August 25, 2008
Killing the messenger
The future of newspapers is a much-discussed topic these days. Print papers are struggling financially. Readership is down, and so is advertising, because people have found less expensive options on the Internet.
The situation is dire, but understandable: the Internet has injected new, unforeseen elements. Ultimately, it will manage to work itself out and news-gathering will adapt to the new technology.
But newspapers also face another, perhaps more disturbing element, one that is harder to understand. “The media” in general and print papers in particular have acquired a very bad rep. People don’t trust them. People don’t like them. They don’t like the papers’ content. They don’t even like having the papers around.
Am I overreacting? Take a look at this call to arms, published by the Municipal Art Society of New York:
As a beginning step, the society mounted an OUTRAGE! Nasty Newsracks photo competition. It posted the winning entry on its website on November 17, 2007.
The proposed solution — a proper regulatory ordinance.
I’m puzzled. The six offending newsracks — yes, six, a well-established group, not a couple of mavericks — are violating an ordinance that is already in effect. Why has New York City not cited and removed them? They are “dirty and unkempt, with one being used as a trash receptacle.” As any newspaper owner knows, graffiti and vandalism are the bane of any city paper’s existence. Yet the victims are the ones who are punished, not the perpetrators.
The prize-winning photo shows a row of brightly colored boxes, a cheerful mixture of red and yellow and orange. They could have been related to the newsracks I described in the Flier nearly ten years ago, when San Francisco first sought to eradicate the journalistic scourge that was infecting its own streets:
I wonder what the members of the Municipal Art Society would say if they saw the result of our crackdown. In accord with its contract with the city, Clear Channel has provided street corner after street corner with dark green monoliths. They are generally graffiti-free. But they are also generally half-empty. The bustling array of publications that once cluttered our sidewalks has decamped, making the sponsor’s original name — Clear Channel Adshel — truly appropriate. These are simply shells for ads.
But the program is booming. According to the Department of Public Works, it’s getting ready to expand, so that the city’s outer neighborhoods may share in the cleansing that has graced the downtown area. According to the Chronicle, to take this next step, DPW is planning to hire
And those publishers who are still in the program are going to see their annual fees doubled, from $30 to $60 per box, beginning in September in order to pay for the added city employees. John Geluardi noted recently,
And a person doesn’t need lessons in algebra to realize that such an increase can devastate smaller papers.
My 1998 Flier column is a funny children’s story, but it ends sadly. Not, I hope, presciently. Soon, it says, the Supes Finance Committee will approve the newsrack ordinance, and then the full board will follow suit.
Thanks for reading. I’m outta here.
— Copyright Betsey Culp 2008