Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Why We Fight

When I started this blog it was in part because I thought it might be interesting to show the parallel fortunes of newspapers and department stores, and because, like any other blogger, I had the solipsistic attitude that what I said might actually make a difference. But my final motivation was that I just don't like meanness and name-calling. And I was tired of reading blog after blog whose underlying message was: "You people who aren't totally getting it are so stupid! There's nothing you can do to save your precious outmoded obsolete print newspapers that absolutely no one reads anymore except for the 75 million losers who still do! Just die and get out of our way!" It just seemed that if we were all united by our belief in journalism, that saying there might be a purpose in trying to save, by rethinking, print newspapers' role might play a part in that. But the people who felt that way were being drowned out by people screaming, "Idiots! Revanchist morons! There is only one future!"

Whenever I hear that there is only one possible future, entsichere ich meinen Browning. So I launched myself into the fray.

Mark Potts at Recovering Journalist felt the need to launch a Jeremiad. (I've done my own.) In his condemnation of a class he calls Printies, he wrote:

"Call these dangerous dinosaurs Printosaurus Rex. Or, for short: Printies. Printies exist throughout the newspaper business, but they're most pernicious in the executive suite, where they continue to hold back intelligent, aggressive digital development. You know the type: They rhapsodize about how nice it is to be able to hold news in their hands as they read it. They tend to wear expensive suits and drive nice cars, paid for in better times. They declaim about never reading blogs. They may have a Facebook profile–but no friends. (But they don't hesitate to hold forth on their "expertise" about Facebook.) They spend money on inane print promotions but don't bother to market their Web sites.

"They print out their e-mail.

"Rather than firmly embracing and investing in the digital future, Printies are doing everything they can to preserve the dead-tree product they're so comfortable with, even at comical expense. They do crazy things like investing in printing plants. They fear the immediacy of the Web, leading to unfortunate memos that mandate paper-first publication (fortunately, cooler heads often prevail on these). They demand prominent "Subscribe to the print edition" links on the top of their Web sites. Truthfully, do these idiotic links really sell papers? Enough to justify that prime placement? I think not."

It was the part about printing out e-mail that got me, in part because I remembered a blog post from some conference -- I tried to find it, couldn't, trust me, it existed -- where a tech-savvy member of an audience was listening to a print reader whose issue with online newspapers was how she was going to save the recipes. After hearing her ask twice what she was going to do without being able to cut the recipes out of the paper, the blogger exploded (either internally or externally) into a huffy "Just print them out, for God's sake!"

Potts is not referring to recipes, but apparently the solution offered to this woman would qualify as a printie remedy as well. She should simply move them into her "recipes" folder and then call them up on her laptop next to the range.

I get more than 100 e-mails per day, and I might print out one or two -- to put on a pile marked "deal with this in coming days." I know I could put them into a folder called "Deal with this in coming days" in Outlook and then access it from my mobile device. I also know I can scan through a bunch of printouts on my desk easier than I can scan the contents of a computer folder. But I am sure Potts is thinking of some executive somewhere who prints out all of his e-mail to read it (or perhaps even still has a secretary to print it out). So I was not personally offended. I just asked myself:

Why does it make so much difference how we use technology? Any technology exists to be used. It does not exist to mandate any use. If I print out my e-mails and read them, what possible difference can it make to you? It is not the same as saying, "I will only respond to letters sent through the U.S. Mail." If I like to read them on paper, and if I respond to them, why is that subject to your condemnation? In the 1980s, if I never set the time on my VCR clock and only used it to watch prerecorded tapes, you might sneer and think that I was not getting as much out of something I paid money for that I could, but if I was satisifed, who cares?

If I think there is a future in printed newspapers and want to spend my company's money building printing plants, whether I am Hearst or Murdoch, you might say I am making a questionable business decision, you might not want to put your money on my marker. Do I deserve the scorn of "comical expense," of such phrases as "harebrained schemes to propagate the print product through laughable 'e-editions'"? Am I not presumably doing this because I, like you, believe in journalism and want to ensure its future?

After throwing invectives around the room, Potts answers that question:

"In clinging to their legacy print products at all costs, they invariably starve development of the innovative digital products that have the best chance to save the industry."

In other words: Money is tight, and if you take the money for your project, we don't have it for ours, and I think your project is stupid and mine isn't. And your project is stupid because you print out your e-mail and so you're stupid. Only those who embrace every new technology to its fullest know what's really going on. I hold the trump card. Give me the money and go away.

Well, Potts got some interesting comments. On e-editions:

"The main reason the newspaper industry is pumping out PDFs is that libraries and the Library of Congress now wants them instead of the mailed paper product. It saves shovel-loads of money, which as taxpayers we all should applaud, and newspapers are required to file their copies with the LC to keep their copyrights. ... As an historian who uses these records from time to time, I truly love PDF versions of newspapers and books. I have spent too many hours reading microfilm and microfiche in a backlit reader not to be really jealous of a generation that has easy and efficient searches of mounds of documents."

A reader identified as "A" spoke up in support of print, admittedly not terribly convincingly, to which Pat Thornton, who as noted here before can be an angry man, responded:

"You're an idiot."

A writer known as Working Journalist, who tends to write at great length as I do, probably to our mutual detriment, noted:

"Ease up on the condescension, Mark. It adds nothing to the debate and alienates people who should be learning from your views. ... I agree with you that the reluctance by many managers to let go of print has hampered digital innovation. There are also 'digital idealists' at papers, people who seize on every new e-gadget and insist that the newspaper must embrace it, even if it offers no obvious new journalistic or financial benefit. They, too, are a problem. Newspapers are poorly served both by blind traditionalism and by blind idealism....

"A pragmatist looking at the print product would not simply abandon it, nor scoff at its fans. At most newspapers, the print product delivers more than 90 percent -- 90 percent! -- of total revenue, and effectively delivers news and ads to tens or hundreds of thousands of readers. By no measure is this technology obsolete or irrelevant.

"On the other hand, we have electronic media of many types, many still evolving. The potential of these media is obvious and exciting, with the possibility of delivering news and advertising to thousands, millions -- billions! -- and permitting a radical new form of interactive journalism that we're only beginning to imagine. But, so far, the new model doesn't make money -- or not much....

"A pragmatic view -- what I called the 'accountant's' view at Mutter's site -- would be to base newspaper business decisions not on tradition nor on promises of a new era dawning, but on hard data: income and loss. The next steps forward should lead clearly toward solvency; otherwise they're not worth taking. It does us no good to create an exciting new kind of journalism if it comes with an eviction notice. Let's look at how we can make more money and commit better journalism using all the tools in the box. ...

"We are poorly served by divisive posts mocking those who cling to traditional journalism, or dismissing those seeking a new path. We need to work together to find business models that can demonstrate, with hard numbers, an ability to succeed in a capitalist economy."

And Howard Owens, who gave me needed guidance in the early days of this blog, added in terms of the "subscribe here" link:

"When I ran the Ventura County Star Web site, we did a little redesign and removed the 'subscribe' link. The circulation director came to me immediately and said, 'What are you doing to me?' He had in his hand a printout showing the Web site was generating about 20 new subscribers per month. Now that was a few years ago, but why should we make it hard for people to find a way to subscribe to our most profitable product on our Web sites?

"Us Onlinies always argue that we shouldn't force people into getting news how we think they should get news -- so why shouldn't we make it easy for them to get the print edition if that's what they want? Some of our readers, even ones who visit our Web sites, really still do prefer print. And the same can be said for the PDF version.

"I'm also one who doesn't believe online is going to kill print. The decline of print started long before there was a Web, driven by forces that have little to do with technology. Those forces have much to do with more choices (which yes, does include the Internet now), changing lifestyles, a more mobile (less rooted) culture, and problems with journalism itself (core, deep problems). The more troubling trends are driven by declining readership along generational lines, which goes back 80 years and has nothing to do with the Web.

"To say that all of our efforts should be concentrated on the Web is just as hidebound as the attitudes of the worst of the Printies."

I was waiting to someone to answer: "You're an idiot." I guess Howard's reputation prevented that. Or the fact that he used his real name.

The Daily Telegraph in England has started printing on the presses of the Times. The reason is that Rupert Murdoch invested in presses that will allow printing of color on every page. The London newspapers see color on every page as essential to print's future. That might be called enhancing and exploiting technology. Or it might be called being a dinosaur. ("The right idea for -- 1975!") If we have a tool at our disposal that we know a lot about, the printed newspaper, why not use and exploit it along with using the other tools we now have? Oh, because if we didn't you'd have more money to work with what you want to work with.

I started this blog because I was tired of feeling as if I really were an idiot for believing that print had a place in journalism's future whatever else the future holds. Now I'm even more glad for those -- Duncan, Giner, Owens, Garcia, Fisher, Jacobson, Picard, and many more whose blogs I simply don't read or don't know of, or who don't blog because they have more humility than I do -- who despite their many differences keep the focus on the world as we find it and not on who's the bitchin'est futurist in the room.

3 comments:

Wendy said...

What an a--hole. I couldn't agree more. Insults get him nowhere.

What it comes down to for me is that I just can't imagine curling up with my computer to catch up on the news. I need some paper thing. Call me old-fashioned.

The Web has its place. But I object to posters who appear not to have had any journalism background -- who aren't aware of responsible practices in reporting and editing. If that's lost, well, so much for the First Amendment. Bush is trying to gut our constitutional rights as it is; why help him out? He'a almost outta here.

Kim said...

I'm committing the classic Internet commenter sin by not actually reading the blog post you are referring to... But from what you've posted, I'm on your side. I'm not sure how this guy uses newspapers, online or print, and apparently whatever he's doing works for him. But some of us have extended faraway families who furiously mail ( yes, through the U.S. Postal Service) local newspaper clippings back and forth to share the news. My family also has a Yahoo group where we post family photos and chat back and forth. But we like to keep in contact with actual paper letters. It's old-fashioned? Sure, and the oldest generation of the family isn't comfortable with any other way. But I'm only 26, and I enjoy it too.

I may be biased, being a print newspaper reporter, but it's equally as short-sighted to say that the print product is dead as it is to cling to the thought that it is the only edition.

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