Thursday, October 15, 2009

Death is my beat, and let's hope it stays that way

By David Heinzmann

It’s been a rough few years in the newspaper business and it feels like the waters won’t be smoothing out any time soon. Next week we’re expecting to see new circulation numbers across the industry that reflect a further slide in the number of people buying the paper.

As everybody knows, consumer trends are driving more of our operations online, but nobody has so far figured out how to make a decent buck on digital presentation of the news. We continue to give it away for free, and advertising revenue on the web site is a tiny a fraction of what we get from print ads. It's mean lots of layoffs and other cuts. Fewer reporters and fewer pages, meaning declining resources to really explain what's going on in the world. It’s ironic that some of our best reporting is reaching more people than ever because of the Internet.

Last week I went to a Mystery Writers of America meeting in Madison that was attended by several novelists (including fellow Outfit blogger Laura Caldwell), and the conversation turned to the state of publishing—paper and ink vs. digital books, etc. Several people worried that bound volumes may go the way of newspaper—crawling, and now sliding, toward oblivion.

Most of us agreed that the fate of books isn’t so bleak. Kindle will take a slice of the market. And maybe print-on-demand will play a role larger than some people like. But nobody’s giving away novels for free the way we have in the news business. And just as there’s no lack of demand for news to be reported, there is a strong demand for writers to tell stories and to reveal pieces of our world, at length.

And I don’t think that book production has quite the same industrial headaches as printing and delivering millions of pages of newsprint every day.

Let’s hope all of this looks a little more promising in a year or two when we can actually see whatever this recovery is going to be. Here's to people have a little more money to buy crime novels, ad space in the paper moving at a stronger clip, and the general public swallowing the idea of shelling out a couple bucks every once in a while to read the news online. We're going to confront that issue soon, one way or another.

Anyway, I think my hopes are modest.

Later this morning, I'll jump in the car and head to Indianapolis to attend my first Bouchercon. I’m excited just to be going, and am thrilled to be on a panel discussion Saturday afternoon with other journalists-turned-novelists. The panel is titled Death is My Beat, and we’ll be talking about using journalism and reporters as themes and protagonists in our fiction.

When we were kicking around ideas for the discussion several weeks ago, I suggested we talk a little about the pressure the industry is under. Another writer quipped: Nobody cares about that. That’s why we’re screwed. Funny. And pretty much correct. Still, not a completely useless idea. Read Michael Connelly’s recent book, THE SCARECROW, in which the downsizing at the L.A. Times (which is owned by the same Tribune Co. that employs yours truly) provides great tension for the novel’s protagonist.

Now on to Bouchercon. Most members of the Outfit will be there. So if you’re in town for the conference make sure you drop by our panels, or find us in the bar, to say hello.


R.D. Ray said...

One problem with Kindle and electronic media for books is that currently they control what books we can read. A great many print titles are not available electronically. Until this situation is fixed, there will continue to be a great demand for print titles. Furthermore, I'm not convinced that an electronic reading device is any more accessible or easy than your basic paperback.

Sara Paretsky said...

David, first--great to meet you at the Bouchercon. Second, I do worry, a lot, about investigative journalism. It's what's kept our democracy functioning, and without reliable journalism, we are increasingly at the mercy of rumor and demagogury. scary times. I personally subscribe to 3 daily papers, by the way, so feel I am doing my modest part to keep the business alive.