Will we miss newspapers?

A few weeks after 9/11, I had to attend a business meeting that was being held on the lot of a Hollywood movie studio.  I had been inside studios for meetings before but right after 9/11 it was a major ordeal to get through the front gates.  I think getting into the White House would have been easier, and I struggled to understand how these studios could be equating themselves with federal buildings and national monuments–the seats of our nation’s power.

Quite frankly I found the movie studios’ response a bit over-the-top and the epitome of arrogance.  Call me cruel but I didn’t think that an industry that has not been kind to my Latino culture deserved unprecedented protection.  I just couldn’t fathom shedding a tear if some disaster struck an industry that historically had misrepresented, disrespected or maligned my culture.

Now let’s move on to today and the dire state of English-language daily newspapers.   While it would be difficult to place all of the blame on the most recent and high-profile cases–the Rocky Mountain News and Seattle Post-Intelligencer–I have no problem seeing the slow death of an industry that has done an abysmal job of reflecting the increasingly diverse communities it serves.

If you think about it, daily newspapers are suffering for a lot of reasons but principally because they have failed to deliver on their core mission: serving their local communities.  When it comes to anticipating and writing for rapidly changing demographics of our cities–from ethnic to digital usage–newspapers fell asleep at the wheel.  And for Latinos, especially the younger segments, newspapers failed on two fronts: editorial content and the young Latinos’ over-indexing thirst for the internet.

How did we get here?  For the most part, the leadership and the rank-and-file of newsrooms have never really changed.  So what you have are aging, lily-white editorial staffs and executives.  I’ll give some credit to the L.A. Times for its coverage of Latino issues but look at its masthead and there’s nary a Hispanic surname–isn’t that odd and sad for the daily newspaper serving this country’s largest Hispanic market?

And newspapers failed on digital, principally on the monetizing front, but a lack of diversity is also the culprit.  Newspapers have been extremely slow in moving their ad sales strategies (and staffs) from traditional to diversified including digital.  Once again, they’ve been stuck with a bunch of old-school, lily-white, seemingly door-to-door salesmen-type who have never really embraced or “gotten” the digital universe.  Newspapers who have done well in migrating to the digital space are the exception, most notably the Wall Street Journal.

The need to remain relevant and being up-to-speed to ensure success in today’s world can be seen brilliantly in another “old-fart” yet seemingly enlightened industry: American theater.  The hit Broadway musical from the 1950s, “West Side Story,” has been updated and made more culturally-relevant for today’s audiences: the Puerto Rican characters now speak and sing in Spanish, and Maria is now played by a Hispanic actor.

Perhaps the most striking element for me is the direction that Broadway icon and West Side Story lyricist Stephen Sondheim gave to “In the Heights” lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was brought in to translate the lyrics.  According to the NY Times, Sondheim told Miranda “to use whatever imagery he wanted.”  Here’s a Broadway heavy-weight giving a young Latino artistic latitude and license!  That’s tantamount to hearing the likes of the publishers of the San Diego Union-Tribune or the San Jose Mercury news telling their Latino star reporters to “get the story right” because they WANT more Latino readers.  What a concept!

As someone who has worked in newspapers for over seven years–both English and Spanish-language, I still think the industry has a future but it’s running out of time.  I still have ink in my blood and am a long-time subscriber of the print versions of two daily newspapers and the digital version of the Wall Street Journal.  So if we lose some newspapers, good riddance!  The surviving ones will hopefully get the message and reform quickly.

The current economic crisis will lead to a shake-out and some players will deservedly go the way of the Soviet Union.  Fine.  But we also have to support those industries, institutions and brands that not only preach inclusion but practice it as well.  Now go out and buy your tickets to “West Side Story!”

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