Rick Edmonds at The Poynter Institute has a column this week comparing newspapers to the Bennigan's restaurant chain. As you may know, Bennigan's is no longer in business, and the newspaper industry isn't looking so good either. Both have been overtaken by the times because of their failure to change, Edmonds says. The blurb on the Poynter homepage put it this way: "Stuck in the '70s is the wrong place to be now."
The column got me thinking about what music from the 1970s might tell us something about the plight of newspapers in 2008. Almost immediately, the Rupert Holmes hit "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)" came to mind.
The song, released in 1979, tells the tale of a man who's bored with his relationship. Then this happens:
I read the paper in bed
And in the personal columns
There was this letter I read
The lyrics then recite the wording of a classified ad:
If you like pina coladas
And getting caught in the rain
If you're not into yoga
If you have half a brain
If you'd like making love at midnight
In the dunes on the cape
Then I'm the love that you've looked for
Write to me and escape.
The song's protaganist and love interest continue their courtship through the classified section of their local paper. They set up a meeting at a bar called O'Malley's, where they will plan their escape. When they do meet in person, our hero realizes that his classified correspondent was "his own lovely lady." Ah, the irony!
In 1979, the story of the song was silly yet somehow plausible. Holmes was reportedly inspired by an actual ad when he wrote the song. Now, however, the idea that the classified section of a newspaper could be the vehicle for a love affair seems antiquated. Classified advertising was a significant source of revenue for newspapers, but it is fading, never to return.
If Holmes were to write "Escape" today, he would probably use Craigslist, eHarmony or Twitter to tell this story, not the print newspaper. Perhaps we've reached a low point: Even Rupert Holmes has little use for print media.
Yet, there is hope. News itself — along with the reporting and editing skills required to produce it — is not a throwback to 1979. Readers still want it, and a few even like it on paper. But news has to be presented, delivered and paid for in ways never dreamed of a few decades ago. That's the challenge of 2008 and beyond.