"The Paper"

Independent Lens

The Paper Chase

I just finished watching "The Paper", a documentary about Penn State's daily newspaper and the students that run it in addition to, you know, being students. I'm writing this on a temporary high of enthusiasm, caffeine by osmosis, and the sheer gloriousness of really believing that what you write about - whether it is football, first dates, or financial aid - can make and will make a difference in somebody's life. Man, I miss college.

Now, that's not to say that I don't believe content can change people. Words are powerful tools in the right hands, and I couldn't help be swept up in the mission of The Collegian. It's hard not to get all fired up when you witness one hardy reporter skipping class (repeatedly) to catch a story, another intrepid journalist defying college sports rules to get a feature account on the personal lives of football players, or a budding Jimmy Olsen cracking his head against college bureaucracy just to chase down a source. It was, quite honestly, inspiring. It also made me tired, especially after all that osmosis/caffeine stuff.

But here's the thing that I couldn't get out of my mind: a college daily is one thing, but how many of us on a daily basis really get our news this way? Anyone? Bueller? I stopped taking the daily paper a decade ago, and the only thing I miss is the convenient packing paper it provided. By the time a newspaper gets around to covering something that's breaking, I've already Googled it, seen the full coverage via YouTube, Twittered about it, blogged it, and Flickred it. On to the next thing, thank you very much series of tubes, see you next time when I feel the need to watch that Evolution of Dance video again. Meanwhile, the newspaper is just getting tucked into its cozy receptacle on the corner, waiting for whoever can dig the .75 out of their couch to come and get the coverage that I got 12 hours ago. Twice.

See what I mean? How in the world is old media going to be able to compete with the lightning fast Internet machine? Frankly, it can't, and there's no scalable plan for even attempting to do so. These perky Collegian kids had a lot of pep, but even they were subconsciously aware that no matter how fast they shoveled in the spectacular (lesbians kissing! Naked football players! Sexual assaults every five minutes!) stories, they were still coming up against a frustrating brick wall of declining readership - and this in the midst of some pretty impressive investigative reporting.

Sure, there's a place for newspapers - but I don't necessarily think it's on the backs of recycled trees. The journalists that have their bylines in newspapers are by and large vastly underpaid self-appointed guardians of society. They really and truly care about what's going down in their sphere of influence: whether it be the local school serving rat's milk to the kinder, right on up to the various sins in the hallowed halls of the White House. These folks, despised though they might be, care enough to dig into the really boring stuff and try to make sense of it...and for that, they have my respect. Not necessarily my attention, subscription, or interest, but you gotta start somewhere.

That being said, what of these intrepid Collegian reporters - is there hope for them as they venture forth starry-eyed into the world of paper media? Of course. Newspapers might be dying quicker than they roll off the printer, but there is always room for another good journalist willing to get the story. Media is always evolving, but the need for intelligent fact-gathering (on subjects OTHER than David Hasselhoff) will always be with us.

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