Friday, June 13, 2008

The Singular Moment, Part II

More on advertising: I haven't found the link yet, but May's Presstime also reported that among young people newspaper inserts were the second-most-favored method of researching purchases. Link TK. Alan Mutter reports today that the cost of printing may increase ROP advertising -- and thus newsprint space. And a study by Google seems to indicate that for at least some readers, internet shopping works better with newspaper advertising. As the article notes, "Yet, it may suggest that newspaper and Web work best when working together."

As noted, today's topic is W. Dean Singleton, and even to in some places praise him, which can be a hard thing to do. Dean is like the old Thomson chain -- even when they were doing the right thing, you wondered what they were hiding and you feared it couldn't last. The headline on Dean's speech at the WAN conference in Stockholm was that 19 of the top 50 U.S. newspapers were losing money. (For years journalists have railed about obscene profit margins and money-grubbing management. Now, papers are being kept alive by their owners despite no profits, and journalists are railing about money-grubbing management.)

But back to Dean, who noted (here is his speech) that the only industries as challenged as newspapers are airlines and -- yes -- department stores. (It's good to know we're still joined at the hip and are going to hell together.) He adds:

"Despite the growth of radio beginning in the 1930’s and TV in the 1950’s, we continued to enjoy growth in revenue even if our market share declined. Life was good. But in the 1990’s something began to change for us.

"Was it the proliferation of cable news channels, the inexorable trend toward two-wage earners per household working outside the home, time pressed lifestyles, the emergence of the Internet, or the explosion and fragmentation of all forms of media? Was it the consequence of consolidation in our industry, combined with public ownership and subsequent pressure from institutional and large shareholders? It was all of these factors."

It may seem obvious for Dean to note this, but Dean is right to note once again that our problems didn't begin with broadband or this generation of young people. Market share has been declining since the 1960s and circulation has been declining since the 1980s and we didn't care because we kept charging more money for advertising. Of course, Dean was among those who did that. But he was far from alone.

He goes on: "The merger of Macy’s and May Co. resulted in substantial consolidation of department store print spending. The merger of Sears and K-Mart had the same effect. Newspaper advertising from all general merchandisers has declined by 20% across the industry over the past 5 years, and within that category, department store spending has declined even more steeply." (And Wal-mart barely even advertises in newspapers.)

"In the national advertising category, revenue is down almost 30% from last year. In better times, we enjoyed brand advertising from General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. We also benefited from the wave of growth in telecommunications products, such as cell phones, long distance services and Internet access. But as you know, the telecom industry has succumbed to a surge of consolidation, hitting hard our ad revenue form this important category."

It's not just that newspaper advertising is down. All kinds of advertising are down. Read Advertising Age long enough and you will read "Death of Advertising" stories. But Dean wants to keep the presses rolling.

"At MediaNews, we believe in print. Our newspapers and partnerships have, in the past two years, invested almost half a billion dollars in new, modern and efficient printing and mailroom plants. Why? Because these investments help make our core more efficient as revenue is challenged. Efficiency in our core product is a key building block in our new strategy, because our core newspapers fund our growth of new business. ..."

I believe in anyone who believes in print. But Dean then wanders into the newsroom:

"We have also been more creative about how content is produced, with an emphasis on maintaining quality and localness while sharing resources among newspapers and on making these changes transparent to the reader. ... In San Francisco, we have consolidated reporting and editing functions to eliminate costly duplication, just as we’ve merged production, administration, accounting and circulation of our newspapers. And in Los Angeles, we’re merging functions of our nine dailies in areas of news, production, accounting, advertising, circulation and administration. And in most of our newsrooms, we’re eliminating costly infrastructures as we protect our core news gathering functions and expand online staffing."

We know this means, in general, that instead of reporters from Pasadena, the Valley, Long Beach and Torrance covering the Los Angeles County government, one reporter is covering Los Angeles county government. And "costly infrastructures" mean "copy editors, layout editors, graphic artists..." So, yeah, as a journalist, this is the point at which I stop praising Dean for his clear-eyed realism, his investments in print, his willingness to see a future for newspapers, and say: Hey, Dean, stop goring my ox. I love my ox. Go lay off some more pressmen.

Dean does know how to end a speech, though, with a rousing call to arms:

"... We must not lose sight of why we’re in business in the first place and why ensuring a dynamic future for newspapers is so important. Sure, economic performance is important. After all, without solid earnings you can’t fund future growth. But there is also a greater calling to us all.
Newspapers are the cornerstone of democracies everywhere. We owe it to our countries to succeed in navigating a new newspaper model.

"So this 400-year-old industry has been a leader since the first newspapers were formed in this country … we were there before government … we are the model for emerging democracies even today … and we can be on the cutting edge of the new social revolution that’s before us now … … if we stay true to the role we are meant to play.

"If we print what our readers … not what we … want. If we discard our arrogance and old ideas. If we let our readers participate. There is more at stake here than our economic fortunes. The old newspaper model, without major changes, is destined to fail. Paired with a revolutionary new model, we can succeed. If we fail, democracy fails. Failure is not an option."

You can parse that one backward and forward, but let's take Dean at his word. He's based in Denver, so he could have made his money in Chipotle franchises. Something has kept him coming back to newspapers. Why not the same thing that all journalists believe, that we're doing this for the good of mankind? And Dean, bless his well-brought-up Texas soul, knows enough not to say "fuck" to meetings of journalists. So whatever he said here, he can relax knowing that it's Sam Zell they're after this year, not him.

No, our problem with Dean isn't with his motivations. It's not with whether he centralizes call centers or lays off pressmen. Our problem with Dean, with Sam, with Tony Ridder, with Gannett, comes down in the end to one sentence the always praiseworthy Rem Rieder says in his response to Zell's byline count plan:

"The contribution of staffers is measured by the quality of their work."

Rem is a wonderful writer and editor and is a realistic man. But he is saying: What we do can't be measured quantitatively. And who can measure quality? People who understand quality. Thus, I would hear Rem saying, we are the best judges of what we do.

If the measure of my work is quality, and the people who can measure quality are myself and my peers, and I know that the sort of work I and my peers do and want to do is quality work ... Dean, just sit down and write some checks. Your ideas are not welcome.

And if we are the definers of quality, and if the public says something like, we want shorter stories on routine matters, thus fewer (not no) jumps, and someone says (as someone with a swath of major prizes always will) that if we give that to them, we are diminishing quality... then one who disagrees risks automatic definition as a Philistine. That's at the far edge. We know most people in a newsroom do not live there. We know some do. We know how that can block any sort of change in a newsroom, whether it's for print, for online, for anything.

Yes, when we talk about the "Death of Newspapers," we're not all talking about the same thing. We're talking about newspapers and journalism and how and whether they're linked. We're talking about some people who love print and some people who don't give a damn about it and pr0bably hated it before there was an alternative. We're talking about whether democracy can in the end be served by a company that has to make money or whether journalism should be a publicly funded good like NPR. We're talking about whether reporting on high school soccer games is information or news or journalism and whether journalists should have to be involved in it. About whether resources spent on sizing engagement photos mean fewer resources spent asking Scott McClellan, "Why did you lie?" Whether quality is our only criterion. And whether Wal-mart will ever run ads with us. Questions that didn't matter much when it looked as if newspapers would keep having more and more money endlessly.

That's a hell of a lot for an economically challenged industry to deal with. So those of us who believe in newspapers may have to position ourselves away from those who believe that newspapers are irrelevant or revanchist or have too many distractions from journalism. We may just have to say, we're trying to save newspapers, with an online component and a mobile component sure, but we're saving newspapers as a product that has this and that and the other, that creates and binds a community, and that means not just saving but enhancing our core product instead of abandoning it as a carcass to feed senile wolves. We believe in the end that this will be good and that if we fail, some part of democracy is lessened. We have common ground with Dean Singleton and we think that a newspaper put on a better financial basis might be able to afford more reporters to cover Los Angeles county government, but if one reporter speaking to thousands of newspaper readers is what we can do today, it's not wrong because it's not optimal. If that's not where you are, fine, seek your happiness, but we're not going to listen to "newspapers are dead" anymore. And we aren't Philistines because of it.

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