Up front: January 2012

Paper thin

I have a special place in my heart for newspapers. I grew up the son of a newspaperman. Nearly 20 years ago, I started my career as an inside sales representative in the classified-advertising department at The News & Observer in Raleigh. I met the woman I would wed at that job and forged many long-term relationships during my almost 10 years with “The Old Reliable.” Back then, classified advertising was booming. Taking orders for employment, automotive and real-estate ads was like working the drive-thru at McDonald’s. From the early to mid-’90s, the classified section in the Sunday N&O was sometimes larger than the rest of the paper — all of it paid advertising. It seemed newspapers could do no wrong. The Internet was no threat, just another tool.

What a difference a decade can make. The newspaper industry is a shadow of what it was. The print product has shrunk, the classified section practically nonexistent. There are times I fear my Monday paper will blow away before I can retrieve it. Most of the folks I worked with — my wife included — aren’t in the business anymore. Survivors worry about what the future holds. There are many reasons for the decline, changing technology and the emergence of new media chief among them. But as someone who still subscribes to the paper, I can’t help but fault the industry itself and the folks leading it for hastening its demise.

Look at how the content of the paper is presented online. What I enjoy most from my paper are the columns, editorials, commentary and movie, music and lifestyle reviews. I crave the unique perspective that a newspaper provides me each morning. Whether or not I agree with the opinions, this has and always will be the trait that differentiates a newspaper from all other media — its personality. I don’t need the latest news or headlines. That train left long ago with news feeds from television, radio and the Web. What I find in my Charlotte Observer each morning is at most a rehash of what I’ve read online the day before. I sit down with my paper because I look forward to spending time with writers who analyze that previous day’s news, comment on Sunday’s Panthers game or introduce me to the latest barbecue joint in town.

But almost every column, opinion piece or review appears online the day before my paper hits the driveway. This is not information I need immediately. I’m not going to stand in line to see the latest Harry Potter or Twilight flick at midnight — if I were, what a critic had to say wouldn’t matter — so why do I need a review of a movie the day before it opens? Still, I like to read the local reviewer’s take on a new movie — in the paper. (Well, I used to. To cut costs, the Observer moved its longtime film critic to other assignments. Most movie reviews in it now are written by a guy who works for the Orlando, Fla., paper.)

Perhaps I’m just looking for an excuse to stay a subscriber, but I don’t need the paper to wrap fish and haven’t a bird whose cage needs lining. Why should I keep paying for something I’m going to get for free? Aren’t they smart enough not to make me worry I’m doing something dumb? Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned about business, it’s never make a customer feel like a fool.