When you watch cable news TV, you can’t help notice all the formers among the guests. Former editor of the former whatever. They’re still the smartest journalists in the room, but they’re unemployed.
Musings of a Wannabe Newspaper Warlord
Asked how they’d spend the $293.7 million they won in November’s record Powerball lottery, a Missouri couple told reporters they planned to buy a Camaro. They plan to travel to China. They might adopt a second daughter. They’ll up their grandkids’ college tuition. OK, so that leaves $293.6 million.
They obviously have absolutely no idea how much money $293.7 million is.
Mark and Cindy Hill seem like an average couple in their early 50s. Working class. Salt of the earth.
But man, what a waste of money to give all that loot to them! $200,000 would have been more than enough to change their lives. Not really knowing what to do with such a massive sum, the Hills will likely waste most of it on America’s self-perpetuating charity industry, which says that spending up to 35% of donor money on six-figure executive salaries and other luxuries is perfectly acceptable.
It is, of course, the Hills’ quarter-billion-plus to spend/squander. Not mine. I get it; I grew up under capitalism.
Let’s get something straight. I’m not jealous. I can’t envy the Hills because there is no way I could have won. This is because I don’t buy tickets. Whether I play or not, I figure the odds of winning are basically the same.
However, I do know how I’d spend their money.
Like the Hills, I’m a Midwest boy without fancy tastes. I’d pay off my mortgage and credit cards. My mom loves the beach; I’d buy her a house over the ocean. My car is eight years old; I’d buy one of those new Challengers.
Which would leave me $293.4 million.
Lottery winners always talk about helping their families. What about their friends? I have friends whose lives would be instantly transformed by $5 million checks. Brilliant cartoonists who could quit grueling day jobs and focus on developing their careers. Ailing writers who could finally get medical care for chronic conditions. Aspiring entrepreneurs who could capitalize their great ideas. People who are stressed out because work is scarce or nonexistent and are having trouble making ends meet. I have a couple dozen of friends like that. Helping them out would cost me about $100 million. Money well spent.
I want to help transform the media. That’s my big dream. Unfortunately, I will never realize it because I don’t have access to the kind of capital necessary.
The disintegration of print newspapers and the failure/refusal of digital media to deeply invest in serious journalism and smart commentary and satire is making Americans stupider, allowing evil corporations and corrupt, lazy politicians to thrive.
Warren Buffett is a smart man, picking up newspapers at rock-bottom prices. Personally, I’d buy The Los Angeles Times now that its parent, the Tribune Company, has emerged from bankruptcy. Experts guesstimate you could pick the Times for $185 million or less.
(Full disclosure: I draw cartoons for the Times.)
Aside from the fun of running a major metropolitan daily newspaper—12 pages of full-color comics! Hire a kick-ass investigative reporter to infiltrate government for a year or two and then cough up all the dirty secrets! Create an editorial page that runs no one to the right of Mao Tse-Tung!—I think the Times would be a fab investment.
People say newspapers are dying. Specific companies are hurting, many are dying, but the dead tree form is here to stay. They said radio was dead after TV came along, but radio is bigger today than ever. TV killed old-timey radio—plays, variety shows. New formats—album-oriented rock, news talk—emerged. Old-fashioned fat lazy newspapers basically minting money from gigantic office towers in the centers of major cities are on the ropes, but as long as print can do something that digital can’t, it will survive and thrive. TV can’t replace radio because you can’t (or at least shouldn’t) watch TV while you drive. Similarly, an iPad or a Kindle can’t replace a print newspaper’s awesome disposability, portability and—an advantage that people are just starting to become aware of—memory retention.
Print magazines and newspapers will get their groove back when they understand what they are for. The Internet is for short updates. The Web and apps tell you what happened and who won the game. Print is for long-form analysis. Print tells you why you should care about what happened, walks you through how the game was won and how the season is shaping up.
We need serious analysis. But no one wants to read 15,000 words on a smartphone.
These days, the clueless barons of print are screwing up big time; Tina Brown just closed Newsweek after using the glossy to try to out-Internet the Internet with full-page photographs, vacuous “charticles,” and more lists than you can shake a Daily Beast at. The publications that are doing okay are those that are embracing in-depth feature stories, like the Economist and Vanity Fair. Publishers are going to figure out that that the destiny of print is more, longer, smarter, edgier content.
The future of newspapers in the United States will look a lot like Europe, where nations have a few big national newspapers, each of which serves a particular political orientation or interest, like sports or finance, and individual communities are served by hyperlocal outlets and, possibly, regional ones that would go to, for example, people in the Southwest.
We already have a few big national newspapers. USA Today was first, but it lost its way before it found one. The New York Times is our big national paper of news and high culture. The Wall Street Journal, of course, is the national paper of finance. (Under Rupert Murdoch, the Journal is muscling in on the Times’s territory.) The Washington Post should be the big national political paper, but its management doesn’t get it, so there’s an opening there. Anyway, there should be a big national newspaper focused on entertainment—video games, film, music, I’d also include books—and the logical candidate is the Los Angeles Times. They have the contacts, the location, and the brand recognition to pull it off. What they need is for someone to point them in the right direction.
Imagine if it worked! Not only would you make a killing, you’d establish a template to revive American journalism. Don’t forget, over 90% of all news stories originate in newspapers.
Which would leave me with about $8 million. Call me the man who would be king minus the panache of Sean Connery, but the salary of a soldier in the Afghan national army is about $2000 a year. The Taliban pay closer to $4000. So I could hire 2000 badass Afghan mercenaries for a year for my spare Powerball change and take over a province or two after the U.S. pullout and the civil war heats up. I’m not exactly sure whom we’d fight. Maybe Turkmenistan because, well, why not? Perhaps we’d just sit in the Hindu Kush and shoot at pictures of Arianna Huffington while reading back issues of the Los Angeles Times. I’ve always wanted to test-fire an RPG.
I may never win a Pulitzer, but no one can ever take having been a cartoonist-columnist-newspaper-baron-warlord away from you.
COPYRIGHT 2012 TED RALL
Borders Goes Bankrupt. Will Books Survive?
Borders Books and Music, which once employed 30,000 workers at more than 600 stores, is bankrupt. Those numbers have been halved. And even after these massive cuts, analysts say, Borders is probably doomed.
The next time you walk past the empty ghost store where your local Borders used to be, you may ask yourself: Are we becoming a post-literate society?
Everywhere you look the printed word is under economic siege. Despite a 20 percent increase in demand in recent years, libraries are laying off, closing branches and reducing hours. Newsweek, one of the most venerable titles in magazine history, was recently sold for a buck (plus a promise to assume tens of millions in debt). Twitter is priced at $3.7 billion, nearly twice the public enterprise value of The New York Times ($2.03 billion).
The key word, of course, is the one in front of the word “word”: “printed.” We are reading more than ever. Just not in print.
According to a fascinating new study conducted by the University of Southern California, 94 percent of all data is now stored in digital form. (That ticked up a point as you were reading this.) Thanks to the Internet and various gadgets we read about 4.3 times more words each day than we did 25 years ago.
The more words we read, however, the less we want to pay the people who write them. The Times of London lost 90 percent of its online readership after it put its website behind a $4-a-week pay wall.
Why does this matter? Quality. The Huffington Post, recently sold to America Online for $315 million, points to a possible future in which the rewards go to ruthless aggregators who cater to Google common search phrases with slideshows about kittens and Lindsey Lohan. They rely on free blogs for most of their content. We’re getting exactly what they pay for: crap.
If you think journalism is bad now, it’s going to get even worse. The message is as loud and brassy as Arianna: real journalism doesn’t pay. Inevitably the best and brightest are gravitating to other fields.
Another unintended consequence of the digital revolution is lower memory retention. I recall significantly more of what I read in print than online; I’ve found the same to be true of my friends.
Norwegian researcher Anne Mangen told Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam about a paper she published in The Journal of Research in Reading. Mangen believes that we remember more of what we read in print than on a computer screen. This additional retention is due to variables that serve as unconscious memnonic devices: fonts, position of text, images, paper texture, etc.
“The feeling of literally being in touch with the text is lost when your actions—clicking with the mouse, pointing on touch screens, or scrolling with keys or on touch pads— take place at a distance from the digital text, which is, somehow, somewhere inside the computer, the e-book, or the mobile phone,” argues Mangen. “Materiality matters…One main effect of the intangibility of the digital text is that of making us read in a shallower, less focused way.”
My personal experience convinces me that there is a difference. On the Kindle, everything looks and feels the same. When I read the Times on newsprint, part of what helps me remember a story is the ad that ran next to it and the photo underneath. Sure, Kindle readers remember much of what they read. But not as much as old-fashioned bookworms.
It is hard to quantify the value of a country’s intellectual life. But as Americans read more and more, less of it printed, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that we are losing something precious and irreplaceable.
So what’s the solution? European booksellers, publishers and newspapers receive generous government subsidies. Here in the U.S., where pseudo-free markets are a national religion, the feds bail out billionaire bankers, not bookstores.
In order to successfully compete with online sales and e-books, brick-and-mortar retailers will have to learn the lesson of Borders: middle of the road equals mediocre.
Beginning at least ten years ago Borders buyers began eschewing risks. Buying into the “blockbuster mentality” of stocking stacks of sure-thing bestsellers, they stocked fewer books by midlist authors—profitable, but not bestselling, titles. Browsers found fewer surprises at Borders. As for top-selling books, they’re cheaper at Costco and on Amazon.
Barnes and Noble has been struggling too, but their strategy seems to stand a better chance than Borders. B&N’s inventory is wide as well as deep. The fronts of their stores feel “curated,” the way good independent stores bring in customers with the promise of discovery and serendipity. If consumers want something obscure, odds are there’s a copy or two in the back, spine out.
It’s a frightening thought: America’s intellectual future may depend on the fate of a superstore.
(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is tedrall.com.)
COPYRIGHT 2011 TED RALL
To the Editor:
There’s a saying among political cartoonists: “I thought my cartoon was good. But then it appeared in Newsweek.”
Once again, your annual “The Year in Cartoons” collection of editorial cartoons highlights your magazine’s long-running war on political humor. Its title also violates truth-in-advertising laws. Your selection is incredibly narrow, focusing only editorial cartoons without a political point of view drawn by about a half dozen working editorial cartoonists. “The Year of the Blandest Cartoons By Six Guys” would be more like it.
Newsweek’s readers deserve to know that there are hundreds of editorial cartoonists in the United States. They have as many drawing styles and political viewpoints as you can imagine. The vast majority of them are hard-hitting, highly opinionated and viciously partisan. They are pit bulls (mostly without lipstick, though there are amazing women cartoonists too), not the teacup poodles exhibited in your misleadingly-titled round-up.
In a universe of inspired and inspiring political cartoons, you managed to find the absolute bottom of the barrel. Are you afraid of actual opinions? Or do you just have bad taste? Either way, you ignored all the good stuff—including by the cartoonists whose work you included, all of whom have far more important, riskier and funnier work in their 2008 portfolio that you chose to pass up. A computer-generated randomizer would have picked smarter cartoons.
President, American Association of American Editorial Cartoonists