Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Slices of Life Are What Newspapers Do Best, But Can They Resonate The Same Way Online?

It's a Problem Newspapers Like The Chicago Tribune Face as More Readers Turn Away From Print

Beyond the obvious difficulties inherent when not enough readers are plunking down 50 cents for a newspaper and instead read it online, comes one issue that has still not been fully considered: can readers truly appreciate the content if it's merely displayed on a computer screen, instead of being discovered by readers turning a printed page?
I'm not sure there's a ready answer yet. My concern is that if editors don't address that question soon, some quality articles could be pushed aside or simply not pursued.
Case in point are two articles from today's Chicago Tribune.
The first is a feature from the Midwest flood coverage, about an Iowa farmer who made the difficult choice of leaving 800 hogs behind as flood waters engulfed his farm.
David Greising's dispatch is written in a way that it resonates with anyone looking for a fresh take on a still-unfolding story. You don't have to be a farmer, or even smelled a farm to know the decisions Ron Lanz had to make about his pigs weren't made lightly. You can both relate to his plight and feel his loss.
The second article is a column from Mary Schmich (above) that focuses on Robert Aquileo, an attendant at a Chicago gas station where the price for full-serve gas is now five bucks a gallon.

"The fact that customers still come means he has a job for all seasons, unlike, say, gardeners, who don't have winter work. But he used to make $30 or $40 a day in tips. Now he's lucky to make $10. Even people who will spend $5 on gas won't spend $6.
"I'm thinking of finding another job," he said.

Schmich's column was a great idea, plain and simple. Just a little shoe leather turned up a compelling slice of life, one you may not have thought of but are glad you read about.
The point? Articles and columns like these are more easily found and digested when someone actually sits down and reads the paper, be it on the El or over morning coffee. They don't lend themselves as well to online readers with short attention spans who invariably don't have the time to read a news feature, regardless of how compelling that might be.
All the blogs, video, podcasts and other bells and whistles on a Web site won't change that.
So, as more readers migrate to the Web, I fear that editors -- and, by extension, their publishers -- will deem such content superfluous to a newspaper's revised mission or too expensive to justify.
And as newspapers like the Trib find their coffers ever more parched, don't think for minute they will have online-only content that would be remotely comparable.
Which is a shame. For now, the print version still stirs the drink of what appears on the Web. But maybe not for much longer. The key then will be ensuring that what's left is worth reading.

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