Archive for the Newspapers Category

Does Anyone But Me Care About Discontinued Syndicated Newspaper Columns?

Posted in Internet, Media, Newspapers, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on May 14, 2012 by JE Cornett

If she’s looking for a syndicated newspaper column, she may be out of luck.

Everyone knows that the Sunday paper is the best paper of the week. Editors save their best stories for Sunday, thin sections like Arts & Entertainment and Classifieds grow to healthy proportions, and the syndicated columns, where you can get advice and information about everything from in-laws to set-in stains, flourish. Scratch that last part. Syndicated columns are disappearing from newspapers and newspaper websites in droves. But does anyone care?

Syndicated columns are the orphans of the newspaper world, dependent upon a host of adopted relatives who put them up for awhile, then push them aside. The purpose that syndicated columns serve is a curious one; while syndicates ostensibly exist to provide a wider audience for columnists, the reality is that they provide relatively low-cost content to newspapers looking to fill column inches. Or they did back in the good old days when newspapers had column inches to spare.

With advertising revenues dropping dramatically and readers fleeing from paper media to online sources, newspapers are growing thinner and thinner, more focused on local news and the larger national/international stories. As papers grow thinner, syndicated columns and columnists disappear.

I’ll readily admit to being one of those people who’ve abandoned print newspapers. The best newspaper in my state doesn’t have daily delivery in my area, so I’ve relied on the online version for years. As a former newspaper reporter, I was fed on a steady diet of the syndicated columnists that we ran in the papers owned by the holding company. After I left, I kept up with these columns, from the Universal Press Syndicate, through the syndicate’s website (I won’t link to the site because I don’t want to be responsible for the 5000 pop-ups that would attack your computer subsequently).

Between the time that I first began reading the Universal Press columns online and today, the output has evolved. The list I offer is by no means all-inclusive, but I’ve stricken through the columns that are no longer offered, bolded the ones that are long-running, and italicized the newer additions:

Dear Abby

The Last Word in Astrology

Scott Burns

Smart Moves

Focus on the Family

Kids Talk About God

Tell Me A Story

Cookbook Nook

7-Day Menu Planner

Supermarket Sampler

Mr. HandyPerson

On Computers

Pet Connection

William F. Buckley Jr.

John Leo

David Shribman

James J. Kilpatrick

As I See It

Ann Coulter

Maggie Gallagher

Ted Rall

Richard Reeves

Georgie Anne Geyer

News of the Weird

Figuratively Speaking

Creating Spaces

Ask the Headhunter

On Ethics

National Perspective

Donna Brazile

Sweet Land of Liberty

Gene Lyons

Byron York

The New Republic

Even with the new additions tacked on to the bottom, Universal’s stable of syndicated columns has dwindled, but they’ve also taken on a new tone. While I had noticed the trend, it wasn’t until I made this list that I realized that the majority of the added columns are opinion, mostly political, while the majority of the discontinued columns are how-tos, help, and reviews.

Yet I’m not surprised. The content of the discontinued columns reflects the change in how we gather this information. Pre-Internet, finding reviews or how-to advice meant turning to the newspaper, a magazine, or a reference book. Today, the very idea of waiting for a newspaper column to address a problem is not unlike turning to Pony Express for email delivery.

The change in the Universal stable is also indicative of the larger shift in newspapers, especially the smaller, local papers that carried these columns. As they lose both advertisers and readers, smaller papers increasingly fill what small dead space is left with information they do not have to pay for, or, in many instances, information they’re being paid to run, in the form of announcements and sports schedules and other items that used to be used as filler.

Despite being dropped by newspapers, the advice/how-to/other lifestyle column hasn’t gone away — only the idea that it must be syndicated. The Washington Post, for all its troubles (financial and otherwise), has embraced the lifestyle column in the only way that it can work now, putting it online, where newer agony aunts and household heroes like Karla Miller and Amy Dickinson dole out advice next to Heloise and Carolyn Hax, two mainstays of Post advice columns. For those who can’t wait even a day for advice about burning problems, Hax, Dear Prudence and others offer live chats.

Still, the Post‘s confidence in online lifestyle columns can be viewed through two lenses, one that sees it as the natural progression of news media, and another that sees it as the dying gasp of a dinosaur desperate to stay relevant in a changing media landscape. Syndication isn’t the only thing the Internet is making obsolete; now that anyone with ten minutes to set up a webpage can spread their wisdom, the types of lifestyle columns we used to look for in papers are now the provenance of bloggers, or aggregate sites.

One such example is The Hairpin, an aggregate aimed at the very audience that years ago would have flipped first to the lifestyle section of the paper, the 20-40 year-old female. The Hairpin even features its very own Heloise for a generation that likely never heard of her, Jolie Kerr,aka “A Clean Person,” who offers advice on household matters of import ranging from a puked-on purse to a semen-stained recliner to funky-smelling jeans. It’s territory Heloise couldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole in a column that’s going to run in a mid-sized weekly paper, and that alone may explain more about the death of syndicated columns than any other financial or logistical shift.

As with much else on the Internet, the law of diminishing returns also applies to lifestyle and other advice. For every Jolie Kerr, there are a thousand people offering unclear, dangerous, or just plain bad advice, and, despite Google’s attempts to thwart them, at least as many content farms hiring freelancers to churn out the answers to all your burning questions, even if it means re-churning answers already found at another content farm.

It all makes you long for the days when you knew whose advice to trust. While I’d take Jolie Kerr’s word for almost anything (I’ve been a little worried about some jewelry cleaning advice I saw there once, but then I’m pretty uptight about my jewels), it’s probably because it’s the stuff my mother taught me — semen-stained upholstery excluded, of course. As for other rogue advice-givers, I’m not as trusting.  At least with syndicated columns, there was the comfort of knowing that an army of editors and fact checkers had laid eyes on it before it reached print, weeding out anything too dangerous. Just reading that so-and-so tried this or that to get the cat pee odor out of carpet is not enough for me, although that make speak more for my source-snobbery than any fear of ruined carpet.

With newspapers as we know them in their death throes, it may be fiddling while Rome burns to mourn the syndicated lifestyle columns. The reality, however, is that the disappearing syndicated column signifies something much more frightening — we’ve already established that we’ll take advice from anyone willing to dish it out. Will we also take news from anyone who reports it?