The relevance of newspapers is in question

May 05, 2002|By Dave Barry

THE NEWSPAPER industry is in trouble. The decline can be traced back to 1960, when the Reporter Dispatch in Westchester County, N.Y., made the suicidal mistake of letting me deliver it. I was terrible at this job. I was always late, and I could not get the hang of folding the papers, so when I flung them onto people's doorsteps, they looked like origami projects that had been regurgitated by wolves.

Newspaper circulation has been declining ever since. In fact, we're thinking it might be cheaper, instead of running the presses, to simply call our subscribers individually and read them the parts of the paper they're interested in: mainly, the comics. Many of our subscribers are elderly, so we'd have to read in loud voices. ("OK Mrs. Hooblick, in the first panel, Garfield has his head stuck in a shoe. WHAT? No, I said STUCK IN A SHOE. Well, same to you, Mrs. Hooblick.")

We're having trouble attracting younger readers. They're not interested in the front-page stories about the continuing breakdown of the Middle East peace process, which has been breaking down for several thousand years now. In the newspaper business, we find this absolutely riveting, but young people do not, and we have no clue what they ARE interested in.

Oh, we try. I subscribe to America Online, so I can go into Internet chat rooms and find out what young people want to know. As far as I can tell, they mainly want to know: (1) Am I a female? (2) If so, will I send them naked pictures?

Another major topic is Britney Spears. As far as the America Online news department is concerned, Britney is more important than nuclear proliferation. Recently, when there was a major development in the Middle East peace-process breakdown, the big story on America Online was that -- and if you didn't know this, I hate to be the one to tell you -- Britney broke up with Justin. Yes. Justin is of course Justin Timberlake, a member of the popular 37-year-old-boy band "In Synchronization." America Online also had a poll where you could vote on what Britney should do next. Apparently America Online subscribers care deeply about this, because in just a few hours, the poll had tallied more than half a million votes, including 141,000 for "start seeing other people," all from Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond from South Carolina.

Which brings us to the issue of bias. Another reason newspapers are in trouble is that the public perceives journalists as more liberal than the average American. This view is based on a survey showing that in the 2000 presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush, 86 percent of newspaper journalists -- a much higher percentage than the general population -- voted for Stalin.

So times are tough for the newspaper business. But there is hope, which stems from a heartwarming incident in Geneseo, Ill., reported in a March 22 story in the Moline Dispatch, written by Matt Gergeni. The story concerns a 73-year-old woman who was buying a copy of the Dispatch from a vending machine outside a Wal-Mart, when the machine's door slammed shut, trapping the woman by the neck strings of her jacket. Unable to remove the jacket, and lacking the 50 cents she needed to reopen the door, the woman asked a Wal-Mart employee for help. The employee told her it was not store policy to make refunds for the machine.

The woman spent 20 minutes hunched over in the cold before she was able to convince the employee that she didn't want a refund, she just wanted OUT. Finally, the employee put two quarters into the machine and freed the woman, who repaid the employee. Wal-Mart later apologized and gave the woman a $25 gift certificate, so the incident is closed, unless of course a $700 million lawsuit is filed, which is totally possible, this being the United States of America.

But here's my point: If a relatively stupid, spring-operated newspaper vending machine can catch and hold a customer, imagine the results we'd get if we equipped these machines with computers, motors, wheels, stun guns, etc. We have the technology to make a vending machine that can chase prospective readers for miles, knock down their doors and refuse to take no for an answer.

What do you think, newspaper people? I think this could be the biggest circulation-booster since we started using this special ink that rubs off on our readers' hands and gets into their bloodstreams and causes them to become addicted. Of course that's still a secret, so don't print this last paragraph.

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