The Death of the Newspaper Salesman

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More layoffs are in store for a venerable, award-winning newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News. As a journalist this concerns me personally, as I make part of my living by crafting and providing fresh, well-written news and features for various publications, including newspapers. The fact that the Mercury News is affected pains me even more, as the pub is such a well-respected name in the business. Their staff won Pulitzers back in the day for an expose on erstwhile Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ “ill-gotten wealth” (a popular term in the Philippines nowadays) that many cite as the beginning of the end for the man and his corrupt administration.

Still, is anyone really surprised about news such as this? Newspapers have been losing readership for years, even more so since the Web really exploded in the late 1990’s. I read the Grand Junction Free Press during the week, The Daily Sentinel on Sundays, and occasionally the New York Times, the Denver Post, or the Rocky Mountain News. That is, if they’re lying around at the coffee shop for free. But for the most part, I get my news from NPR and various sources on the Web. My favorite news sites after NPR is actually the Sydney Morning Herald and the Philippine Daily Inquirer. The latter is fairly obvious, while the Morning Herald is just an extremely well-written and thoughtful broadsheet, with insights about the world from a non-US lens. I devoured the paper during the time I spent in Sydney several years ago and came home with a bunch of clippings. It’s a useful and informative look at world events from the perspective of a Western nation that’s not the US, one with an eye towards Asia and who recognizes that the Asia-Pacific region is where we’ll see the most action over the next century.

But again, I read that online. While I love the tactile nature of newsprint (minus the inky smudges they leave on my fingers and any white fabric within touching distance), it’s much cheaper and easier for me to catch the day’s news and analysis online, where I spend most of my day anyway.

Today’s journalists and other media professionals, including freelance writers who still derive most of their income from offline sources, would do well to begin learning more about writing for the Web. Whether it’s starting a blog at your newspaper or on your own, or perhaps starting your own Web site focusing on anything from snarky political commentary to selling your baseball cards, the best way to soak up the free education provided by the wild wild Web is to just jump in and join the fray. Start your own media empire. Create the kind of content you’ve always wanted to read and write, as opposed to the tightly circumscribed text you’re required to churn out for your boss or editor.

Don’t get caught up in any romantic fantasies about The Front Page and the dying art of newspaper writing. I love it as much as the next journalist, but I’m pragmatic enough to know that the future of information sharing, even literary journalism, lies in the electronic frontier. The last thing you want to do is to get left behind while the rest of the world spins away in that digital vortex without you.

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