name of news. For an example of such reporting, we turn to an area we have a learned a thing or two about - the world of independent bookstores.

Just look at these sample articles published recently in leading newspapers around the country chronicling the fate of independent bookstores. We start with the recent LA Times article about the possible closure or relocation of Elliott Bay Books in Seattle, "The Plot Thickens for Legendary Bookstore." The story was not very different from articles in many other leading newspapers about other independent bookstores. Some of these articles seem so similar that you could do a cut and paste on one newspaper's story to change the names and create a story that would easily appear in the NY Times, the San Francisco Chronicle or the Washington Post.

In fact some of these articles have been so similar as if the reporters have been working from the same article recipe cookbook. The consistency of this reporting makes one wonder if all newspaper editors have a standard instruction sheet called "How to write a quick article about an independent bookstore closing." This instruction sheet would be the one that is handed out to reporters when they are asked to do a story on this topic. It would go something like this...

Dear reporter,

Your goal is to write a 1000-1500 word article about the coming demise of an independent bookstore in our town. It should take you no more than 1-2 hours to crank out this article including research time. For this, you will first need to find an independent bookstore near you that's about to close or one that's going through a difficult period. This shouldn't be too hard.

Once you have found a suitable bookstore you should call the store's owners and talk to them for 15 minutes. They will be happy to talk with you because they will be really desperate for any miracles to save them and they will welcome the chance for a smidgeon of publicity. Then call the director of a local bookstore association and talk to them for 15 minutes. They will also be happy to talk to you, because that makes them look good in front of their constituents. Your real purpose in these interviews is not to gleam new insight but simply to get quotes along the following lines:
  • Quotes blaming the Internet, Amazon or chain stores
  • Quotes bemoaning the decline of culture in our country
  • Quotes complaining about how people simply don't read books anymore, and when they do read they buy their books in the wrong places to save a measly buck or two
  • Quotes about the bad economy (phrases like "double whammy" and "perfect storm" are especially helpful here)

You can add further color commentary by speaking to customers of the store, but use their quotes only if they fit with the overall message of the article: "Well-loved bookstore, the next victim of forces beyond its control."

You can add a little spice by titling your article with a clever literary reference like:

Please make sure the article paints the bookstore as the victim and the bookstore owner as the hardworking well-meaning person who went down to support a larger cause. Make sure to pin the blame for the bookstore's woes on someone else - really anyone else - it doesn't matter much who the villain is. The tone of the article should glorify the good old days, and be pessimistic about the future. Please don't bother gathering any facts, attempting any deeper analysis, or putting a different spin on the story.

Here are a couple more articles whose outline you may want to borrow from...

We look forward to receiving your finished article by 3pm today!

Yours sincerely,

- Editor

Of course, its doubtful that such an instruction sheet actually exists. But we are not certain how else to explain the eerie similarity of these articles. It appears that the die has been cast, judgments have been passed, and conclusions have been reached about what the story is about bookstore closings. And the reporters called to report on this phenomenon are now simply going through the motions to tell the same story again and again. The characters change, the actual words are a little different, but the main story remains mostly the same. Or perhaps, the darlings of old media have a more nefarious goal which is to somehow shame us into admitting that we need old media establishments like the newspapers (and independent bookstores). Maybe they think that by telling us the same story again and again we will start believing it and start seeing it as the truth. And somehow the resulting guilt trip will make us abandon our search engines and iPhones, and run out to renew our newspaper subscriptions.

Why are we so critical of newspaper reporting on independent bookstores?

As owners of an independent bookstore we have a vested interested in participating in a good honest discussion of real issues facing independent bookstores like our own. We believe only a focus on real issues can lead to real solutions, and that these superficial stories are actually a distraction from the real underlying issues we should be talking about. So, if you are a real reporter looking for ideas on what to investigate and write about, here are a few possible stories you might want to pursue:
  • Why is it that 15 years after the advent of bookselling on the internet, all independent bookstores combined together have less than a 0.1% market share of this channel?
  • How is it that a group of bookstores pay barely above minimum wage to their best employees, but can afford a trade association with a $30 million stock portfolio and in which the officers of the trade association make very nice six figure salaries?
  • Why do our elected political representatives insist on preserving sales tax laws that create a significant competitive advantages for internet based commerce, while hurting local economies and depriving cities of their tax base?
  • What's the motivation of the legions of authors and publishers who go out of their way to help independent bookstores keep afloat?

In related news, McSweeney's has sold out of the first print run of their newspaper prototype Panorama. Last week at the Booksmith, our phones were ringing off the hook with anxious customers wanting to know if we had the Panorama in stock. We sold 144 copies priced at $16 each in the first three days of the paper hitting the newsstands. 144 might not appear like a big number, but at the Booksmith it's bigger than the combined number of copies we sell in a week for Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and of course none of them sell for sixteen bucks.

How do you explain this sudden Harry Potter like excitement about a sixteen dollar single edition newspaper published by a company that has never published a newspaper before? Perhaps it has something to do with McSweeney's attempt to redefine news and set a new standard for what a newspaper can be. Perhaps it shows that readers can get excited about newspapers and are willing to pay for them. Perhaps it shows that if newspapers focus on producing insightful news and analysis they might just have a future.