Guest Post: Carol Cooper on the Death of Print Media

Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much for awhile. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.

Today’s guest, Carol Cooper, is one of an increasingly rare breed, a working journalist. I have known her for many, many years now. I suspect since my first visit to NYC back in 1993.1 She’s a wonderful writer and friend and knows what she’s talking about on many, many, many topics, but most especially journalism. All heed what she has to say.

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Carol Cooper is a NY born and based cultural critic, who also enjoys an active online presence at and

Carol says:

So many possible topics, so little time!

As soon as our ever gracious host Justine offered me this guest spot, I started agonizing over how best to use it. I’m sure my concern is an occupational hazard, since the job of a freelance journalist is to pitch her editors the most compelling story of the moment . . . ideally before any other journalist has already written about it.

But . . . as you may have heard . . . rules and opportunities in the news game have, well, changed. Not long ago one of the papers I still sometimes work for ran a cover story they chose to illustrate with a little zombie paperboy dressed in Depression-era drag under the headline: “Print is Undead.” In a similar mood of gallows humor, the same publication also ran an education story which paraphrased the musical question: “I just graduated from J-school . . . what WAS I thinking?”

In the past few years the precipitous decline in print media advertising and circulation has forced even the most famous newspapers and magazines—like the New York Times and the Kirkus book review organ—to the brink of economic extinction. Established daily newspapers in big cities like Detroit, Chicago and San Francisco have already bitten the dust, and even online-only news and lifestyle publications continue to shrink and die due to staff cuts on a daily basis.

Now I don’t cover the war/politics/police-blotter/hard copy beats that normally put the “news” in newspapers . . . I’m a pop-culture reporter. And I’ve discovered it’s not really pop-culture reporting that suffers when printed publications vanish. What suffers—especially when online versions of respected newspapers fail to make any money by offering reportorial content on a daily basis, is a factual, archivable and informed analysis of economic and political events in real life as it happens.

Web-based information sources get plenty of traffic to sources of gossip, entertainment and opinion. But far fewer readers flock to .gov sites to read a thousand pages of a health care reform bill for pleasure. Even the less intimidating summary of such important information is harder to find and consume than the average Twitter feed or celebrity blog. The web makes it too easy to narrow our focus to only those subjects you already like or know about. And the web is a much greater time-gobbler than any print publication. What a good newspaper or magazine using a large diverse staff of writers is supposed to do is design a seductive, well-researched, and easily portable package of information providing insightful glimpses into every possible area of human interest.

The music, book, film, and nightlife reporting I like to do needs to be part of that larger package to have the kind of impact I want my work to have. Art, philosophy, and culture (to me) are innately political, and must be understood within the context of every other societal factor to be fully appreciated. When it comes to topical brain food, an all-candy diet is no better than an all-tuna or all-spinach diet if you want to live a long, healthy life.

So . . . while I continue to labor in an industry that appears to be burning down around me, I cling with giddy optimism to the fact that television didn’t kill radio; that YouTube hasn’t killed commercial TV; that video games have yet to replace the movies; and that old, seemingly obsolete media like vinyl singles and albums, remain collectible and are even being re-manufactured now as prestige items on the international scene. So—am I a paper chauvinist? I’d have to say ‘yes’ . . . even with one foot firmly planted on the other side of the digital divide!

I’ve been recruited to write for online sites since the early 1990s, and I still gotta say . . . paper is way better. Ever since some duplicitous staffer at the now defunct SonicNet e-zine put her own name on a great feature-review I wrote for them about Tupac Shakur, I don’t trust the online world to respect the integrity of my byline the same way “hard copy” does. Ah yes, the sweet sanctity of the byline. Honey, I’d go back to writing in cuniform on clay tablets if it would protect my byline!!!

Meanwhile, my being tempted to migrate into book-length fiction or historical biography in a world where the predictive quality of Orson Scott Card’s Ender series and the inspirational quality of Carolyn Burke’s bio of surrealist muse and photographer Lee Miller rival anything investigative journalism can do, is a strong possibility. If I resist the golden allure of series television,2 I might eventually abandon periodical literature to write those kinds of printed matter. But we’re still talking PRINTED matter here. And between recycled newsprint and paper made out of all kinds of sustainable non-arboreal sources (not to mention the sustainable soft-pine grown abundantly on my grandfather’s land in Texas) this NYC-based freelancer will defend the survival of print media until you pry her back-issues of The New Musical Express, The Negro Digest, and Locus from her cold, dead hands.

  1. Momentary pause while Justine contemplates the weirdness and fastness of time. It is, indeed, a peculiar item. []
  2. Bring back Gilmore Girls!! []


  1. Rachel on #

    Are you being paid as well as you used to? I hear that pay rates for reporters are sliding.

  2. C. Cooper on #

    Reply to Rachel: You betcha! Austerity measures have made all of us famliar with pay cuts. Last year contracted staffers at many places saw their health benefits reduced, and their retirement plans frozen as well as 5% to 10% “interim” salary reductions. Freelancer budgets were eliminated (or temporarily frozen) within many departments, which nonetheless had to do the same amount of work with existing (and often reduced) in-house staff.

    Recently, a slight uptick in the national economy allowed restoration of former salary levels to writers at some of the better known newspapers. But I’ve yet to hear that anyone is rehiring any former staffers who were preemptively laid off in the past two years to create a meaner leaner operating budget.

  3. Rachel on #

    Thank you for the answer.

    What effect do you think the ipad is going to have? Does it make you more optimistic?

  4. C. Cooper on #

    Reply to Rachel:

    IMNSHO, new tech used to be a lot more fun than it is now. Companies used to compete by hitting the retail market with their best possible effort. The Sony Walkman was a vast improvment in sound over both existing portable stereo sound and existing tape sound. The first portable CD players…not so much. MP3s? again, sound not so great. Maybe you could store more data, but it all still sounded crappy and thin.

    Similarly, computer “upgrades” started being a contradiction in terms as companies rushed out buggy Beta test models at inflated prices, making consumers pay for the privilege of being part of their r&d dept. New tech is supposed to make life better and easier, not merely make more quarterly profits and obsolescent garbage for toxic landfills.

    So that said, I hope the I-pad fulfills its advance hype and doesn’t become just another ephemeral plastic toy. Conde Nast is already getting on board. But I’m pretty cynical about it all given the cynicical short-term goals of most captains of industry.

  5. Dave S. on #

    I think the ipad will change everything. It creates a revenue stream for online content that didn’t exist before. If it works as well as I’m convinced it will it could even lead to a golden age of reportage. It solves the biggest problem with online content: how to make money from it. When you subscribe to Sports Illustrated or the New York Times or Time or what have you on your ipad you pay for the privilege but you also get value added content. A way to turn off advertisements and much more readable content. It’s a better reading experience and people will pay for that. Just see how well apps have done on the iphone. I believe that high quality content will be back in demand once the ipad is available and then there’ll be copycat ipads just as there have been copycat iphones. I don’t work for apple. I know it sounds like I do.

  6. C. Cooper on #

    Reply to Dave S.:

    I hope you are right.
    But how long do you think it will take before enough people own ipads to make a difference? Two years? Five? They are pretty pricey. Will a whole family use the same ipad? I suspect their spread will be more like the initial spread of television in the 1950s, than the spread of ipods and iphones. And will the ipad have to somehow render other trendy hand-held devices redundant to claim a significant consumer base?

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