Friday, June 6, 2008

The Hammer and the Nail

Busy, busy, busy. Back at work.

If newspapers have been department stores, alt-weeklies have grown from head shops into -- the Harvard Co-op? Whatever they are, they spent a good bit of the 1990s taking shots at their daily brethren. They may have been the original ones kvetching about the shortcomings of the MSM -- how their ability to write with a point of view allowed them to get at a greater truth about a story.

Turns out, though, they're just another challenged print media hurt by the defection of classifieds. They've been having their convention in Philadelphia, and they know the answer:

"'We write for intelligent readers,' says Tony Ortega, editor of The Village Voice, the oldest and most historic alt-weekly. 'Dailies cater to people who don’t like to read. Look at the way they’re written.'...

"'You hear talk that dailies will publish less frequently,' says Dan Kennedy, media critic and longtime contributor to The Boston Phoenix. 'That they’ll go free and encourage writers to express themselves openly. They’re talking about what alt newspapers have been doing for decades.'"

To the carpenter, any problem can be solved with the right wood.

But no, says Tribune Co., it's not wood, it's metal:

"1. We are not giving readers what they want, and 2. We are printing bigger papers than we can afford to print. First, our publishing business -- and to reiterate, it IS a business -- needs to retool itself to a customer-centric model. We have now reviewed dozens of reader studies done by Tribune over the years, and they present clear and consistent findings. Readers want:* Unbiased, honest journalism* LOCAL consumer and community news* Maps, graphics, lists, ranking and stats."

So bring in the nuts and bolts and throw out the nails and wood glue. But wait. Maybe it's wallboard and a molly bolt. To my former colleague Dave Lieber, a longtime leader in the newspaper columnists' association, the answer is: Columnists.

"In the end, all that will be left for a newspaper is, I believe, the marketing of its brand name personalities. In York, Pa., future billboards should say, 'We've got Mike Argento and nobody else does.' In Massachusetts, when you click on a paper's Web site (or whatever the eventual preferred medium is) a video image of self-syndicated columnist Terry Marotta should pop up and say, 'Today, I'm going to tell you a story about how one of your neighbors. . .' The personality is what will give the dying product life. Personality sells. Personality is the print equivalent to 'must-see TV.' Personality delivers the unexpected."

But maybe it isn't the building material. Maybe it's the size of the house, as Juan Giner and the Innovation team roll out a proposed new size format for newspapers (their copyright (c) 2008 Bermer/Innovation hereby noted)

"Short and deep. Newsy. Smart. Sharp. Less of More. More of Less. Analytical. Easy to read.

We know that when the hammer looks at a problem, it sees a nail as the solution. The alt-weekly sees alt-weekly writing as the solution. The businessman sees fewer pages and more lists as the solution. The columnist sees columns as the solution. The format designer sees format as the solution.

But look at the common areas. The businessman says readers want unbiased, honest journalism. The alt-weekly says, we've been providing honest journalism, unlike the dailies.

The columnist says he wants personality. The designer says he wants smart, sharp, analytical.

The designer says he wants "less of more, more of less." The businessman says he wants fewer pages.

The businessman says readers want more lists. The alt-weekly has been providing pages of lists for decades.

Great areas of common ground. Yet often an inability to find it. Because behind it all lies pride and fear as well: "Journalism ain't widgets.... Important stories take longer than less important stories. Analysis takes longer than stenography."

The answer may be to use nails and molly bolts and metal screws and at the same time redesign the building. But the carpenter is darn good with those nails. He's spent years honing his craft. A building that isn't composed mainly of studs and nails just doesn't seem like the sort of building he wants to work on. The metal worker sees returning to lumber as falling back to the past. Both may see wallboard as a cheap substitute for their own labor. And none of them really wants to hear, "The size house you guys have been building for years is wrong."

We all want a solution for the future. We just want a solution that lets us keep doing what we want to do the way we want to do it.

Tribune Co. is getting nailed today and will keep getting nailed because it hit one of the third rails of journalism, byline counts. Byline counts can be pernicious. They can be done stupidly. Obviously every reporter sees them as a threat. Analyzing what your employees are doing in terms of what readers want from your product is not stupid. Analyzing why employees at operation A do X amount of work and employees at operation B do Y, particularly if operation A is doing better than B in terms of reader satisfaction, is not stupid. It does fly in the face of the journalistic belief that you go from A to B so that you can do Y and not X -- that operation B is for the kids and the untalented, but operation A is real journalism.

As said here before: If great journalism was the only answer, we'd be wallowing in money today.


Anonymous said...

And what if the answer is that readers in one region or city want one thing and readers in another region want something else? Complicates matters a little more, huh?
I've never been sure that there is a one-size-fits-all solution. If everyone everywhere wanted the same newspaper — or Web site — alternative weeklies wouldn't exist.

Phillip Blanchard said...

Newsy. Smart. Sharp. Less of More. More of Less. Analytical.

*** By "newsy" I think they mean that the newspaper should have stuff in it that's like news, but not exactly like it. The rest is gibberish. ***