Opinion » Ted Rall

Heal Thyselves

Seven suggestions for newspapers


DAYTON, OHIO—On May 3, I gave a talk at Wright State University. I showed my political cartoons, excerpts from graphic novels and something new I've been working on: two-minute-long animations for the Web.

But no one wanted to talk about comics. The first audience question was: "How can we save newspapers?" I don't have answers. But I do have thoughts.

Embrace The New Yorker Theory. I hate The New Yorker, but I read the magazine because I live in New York and I'm a media person. When you're competing for reader dollars against millions of websites and publications, you need to become like The New Yorker: so essential that people will buy your product because they have to.

Assume smart readers. Editors think readers are dumb, and they make it clear by what they're doing: shorter stories, less international coverage, obsessive celebrity gossip, bland opinion pages, boring features. But anyone who seeks out a newspaper in 2010 is curious and intelligent by definition. They are looking for deep analysis, not news bytes.

More analysis. Newspapers and network news are dinosaurs. Whether you read it online or heard it on the radio, by the time you get home, you already know about the coup in Kyrgyzstan and who won the game. What you need is someone to tell what it all means.

With one exception, newspapers should stop trying to break news. They can't compete with websites. They should publish a daily version of what Time or Newsweek could be: lengthy analyses with charts and graphs, and opinions across the political spectrum.

The exception? Investigative journalism. Few websites have the money or time to invest in unmasking the mayor as a corrupt bastard.

Stop sucking. Newspaper circulation began falling long before anyone heard of HTML. Compare today's paper with an issue from the 1940s. The differences are striking: lively prose, nice mix of high (in-depth analysis) and low (tons of comics and columns).

Stop giving it away. Giving away content for free online was an obviously stupid idea when newspapers started it a decade ago.

Charge more. As Peter Osnos writes in The Atlantic, the English-language paper Americans buy overseas: When advertising dries up, charge more. "The key to revenue is a high cover price," Osnos says. "In Italy, the daily costs 2.50 [euros] (about $3.40), and prices elsewhere are comparable." Sound like a lot? Cigarettes are 10 bucks a pack in Manhattan. "A newspaper specifically shaped for an audience of 'elite' readers," Osnos says, should be able to charge four bucks. "It is 18 pages of quality news and analysis, with extensive business coverage and enough cultural and sports news to be comprehensive rather than overwhelming."

Sit tight. The buzzword de l'annee is "curate." Americans, especially those who spend long hours at work and with family, will become increasingly disillusioned with the spin and disinformation that passes for news online and on a thousand channels. Soon they will yearn for someone to figure out what's important, package it into a digestible format—i.e., to "curate" the news. And they'll pay.

Of course, it might take 10 or 20 years. But what else do newspaper publishers and editors have to do?