So much of what happens in the newspaper business is terribly sad, and one does not wish to offend by appearing to be disregarding someone's trauma. We've been down this road in our own shop.
From a story on this round of cuts at Newsday:
"The whole history of this being a great national paper, this is definitely the death knell," said one shell-shocked insider.
I remember admiring Newsday when I was younger. It was the great newspaper success story of the postwar era. I remember reading of the legendary Community Affairs Department and how it could answer any question or problem relating to Long Island. I remember being told that one of the things that made Newsday great was that every reporter had some local jurisdiction to cover; you might be the national military reporter, but you were still responsible for some local piece of real estate as well. You had to stay connected to local news and government on Long Island, and that this lasted until the paper started opening national and foreign bureaus. Those things might be apocryphal or overstated.
But in the 1970s, what seemed to me to make Newsday great was that it was the best local newspaper in the country. Nothing moved in Long Island to which Newsday did not pay attention. And that attention was paid by some of the best reporting and editing vision in the country.
Thus I looked forward to reading Robert F. Keeler's history, "Newsday: A Candid History of the Respectable Tabloid." And it is a thorough history, warts and all, even though it is copyright by Newsday itself and was published in 1990. But it presents the world view as Newsday saw it then.
And that world view was: Newsday had grown beyond being a Long Island newspaper. Newsday was too good of a newspaper to be confined to covering Long Island. Newsday could compete with the Times and the Post on selected international and national news and could be a New York City newspaper as well. Newsday was a playah.
As one mention of zoning put it: "The need to fill these daily and weekly regionals has created a demand for the kind of local stories that most of these new reporters thought they had outgrown before they came to Newsday. ... 'I didn't come to Newsday to write stories for 40,000 people,' one Long Island reporter said."
And of course, in terms of the ability of its editors and writers, it could compete with any newspaper. It was one of the country's 10 best. But had the readers outgrown those stories? Or was it just that journalists had?
That's not to closed-mindedly defend 1980s-style Neighbors. As noted, what Newsday made its reputation on in the 1950s and 1960s was "trying to broaden out stories: If something happened in Islip, the editors pushed reporters to find out if the same thing was happening in other towns and write a story that was interesting to people beyond that community."
By the 1980s, Newsday's increasing focus, as the book makes clear, was on being seen as a viable newspaper in New York City and as a rival of the L.A. Times, the Globe, the Inquirer as a journalistic heavyweight in that just-below-the-Times-Post-Journal category. That doesn't mean it neglected hard-hitting coverage of Long Island. That meant that it saw its focus broadening beyond Long Island. We all thought this was good. Heck, back then, if we could have figured a way that the Opelika Daily News could have done national reporting, we would have thought that was good. A newspaper owed it to its readers to put its own staff to work on the biggest stories of the day, whatever and wherever they were. After all, weren't readers buying the paper for the work of the newspaper's staff?
But along the way, readers had to start asking themselves: Just what is Newsday, anyway? It's not the Times and it's not the Southampton Press.
Newsday's increasing focus on covering the city, the nation and the world and its confusion about how to cover the suburbs would have been more understandable if it was a typical city newspaper trying to cope with the 1980s. But it was a suburban newspaper.
Yes, the suburbs were changing, becoming more like the city. But still, much of the staff didn't go there to cover the suburbs. And the customers are like us, right?
I know far less about the Los Angeles Daily News, whose recent travails are summarized here. It seems to me that the Daily News has kept its original identity far more -- down to supporting an effort to have the San Fernando Valley secede from Los Angeles. (Way deep in this story, if you want to look.) It has had to bear the burden of covering a gigantic home base that has no independent municipal identity.
I remember seeing it when it was the Valley News & Green Sheet, with the section fronts on green paper and little but local press releases. (A Wikipedia entry notes: "The Green Sheet name is used today as an insult by veterans of the Los Angeles Times to refer to the days when classified ads outnumbered the pages of news, and when the newspaper was given away for free.")
Tribune Co. bought the paper, made it more professional, sold it to Jack Kent Cooke, and now it is in the hands of Dean Singleton. No defense of Singleton's management techniques will be found here. And editor Ron Kaye clearly has the admiration of much of his staff.
Still. At some point the newspaper stopped thinking of itself as the "Valley News" and started thinking of itself as the "Los Angeles Daily News." Perhaps that was just to help the advertising department. Kaye noted that the paper would try to "plug along as an alternative to the Times" even with a newsroom down to 100 people.
One has to ask in utter ignorance: Did the readers of the Daily News want a "Los Angeles" Daily News? Or was it the people who worked there? Clearly putdowns from the L.A. Times rankled. Did their customers want a journalistic alternative to the Times -- or did they want a paper about the Valley? Maybe they got both. As I said, I know very little about the Daily News. And with these cutbacks as well as more in Boston, it is another sad week in the newspaper business.
But this morning I got a letter from a reader who was upset because in a story we had referred to a lettered street (like X Street) as a lettered avenue (like Avenue X), and questioned our overall reporting chops and probably our parentage as a result. I know no reporter, editor or newspaper wants to get anything wrong. I also know that journalists in general would see that as a small fact that does not impinge on the meaning of the larger story. The reader doesn't know much about our story, but he knows it's not Avenue X. He wants to know we care about his world. So I know we don't think like readers.
Friday, February 29, 2008
So much of what happens in the newspaper business is terribly sad, and one does not wish to offend by appearing to be disregarding someone's trauma. We've been down this road in our own shop.
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
(For those keeping up, I've added some links to the last post. Particularly good was the link on Sattler's, so I'm repeating it here.)
So, where do we find department stores heading in the late 1980s?
Many of them were trying to find the customer base they wanted to have, because it would be most profitable for them, but it also would be people whose tastes they understood or shared. In doing so they were driving away some traditional customers. This would have been fine if they had been developing lots of new customers. But many of the customers they wanted didn't seem to want them, at the same time that they no longer wanted many of the customers they had.
They promised service, as opposed to the discounters; but many stores rarely had enough people, some of the people they did have were poorly trained, and service desks were hard to find. The discounters didn't promise personal service, so they couldn't be faulted for failing to deliver on it.
Because the stores relied on sales to move merchandise, you never knew what price you were going to have to pay, or if it was the best price, and indeed you often had no idea if they would have in stock what you were looking for. Discounters had less selection, but the price was low every day, and the same things tended to be in the same places.
By cutting back on what they offered, they gave people less reason to come in. It's hard to make money as a boutique with the fixed costs of a giant.
The little extras they had offered to solidify their relationships -- free boxes and wrapping, generous return policies, restaurants for ladies who lunched -- fell under the need to maintain profits with sagging business. The stores said they were reacting to the desires of today's shopper. But they offered little to replace them, other than simply having a wide selection of goods -- admittedly a very wide selection in many lines, and much of it well-made, fashionable, quality merchandise, but some of it indifferent or inferior.
And they had forgotten that when they first appeared, they had promised reasonable prices, merchandise attractive to a typical shopper, attentive service and a focus on the customer. As Marshall Field said: "Give the lady what she wants!" Now it was becoming, Give the lady what's in our interest to give her.
Now, anyone associated with a department store in the 1980s could quickly rebut this and offer an equally valid case. Time-pressed shoppers weren't willing to wander the store in search of tulip bulbs. Suburban shoppers weren't willing to go downtown. The discounters had shown that no one cared about boxes anymore. Ladies didn't lunch. Good help was hard to find. Investor demands were merciless, even if the investors were family members. And all of those things would be correct. Department stores weren't being run by idiots. Most of them were being run by sincere, hardworking people who were just trying to stay ahead of the ball that was rolling toward them. They were trying to deal with the crises they had.
Nearly all of them failed, of course. A secular crisis (the economic problems of the late 1980s) was followed by the Robert Campeau crisis, and the giants of the field began to crumble. Allied, Associated, City Stores...
So as we walk through the revolving doors of our downtown department store, heading out onto Main Street to visit the newspaper office, three questions:
1. Does an industry come to mind that often tells its customers what it believes they should want and whose employees often view them with contempt, sometimes publicly, if they do not; cuts back on lines its core customers want; offers poor or indifferent customer service; fails to put money into its core business; offers an inconsistent variety of goods from day to day and makes them hard to find, and cuts back on side efforts that have connected it with its community?
2. Thinking back to our department store of the 1960s -- the one with everything from soup to nuts -- what business today offers a large variety of general merchandise, from clothing to groceries to tulip bulbs, promises customer service and low prices, emphasizes a fashionable and current image, and does so through relying largely on the traditional bricks-and-mortar concept of a store rather than saying that because many people use the Internet for purchases, the only way to compete in the future will be to sell exclusively on the Internet?
3. Forget the Herbst, Falk's I.D. Store, or Paris of Montana that you grew up with and still mourn in your heart. Name four regional (non-national) U.S. department store chains -- i.e., not Macy's, Sears or Penney's -- that exist today.
Monday, February 25, 2008
A department store need not start downtown to be successful. Anyone from Erie, Pa., knows that the Boston Store was the heart of downtown and is still a landmark building today; yet the Boston Store started blocks from downtown on Peach Street. Bartel's Hoosier Store moved to downtown Richmond, Ind., from its original location opposite the railroad station.
And many successful stores, generally aimed at a blue-collar market, never did go downtown. Skydel's in Bridgeport, Szold's in Peoria, Sattler's in Buffalo operated successfully for decades as major department stores at some remove from downtown. Madigan's in Chicago was the equal of any medium-size city's department store, but was located five miles from the Loop.
But I can only think of one U.S. department store that started outside the main shopping area, watched the city move toward it, and became a dominant upscale retailer. That would be Bloomingdale's.
When the Bloomingdale brothers decided to open for business, "downtown" New York was around Union Square on 14th Street. Stores were moving into the "Ladies' Mile" on Sixth Avenue, which eventually would reach to Herald Square. The Bloomingdales considered a downtown location, Maxine Brady wrote in "Bloomingdale's," but decided against it. They opened where the story is now, at 59th Street and Third Avenue; the store was known as the Upper East Side Bazaar.
For its first 70 years, Bloomie's went after a mid- to downscale trade, like most off-Main Street department stores. The people who lived on Fifth Avenue didn't buy there; their maids did. But after World War II, astute leaders of the store noted that the traditional client base was not going to expand, and the most fashion-conscious high income market in the country was basically within walking distance. If you could sell more expensive merchandise in the same place, profits would go up.
So through promotions, shows, and dropping items like toasters, by moving its ads from the Daily News and the Mirror to the Times and the Herald Tribune, Bloomingdale's went in 15 years from being a downmarket retailer to an upmarket one. In essence, Bloomingdale's decided who it wanted its customers to be, rather than who its customers were.
The 1970s was the era of Bloomingdale's -- the Big Brown Bag, the visits by European royalty. The department store as theater, as a collection of boutiques. The emphasis on fashion for which people would pay a premium. Across the country, department stores large and small tried to follow suit. Bloomingdale's had shown the way! Out with the commodity items, in with exclusives. Out with the Tea Room, in with Le Train Bleu. And Bloomingdale's itself moved into other markets -- Boston, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles.
But in other cities as the local Marks and Sparks tried to parrot the Bloomie's formula, customers voted with their feet, going out the door. Established customers didn't like the new, upscale feel to what had been their store. And there weren't enough new customers to make up the difference. The Bloomie's formula was based partly on the unique circumstances of New York City and exported, one store at a time, to other major cities with urban neighborhoods of intense wealth. Once you got past Houston and Atlanta, you were in trouble. There weren't enough Bloomie's people in Kansas City for a Bloomie's, let alone for a Jones Store as a Bloomie's wanna-be. But many of the people who worked at the Jones Store would have felt at home at Bloomie's. And heck, the customer is just like us, isn't she?
It's sort of a like a newspaper trying to pick its customers and not appeal to those it doesn't want. Back when we had a much larger circulation, an editor I greatly respect once said: If we just could put out a paper for the 50,000 subscribers who understand and appreciate what we're doing and forget about the 500,000 who don't and who buy the paper for the comics and the weather and the sports agate, think what we could do.
Well, we're on our way.
It can work for the New York Times because in New York there's enough upscale to support anything. It can work for the New York Times nationally because it can take a small niche off any market. The Minneapolis Star Tribune can't afford to start slicing and dicing its customer base similarly. It has to appeal to the market it has, not the market it wants to have. But it's very easy to think that the market you have looks a lot like you.
Knight Ridder used to do market research for us, and would send its research director around every couple of years. I looked forward to the point in her presentation when she would present the circulations of competing papers in our market. She would note that the New York Times (and this is pre-Internet) had 3 or 4 percent penetration in our market. Hands would raise! That cannot be! Yes, she said, this is the circulation of the Times. Next to you guys, they're nothing here. They're not even as big as the largest suburban paper.
And one brave soul would always venture: But that must be wrong! Your figures are bogus. Everyone I know reads the Times.
To which she would say: Yes, everyone you know reads the Times. As does 3 to 4 percent of the market.
Friday, February 22, 2008
Never promise to post "tomorrow" if you fear you will have to shovel the walk for the first time all winter.
Anyhow, department stores were in a tizzy. How to compete in a vastly different landscape? They tried everything they knew. In the late 1960s, "boutiques" such as The Gap were the rage; L.S. Ayres, for one, opened a chain of boutiques called Sycamore Shops. The book department at Dayton's in Minneapolis morphed into what became B. Dalton, Bookseller. As fewer people shopped downtown, downtown stores closed off floors and cut back lines. In some cities with vast suburban growth, such as Phoenix and Raleigh, stores simply closed downtown as early as the late 1950s; in the 1970s, it became a flood.
The mall stores seemed to be the answer, but the malls carried their own problems that were just becoming apparent. For one thing, once under one roof, the mall itself was kind of a department store. What was the point of a fur salon in the department store if there was a fur salon out in the mall with a bigger selection, and you didn't have to put on your coat or cross the street to get to it? So the department store was just another department in the mall. For another, universal credit cards had taken command.
At one time systems such as Charga-Plate had made it possible for department stores to carry credit accounts much more easily than the small retailer. A Charga-Plate was a metal tag with your name and address on it. It had notches cut out of the side that fit each store's Charga-Plate machine, which was basically an ink roller. If you didn't have an account at Wasson's, the Charga-Plate wouldn't go in their machine, although the same plate would work at Ayres if you had one there. Department stores were large enough to be able to pay people to hand-process and ledger all these accounts. Smaller stores weren't. In the 1960s, with business computers, stores came out with their own plastic credit cards, as did local banks (Older Indianapolesians can remember the introduction of the "AFNB Charge Card").
But the computer makes local business almost the same as international, and so those city-by-city bank cards became tied up by the 1970s into Master Charge and BankAmericard. and all of a sudden you could charge anything anywhere on one card (except the department stores, which found them too hoi polloi and didn't want to undercut their own charge accounts).
The 1970s also saw the first emergence of what we now would call "big box" retailers. Levitz Furniture came out of Pottstown, Pa., to become a nationwide chain. Appliance stores in particular hit the department store business hard. Refrigerators, stoves, air conditioners, TVs now came in bewildering variety. In Flint, Mich., a store called, if memory serves, Greenlee's had begun as your typical neighborhood appliance store, in a small space in an urban neighborhood on South Saginaw Street. Suddenly it opened suburban branches with lots of space. Department stores couldn't devote the same amount of space to compete, because the sales per square foot were lower than for clothing, jewelry, perfume -- and so they had to charge a higher price to meet their overhead, as they were paying more for their pricey location. Smaller selection at higher price ... not a ticket to success. So they began to leave the appliance business and the furniture business. But that, of course, gave people one or two more reasons not to go into the department store -- somewhat like stocks and TV listings drew people into newspapers even though they occupied space with somewhat noncompetitive features.
(Stores still advertised like gangbusters in newspapers, though.)
And then along came ... Bloomingdale's. But alas, the snow (all three inches of it!) means the return to newspapers must wait.
Thursday, February 21, 2008
Further background on department stores -- we'll get back to newspapers tomorrow.
It's hard to remember that as late as 1965, the shopping mall was a rare thing -- as rare as a city that didn't have two or three newspapers. Cherry Hill, the mall that set the tone for the future, was only three years old. In 1965 or '66, in my hometown, there was one non-enclosed mall, Glendale, with Ayres and Block's; one, Eastgate, with Wasson's and (I believe) Sears; and a new mall, Greenwood, with Ayres and Sears and/or Penney's. The other department store branches were in strip malls, and Block's had closed a freestanding store in the Broad Ripple neighborhood. In most cities it was similar -- a combination of downtown stores, strip mall stores, and freestanding stores made up the local department store locations. (Some were beautiful, such as in Los Angeles not only the famous Bullock's Wilshire but the Bullock's branch in Westwood and J.W. Robinson Co.'s in Palm Springs.)
Then came the great mall era, as developers put roofs over the entire center. In Indianapolis we got, in quick succession, Lafayette, Washington and Castleton Squares, all with Ayres, Block's, Penney's and Sears. Developers such as DeBartolo and Simon couldn't built them fast enough, as the big department stores -- many of them now part of chains such as Allied and Associated -- along with Sears and Penney's tried to clone themselves everywhere. Malls would have five anchor stores, as even out-of-town department stores got into the act. (The F. & R. Lazarus Co., from Columbus, Ohio, invaded Indianapolis.)
Sears, indeed, had a subsidiary, Homart, that just developed malls. And the change in attitude by Sears and Penney's was crucial. Until now Sears and Penney's had operated a hodgepodge of stores. Penney's-on-the-Circle in Indianapolis was a typical urban department store, but a Penney's in a Muncie or Anderson would be much smaller, and some Penney's were downright minute.
Sears had long built stores on the edges of downtown or even farther out, such as in Fort Wayne, to provide room for its farm stores but also to provide parking. (A lonely former Sears store stands on South Salina Street in Syracuse, blocks from where Dey Bros., C.E. Chappell & Sons, and E.W. Edwards once held forth.) Small-town Sears stores, though, were right on the main street. And when it got to the largest cities, Sears and Penney's weren't even downtown. Now both companies saw a way to create a new model based on nearly identical shopping mall stores, where they would have no disadvantage next to Younker Bros. or J.L. Brandeis & Sons or whoever the local merchant was.
The big-city stores, trying to get bigger to compete with Sears and Penney's and the discounters, and quickly running out of malls in their area, knew that they already drew customers from surrounding towns and could promote themselves to more on TV. They had started going into surrounding cities in the 1950s and early 1960s -- Burdine's from Miami to Fort Lauderdale, C.J. Gayfer & Co. from Mobile to Pensacola -- but the malls made it easier. Because the malls to some degree advertised themselves just by existing, and pulled shoppers in just to see the marvel of 72-degrees-in-any-weather, a store merely had to show up; success wasn't guaranteed, but it beat trying to establish yourself at the edge of Main Street.
Hochschild Kohn of Baltimore went into York, Pa.; the Philadelphia stores colonized malls in Reading and Harrisburg. In many cases the local department store didn't have the interest or the firepower to follow. A mall opened in Logansport, Ind., with, I believe, Penney's, Sears and Kmart; the Schmitt-Kloepfer Co. Golden Rule Store remained downtown with no mall presence (and no nearby Penney's or Sears, to draw shoppers, either).
I remember going to Fashion Square in Saginaw and wondering why the local store, William C. Wiechmann Co., had such a small outlet as opposed to Hudson's, Penney's and Sears. Only later did I realize that was all they could afford to commit to when the mall opened, based on their business, which draw only from Saginaw whereas Hudson's by that point drew from most of Michigan.
The urban unrest of the 1960s, meanwhile, scared middle-class white shoppers away from downtowns, as they sank into a nadir from which some have only now begun to emerge (and many still have not). And rulings in restraint-of-trade cases kept department stores from signing exclusivity agreements with brand-name manufacturers. This is a bit above my expertise, but as I understand it, previously, department stores could sew up the rights to sell, say, Sunbeam appliances and the manufacturer could set a floor price; if discounters could even get the goods, they could not undersell and could only do so with "off-brand" merchandise, the sort of stuff that used to catch fire in Consumer Reports tests. Now Kmart and Woolco could sell the same irons and toasters as the department stores, but for less. This is probably a gross oversimplification, but the result of whatever happened was that the department store no longer had a lock on selling, say, GE Toaster Ovens for $14.99.
More competition with lowered barriers, legacy infrastructure, transportation disruption, changing social attitudes, even "free" (as in the acres of free parking) -- sounds like the problems facing another business we know well.
Tomorrow, on to the fourth floor -- what department stores did to compete.
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Now, as promised: To relate the department store to the newspapers. But this requires a lot of exposition, or at least I think it does. Bear with me...
So let's go back to that department store of the 1960s that sold clothing and shoes and furniture and tulip bulbs and outdoor TV antennas. It was following the motto of Harrods Ltd. in London: "Omnia omnibus ubique." Everything for everyone, always. (ADDED: Whoops, lousy translation. See reader comment below.)
The department store sought everyone's business, time and attention. It wanted to meet all shopping needs -- some had groceries, many had pharmacies. There was no need for you to go anywhere else. Make a day of it! Have lunch in the Tea Room.
But there had been ominous signs. Downtown department stores in many big cities had begun to see their sales figures fall with the end of World War II, as people not only moved out to the far suburbs but used their autos more, now that there was no rationing. Fewer people were taking the bus downtown, so department stores, which specialized in delivery to your home of a finished product (an adjusted suit, a spiffed-up hat), were competing with "carry-it-home" business increasingly. And discounters were threatening the low- or popular-priced stores -- the "third store down," in industryspeak.
Business was going to stores that were closer to the new housing developments and had "acres of free parking." A lot of them were discount stores, but many were small retailers -- appliance stores, children's clothing stores, and the like awash in 1950s American prosperity.
Department stores fought back by opening suburban branches as well as expanding downtown. The J.L. Hudson Co. in Detroit created Northland and Eastland. Los Angeles had the Miracle Mile. In Philadelphia, free-standing stores opened throughout the Pennsylvania suburbs -- John Wanamaker in Wynnewood, Lit Bros. in the Northeast and S. Philadelphia, and Strawbridge & Clothier adding to its existing Ardmore and Jenkintown branches. Cain-Sloan Co. in Nashville and Foley Bros. in Houston built giant new downtown stores. In cities big and small, stores such as H. Gordon & Son in Gary or Frederick & Nelson in Seattle built downtown additions. All seemed well. By the 1960s, most of these stores were 60 to 70 years old. Some had reached the century mark.
And newspapers were chock-full of department store ads. Then came the mall boom of the 1960s, and malls with two or more anchor stores appeared in every large suburban area. All the branches were originally considered as twigs, though; some lines would only be carried downtown, and all of them would be carried there in greater depth.
Sales increased for the branch stores at the continuing cost of downtown. But the overall organization could still support its large advertising budget and existing warehouses and odd little curiosity departments that had been there forever. All things for all people.
Of course, departments, especially in the main store, were still in odd places, and sometimes the stores, because of their longevity, were not placed either downtown or in the suburbs to reflect changes in consumer traffic. But the 1960s were heady years for department stores, which opened tire centers and furniture stores and wine departments. And to cover their bets, they moved into discounting as well -- L.S. Ayres & Co. in Indianapolis opened Ayr-Way, The Dayton Co. in Minneapolis had Target. Omnibus omnes.
But massive, disruptional change lay ahead. More to come...
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
I don't know if this supports or rebuts Alan Mutter's posting of yesterday, but one has to pass it along:
One of the local papers in the area I live in recently laid off its editorial page editor. I don't know who's now doing the editorial page.
Today's editorial is headlined: "Kosovo goes out on its own: With assistance from NATO, struggling African nation declares independence."
(You know, all struggling nations are African. Mr. Mbeki, have you seen your next-door neighbor, Mr. Milosevic?)
I think this is what happens when you treat a print newspaper like a Web site and just post stuff without having it edited; on the other hand, someone with a title or job description that included the word "editor" did this. So I think we're back to the question of number of reads. Unless Jayson Blair wrote it, in which case no level of editing could have caught it.
In reading the biography of Charles M. Schulz, "Schulz and Peanuts," by David Michaelis, I was struck by the level of interest there was in "Peanuts" when it came out in the 1950s. Newspapers feuded over which would get "Peanuts." Newspapers promoted themselves as the place where you could read "Peanuts."
I wonder how many two-newspaper towns were sustained by: One had Ann and the other had Abby.
How the situation has changed. In this column George Rodrigue of the Dallas Morning News speaks to a reader's concern about the funny pages and Abby and their adult content and his 7-year-old (search in the post for the word "Sarda"). One could have an enlivening discussion about the merits of a Funnies section for kids and a Funnies section for adults, but first we'd have to have a discussion about even having them. Because, as Mr. Rodrigue notes to the reader:
"...Like most American newspapers, we have a long history of running comics and advice columns together. To tell you the truth, we don't think about it much."
Twenty years ago my newspaper had two top editors who obsessed over the comics and syndicated features. They knew readers bought the paper for specific things and a large number of them weren't news content. As stated earlier, we had our secret weapon, and it was the Cryptoquote. How many newspapers do we sell on the basis of the crossword puzzle, a feature placed in many papers with absolute disdain for those who work it?
Now, newspapers in general not only try continually to squeeze the space given to comics and other features -- which, of course, are not part of the core mission -- but many of them, out of a combination of a lack of interest and a skittishness that comes from having once tried to kill a cat or dog strip, pay as little attention as possible to one of the major draws newspapers traditionally have had. ("I didn't go to journalism school to talk to 5,000 readers upset that we dropped 'Fred Basset'! The damn dog probably died! Get over it!")
The traffic Newsday has drawn online with Walt Handelsman's animated cartoons shows that cartoons appropriate to the medium will succeed. Print is still a wonderful medium for cartoons. One can't conjure up a "Peanuts" or "Calvin and Hobbes," of course; the talent has to be there. But it sure looks like it would be there if we would again pay attention to how to promote it.
One of my dreams has always been that the New York Times, out of some fit in considering itself a metropolitan newspaper, would say, OK, well, let's run a few comics -- politically pointed, upscale ones, of course. ("Woody's World," by Allen Konigsberg.) The resulting interest in newspapers in running comics and puzzles, once it had been sanctified as an Appropriate Thing for Journalists to Consider, might knock down syndicate doors.
Monday, February 18, 2008
You forget the simplest things when learning to do this. One is the courtesy of adding to your blog list those people whose work you have mentioned or who have mentioned you. We work to remedy our errors... Alas, we not only grind slowly, but not exceedingly fine, either.
Well, one truly doesn't want to wake up on a Monday to this. But one did, so let's look at it.
Because Alan Mutter's argument -- are layers of editors in the editing process now a luxury? -- is not only just the next step beyond outsourcing -- if we can't move these jobs to India, do we even need them at all -- it gets back at a point made in lo this very space:
"If you don't post news on the Web, someone else will. If you do, someone else will anyhow. TV stations, local entrepreneurs, L.A. Observed. All you're doing is doing it with a higher cost structure. Unless you get your cost structure down to their level, you can't compete on the Web in the long run. If you get it down to their cost structure..."
I left that unanswered. Mutter raises the question and offers a Tevyean response ("On the one hand, Mottel is a good man..."), yet in the classic journalistic sense of "I will write this story fairly, but I will show which side I think may be right by giving them the kicker paragraph," he writes:
"All things being equal, everyone would vote for giving newspapers sufficient resources for both gathering news and checking their work closely. But things aren’t equal. Newspapers are operating at an increasingly unequal disadvantage against their online competitors.While there is no doubt about the value of the industry’s traditional values, the question is whether the industry can continue to afford them."
Thus, Gresham's law wins for Alan Nutter. He also raises the point that multiple layers did not stop the Jayson Blair episode. Nor did it stop Janet Cooke, although the redoubtable Bill Connolly has devoted years to a training program showing copy editors where the red flags were in her story. But there is very little in the editing process that will catch a talented liar who is a staff member, because the process is built upon trusting the reporter.
Now, many good objections to Alan's post have been raised already, the best of them being that the chart he refers to shows a process for editing copy that does not exist even at my own large and well-respected metro. A typical story moves through assigning editor to copy editor to slot and is proofread. Others may have input into it or may not, depending on the prominence of the story. Mostly, they don't. The statement that a half-dozen people "are likely to lay hands on an ordinary story bound for the pages of the typical metropolitan daily" wasn't true here even when we had twice the number of people we have now.
And we are, indeed, a big newspaper still. Nearly all of the one thousand howevermany hundred daily newspapers in the U.S. would look at this and simply scratch their heads. Many are the newspapers -- even large ones -- where most copy goes in read by one person, two at the most. If competing with online news means competing with anyone who can post something online, then the only way to compete is to have no editors. To me, that becomes a competitive disadvantage.
Look, we are who we are. The only way we can realistically continue to operate as newspaper journalists is to show how what we offer is better than what someone else offers. That means operating behind a brand. That brand has to stand for something. Quality is a good thing to stand for.
John Robinson of the Greensboro News and Record -- a paper that has been a leader in online journalism and blogging -- responds to Mutter by saying, we need this. He calls for two reads and I would call for three, but that's quibbling. Even with his paper's extensive commitment to online, he also makes the point: Online is not print. That means print has a role. And thus John and I and Alan are back to the question of determining how that role can pay off in the 21st century.
But please go to Newsosaur and take Alan's poll. (Here's the link again.) And since I do know how to write the end of a newspaper story:
"Sullivan recommended that anyone taking the poll should use his or her own conscience. 'Matters are in flux and everyone benefits from all opinions being counted,' he said. 'At a time like this, people should speak their minds.'
"Then he added with a smile: 'Of course, I can always hope that most of those who speak their minds freely are those whose minds are in the right place.'"
Friday, February 15, 2008
SPJ President Clint Brewer -- of the Nashville City Paper, which has been a free daily for years, and recently announced it would become an online-only E-paper-and-Web-site operation only -- writes in The Quill that journalists have to take charge of their own destinies.
He notes: "Journalists are going to have to consider the prospect of no longer depending on the business models of yesterday's journalism and take the matters of publication into their own hands.... For professional journalism to survive and thrive again, the profession and its loyalists need to assume an entrepreneurial spirit, using the democratizing tools of the Internet to create new products to serve their communities."
(I can't tell from the City Paper's site if it is electronic-only or not yet; it lists a guide for pickup locations. Maybe it's a slow transition. This piece on the editor of the Tennessean makes an oblique reference to the City Paper's lack of heft, but seems to indicate it still exists in print.)
Who could argue? One would seem to be a churlish Knight Ridder beancounter. But who are these loyalists? Brewer notes: "I do not mean people working as journalists who might want to continue in the profession if they can find the right job -- or they might get into something else if the hours and salary are right. I mean people committed to the social mission of being journalists.... People who are determined to give voice to the voiceless. People whose conscience gives them little choice but to wake up every day in order to seek truth and report it."
It is not maligning those people at all to worry about what business model they might invent based upon whom they believed their readership to be and its economic prospects. It is not maligning journalism to say that much of its good work is done by people who might do something else if the hours and salary were right. The old newspaper movie "30" -- as I remember near the end, someone says to the Crusty Old Editor (William Conrad) what a wonderful job this is and could you ever imagine doing anything else, and he responds, "Yeah. Every day."
Marketing 101 -- the customer is not you. By going into a field such as this you show that you are different than the customer. When I was a kid the Louisville Courier-Journal was widely praised for its reporting on Appalachia. It was able to do this not only through the largesse of the Binghams, but because people were buying it for the comics and the ads and the sports and the social notes and a whole bunch of reasons that also included its reporting on Appalachia. The number of people who were going to buy it mainly to read about Appalachia and other social issues was not terribly large.
I was also inspired by the story of I.F. Stone's Weekly. As Victor Navasky writes: "He embodied the romantic idea of one man pitted against the system. " As Izzy himself said, his mission was "to write the truth as I see it."
I.F. Stone was the iconic loyalist. He was a blogger before blogs, but he was more; he was a reporter as well. His newsletter was self-published and he could not have paid his fellow loyalists well. At his peak, in a far less competitive arena than today, he claimed a weekly circulation of 70,000 across the entire nation. His journalism was influential among a core group of the committed, the concerned and the powerful, and largely unknown outside it.
Is that what a daily newspaper should be? Can it exist as that? Is a newspaper simply about journalism, or does a newspaper exist to enable journalism?
Juan Giner asks the question: Why do Sunday papers sell more than daily? His answers: We have more time to read, and they have more stories. (One could challenge his point about making daily papers smaller by saying, if we had more stories wouldn't they read more -- but that would, it's true, ignore the people who call to cancel saying "I have three months' worth of papers stacked up unread in my kitchen...")
Worrisome, though, is that Americans at least anecdotally seem to be having less time on Sunday than before. Perhaps the biggest enemy of newspapers is actually youth athletic leagues! Or at least the supposition that you are a bad parent unless you devote your weekends to cheering on your kids. (Hey, I did it.)
But perhaps another part of the answer is to be found in the front pages he highlights. Some of them just scream, "Read me!" Particularly on issues such as property taxes, price increases, killers and agricultural poisions on the loose.
On Sunday, we control the agenda. Daily, we often look at it and say, "Well, whadda we got?"
Yes, it's all tied up in staffing and deadlines and a whole bunch of issues that we are all well aware of. If a newspaper tried for a Sunday cover every day the staff would be burned out in a month. At the same time, presenting some story of high reader impact (not the same as High News Value) every day could work wonders. It seems to have worked in Waco, Tex.
But it would require saying: 1) The reader is not that interested in 2007 with the balanced-approach front page, and 2) The needs of the reader outweigh the needs of the staff to have an internal rewards system and pecking order based on getting stories onto A1.
Let's just all buy Berliner presses and make it easier on everyone.
Thursday, February 14, 2008
It's Valentine's Day, and he who devotes himself to posting on it has a significant other who is tired of life. Or some such mangled quote.
For fellow lovers of old department stores, then, a link to a long page on one of America's great department store cities -- Baltimore, where there were three at one single corner, including the possibly hardest-to-pronounce store name, Hochschild, Kohn & Co. (That would be Hoshelkone's to you from outside Bawlmer.)
Note especially the Hutzler Bros. Co. art-deco addition; not quite on the level of the best art-deco department store, the J.W. Knapp Co. in Lansing, but pretty good.
I will get back to how newspapers and department stores are two sides of the same coin. But not today. A Valentine's salute with love to shopping at Lexington and Howard Streets.
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
A reporter at my paper notes to me that we introduced an error. Since this is not about someone reading this trying to figure out who introduced the error into whose story, I will try to make this as vague as possible, which runs the risk of its being nonsensical.
Essentially, what we did is changed an "in" to an "of." The reason is that the way the sentence first read, the "of" seemed impossible. It implied that this was, say, the 170th anniversary of an institution that had only existed since 1900.
That made no sense, so it must have been that the number referred to the number of people in the institution, right? Must be wrong. Change it. Easy fix to the preposition.
The problem is that the institution, in its first years, counted its anniversaries in half-years.
(Some old newspapers did this. The "Volume" number only makes sense if you assume there were two volumes in one year.)
The reporter, aggrieved and getting calls about how this figure is very important in the tradition and the meaning and this is why we don't trust newspapers, complains. I can only apologize.
The hardest thing to do in copy editing is to not make something make sense. A hard-to-understand sentence may be a poorly written sentence. Or it may be a sentence that had to be written awkwardly because the facts are awkward.
Either way, asking "is this what this means?" can't hurt. Except it can. This story was moved very late in the cycle. Deadline approached. Copy editors in general don't like to get into elaborate discussions with reporters over things that seem obvious; we've all got our jobs to do. It could take a minute to make clear exactly what the problem is, and that's a minute that could be spent on the headline -- or another story. And heck, they're paying us to fix this stuff, right?
And to be honest, when we assume we usually get it right. But any time we assume, there's an innate 50 percent change we will be wrong. The difference between the two figures is that copy editors are very intelligent folks who usually make the right choice.
"Never assume" and "always do the math" are my two most important copy editing rules. In this case we did #2 quickly and then assumed when the answer didn't add up.
What was it that started depressing newspaper circulations? It wasn't the Internet.
What was it that killed afternoon newspapers? It wasn't the Internet.
What was it that sapped newspaper leaders of their raison d'etre for years because they no longer broke news and didn't really know what else they were supposed to do? ....
As Bill Powers makes clear in looking at this election cycle, it's still all about TV.
Now what follows is pure opinion unbuttressed by inconvenient facts.
Since the 1950s, it's always been all about TV. TV is the default choice. As Powers writes: "On a really big campaign night, when you want to know what's happening right now, where do you go? And what do you find yourself talking about the next day? Yup. Against all odds, TV is still where the action is."
You can read, or you can watch TV. Yes, you can do both; easier to do with "CSI" than "Lost." But it doesn't matter how you read in the end, on paper or on a screen. TV is the basic organizing principle of leisure time, a fact that newspapers have tried their best to ignore for 60 years, probably because media elites, to use that awful term, are among the few small groups for whom TV isn't the basic organizing principle of leisure time. The biggest foe to print newspapers in the morning isn't Internet newspapers. It's "AM Your City." Turning it off is not the same as putting it down.
The rush to have newspapers put videos on their Web sites is because that makes eyeballs stick longer. TV is linear. You stay with it or not, if you have a recording you can jump around, if you're on the Web you can click in and out, but you can't absorb it at your own pace. You absorb it as it unfolds, and it fills up your time. It's easy. Then you say, gee, where did all the time go?
As Mario Garcia noted, the biggest threat to any of us in communications is that there are only 24 hours in a day.
TV on the Web is still TV. Can newspapers really succeed in the TV business? Can newspapers ultimately succeed in a venue (the Internet) in which text and TV are two competing applications on the same screen?
Powers quotes Tom Rosenstiel: "I think our media consumption over time is going to become more event-specific, the platform shifting to meet the need."
What platforms will be most successful for us? How do we make our traditional platform pay off for us?
TV is asking itself the same question, of course. And TV has one big advantage over us in the Internet world.
Its traditional venue -- a rectangular screen -- looks an awful lot like what I'm typing on this second.
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
The estimable Juan Antonio Giner was in Spain recently, and he noted a phenomenon of the Spanish press: Lots of pages!
Juan believes the print newspaper of the future needs to be smaller and not filled with stuff that's just taking up space, because people don't have time to read titanic newspapers. His wonderful work with Eleftherios Typos in Athens should be a model for someone in this country (San Francisco Chronicle, are you out there?)
While I agree largely with Juan's point, at this point in history, any place with fat newspapers looks good to me. Viva Madrid! (And if you're going there, check out a great department store success story, El Corte Ingles.)
But here is a broader point: Among the things outside of our own borders Americans are woefully ignorant about is what newspapers are doing elsewhere. Western Europe and Japan and Korea and Australia are affluent, wired nations. Newspapers face challenges there too. Somehow they do not seem to be falling over the same cliff. (Maybe they are falling over their own, different cliffs.) I remember seeing a recent copy of the Sydney Morning Herald and finding in it a 100-page real-estate magazine with two pages of color ads on each development or property. They sell real estate online in Australia, too. The Herald seems to understand that you can't compete with free online just by offering non-free not-as-good-but-it-worked-in-1970 offline. You have to do better.
Can we learn from newspapers in a country such as England that never were as dependent on classified advertising as we were and thus never built American-size staffs? Can we learn from newspapers in a country such as India how to reach people we do not now reach? Should we reflect on the fact that people from overseas who come here often note that the U.S. has the highest standards of reporting and the most boring newspapers they encounter?
Well, yeah, but we don't do this very much. I love Juan's blog because he looks at the world. Publishers around the world are all in a challenging environment, but some are doing a lot better than we do. One lesson of the 21st century is that America no longer has all the best answers by itself.
Those of us who believe in the necessity of a future including and heavily dependent on print still need to say, OK, what if there isn't -- if nothing else, to look for good ideas wherever they come, and to look for the problems that always accompany good ideas.
In this post on click-through ads, Poynter's Amy Gahran talks about newspapers' apparent ignorance or dismissal of targeted online advertising. As she writes: "Advertisers want -- and are willing to pay for -- relevant exposure to relevant markets. ... In other words, they're starting to learn that 500 clicks on an online ad, or targeted exposure of their ad to 20,000 site visitors in a context relevant to editorial content, probably benefits them far more than shotgun-style, largely irrelevant exposure to the 200,000 circulation of your Sunday paper, or to the overall 100,000 daily visitors to your site."
She then goes on to say that when this is brought up, journalists get up in arms, saying all they see in this is beats or subjects being assigned on the basis of, can we make money at them? As she notes, compared to, say, home and garden, or religion, or lots of specialty beats we created because advertisers wanted "friendly copy," as we used to call it? Her aim is to show how it could be used to promote Capital-J journalism -- public affairs, the core mission, whatever you want to call it.
So let's think it through. Use this as an example: Here in Philadelphia, we have a huge central city whose political and civic operations draw a lot of interest -- not just a general readership with an emphasis on civic goo-goos, but employees of the city, employees of businesses doing business with the city, leaders of businesses who want to do business with the city, etc. A similarly sized community exists around our two state governments.
So imagine that instead of a newspaper with City Hall and statehouse bureaus subsumed in the greater A and B section ad world, you also have stories on those areas tied to specific advertising -- from consulting firms to restaurants near the statehouse -- that are sold by, in the case of national consulting firms, online advertising networks.
Too arcane? Probably. And I'm certainly not courant on who the advertisers might be. Macy's might say, we want customers who care about the city. Of course, you wouldn't actually need a newspaper for this. A group of four or five journalists could set themselves up to cover city politics in depth -- sort of like the Voice of San Diego as referred to by the Monitor -- and make their own deal with Google or Yahoo or someone. After all, Google would be quite happy to sell ads for me.
Then we may be back to economies of scale and the whole issue. We're also back to the audience size. Part of what gives a newspaper its influence is its size. It can bring the entire community's attention on an issue, as the Detroit papers have done with Kilpatrick's text messages.
Are the two non-reconcilable? Surely not. And I may be misreading Amy's point. But the point of targeting stories to the 500 clickers on an online ad is not about whether it's bad journalism. It could be, but we run lots of bad journalism. The point is whether journalism is about writing stories for the influence it will have in a small community as opposed to trying to use the newspaper to unify a greater community that may not even read that story. Even stories that largely go ignored by most in a newspaper help set the zeitgeist because they become part of the common parlance. Would that happen if there was no unifying newspaper in which they appeared? Amy is not arguing that, but the Voice of San Diego narrowcasting model makes as much sense in this as does the Union-Tribune model. Certainly, though, we have models for doing this -- classical music reviews, for example.
But now we're into the long tail, and the long tail can do a lot of things but I am not convinced it can support the sort of journalistic organization that we call a newspaper. A challenge for the print newspaper is to find advertising clients who want mass exposure to people who might not encounter their ads in a targeted manner, and for whom the canvas of print works better than that of online.
Monday, February 11, 2008
Earlier I mentioned Strawbridge & Clothier. Here is a link to photos of Christmas at department stores. Go to Nos. 20 and 21 to see Eighth and Market at its holiday height. And particularly appreciated is photo No. 12 of Miller & Rhoads in Richmond, Va. Hard to remember stores so huge (and oddly connected) that they had to point you to escalators and elevators. Hudson's in Detroit had local and express elevators. And, of course, the exits had the street name over them, because inside you had no idea where you were.
In which, like nearly everyone else, I point to others and say "Good idea!" or "Bad idea!" or "Good idea but I can do you one better!"
WHO ARE THOSE GUYS?: This chart from the Newspaper Association of America on Web readership is hard for me to interpret -- press putthroughs and copies per household I can do -- but what it appears to show to me is:
1. Two levels of readership, the 58-mil audience and the 62-mil audience. More is more and more is good, but why are there these two discrete levels? Why does the number of page views not fluctuate in a line basically reflecting the audience? There may be easy answers and this is an aggregate, but I know magazines can say exactly what cover sold what issue. Is this political, sports, what? In any event, an uptick in the last three months of 2007 (which might reflect politics and might reflect football) allows crowing about a figure that the year does not show.
2. Second, what I really want to know is, in essence, which are single copy, which are home delivery -- of this unique visits per month, how many are people who come every day and spend time with the paper, as opposed to those coming from other sites once in the month for a particular link? Sure, you can sell an ad with anything, but the latter is not going to produce too much revenue.
The main reason I want to know is that we had a presentation last week on search engine optimization and it indicated the same problem that every piece of Web statistics has: The numbers are squishy, they're not really very good, and no one really knows what they mean other than in the most vague sort of manner. Their main uses seem to be 1) "it's in the millions!" and 2) "it's more than it used to be!" This is not to say that newspaper circulation numbers have ever been exact or particularly truthful.
For example, the canard -- "visits averaging 44 minutes a month," often used to say "this means your typical user visits for 1.5 minutes per day." Well, yeah, except we all know it doesn't really mean that. But what does it mean? Some people are spending two hours a day and most people are spending 30 seconds? What is the mean, not the average? Since the Internet is largely a five-day medium, should we figure it based on Monday-Friday use only? What are the figures for daily users? Most important for the advertisers whom newspapers deal with, how many of these users are local? (What is often repeated is that about half are not, but how is that determined? Seems to me an IP address can be anywhere.)
It's not that any of this is wrong. It's just the uncritical adulation thrown at it, which brings to mind Sam Jaffe saying to Michael Rennie in "The Day the Earth Stood Still": "Such power exists?"
WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?: A couple of posters here (thanks!) and a number of posters elsewhere keep making the point: The subscription fee just pays for the cost of home delivery and the news is otherwise free (ad-subsidized), so, if the method of delivery changes, why should I pay for the news? To which many journalists have unwisely answered, well, surely people would pay for the wonderfulness we produce.
The Watertown Daily Times operates in an isolated market -- almost an hour north of Syracuse and hours away from anywhere else. Watertown, like most of outstate New York, has had hard times, but the Times as still managed to keep (in 2007 Year Book) a daily circulation near 29,000, down from 37,000 10 years ago -- not as hard a decline as a lot of papers, but still in the 2o-to-25-percentish range.
The Daily Times, being a family owned newspaper and thus having neither stock analysts nor corporate overseers, decided to put the Web content behind a wall. Last week it threw up its hands and dropped the wall. Victory for the Web!
In a way. The Times subscription Web site had 1,000 paid subscribers. Which means 29,000 households took the print paper and 1,000 took the Web site, meaning -- 7,000 of the circulation loss was people who simply had no use for paying for the Watertown Daily Times in any form.
Now, this doesn't show people stopped reading local news. It shows people stopped paying for local news. There are TV stations in Watertown, and then there is NewZjunky. NewZjunky has very little information about itself, but it appears to be a sort of anti-Times... a Drudge for Watertown, with links to public records, TV sites, and obits from every funeral home, along with school closings, etc. In other words, the sort of local-local stuff that is supposed to save the newspaper.
NewZjunky covers traffic crashes. I suspect NewZjunky covers city council meetings. Other than that NewZjunky links to everything EXCEPT the Times: The Syracuse papers, the TV stations, the Fort Drum PAO. Outside the area, NewZjunky links to everything by every other Web site it can find.
What NewZjunky has lots of is local ads. Lots of them. How it does this is beyond me at the moment, since its "Advertizing" link takes one to how to post photos.
My suspicion -- although I welcome more information from NewZjunky him or herself -- is that NewZjunky generates enough money to employ NewZjunky and an ad salesperson.
I wonder how many people the Watertown Daily Times employs to cover the news.
What does this all mean? I don't really know. Here are some thoughts:
1. Almost no one is willing to pay for news on the Web if they can get it free. Almost no one is willing to pay for parking if they can get it free. If you ask them, they will say they want it free. They don't care what your problems are.
2. If you don't post news on the Web, someone else will. If you do, someone else will anyhow. TV stations, local entrepreneurs, L.A. Observed. All you're doing is doing it with a higher cost structure. Unless you get your cost structure down to their level, you can't compete on the Web in the long run. If you get it down to their cost structure...
3. The definition of what free news can be economically supported by itself on the Web is pretty thin. Car crashes, obits, and quick hits. TV should have taught us this, and it's got a legal oligopoly.
4, NewZjunky's audience seems to be mostly satisfied with the "just the facts, ma'm" -- at least for now. There is an audience that wants more.
5. As NewZjunky admits, it was started for people who had moved from Watertown and wanted to keep up with local news back home -- free.
6. Even with NewZjunky, even with local television, even with everything else, 29,000 people/families in Watertown are still paying to have the Watertown Daily Times delivered to their home.
Why? What do they want? How can the newspaper business provide them with a product that meets their needs and supports an actual reporting staff that doesn't simply say, well, here's a news release from Fort Drum, let's run it verbatim? Cause if all they want is "free obits online..." Just online, just free, is not a viable long-term business model for newspapers because without a barrier to competition, you can't afford to do what they do.
More to come...
Friday, February 8, 2008
Who have said hello in person, by e-mail or in comments. Thanks in particular to Howard Owens for his comments on the timeline. I wrongly indicated that I thought newspapers went from a sort of Ben Franklin state into the modern era on the strength of department stores. Howard rightly notes that the first great era of newspaper expansion came with the penny press in the 1830s, before department stores existed, and that major papers used this headwind to expand technologically into the era when they could accommodate the advertising and circulation needs of department stores as they were born. This is true; it is also true that many papers, in smaller cities particularly, did go from rudimentary sheets to things we would recognize as newspapers on the strength of department store ads. Compare the newspapers in Muncie from 1895 to 1905 and the effect of the W.A. McNaughton Co. and the Fair on the whole enterprise is clear. And department stores remained a main economic prop of newspapers for 100 years. But I appreciate very much the corrective.
Also, to the reader who noted I should use permalinks; I never even knew what the darn things were until your note. I have tried to use one above.
"Family Business: A Century in the Life and Times of Strawbridge & Clothier," published in 1968, is the history of one of Philadelphia's great department stores. It shows the ups and downs of what most people viewed simply as a stalwart local institution. For example, earnings went from more than $2,500,000 in 1919 to $1,400,000 in 1921.
Strawbridge went through many incarnations from its founding in 1868. For many years it billed itself as "the largest store in the United States devoted exclusively to dry goods." Within a few years of that ad, all sorts of non-dry-goods lines had been added -- furniture, toys, artworks.
Until the 1920s it manufactured its own clothing. For years it ran a large wholesale business. And though it grabbed onto new technologies -- taking orders by phone starting in the 1900s, when many, perhaps most, families did not have a phone at home -- it held onto the past as well, delivering packages by horse and buggy into the 1920s. The superintendent of the stables in the 19-teens questioned whether horses "would ever be entirely eliminated." Alfred Lief's book quotes him as saying:
"when the lines are dropped on the horse's back as he approaches a house, he slows down, but before coming to a halt the driver is on the doorstep with the package. The horse recognizes the driver's returning footsteps or the sound of jingling keys or change in his pocket and at once starts off. The driver steps into the wagon while it's in motion, and the run for the next stop is made with hardly any delay."
Sounds like our old friend the print newspaper, right? An obsolete technology being defended only by those who draw their employment from an obsolete technology, or shed a tear at its romanticism?
The stables and the wholesale division and the clothing shop were all appropriate at their time and not appropriate at another. The store, however, remained.
Was the store simply the transaction of merchandise -- the core competency, if you will, that they found things to sell and someone else bought them? If so, then the store need have no physical form. The store, for example, could be Famous Footwear or it could be Zappo's. If simply being able to buy the merchandise at the lowest "cost" -- not just price, but time invested away from doing other things (home, work, whatever) -- is the sole criterion, the bricks-and-mortar store wouldn't have a chance except with people too inept to use computers. Tons of empty retail spaces resulting.
We all remember that about a decade ago, there was little doubt that this would be the inevitable future, just as surely as there would be almost no bank branches, because all that mattered there was the efficient transaction of financial business which would all be done online.
A bank, it turned out, is more than an efficient financial transaction to many people. Not all, not nearly as many as before, but enough that banks began investing again in bricks-and-mortar branches. A bank is also the experience -- gestalt, not knowledge -- of a bank.
While Strawbridge's was swallowed up in the Great Macyization, department stores are still stores. Target -- the true iconic department store of our era -- sells on the Web and has a division doing commercial outfitting, but Target mainly sells through stores. To me, Target's core competency is selling an array of merchandise predominantly through stores.
Is a newspaper really just a daily budget of stories and information that were distributed on print and now can be distributed electronically with exactly the same impact on readers, community and society? If so, maybe we should stop the presses.
Or is a newspaper's meaning something else? Would Target without a store still be Target, or just one in a series of specialized retail Web sites? Would a newspaper without a news-paper still have the same meaning, influence, effect?
Thursday, February 7, 2008
So many vapid opinions of my own to offer, so much unlimited space, how will I get to them all.
But let's put the third leg on this particular stool. Newspapers, department stores, copy editing.
Manning Pynn, reader editor of the Orlando Sentinel, wrote: "Nothing, though, beats front-end quality control. Information that can't be trusted is not less useful; it is worthless."
(He wrote that recently, but not recently enough that it isn't behind the archive wall. I can see why a blogger wants everything to be free; I can't do a neat little link here. My convenience, however, is not the Orlando Sentinel's main concern and should not be.)
Among the products that newspapers offer is, as the Committee of Concerned Journalists puts it, verified information. You might not like the information and you might not even agree with whom we verified it with; but it was verified.
In response is offered the self-correcting nature of the Net and the desire of the online provider of information to be seen as useful and correct. Both arguments have a case, and both have flaws.
What is known, though, is that the reputation -- the brand -- of newspapers for journalism is based in large part upon the system by which they gather news; that that system involves copy going through copy editors; and that it has been, by and large, a very successful system.
So copy editors are not the equivalent of check processors, a back office function to be moved from Jersey City to India as quickly as possible. Copy editors are integral to defining the brand -- and thus the business -- of the newspaper. Indeed, copy editors are a vital part of the "core mission," to use that current cliche.
(Plus, we do really cool things like taking a photo of a mother pushing her daughter on a swing on a 70-degree day, with the next day's temperature predicted to be much lower, and writing for the caption: "A Swing in Temperatures.")
In a comment on a previous post (I know there must be an easier way to do this than cut and paste), my old pal Clay McCuistion writes:
"If we have traditionally counted on advertisers to pay our way in the print media, it means we're not prepared to make much of a case to consumers that they need to pay up. Instead, we're prepared to offer them three months for $3, or whatever the latest circulation discount is. The result: I think consumers have come to expect free information. The question -- how is that monetized? Can it be?"
The point often is made that people are prepared to pay $3 and change per day for coffee at Starbucks, yet they are not willing to pay 50 cents (whoops, we just raised the price to 75!) for page after page of information that vitally affects their lives. This usually is accompanied by a jeremiad concerning the vapid priorities of the reading public.
Part of my job is to handle calls from readers who have "a question or comment" about our news coverage. Recently my paper largely eliminated daily stock agate, with predictable results. One questioner-and-commenter noted that the only things he bought the paper for were the stock agate, the Cryptoquote and the sports results.
Well, you must read other things in the paper, said I. Yes, I do, he said; but I don't buy the paper to read them. I buy the paper for the stock agate, the Cryptoquote and the sports results. And this was a gentleman of the old school, the "I don't have a computer at home" class. Were he of the new school, he would have left us years ago, I suspect, except for our secret weapon, the Cryptoquote.
Leaving aside the sort of overstatement-for-effect that often occurs when readers call ... he is willing to pay the newspaper for something. He's willing to pay it for information he knows in advance that he wants and for a pleasurable activity. He's not willing to pay it to find out that Mitt Romney folded his tent; he doesn't have a computer, but he can turn on the TV or listen to KYW Newsradio. He's not willing to pay it to find out that there's a wonderfully written article on B1 that he's interested in; maybe there'll be one today, maybe there won't. But there will be sports scores every day.
So if the answer is just "journalism," he'll read it, but he's not willing to pay for it; and as we're learning, it's going to take a heck of a lot of online advertisers to support a news operation. A heck of a lot more than we have or are likely to.
The recent biography of Charles M. Schulz, in noting the success of Peanuts, makes clear that in its heyday Peanuts was such a draw that people would buy the newspaper just to read Peanuts. OK, it was three cents a day then, but a cup of coffee was, 15?
Yes, journalism has always been, if not free, at least heavily subsidized; and newspapers always used other things to assemble an audience that was willing to buy a ticket at the door to see the show, during which you got the edifying lecture that we call journalism. Some people even bought the ticket mainly for the edifying lecture. We really like those people.
But you still had to buy a ticket. And the purchase price of the ticket isn't the point; it's how to make the whole show economically feasible. By itself, the edifying lecture, topic largely to be revealed once you're inside, never really was.
"How can it be monetized? Can it be?"
As "journalism," probably not. As a "product," probably.
When I was in college in Indiana, one of the papers you wanted to work for was the South Bend Tribune. It was, I think, the third largest paper in the state, close to Chicago, and had a reputation as a good employer.
So this is admittedly hard to read.
What's really depressing about it, of course, is the view of: Keep giving me lots of cool stuff free, and, hey, you have my sincere thanks for doing so! The writer says he basically read the print paper for the ads, especially of what might appear to be Best Buy.
But now, all the news is free online, so why should I bother to pay to read it? And by the way, why don't you stop charging me for your archive? I'd really like it if you'd give me that free, too. And I'd really like it if you'd give me free information any time you talk about my employer. And give me the blogs, and the feeds, and oh by the way, that nice column that tells me free what stores might be opening so that I don't have to worry about advertising.
And where is the South Bend Tribune supposed to get the money for providing all this service?
That question, alas, Michael Stephens does not address. Not his concern.
(And by the way, while you're at it, Tribune, why don't you put a box online so we can cancel the paper there? That would make it really convenient.)
The problem is not whether this is the future. The problem is whether there is any sort of business model for newspapers contained herein that allows them to continue to provide the sort of information Mr. Stephens wants.
The real problem is that despite the industry pondering this problem for the last decade, no solution has emerged.
Are we back to the Chinese definition of insanity?
(And now a moment for department store trivia: For South Bend, Robertson Bros. and George Wyman & Co.)
Wednesday, February 6, 2008
As noted, this blog will also touch from time to time on department stores -- not just because my hobby is researching their history but because department stores and newspapers have been joined at the hip since the late 1800s.
The first full-page ad in a newspaper was from a department store -- John Wanamaker, here in Philadelphia. Those of us who grew up in big cities in the 1950s and 1960s can remember when the daily and Sunday papers contained page after page of department store advertising -- in my case, Ayres', Block's and Wasson's in Indianapolis.
It was department store advertising that largely enabled newspaper publishers to buy the rotary presses that created the modern mass-circulation newspaper. It was newspaper advertising that let department stores draw customers from across the community, the region and the state.
We forget in this day and age of Macy's, Macy's and Macy's what department stores used to sell. Let's go back to October 1965 and look at some ads in Philadelphia for a Monday and a Tuesday.
In addition to the usual fashions, lingerie, shoes and jewelry, Lit Bros. was offering lighting, storm windows, radiator enclosures, curtains and drapes, vacuum cleaners, record cabinets, furniture, linens and cornices for over windows.
Gimbel Bros. in addition was offering flooring, washers and dryers, tulip bulbs, artificial trees, radios and TVs.
It was a big sale at Strawbridge & Clothier, which noted bargains on housewares, sporting goods, needlework, toys, china and glass, books, stationery, hangers, garment bags, candy, toothbrushes, umbrellas, fabrics, aluminum tables, bicycles, and at the beauty salon.
And Wanamakers had a special international exhibit, but that did not stop them from selling chess sets, driveway coating, concrete patch, and TV antennas. That's right -- the most stylish department store in Philadelphia also sold concrete patch material and rooftop TV antennas.
In other words, they had a little bit of everything for everyone. Sounds a lot like newspapers of the period, with their mixture of foreign-affairs articles and garden-club announcements, of political commentary and ship movements.
What changed? Well, half a hundred things, all small by themselves and adding up to something. But did what customers (and readers) wanted really change -- or did store owners' (and editors')
views of what they wanted their customers to want change?
And thus, department stores will be joined at the hip to newspapers in this blog as well.
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
If anyone is reading this (other than you, John -- thanks for the call!) please bear with me while I try to find my voice in it.
A big part of this blog will be on saving the print newspaper -- not the exclusive print newspaper, not the "let's hold off on breaking news till the morning" newspaper, but a print newspaper, for the following reasons:
A. We know how to do news in print better than anyone else. We should play to our strengths. We can do video, but TV stations have been doing video for decades. Maybe they know how to do it better than we can? Maybe they have the technological and support infrastructure to do it better? That doesn't mean never do video. That means don't think video is going to save us.
B. The ease of entry to the Internet marketplace, the low cost of doing business, and the faddishness that seems inherent to a world of seemingly infinite choices make it hard to economically support the sort of large operation one needs to cover the news. We need a dedicated channel into people's lives and homes that we control, and thus can charge premium ad rates for. Voila, the printing press and the trucking network!
C. If newspapers had been going great guns and all of a sudden broadband happened and we lost half our circulation, then the Internet would be the problem. We've been losing circulation in real or relative terms for decades. We've been propping up ad revenue with quick fixes since the late 1980s. All this time, people have been telling us what they don't like about newspapers, and we stolidly resist listening to them. (Take jumps. Take the ignominy still rained upon the newspaper business' one great success story of the last 30 years.) So "the Internet is the answer" isn't the only answer.
In line with which, the Washington Post wishes to hear from its readers. It particularly wishes to hear from prime-demographic female readers about what they want in a print newspaper. Good for the Washington Post! Unfortunately, being a newspaper, it can't go too far go out of its way to admit that it wants this information -- that might seem like shilling, or not being objective about yourself. But it's a start. (But if those readers say they want articles that don't jump...)
Jon Margolis for the Committee of Concerned Journalists noses around a point people have been making since it was noted how reporters liked Bush 41 because he sent personal notes to them. That is, how reporters increasingly are letting it be known whom they like and don't like, and how that affects coverage.
I have to wonder, even though I was 8 at the time: Didn't reporters dislike Nixon, and didn't that color the campaign in terms of how Kennedy was portrayed? The difference now is people admitting it. But the press can hardly criticize the public as not being attentive to the issues and judging candidates based on "good to have a beer with," if essentially the press is doing the same thing.