Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Sixth Floor, Another Blog

Pat Thornton of Stars and Stripes has a blog -- you can't be a newsroom technology master without a blog -- called The Journalism Iconoclast, which consists of the same collection of looks at the future and rants about the backwardness of most newspaper staffs found on many blogs of newspaper technology masters. That's not a snark; it's just a fact, the same as how many comments by newspaper journalists who don't have their own blogs simply rant about these young pups and how they don't know anything and don't respect their elders. What we have here is a failure to communicate, as this posting by Pat shows, speaking to the Bowden Literary Journalistic Model; there's a value-system conflict, and its lack of resolution is killing the self-confidence of newsrooms just as much as declining ad revenue.

(It's finally starting to sink into my brain that, just as journalism-as-excellence-in-storytelling was seen in the 1960s and 1970s as the newspaper's proper answer to the problems of disruptive technology -- television confronting the boring, stodgy newspaper -- journalism-as-information is seen in the 2000s as the newspaper's proper answer to the problems of disruptive technology -- the Web confronting the boring, stodgy newspaper. The difference seems to be that some of today's critics don't expect the journalist getting onto his steed, free lance in hand, coming back to present the truth, to save the world. They expect the free exchange of information among everyone, enabled by journalists, to save the world. They have more trust in "everyone" than we did.)

Anyhow, Pat can be an angry man, as naming a blog "The Journalism Iconoclast" would indicate. But Pat knows the department store-newspaper link, and wrote a post called "Newspapers are the new general stores" touching on the department store theme. He notes that the problem with big stores -- he uses Woolworth's as a model, then compares it to Wal-Mart -- to say:

"Google, in a sense, is a general store for information. The thing is that Google has a lot of information, just as those gigantic Wal-Marts have a lot of items for sale. A Woolworth is about the size of one department in Wal-Mart." (Some downtown and mall Woolworths were much bigger, but a lot of neighborhood ones were not.)

"Wal-Mart combined the general store idea with a niche — really low prices on non-dollar store goods. ... Google has a niche too; it’s the easiest way to make sense of information and find information on the Web. There is just so much information on the Web that someone had to come along to help us sort through it.

"The thing is, most newspapers don’t have a niche. They're just like Woolworth. They do a lot of things OK, sometimes even relatively well, but excel at nothing. And without a niche, they’ll be overtaken by competitors who cover those individual areas better. ... I used to buy pet fish supplies at Woolworth when I was a kid, but now I can get a much better selection and better prices at Petsmart.

"Sure most dailies have local news, regional news, national news, international news, sports, business, technology, etc., but few excel in any of those areas. Think about how many newspapers still have film critics and even auto critics.

"These movie/entertainment and auto sections are nowhere near the caliber of niche outlets like or (or Car and Driver magazine). With the Web, why would I want to consume inferior, cursory content? I don’t. Many newspapers still operate like there aren’t strong niche competitors."

There's to me a small bit of incoherence to this -- how does Wal-Mart exist, then? Not everyone wants a niche store and many people want everything in one place, even with less selection -- but truth as well. Up until the 1960s department stores could say they offered everything because they offered a high enough percentage of everything to justify the claim. If the basic differences in refrigerators were brand name and size, it was easy to cover the market.

Here was the department store's conundrum: Once you had myriad options (side by side! icemakers! water through the door! silver doors!) from each manufacturer, the space you had to devote to a representative sample of what was available became more larger, to the point where you were making, comparatively, nothing on refrigerators. You could make more money per square foot by selling something else, with a higher markup, in that place. In addition, you could never fully compete with the big-box appliance store's selection.

So you got out of the refrigerator business and used the space for china or clothing or something that you made more money on. But now the customer who was shopping for a refrigerator had no reason to come into your store. Not so bad with a line like refrigerators, perhaps, that aren't bought every day; but the smaller your breadth of goods became, the fewer the number of customers who came into your store. And you had a massive infrastructure to support.

Newspapers have been facing exactly the same problem with stock listings, TV books and the like; space is valuable because it is limited, and while you could once round up the entire TV schedule in three columns, now you would have to devote three pages to it. So you cut back from that field, but the customer who mainly turned to the newspaper for complete TV schedules then no longer buys the newspaper, and is exposed to nothing else in it.

The department store's problem was not that it lost the people who came into the store to buy TV antennas; it lost the people who came into the store to buy TV antennas and then bought a shirt, buttons, shoes and a toaster oven while they were there. Newspapers similarly are losing the people who read the whole paper, but whose main reason for buying it was to check how AT&T was doing that day. (Journalists have the additional problem of not understanding that readers might buy the paper simply to do the Cryptoquote, and of disdaining them as a result.)

But while newspapers do have mediocre content -- and most newspapers do have the local-news niche; we somehow always end up making the top 40 metro dailies stand for all 1,300 daily newspapers -- I am not sure that the real issue is "inferior, cursory content." Much of what newspapers offer is good. The problem for Pat is not quality, but quantity. A newspaper can review a movie, but it only offers one review. Before the Web it could have tried to assemble a "movie page" in which it put together everything it knew about the movie business that day, but if you really, really care about movies you can do this yourself and see more than the newspaper could ever have presented -- because information now is theoretically limitless. Much of that content is going to be inferior and cursory, of course, usually more so than what the newspaper ran; but if you're really into it, do you care? Or do you just want: More. Indeed, feeling that you individually are so informed as to knowingly separate wheat from chaff is part of the emotional payback of the Web.

One of the roles of department stores from the 1930s to 1960s was trying to elevate middle-class taste. Pat is right that most newspapers don't need film critics these days; what we used to call middle-class taste barely exists now. (You either have inculcated what Pauline Kael was saying and gone on from there, or you don't give a damn. In the 1960s there really was a mass of people who wanted to be more sophisticated but had no idea how to go about it. Newspapers and department stores played a huge role in that process. Now, you get it from an early age or you don't.)

What newspapers do need is a film writer who tells the general reader what's new, culls from descriptions of it, and also writes about the local film community -- who's making independent movies, who's trying to establish a film series -- letting the newspaper be a leader in convening the community and enlarging it. And yes, this can operate as well in both the print and online environments. But for large papers, would the theaters stop advertising if you weren't reviewing their products?

In any event, it again shows that the problem facing newspapers is that there is no Problem Facing Newspapers. There are myriad problems in which people argue over which piece of the newspaper bundle they in particular care about.

1 comment:

lsm said...

Personally I'd rather read what 5 Joe Schmoes have to say about the movie (if it's not just some troll flaming the review site) than what a newspaper's movie critic or two say about it. The trick is to read a 1-, 3-, and 5-star review for it at some movie site.

But anyway I'm done with this blog until it gets a crossword.