Wednesday, March 2, 2011

All the News that Flits

If you have any doubt that the newspaper as a medium is dead, just pick up a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle.

At about three-quarters the size format of a normal paper, it's so wispy it hardly qualifies as a pamphlet. It contains so little content -- and by that I mean paper material, because let's not even talk about the articles picked up from other news feeds -- that it would take at least two to provide enough kindling to build a decent fireplace blaze.

But there's another aspect to the demise of the modern urban newspaper. Like most publications, the Chronicle has an online version: the S.F. Gate. You'd be right to expect that this is simply the evolution of journalism in the 21st century, and that the paper's web site is the inevitable electronic descendent of what you once found in news racks all across the Bay Area. But you'd be wrong.

That's because the demands of constantly updating a web site to accommodate breaking news and developing stories have transformed this once iconic paper -- one held as the gold standard when I attended Journalism school in the 1970s -- into little more than a content mill. And a sloppy, hastily slapped-together one at that.

Take a look at this little gem, from today's S.F. Gate: Iconic kisses -- it purports to list the top iconic kisses in human culture. The first image from a Greek vase is misidentified as a man who kisses his wife when he "comes home from work" to see if she has spent the day knocking back ouzo, when actually it depicts Spartan love between a grown man and a boy. That's almost beside the point, though: just about anyone could rattle off a list of iconic kisses: Prince Charles and Princess Diana at their storybook wedding, Bette Davis and George Brent in Dark Victory, Judas betraying Jesus with a kiss at the Last Supper, even Adrian Brody smooching Halley Berry at the Oscars. But some unknown screen kiss from 1896? Do they even know what the word iconic means?

This kind of lazy content milling can be seen on a daily basis on sites like, where teams of content generators spew "articles" like The 7 Things to Never Say at a Job Interview or Islands to See Before You Die.

As someone who once started each day with a cup of coffee and a fresh newspaper, I'd made the adjustment, some time ago, that online news was simply Newspaper 2.0. But it was just today, stupidly, that it really hit me that the eradication of physical newspapers has set in motion an unexpectedly complete dumbing down of the remaining local news culture. What's left?