Friday, October 30, 2009

Hungry for brains

My son has been inspired to trick himself out for Halloween this year as the title character from Shaun of the Dead, a 2004 zombie comedy whose charm has entirely eluded me. J.P. has acquired a cheap white short-sleeved shirt and a garish polyester necktie. He has lovingly reproduced the red ink stain on the shirt pocket and manufactured a prop cricket bat. A home hair dye job has been accomplished. He’s good to go.

It seems entirely apt, amid this seasonal enthusiasm for the undead, that the Audit Bureau of Circulations should have just released the latest depressing figures for the circulation of American newspapers. San Francisco Chronicle down a staggering 25 percent. The Baltimore Sun down about 15 percent from something that could not be described as a peak. Many others in bad shape. Our metropolitan newspapers increasingly look like our native zombie class, lurching down the street, searching — vainly — for brains.

Some of the drop may be temporary. Newspapers have always labored to manage a huge churn of subscribers, wooing readers with short-term, reduced-rate deals in hopes of retaining them. It would not be surprising that in the middle of a severe recession, with multitudes newly unemployed, customers trying to manage their finances would give up newspaper subscriptions.

But I fear that the decline represents something far more dangerous. As newspapers have frantically cut back on space and coverage and decimated their staffs to achieve savings, they have offered their readers less and less. And as they have also intentionally compromised standards of editing, what they do offer is often shoddy — slackly written and riddled with errors of fact. Manic efforts to redesign and repackage print editions appear in many cases to have alienated traditional readers without attracting new ones.

It has long been clear that demographics are running against newspapers: As readers of the older generations that still have the print habit relocate to celestial addresses, the rising generations won’t touch a daily paper with a bargepole. But the acceleration of the decline just recorded by the ABC suggests that newspaper management has contrived to cheese off many of the dwindling loyalists.

Whistling past the graveyard — also seasonally appropriate — some newspaper executives point proudly to increases in readership of their electronic editions. But Web advertising brings in only a fraction of what print advertising does, and it is far from clear that multitudes of hits on Web stories lead to the kind of return visits and reader loyalty that advertisers would find compelling.

Moreover, I’ve looked at a number of newspaper Web sites, wondering whom the management imagines they attract. Newspaper Web sites often look cluttered. Many are baffling to navigate if the reader is looking for a particular story, and on some I’ve given up even attempting to use the inadequate search function. You might think, with all their cant about forging closer ties with their communities, that they would make it easy to get in touch with members of the staff by providing both e-mail addresses and telephone numbers — but that would be naive.

I would not advise you to be concerned about any danger of attack by zombie newspapers this Halloween. They are mainly a danger to themselves. Though their need for brains is compelling and obvious, they don’t appear to recognize when you have any.

What they ought not to have done

A headline in this morning’s editions of my former paper, The Baltimore Sun:

Conversions don’t worry Episocopal bishop

Lord, have mercy.