Fuel for the legs, not the brain

8 05 2010

As any cyclist knows, lunch is the most important stop on a ride. In fact, a good lunch stop can make or break a long ride; it’s a reward for the kilometers already covered, and it’s fuel for the rest of the way

Today, the sun came out, although there was still a cool breeze that felt more like a headwind on the ride out; I need my own personal echelon!

One of my favorite lunch stops on a Friday ride is a slice of pizza and a pop at the Flying Wedge, preferably as I sit at the lone outdoor bistro table. It’s been months since I’ve been able to indulge though; not a whole lot of road rides yet this season, and the times I have been out, the joint has been packed with high school students. A little too busy and filled with annoying chatter for my taste

I like the Wedge because their pizzas can be interesting, and they also have copies of the Vancouver Courier and WestEnder, newspapers I rarely get the chance to see living out here in the ‘burbs; both of them offering an alternative take on Vancouver news  and community issues than the warmed-over pap in the Vancouver dailies. Plus the photographers at each of those papers happen to be my mountain bike riding buddies!

I timed today’s ride just right. The Wedge was empty; the high school students had returned to their afternoon classes. And the outside table was available. So, after ordering my Veggie Wedge, I went to the rack to retrieve my lunch accompaniment; but the Courier and WE were nowhere to be found! They had been usurped by stacks of those ubiquitous freebie commuter papers, 24HRS and Metro. Ugh.

Lunch for the legs, plus some empty calories for the brain.

Those things are the scourge of journalism. They’re little better than chicken mcnuggets for the brain – overly-processed crap masquerading as food. Disguised as newspapers, those freebies are filled with little more than severely edited wire copy and press releases, most of it mindless drivel about celebrities and upcoming tv shows.

I’ve been in the newspaper business for 26 years, and it’s killing me to see its demise. Publishers and editors rail against the destructive forces of the internet plucking away their paid subscribers, all the while diverting more and more money and resources at their websites, which are usually over-designed and poorly-constructed. It’s almost as if they’re hastening their own demise.

But I also think those commuter freebies should shoulder a large chunk of the blame.

Their business plan of flooding the zone with hawkers handing out free copies at every transit stop and key locations everywhere in between is nearly impossible for paid-circulation papers to compete against. And, as everyone knows, people’s resistance to anything being handed out for free is usually pretty low, no matter how poor the quality.

You hardly see copies of the paid dailies being read and then left behind in SkyTrain anymore; but almost everyone thumbs through the 24HRS or Metro. It’s the commuter equivalent of reading the back of the cereal box while eating breakfast; it’s certainly not interesting or worthwhile, but it gives you something to do.

The same thing is happening at more and more fast food joints, car service garages, take-out counters, even the dentist.

Their daily requirement of celebrity gossip somewhat sated, most readers probably don’t bother with another paper the rest of the day; they’ll catch up with real news surfing the web at work while the boss isn’t looking. Once they lose the habit of that daily paper, they’re unlikely to get it back. And it’s not like the dailies are doing anything to keep them, or woo back the strayed readers, dumbing down their own pages with celebrity pap, cutting newsrooms so most of the paper is filled with wire service copy that’s readily available from other sources.

Some say the death knell for the newspaper is nigh, and good riddance. But as yet, nobody has come up with a viable alternative, financially and journalistically. Bloggers? Too flakey. Don’t feel like blogging today? Then no information. Besides, most bloggers rely more on half-baked opinion and gossip than real news.

Twitter? Please, information in 120 words or less is WORSE than freebie commuter dailies.

TV? Without newspapers to feed those guys story ideas, they’re pretty much dead in the water.

Radio? The only thing more pathetic than newspapers these days is the state of news coverage on local stations.

The biggest hinderance to the survival of the newspaper industry is the industry itself. The competitive landscape has changed, but newspaper owners have refused to adjust; they still expect to retain the 20-30 percent return on their investment they used to make in the industry’s halcyon days, they’re greedy, and to feed they’re greed they’ve gutted quality from their core product, they’ve lost sight of the service with which the public has entrusted them.

The public and advertisers aren’t stupid. They recognize crap. And they sure don’t want to pay for it.