Humor Columnist Dave Barry's Serious Answer About the Death of Newspapers

From this Sunday’s transcript of the CNN interview program Reliable Sources:

    PROGRAM HOST HOWARD KURTZ: Now, you recently told the San Francisco Chronicle — and I want to read the full quote here so we get the nuance — “Newspapers are dead.”

    Now, did the paper leave out the punch line, or is that as depressing as it sounds?

    PULITZER PRIZE-WINNING COLUMNIST DAVE BARRY: Well, no, there were caveats around that. I should stress that I still am an employee of The Miami Herald, which, you know, if my children have dental problems, The Miami Herald‘s dental plan is what covers them. And my wife is a sportswriter, and pretty much all of my friends are newspaper people.

    And I still think they — they’re amazing people. I love the newspaper business. I love the people in it. But…

    KURTZ: But everybody doesn’t lot of us.

    BARRY: Right. And I think about my son, who is 25, very smart, likes to think of himself as well-informed. Neither he nor anybody that he knows, as far as I can tell, reads a newspaper. He might call me up sometimes and ask me if there was something in the newspaper that I should tell him about, but that’s a widespread — I mean, I’m not the first person to observe that. And…

    KURTZ: Is that because he is reading news online, or is he just tuned out of news altogether?

    BARRY: I think it’s a combination. I used to say they were reading the news online, and I think they still sort of are, but they read this kind of mutant version of news that is evolving online where there’s the traditional news sources like The Washington Post, but there’s also blogs and there’s also email and there’s also who knows what. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

    I just think newspapers — and again, I’m not the first to observe this — have to sort of accept the fact that it’s not so much the news that people don’t want, it’s the paper that’s getting harder and harder to be — you know, to include in people’s lives. Especially younger people.

    KURTZ: Is that because newspapers in an age of caution and political correctness and all of that have gotten boring?

    BARRY: Yes. That is part of the reason.

    I mean, I really believe that if I were to try to start my career now, writing essentially the same kind of just sort of weird column I wrote, it would be much more difficult for me to be accepted because I think editors, because of the shrinking readership and because of the limited newshole now, are much more cautious about what they’re willing to put in there, and they’re competing against media that are not cautious, that are — that like to be edgy, and we know who wins that fight usually.

    So I think that’s — that’s one reason. But I also think that people kind of — including people my age — are spoil by the Internet. We like the idea that we can affect it, that it’s not just the — you know, the all-powerful news medium telling us what’s true and what’s not, and that’s that. And maybe we can write a letter to the editor, and maybe three weeks later they’ll print it.

    Now people don’t accept that. They like to know, well, what is your source, and what other sources are there, and who disagrees with you? And they like to be able to put something on the Internet themselves if they find a flaw. And obviously we get lots of nut balls doing that, but there’s lots of really smart people doing that too. And my own…

    KURTZ: And…

    BARRY: Yes — I’m sorry.

    KURTZ: … nut balls can be interesting to read, as you well know.

    BARRY: Yes.

    KURTZ: But that’s fascinating to me that you feel that if you were starting out today with the same column, you would have trouble, you know, getting a foothold in the business.

    What about these podcasts? Your wife, you mentioned, “Miami Herald” sportswriter. And she recently covered the Olympics, and I understand her editors asked her to do podcasts.

    What was your reaction to that?

    BARRY: I thought that was pretty stupid. I mean, you know, it’s like, the newspaper business is kind of grabbing at everything now. For a while they didn’t even know what a blog was. Then they didn’t want any part of them.

    Now they want everybody to have a blog. So now they’ve heard about podcasts, and they suddenly think everybody should be doing those. Or at least some people do. And it’s nuts to — in the case of my wife.

    Here she is, she’s going over to cover the Olympics. They want her to be at the speed-skating venue and record something that, you know, can appear on the Internet as an — as an audio file about an event that’s on television.

    You k now, it seems like a little bit — we’ll get it all sorted out. I’m not — you know, I think there’s probably a place for podcasts. I just don’t think, you know, essentially reading a news story into a — into some kind of recording device is the answer.

    KURTZ: Well, is part of the situation, compared to when you started out those many years ago, that age of Comedy Central and The Onion and funny blogs and everything else, that there’s just more competition even for humor writers like you?

    BARRY: I don’t know that that’s the case, because I think there’s actually less competition for humor in the news pages. I think there used to be more established humor in newspapers than there is now, and I — my theory is editors are scared. They’re just really scared.

    They don’t want to annoy any reader. And if you write humor, the first thing you find is that any topic you write about annoys somebody. And in the newspaper business, you said it, when people — when the phone rings, it’s usually somebody annoyed about something.

    And I think in the old days, when newspapers felt there was no other real option for news, the editors didn’t worry about it so much. You know, they said, go ahead, cancel your subscription. We don’t care. You know, we have plenty — and now, they say, oh, my gosh, this column annoyed somebody, we better cut it out. And what happens…

    KURTZ: So you think the problem is timid editors who are afraid to take risks and possibly alienate some readers out there?

    BARRY: I absolutely think that. I think newspapers are more focus group-intensive now, and they’re listening more and more to consultants who tell them what people want. And I just don’t think that’s going to work. I mean, I think we need to be — we need to still be bold and daring and edgy as we — I think we were more 20, 30 years ago to hold on to any readership.

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