03/02/09 - posted by Frank Dunnigan
JB is right on target...Even though I enjoy scrolling through a week’s worth of obits every Sunday morning at the computer, with a BIG mug of coffee at hand, I realize that I’m missing out on a lot of things when I don’t have a physical newspaper in my hands. (Hey, I like the website outsidelands.org a whole lot--here’s the tie-in, Woody--but I still enjoy receiving and reading my regular paper copy of the group’s newsletter that comes regularly via snail mail.)

Sure, my weekly on-line session with the obits keeps me up to date on who has died lately (though it doesn’t always get me to their funerals on time), but the ancient form of the newspaper is actually MORE CONVENIENT if I then decide that I want to check up on Dear Abby, see what Dagwood & Blondie are doing, read through an interesting-sounding recipe, scan the home improvement articles for something related to what I’m doing this week, or just see what might catch my eye about the political situation in Chile, technological breakthroughs in heart research, or what shenanigans the members of the British royal family are up to. I definitely will NOT sit at my desk, looking up all these topics individually on-line (even on the SFgate website), but when they are arranged attractively, with photos, on the printed page, they are like a buffet table, all spread out, just tempting me to try a little bit of something new.

Too many of us now get our “news” by clicking on one single headline story about the economy, the latest Hollywood love tryst, or the body found in mystery a mile from where we live. We then mistakenly think that we are “up” on the news. By not having it ALL in front of us, we are simply not sampling some things that we might truly enjoy or find interesting and informative.

Granted, it’s a tricky business, and advertising revenues are down (who’s going to pay hundreds of dollars for a classified ad when craigslist, eBay, and job networking sites are readily available?), but the people who are running the newspapers need to spend some time thinking about how to adapt to these changing times. Raising the paper’s price (for subscribers and at the news stand), overloading the paper with advertising inserts, and cutting content (stock tables, comics, human interest stories, in-depth political coverage) are all solutions that do NOT work. The people in charge of the old "evening" newspapers discovered that in the 1950s and 1960s, as most American cities became "one-newspaper" towns when readers abandoned the printed word in favor of the evening news on TV.

The folks running the Chron seem to be as unimaginative as those who used to run the railroads. If there had been truly innovative professionals in charge of our nation’s rail system 50 or 75 years ago, they would have known that they were in the transportation business (instead of in the “railroad” business), and we would have had a prosperous Southern Pacific Airlines, Southern Pacific Car Sharing, Southern Pacific Express Package Delivery, or even Southern Pacific People Movers, all designed to augment the existing rail business.

Rather than redesigning the newspaper’s masthead (as the editors just did), and continually raising the paper’s price (as they just did, too), the Chron could use an infusion of new blood from a variety of sources. Just over 50 years ago, a thirty-something Hillsborough housewife named Pauline Phillips walked into the office of the the feature editor of the San Mateo Times to offer her services as an advice columnist, and was told that his newspaper could not afford another feature and that he was "not interested" even if she wrote the column for free. Undaunted, she then turned to the Chron’s feature editor and complained that the advice column his newspaper was running at the time was “pretty grim”. He gave her a chance to do something better, and within just a few hours, “Dear Abby” was born. The rest, as they say, is history.

Some of this country’s best comics were created by readers who thought that they could do a better job than the people whose work was currently being published--think Doonesbury, For Better or For Worse, Cathy, or Zits. These writers have demonstrated an ability to keep the content fresh and current--which is why we no longer see out-of-date features like the Katzenjammer Kids or Maggie & Jiggs in the comic pages today. It's equally interesting that countless community cookbooks have been published and sold, raising millions of dollars, by people who never had a single word published before in their lives.

Regular newspaper readers also used to look forward to interesting features by local columnists such as Art Hoppe, Abe Mellinkoff, Margot Patterson Doss, Anita Day Hubbard, Charles McCabe, Count Marco, Adair Lara, and Steve Rubenstein. There was even a business columnist, whose name escapes me right now, who wrote a weekly column, explaining current economic conditions via anecdotal stories told over lunch by his fictional middle-aged friends George and Adele, who lived in a rented Marina flat with their standard poodle. Hey, once upon a time, the Chron even took a chance on an unknown 22-year old kid from Sacramento named Caen, and he wrapped up a 50+ year writing career with a Pulitzer Prize. Most of these columnists ended up having compilations of their best writing published in book form for appreciative audiences. Where is the present generation of such writers?

Letters to the Editor is one of the few examples of a newspaper giving the people what they want. If the paper’s management would wake up to the opportunities that are obvious--that they are in the COMMUNICATIONS business, and NOT necessarily the newspaper business--the Chronicle just might just reap the benefits of delivering something that the people want and would be willing to pay for--perhaps even a regular outsidelands.org feature by someone like Woody LaBounty.

It happened before, and it could happen again. It has to.
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