Pitts column: Newspapers can’t play chicken

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 22, 2008

By Leonard Pitts
And then somebody brought a chicken into the newsroom. A sign affixed to the bird — a statue of a rooster in full crow ó said: “Brought in by a Santeria priest … to help save our jobs. Make an offering.”
The bird, placed last week on a bank of file cabinets in the newsroom of The Miami Herald, drew flowers, wine, pennies, peppermint, dolls, candles and other oblations. A few days later, the McClatchy Co., which owns The Herald and 30 other newspapers around the country, announced it was cutting 10 percent of its workforce. At The Herald, that means 190 jobs throughout the newspaper’s various departments.
So if Santeria ó it’s a combination of Catholicism and the West African Yoruba religion ó has any miracles to work, it had better get busy.
Not that The Herald is alone. Virtually every newspaper is going through the same thing: shrinking profit margins, declining circulation, staff cutbacks and morale at subterranean levels as journalists struggle to figure out how we can save the American newspaper.
But I have come ó reluctantly ó to believe we can’t. We must blow it up instead.
Doing otherwise is like trying to save record albums in an era where music is downloaded to iPods, trying to save film in an era where every camera is digital. People did not stop listening to music or taking pictures, but new methods of doing so evolved, and those who were in the business of selling music or pictures had to adapt or die.
We in the business of selling news have yet to adapt. Yes, every newspaper has a Web site now. Some, like The Herald, have TV and radio facilities as well. I’m talking about something more: a radical change of focus.
We still tend to regard our Websites as ancillary to our primary mission of producing newspapers. But I submit that our primary mission is to report and comment upon the news and that it is the newspaper itself that has become ancillary.
So maybe we should regard the Internet not as an extra thing we do, but as the core thing we do. Maybe we should maximize the fact that we know our cities as no one else does. Maybe we should make our Websites not simply online recreations of our papers, but entities in their own right, destination portals for those who want news and views from and about a given city, but also for those who want to find a good doctor in that city, or apply for a job in that city or reach the leaders of that city or research the history of that city. Maybe the goal should be to make ourselves the one indispensable guide to that city. And then maybe we should hire away the bright people who figured out how to make Yahoo and Google profitable and ask them to make our sites profitable, too. Maybe ó heretical idea ahead ó it’s as simple as requiring online readers to pay for the product, just as our other readers do.
If you are a connoisseur of irony, you may find it amusing that this argument comes from a guy who recently wrote that the Internet is eroding our ability to focus. Well, let me say this: I have fond memories of growing up in L.A. with the feisty (and long defunct) Herald-Examiner and much of what I know about writing a column comes from Al Martinez of the Times, so none of this comes easily to me. Like most print journalists, I am sentimental about newspapers.
But I am also sentimental about eating.
A few weeks back, Carl Sessions Stepp, senior editor of the American Journalism Review, published a call to arms, an essay exhorting journalists to stop weeping over the state of their industry and launch an all-hands-on-deck, man-on-the-moon campaign to reinvent and save it. Consider this my way of seconding his motion.
I don’t know how it is in Santeria, but in the Judeo-Christian tradition, we have a saying: God helps those who help themselves.
I’ll bet the chicken would agree.
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Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.