Voices v. Vilhauer (or life in a Gannett newspaper town)

Prudence would dictate staying out of this but it’s kind of like when the big kid is beating up the little kid. Even though you know you’ll probably get thrashed too, something compels you to open your mouth or intervene. Okay, so this is really blogger v. blogger but one is your typical personal blog and the other is run and paid for by (and supposedly speaks for) the Argus Leader and, hence, Gannett, the media conglomerate.

Seems Corey Vilhauer from Black Marks on Wood Pulp posted a few things about the Argus the other day. Seems it irritated the paper’s Voices blog, or at least Pat Lalley from that blog. Vilhauer’s first post on the subject dealt with what he considers a loss of style in the Argus. He said in part:

But the Argus is losing readership. The solution, apparently, is to dumb down the content. Make the words bigger. Have more opinion, both from unqualified readers and random bloggers and message board trolls. Show more candid photographs from Grandma’s collection.

Them thar (and others) are apparently fightin’ words for the Argus. Lalley’s response was Vilhauer is “just plain wrong.”

Did we change the newspaper? Yes we did, to respond to the times, to make it more relevant to people’s lives. We’re not perfect and we’ve got a long way to go but we’re trying to stay relevent [sic] in today’s world. The reason major metropolitan daily newspapers are suffering is because they’ve grown out of touch with the daily ebb and flow of the lives of their readers, not because they weren’t printing enough wire stories about discontent in the European Union.

Here’s where I’ll make that intervention mistake and and throw in my two cents worth.

First, I’ll admit Lalley has a point when he says later in his post that there is more local news content in the Argus. That is undoubtedly a good thing. But the items Vilhauer mentioned are equally valid. I don’t see how the following are “more relevant to people’s lives” or “in today’s world” than, say, national or international news.

  • Printing comments from the message board denizens. From the few times I’ve looked at what shows up in the Voices section of the paper, most, if not all, of the Argus online forum participants don’t use their real names. How is some exchange between two anonymous individuals (and based on what appears in the paper, usually about the same dozen or so people) relevant or important to subscribers? Since they hide behind assumed names, there is no basis to evaluate their credibility or the knowledge base they rely upon. At least Vilhauer (and Epp and CCK and me and numerous South Dakota bloggers) put our names on our blogs. If letters to the editor must be signed why are anonymous online comments so relevant they retain their anonymity in print?
  • An endless stream of pictures from strangers of their kids, pets and vacations. Seems to me the people who might find these pictures relevant probably already got them in an e-mail, on Flickr, or in a Christmas letter or the like. Frankly, if I wanted to see those pictures, I’d go knocking on neighbors’ doors and ask to look at their photo albums. Even then they wouldn’t be relevant to today’s world.
  • As for more opinion from various sources, op-ed pieces are fine and dandy but they are also an easy and relatively painless way to fill space. I believe that what happens in Europe or the Middle East or Canada is more relevant in today’s world and likely has a greater impact on peoples’ lives than what some out-of-state columnist or newspaper thinks about various issues. And, at least for me, reading a Sunday collection of foreign and national news that generally is not time sensitive is not a substitute for daily news from around the nation and world.

I know that in the scheme of things these are probably minor changes. Yet how much of the change comes from the readers? Does anyone really think readers told the Argus they want excerpts from the paper’s efforts to create an online presence? How many readers called or wrote in saying they really, really, really want to see pictures of other people’s pets? The fact of the matter is this decision originated at Gannett headquarters in McLean, Va., not the corner of 10th and Minnesota. Here’s what the WaPo reported last month:

The chain’s papers are redirecting their newsrooms to focus on the Web first, paper second. Papers are slashing national and foreign coverage and beefing up “hyper-local,” street-by-street news. They are creating reader-searchable databases on traffic flows and school class sizes. Web sites are fed with reader-generated content, such as pictures of their kids with Santa. In short, Gannett — at its 90 papers, including USA Today — is trying everything it can think of to create Web sites that will attract more readers.

Sounds a lot like the changes we’ve seen at the Argus. I know change is inevitable. Hell, I come from the day when an IBM Selectric was cutting edge newsroom technology. Still, the problem from my perspective — and Vilhauer’s, I think — is that I get the Argus to read a newspaper, not because the paper wants me to look at its web site. The “Web first, paper second” seems antithetical to the reason most people get newspapers. If I wanted to use my laptop to read the news while I’m drinking coffee (and doing “other things”) in the morning, I wouldn’t subscribe to begin with. Maybe I am too old, but to me the purpose of a newspaper is to put “news” in the reader’s hands, not send them elsewhere to get it. And why go online for more photos of strangers’ dogs and anonymous comments on message boards?

Still, kudos to Lalley and Villhauer for feudin’ respectfully about something I know has been a topic of a lot of discussion in this area. And there is one unquestionable benefit of the change in format. I have more free time in the morning as it now takes me about five minutes to read the paper once I get past Section A.

Editors may think of themselves as dignified headwaiters in a well-run restaurant but more often [they] operate a snack bar … and expect you to be grateful that at least they got the food to the table warm.

Thomas Griffith, How True: A Skeptic’s Guide to Believing the News

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4 comments to Voices v. Vilhauer (or life in a Gannett newspaper town)

  • Thanks for the kind words. RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE!

  • I pretty much agree with you, Tim. I’m still buying the ARGUS just about every day, but seeing less and less reason to do that.

    I can get news from the web, but if it is worth reading, it is often worth printing it to read it. Something different about reading something on a paper page compared to a computer screen. But, perhaps that something that tracks better with our ages than our IQs.
    Perhaps those a generation or too younger don’t have the same desire for dead tree fiber.

    Now that any of us can literally fill thousands of words worth of pixels on the screen literally in minutes and express our opinion on just about everything, we can all find opinions without reading George Will. But, a good newspaper filled with actual news with a good stable of reporters and researchers is something few of us can put in a blog or a website.

    It has seemed to me as I have also indicated on my blog that newspapers should concentrate on news and now there is more reason for them to do that then there was prior to the internet exploding with opinions and perspectives.

    I guess in short it seems to me the ARGUS has gone nearly exactly in the wrong direction. Less is not more. More graphic borders that seem to be stuck in randomly because they can be stuck here and there fill up space, but they don’t make it easier to find news.

    Newspapers are getting too expensive to be filled with colored borders and boxes.

    And, I better quit plinking …and go buy the Argus and RC Journal if there are any left at the local quick trash store.