Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Singular Moment

It seems like we're at the watershed.

It isn't just gas prices and lack of advertising that brought us here. It's Sam Zell. Or, rather, it's Sam Zell and the Los Angeles Times.

But what a week it's been.

The Wall Street Journal looks at the Washington Post's local-local effort in Loudoun County, Va., and pronounces it a failure. The hitherto golden-child Rob Curley flees to Las Vegas, saying it's all his fault and that he tried to do local-local without actually being part of the community he was doing it for. Jon Talton weighs in, writing in part:

The Journal story says local-local "'embraces the idea that a high-school prom is as newsworthy as a debate over where to build a hospital, and that Little League deserves major-league attention. ....' This kind of sophistry was rammed down the throats of newsrooms around the country, backed by questionable research. ... I sat in countless focus groups where regular readers reacted with disdain to these schemes, while non-readers said "gee, kewl," but would still refuse to buy the paper. Yet the corporate bosses plunged ahead. ...

"Highly skilled journalists were demoralized and pushed out the door. These are the very people who could indeed compete 'with the Internet or cable TV.' To take one example, Knight-Ridder's superb Washington bureau was the only mainstream news organization to provide skeptical coverage of the run-up to the Iraq folly. And newsrooms were discouraged from compelling, high-impact coverage of local news. ... Scripps shut down the Cincinnati Post rather than try something like an Internet newspaper, with a staff of 10 top-notch journalists and propellerheads on a mission to cover real news in a fascinating but secretive city. Get this: The failure has been the business model, not real journalism."

Meanwhile, over at the current definition of journalistic evil, Tribune Co., the innovation officer Lee Abrams, famed for his rock-radio memos, has been to Baltimore and sees them saving the newspaper:

"Creating something that is both economically viable and completely engaging and credible that will delight existing fans and significantly raise the interest of occasional readers and re ignite interest among non and former readers. ... Looking overseas. That's where reinvention is happening...and circulations are often rocketing upwards. Ideas influenced by papers like Excelsior in Mexico City. Looking outside of the obvious circle for inspiration. Foreign papers are far from perfect...but they ARE trying things we aren't. And keeping our eyes outside of the traditional circle will feed ideas. ... Defining it as a Lifestyle paper. Hard news? Of course! But also tools for better living. A lot to like. The hard stuff is's all about a really modern presentation that mobilized the skills, talents and visions of a passionate group.... The paper will be smaller and more compact, BUT far more focused and engaging which at the end of the day will be more satisfying. Despite the words of the pundits, the idea is not to equate economic reality with quality loss. There's NO reason that quality can't soar in a new reality environment. Though it's understandable that an initial reaction would be that quality will decline...but only if we let it."

Fie on that, says Ken Doctor in looking at the Zellibune's cuts (not Abrams' memo specifically) in his blog Content Bridges, because it's too late, too late, nothing will help:

Tribune's Randy Michaels' "saying the papers will become more USA Today-like, with:
"a new look and feel in each market, emphasizing what people are telling us they want in the research: charts, graphs, maps, lists. ... Wow. Great solution for 1992 perhaps, 10 years after USA Today turned the newspaper world, Pleasantvillelike, from black and white to color. The problem with that is that USA Today is essentially flat last several years in circulation, and it's got a national base and multiplicity of hotel/travel programs to keep the numbers up. The biggest innovation of the last couple of years isn't the color weather map on USA Today's back page; it's Google's ability to map everything and anything, instantly -- at the customer's fingertips and choice, 24/7...."

The end of newspapers "is, at this point, inevitable anyhow. I give Michaels credit in publicly announcing some thinking about how to justify cuts, but he could have put it more simply. People and paper are our two biggest costs, and we don't have enough money to maintain current levels of spending. That's less fancy, but more to the point. ... Anyhow, the whole notion of a daily newspaper is now obsolescent. It has taken way too long to get to 24/7 newsrooms and news output, but that's what the national players -- from CNN to the New York Times to the BBC -- have adjusted to. ... The old daily paper is being -- as we watched Hillary Clinton's concession on Saturday and its instant analysis on TV and web -- replaced by the web."

Fie on that, says Fortune's Stanley Bing in his blog:

"Newspapers are dead. Dead dead dead. Yes, Rupert Murdoch doesn’t seem to believe so, but he is incorrect in this, or doesn’t see the truth right now, or whatever. Because you know newspapers? They’re dead. This is not helped at all by the appearance of Sam Zell, who bought Tribune ... and whose chief operating officer recently announced they would begin to judge the value of journalists by the column inches they produced in a year. This is sort of like saying that Chichi’s is the best restaurant in America because it serves the greatest weight in nachos. That aside, however, everybody does agree: they’re dead. One day there will be no newspapers, because No Young People Read Newspapers.

"Is this true? My kids are of sentient age. They read newspapers. In fact, they’re both knee deep in Obamamania right now, and read everything they can get their hands on. I see people reading newspapers on the street, in parks, on subways and buses… when you get a bad story in the newspaper it still ruins your day… But no. They’re dead. Know why? Because Advertising is Down in newspapers. Now of course, advertising is sort of down across the board, and actually MUCH more disappointing on all those social networks everybody loves so much… and newspapers still attract a HUGE proportion of total advertising…

"But no. Newspapers are dead. And advertisers read that and, timid little lambkins that they are, cut their budgets even more, because after all who wants to advertise in a dead medium?
Finally, newspapers are, you know, dead because they Haven’t Changed With The Times and News Is A Commodity That You Can Get Just As Well Online. Except guess what. It’s not. ...
So let’s take a breath and just agree: newspapers aren’t any deader right now than any other coughing, wheezing business in this lousy environment. Lehman is losing nearly $3 billion dollars this quarter. Nobody talks about investment banking being dead. Broadcast television just racked up more than $9.2 billion in its upfront sales season, in spite of analysts’ predictions that this year would be its last. And not one social network is really making a go of it yet."

Dead? Living? At least nearly everyone agrees: Fie on Sam Zell! Juan Giner, who advocates for smaller but better print newspapers, says: Fie on Sam Zell! A story in the New York Times said: Fie on Sam Zell! And Harold Meyerson writes on the op-ed page of the Post, which started all this by not succeeding with local-local in Loudon County:

"During his first year in journalism, Zell has visited the city rooms and Washington bureaus of a number of Trib publications to deliver obscenity-laced warnings and threats to employees that whatever it was they were doing, it wasn't working. There was too much coverage of world and national affairs, he told Times writers and editors; readers don't want that stuff. Last week, the company decreed that its 12 papers would have to cut by 500 the number of pages they devoted every week to news, features and editorials, until the ratio of pages devoted to copy and pages devoted to advertising was a nice, even 1 to 1. At the Times, that would mean eliminating 82 pages a week.

"As the company prepares to shed more reporters, it has measured writers' performances by the number of column inches of stories they ground out. It found, said one Zell executive, that the level of pages per reporter at one of Zell's smaller papers, the Hartford Courant (about 300), greatly exceeded that at the Times (about 50). As one of the handful of major national papers, however, the Times employs the kind of investigative and expert beat reporters not found at most smaller papers. I could name a number of Times writers who labored for months on stories that went on to win Pulitzers and other prizes, and whose column-inch production, accordingly, was relatively light. Doing so, I fear, would only put their necks on Zell's chopping block. So let me instead note that if The Post's Dana Priest and Anne Hull, who spent months uncovering the scandalous conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and whose reporting not only won a Pulitzer but caused a shake-up in the Army's treatment of wounded veterans, had been subjected to the Zellometer productivity index, they'd be prime candidates for termination."

I don't want to put words in Meyerson's mouth. I'm sure he feels bad for the overworked wretches at the Courant or the Newport News Daily Press or the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. But they are not his main concern. They might even be doing local-local news. The Times, the Post, the L.A. Times, the Journal, are playing the world-and-national-affairs game, and Zell comes along and says: That's not my game. Readers don't want that game. Fie!

On a side note, over at Presstime, the NAA magazine, vice president of advertising Jim Conaghan writes about reader behavior:

"The washing machine in my home was leaking badly and needed to be replaced. So I found myself in the elite category of less than 1 percent of adults who were in the market to buy a major appliance during a typical week (see chart). But all I needed to do when I returned home from the trip was pick up the Sunday newspaper in my driveway and look through the inserts. Which I did, just like 87 percent of newspaper readers."

Wow. 87 percent of newspaper readers look at the Sunday inserts. I am wondering if Jon Talton, Rob Curley, Lee Abrams, Ken Doctor, Harold Meyerson or even Stanley Bing look at the Sunday inserts. (I don't look at the Sunday inserts.)

Now to Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson, the creators of EPIC2014, writing from the National Conference for Media Reform at their blog Smarkmarket:

"When we finally got to the question-and-answer part of the session, I asked, 'What do we mean when we talk about "saving The Newspaper"?' A newspaper is actually a collection of rather disparate things, I pointed out. And I inferred from the panelists’ remarks that some of The Newspaper’s contents seem more urgent candidates for salvation than others. ... Coverage of high school football games, political punditry, and breezy trend stories, for example — all typical and significant components of many newspapers — might not be in any danger of imminent death. Nor, some would argue, might Democracy suffer much if they were. Yet [outgoing Newspaper Guild chairman] Linda Foley speaks of 2,500 journalists leaving the industry last year as though each of them was out on the streets exposing slumlords and investigating groundwater quality.

"Serious, detailed, local, investigative journalism is a relatively small component of what composes the modern newspaper. As is nuanced, context-rich news analysis. Or even probing coverage of school district developments, city council meetings, business mergers, etc. All of these things used to sit rather innocuously alongside the flood of rehashed national and international briefs, crime reports, traffic accidents, weather updates, game recaps, home decor tips, pizza coupons, casserole recipes, movie reviews, and gossip columns that make up your typical newspaper. But I suspect the union of all these types of content in a single package has always been something of a shotgun wedding.

"And in the age of the long tail, there are fewer and fewer reasons why a cobbled-together Frankenstein monster like The Newspaper should exist. If what we want to ask is 'How can we save serious, detailed, local investigative journalism?' then I suspect we can have a more focused and productive conversation if we actually asked that question. Ditto if the question is 'How can we make sure the local school board meeting is covered?' When folks rightly say that there’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all answer to the problems plaguing journalism, it’s because we lack even a one-size-fits-all question. 'How do we save The Newspaper?' certainly isn’t it."

I suspect they don't like Sam Zell either. If they were commenting on him, they would say: Fie! And they may not read the inserts. Sloan and Thompson do need to admit the possibility of asking the question: How do we save the newspaper? Because that question can be asked just as legitimately as: How do we save serious journalism? But they are right in saying: These are not just different ways of asking the same question. These are different questions, and if we try to find one answer that will satisfy everyone, we will fail. The watershed is deciding what questions each of us wants to answer.

In an earlier post Sloan and Thompson, like Ken Doctor, said: Why are we still having the same conversations we were having 12 years ago? Because we're not really having a conversation about the same thing. We're talking about:
1) The package -- the newspaper -- as a product, whether in print or online, vs. news coverage. If news can be conveyed instantly, is there any purpose for something that does not convey news instantly?
2) What the typical newspaper customer wants from the product vs. what the heavy news reader wants from some source or product. Does the product have any purpose apart from journalism? If 87 percent read the inserts, are the inserts nevertheless irrelevant?
3) What constitutes journalism, what constitutes news, what constitutes information.
4) Is journalism too important to be entrusted to newspaper owners?

We THINK we're talking about the same thing -- the future of newspapers -- but we're not. We're talking about whether a newspaper exists to produces a consumer product that contains journalism, and/or whether it exists to enable journalism and all the other stuff is there to be thrown over the side if necessary. We're talking about economically supporting a product of varied news and advertising and/or economically supporting a watchdog group on the powerful and on civic matters. We're talking about space and time to investigate Walter Reed and/or putting space and time into local-local news. We're talking about whether the Web is just so superior in letting people access movie reviews that everything else just needs to give up, and/or whether a staff position can be given to a movie critic if that means that someone is not looking into the financing of the housing authority. We're talking about whether readers want a union of world briefs, marriage licenses, garden columns and Macy's ads from a newspaper and/or whether they want the I-Team.

And what makes the conversation harder is that some people are seeing those questions as "or" and some are seeing them as "and." Lee Abrams says there's lots that can be done to save newspapers. Ken Doctor says nothing can be done to save newspapers. Some say newspapers are not worth saving unless they concentrate their fullest resources on their highest calling. Others say newspapers are a viable product regardless. We get business arguments conflated with moral arguments conflated with professional self-definition arguments conflated with past/future arguments. No wonder we can't figure out what to do. We can't figure out what we want to do. Maybe we need to accept that we used to all live in the same house, and now we can't anymore.

I've gone on too long, and I am about to write something praising some remarks of Dean Singleton's, which will totally discredit me for some, so ... more to come.

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