Thursday, May 22, 2008

Three Quick Hits

With friends like these: Digital chiefs of the New York Times spoke to CondeNast Portfolio, and had to admit, as hard as it was for them, that print will be around for a long time. Digital editor Jim Roberts:

"'The New York Times is not going to be obsolete in print for a long time,' he said, noting that greater than 80 percent of its revenues are still from print. 'So whatever it takes to keep breathing life into it, we're going to do. We are blessed, in a sense, because in Manhattan there are people who will not give up their papers. It's like the Charlton Heston quote -- we'll have to pry it from their cold, dead fingers.'"

Actually it was his cold, dead hands, but that's why there are copy editors. It may simply be that the quote doesn't pick up the twinkle in the eye and the sarcasm, but taking it at its face value, it's that lack of comprehension -- how could intelligent people possibly favor print? -- seen in online true believers. To me, I'd do a lot more than "breathe life" into something that produced four out of five dollars.

Melancholy Danes: Ernst Poulsen writes for Poynter about a survey of Danes in which newspapers came in behind TV and the Web for the "if you were on a desert island, which news source would you keep" sort of question. Poulsen sees challenges in this for newspapers, and makes a couple of good points. But here are my questions about the survey, which was reported only in the print version of a Danish publication: Is there any previous control for this survey -- over the last decade, did the rise of the Web hurt newspapers more, or TV? (Is it surprising that half the people said they would keep TV and that TV is seen as more trustworthy? Danes aren't that much unlike Americans.) When people say "the Web," do they mean TV on the Web, newspapers on the Web, Danish equivalent of ESPN or the BBC on the Web -- comparing "print" and "TV" to "online" is always an elusive comparison because both can be accessed online? Finally, if 27 percent voted for online and 23 percent voted for print, what is the margin of error?

OK, Poulsen was not reporting on this survey, but commenting on it. I would add to his conclusions, as said before: The real challenge to print has been TV, is TV, may be TV on the Web but will still be TV. And that's true of "print on the Web" as much as "print in print."

Vroom: This weekend, forget about newspapers, department stores and the whole thing for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, finally getting back to what it should be again after years of internecine feuding. Once again open-wheel racing's best (except for those who bolted for NASCAR during the feud) will hear "Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines." I will hear it for the 42nd time since 1966. It'll be great for U.S. public attention to the sport if Marco Andretti or Danica Patrick or Graham Rahal win. But I have to pull for pole-sitter Scott Dixon, because his U.S. home used to be in the 5700 block of Broadway Street, around the corner from where I grew up. At any rate, consider spending Sunday watching the 500.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Department Store Building of the Week, Vol. 5? 6?

Wow, a downtown department store that is still a downtown department store. New Jersey's largest department store, L. Bamberger & Co. of Newark, embarked on a program of expansion in the 1950s, building stores first in smaller downtowns and then in shopping centers. The Garden State Plaza and Menlo Park Bam's date from the 1950s and became part of the Great Macyization -- although Bam's was owned by Macy's since the 1920s, so it really doesn't count as part of the rebranding.

The other 1950s stores were in the Princeton Shopping Center and downtown Plainfield and Morristown -- downtowns that served well-heeled suburban counties, but still reflected Bamberger's middle-class clientele. (The more upscale Hahne & Co. had its branches in downtown Montclair and Westfield, which were, well, more upscale.)

Bam's/Macy's stayed here on the Green in Morristown until 1993. It's now a branch of the Century 21 store from lower Manhattan. Some future posts will look at other Bamberger's stores, including the main store in Newark.

Just a few steps around the Green used to be the last independently owned large downtown department store in New Jersey, M. Epstein Inc. It lasted into this decade, but has been torn down for a condo development. Herbert Epstein, the president of the store, had his address at 221B Baker St., though he does not seem to have been prominent in Holmesian matters. As a Sherlock site notes: "An article by Joan Barbato in the Morris County Daily Record ... about the plaque affixed to the outer wall of 221B Baker Street, now a guest cottage on property owned by Herbert Epstein, but formerly the office and official address of Edgar W. Smith in Morristown, N.J. Baker Street is a lane off Lake Road, and when Edgar discovered that the lane had no name, he obtained township and post office approval for the address." Alas, Epstein's department store has now gone over the Reichenbach Falls and will not return.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Checking Out

As said, the analogies between newspapers and hotels are not endless. But both hit a wall of transformative change. The downtown hotel business as people had known it for decades was revolutionized. And after the revolution came the hotel business that we have now known for decades. New ideas such as boutique or designer hotels come and go, but change is gradual, not done with a scythe as happened in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Those wanting to run downtown hotels had to accept that they couldn't win by masquerading as motels. The problem was that they were really bad motels -- inconvenient parking, long walks from the car, locations well off the highway. The "motor hotel" era faded quickly. Print newspapers' relationship to online news is different, but newspapers must figure out how to be better at what they are and not simply try to be worse examples of something else.

Downtown hotels had to accept a smaller place in the lodging business and figure what it was. Exit 4 of the New Jersey Turnpike now has more than 20 hotels. Like the railroad, like newspapers, downtown hotels once were (with resorts) basically their entire industry. The Penn Alto Hotel in Altoona and hotels like it once had to be nearly all things to all people -- cheaper rooms for salesmen, better rooms for higher paying guests, permanent rooms for residents, ballrooms, meeting rooms for the chamber of commerce. As the pie gets broken into more pieces, you have to choose your piece. You can't just say, we're the Penn Alto Hotel and we've been here for years. Or the Daily Resister-Informer. You have to figure out who the customers are who want your product. In doing so you have to be realistic. You might want the trend-setters or early adopters, but chances are you won't get them. That's not your business. Sorry.

Going downscale may pay the bills for now. But it may not work for long, as many old hotels lost all their business except for those getting welfare checks. An older technology inevitably has a sense of "tattered" to it and is spurned by those who love the new. The resurgence of older downtown hotels was in part fueled by evoking the glamour of the past -- by redefining the older product as more attractive, not outmoded -- and realizing not everyone would respond. The newspaper business still keeps looking for the magic bullet that will please everyone.

The growth in new downtown hotels came as well from people willing to pay more. A chain like Hampton will often charge more for a downtown location than a highway one -- and people pay it. If you can't compete on free parking, offer valet parking. Rick Edmonds of Poynter recently challenged publishers' insistence on keeping prices low. He noted that in Europe, the business model expects subscribers to pay more. If our business model is really broken, why do we still insist on restoring the 80-20 split? Print newspapers, even among the young, have a core of people who see them as useful. Purposefully combine the best of the old and the new. Use them and their preferences as a base for growth.

Throw out old business models and practices that no longer work. The old hotel stood alone. Today's hotel business is dominated by brand names, for identity and ease of making reservations. But most of the Westins aren't owned by Westin; they are owned by independent operators, just as was the case 50 years ago. Some things need to change, some don't. Newspapers probably won't benefit from a national brand, but they do need to constantly make it easier to buy ads and deal with delivery problems.

Finally, newspapers need to get over their phobia about adverse reactions. I can imagine a hotel executive trying to update the property and being told, "But if we change the entrance, we might lose the Cotton Farmers' Cotillion, and we'll never get it back!" "Oh my gosh, we can't do that. I know last year they only had 40 people, but I'll never hear the end of it." Editor & Publisher, which this year admirably praised the print enthusiast and pay-us-what-it's worth businessman Walter Hussman, has an editorial in its May issue (behind the wall) chiding the industry for not looking to successes in other countries. It notes that in Canada -- hardly a different culture -- newspapers have been more progressive in adopting different methods of audience measureement and are starting to move to modular advertising, as U.S. newspapers "strain to squeeze and stuff yesterday's solution, the Standard Advertising Unit, on shrinking broadsheets." And it asks why the "conversion of big-city broadsheet dailies to reader- and advertiser-friendly compact formats seems forever five years away." Why not? In part inertia, in part fear that "we might lose ABC Liquors if we did that. He insists on a 5 by 18."

What might the reaction in your community be to a print newspaper like this, particularly among younger readers? What might the reaction be if you did 25 percent of this? Not simply, what might the reaction be among our older readers? Would ABC Liquors really say, the heck with you? Maybe they would. But would this position you better for the years ahead anyway?

And now it's time to check out of our hotel.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Checking In, Part II

So old downtown hotels, like newspapers, were having to cope with technological change -- air conditioning, TVs, Danish modern furniture -- when Dwight Eisenhower envisioned autobahns in America and Congress created the Interstate Highway System, which has more in common with the Internet than just the first five letters. Both allow a faster flow of traffic.

The interstates began building, according to the commonly accepted wisdom, in Topeka, Kan., in 1956. (As with anything involving Kansas, Missouri objects. Who knew? Check it out.) As the vacation traveler bypassed more cities between start and finish, why get off the freeway to drive downtown area to stay at the city's top hotels? Particularly when Holiday Inn, Howard Johnson, Ramada, Quality Inn and others were rapidly building new motels out by the freeway, or at least the bypass. You pulled up to the door, unloaded luggage and kids, didn't have to tip the bellman. And there was always a swimming pool.

And unlike the mom-and-pop motels that were in the suburbs already, you didn't have to guess about the quality. (I can remember driving up and down Michigan Avenue near Dearborn, Mich. in 1966 with my parents as they tried to figure out which of a string of motels was going to be the best option and which were disreputable. On vacations after that, we used chains all the way.)

In the biggest or most convention-dependent cities -- ones where staying downtown was part of the experience -- the old hotels did well, in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans -- but they were the exceptions. In my home town, the Claypool, Lincoln and Washington closed in the late 1960s or early 1970s, the Harrison and Warren dipped in quality, the Marott became an apartment building, the Continental just faded away. And this was in a state capital where much business was still done downtown. But you could get downtown from the suburbs in minutes on some of the interstates.

So hotels that had been the hallmarks of their cities for decades simply disappeared. Emblamatic was the closure of the Willard Hotel in Washington in 1968, a hotel that had been virtually a branch of government for decades. It seemed as if downtown hotels were doomed.

But the motel chains started moving in from the highways -- first with cookie-cutter suburban motels on the edge of downtown, then with more urban-designed buildings. Chains such as Stouffer's and Radisson joined Hilton in building new downtown hotels. John Portman's Regency Hyatt House in Atlanta excited the country with the atrium hotel concept. Downtown hotels crept back into fashion. The Willard reopened, as did the Severin in Indianapolis and the Seelbach in Louisville. The original Tutwiler in Birmingham was gone, but an old apartment building was converted into a new Tutwiler.

Now, in nearly any large or medium-size city, downtown hotels are easy to find -- many of them new, some of them historic. And the downscale crowd is in the old motels from the 1950s, and suburbs trying to not be seen as slums are trying to bulldoze them just as the cities wanted to eliminate the older hotels. Because, unbelievable as it would have seemed in the 1960s, fewer travelers today want to stay in a hotel where you drive up to the door and unload the kids and luggage. (Security problems, downscale image, etc.) Now people pay for valet parking. (Rarely for the bellman, though. Roller luggage, carryons, and carts by the door have made him redundant in most cases.)

But the downtown hotel didn't come back in many smaller cities. A Kokomo, a Macon, a Muskegon may have one downtown hotel attached to a convention center, or all the hotels may be out by the freeway. So some things definitely changed. The era when visitors to Johnstown would stay at the Hendler, or in Waco at the Raleigh, is not coming back. But after a big mashup in the 1960s and 1970s that destroyed much of the existing infrastructure and industry, the last 25 years have been a time of recovery, realignment, starts and stops. In a recent visit to Richmond, Va., I saw new downtown hotels in old buildings, old downtown hotels, old downtown hotels rebranded as new downtown hotels, and former and still-closed old downtown hotels. Had I paid enough attention I might have seen now-closed formerly new downtown hotels. Other than the national-chain names, I would have seen the same thing in 1900 or 1940. It's just the ebb and flow of business, not a perfect storm destroying all in its path.

There are a number of lessons for the beleaguered newspaper industry in this, even with the huge caveat that an analogy between the two is impossible. Until we are all living in virtual reality, a hotel has to exist. If a newspaper is simply the news in it and nothing more, a news "paper" does not have to exist. My view is that a newspaper is more than the news in it, that it is a consumer product in and of itself, but that's open for debate.

Given that, though, big mashups caused by breathtaking change do happen, but they don't happen forever. Eventually there's a new normal, a new paradigm, a return to normalcy, whatever one wants to call it. Eventually someone says, it wasn't that downtown hotels were a bad idea; it's that downtown hotels with old furniture in poor locations without complete air-conditioning and with poor parking facilities were playing a losing hand. They had to find a way to compete that wasn't just playing catchup, which they couldn't win.

This is how the Hotel Lassen in Wichita was trying to compete in 1958, with its "Drive-in Entrance and Registration Facilities." They got that customers were driving and needed parking. They knew that motels were starting to eat their lunch. But they thought it would work to bust a hole in the back wall and put the "drive-in" entrance in an alley under a fire escape. This was not going to draw customers away from the Holiday Inn out by the Kansas Turnpike. Like many of the hotels of the 1950s that became "Motor Inns" of the 1960s and senior-citizen residences of the 1980s, they were trying to hold onto the old rules and win by the new ones as well. Disruptive change alters the playing field; it doesn't mean you can't win. It means you can't win by trying to play "me too," because the new rules aren't set up to favor you.

Still more to come.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Checking In

Last year I picked up at the Milwaukee airport, which has, amazingly, a used-book store, the "Hotel Red Book" for 1958. Looking through it I'm struck that hotels, like department stores and newspapers, were also civic institutions torn apart by revolutionary technological changes.

So this is 1958, Disneyland exists, people are throwing their kids in the car and taking off for Yellowstone or Florida or whatever. Air travel is growing, and railroads still have passenger business. Accommodations largely consist of downtown hotels and motels of varying levels of quality, from old "courts" with little cottages to new brickfaced, low-slung buildings that you evaluate driving by on the highway. Holiday Inn is about five years old, Howard Johnson is putting up motels all along the turnpikes, and motels are organizing themselves into collective associations -- Best Western Association, Quality Courts United. Sheraton is growing rapidly, and Conrad Hilton has 25 hotels in the U.S. That puts Hilton about even with Albert Pick, although Hilton is about to open up the Nile Hilton in Cairo.

But this is before credit card payments -- Holiday Inn's historic deal where you could charge your stay on your Gulf credit card is a few years away -- or national reservation systems. The only real way to reserve a hotel room is to use a travel agent or hotel front desk with a telex terminal. And the typical downtown hotel is a locally owned, single site operation, or owned by a chain that has five or six hotels in two or three cities.

Downtown hotels are clustered around the department stores and other shopping and government offices. You may not know where they are by location when you drive into a town on Route 66 or U.S. 40 or S.R. 37, so many of them are skyscrapers with signs on top -- Benjamin Franklin Hotel or Durant Hotel or whatever so that drivers can easily locate them. Most also have large signs on the building, of the sort that one sees flashing into Elwood and Jake's room before Princess Leia blows up the flophouse door.

After a dry spell in World War II, the hotel business is booming with America's 1950s prosperity. And downtown hotels are trying to keep their share of the trade. But because of the Depression and the war, they went years without having much money, or competitive need, to make improvements. Now they're coping with three disruptive technologies.

First is television. TV as a ubiquitous part of life is less than a decade old. Buying TVs for every room was a big cost; rooms were small, and you already had a big radio unit in them; TV signals could be hard to pick up in old masonry buildings; TV was hard to get in smaller towns before cable anyway. So what to do?

Second is air-conditioning. Until the 1950s, a/c is found largely in theaters, parts of big stores (the lower floors of department stores, for example, but not the top ones), and the homes of the extremely rich in the South. Offices and hotels didn't have it. Now every new commercial building is being built with it. Retrofitting old hotels that are still operating is a nightmare. Do you buy window units for every room? That blocks off the windows, uses up an electrical plug, and could overload the whole system. Do you retrofit all the heaters? The hotel builders of the 1920s didn't anticipate this. What to do.

This on top of the fact that at all but the absolute best hotels, until the 1950s it was not the expectation that every room would have its own full bathroom. Most city hotels were built with some cheap rooms with shared bath for traveling salesmen and the like. The rooms just had a sink. But America's affluence has made those rooms unacceptable.

Yet you've got these big, 200-, 400-, 750-room hotels with bars and dining rooms and the Kiwanis and the Chamber of Commerce and barber shops and ballrooms, hotels that are mainstays of their cities, hotels that when a visiting dignitary comes to make a speech he or she is automatically booked into the Bancroft or the Jayhawk or the Cornhusker because, it's the best place in town, our showpiece. Oh, and by the way, ma'm, if you have a spare hour, perhaps we can show you our leading department store, Wendland's or Crosby's or Gold's? I'm sure you'll find it's almost like being in New York.

What to do? Hotels are trying. The Lafayette in Portland, Maine, advertises "TV ... Air Conditioned Rooms Available." Perhaps OK in Maine, but in Kansas City, the Hotel Phillips, "20 stories of comfort," is 100 percent air-conditioned, and its 500 rooms each have "tub, shower bath, radio." No TV, and even in 1958 it's a competitive advantage to point out that each room has a tub and a shower.

In Texas, a hotel that doesn't have air conditioning is going to be at a disadvantage, so the Ben Milam Hotel in Houston wants us to know that it has "year-round air conditioning." Kansas gets pretty hot too, but the Wareham in Manhattan has some of its rooms "air-cooled" while others are "air-conditioned." But I'm going to Minneapolis just to stay at the Leamington, at Third Avenue South and 10th Street. It has some non-air-conditioned guest rooms among its 700 rooms and suites, but the suites now offer color TV. Color TV in 1958! The Leamington is way ahead of the curve and deserves to call itself "Minneapolis' Finest." I'm staying away from the Olympic in Seattle. It has Muzak in every room.

These are hotels that everyone in town knew, some that were tripped off the tongue of the sophisticated traveler. The Blackstone. The Chase Park Plaza. The Shamrock Hilton. The Muehlebach. That national traveler might not have known the Henry Clay in Ashland, Ky., or the Shawnee in Springfield, Ohio, but people in those states or regions did. These were where the best people stayed. Doormen, bellboys, the works.

And yet, 10 to 15 years later, many hotels like these were closing, to later reopen as senior citizen housing; or turning into welfare hotels, torn drapes flapping out of ragged windows; or being torn down and becoming parking lots, as happened with the Claypool, which went from being the prestige hotel in my hometown to a vacant lot in less than a decade. The Alexander Hamilton Hotel in Paterson, once a highlight of North Jersey, the hotel where the president of the Meyer Bros. department store lived for decades, was home to drug dealers by the late 1970s. Even the Leamington, where Hendrix stayed, where Hubert Humphrey had his campaign headquarters, was torn down in the 1990s.

In Sioux City, Iowa, it all went away just like that in the 1960s, the Warrior Hotel trying, as so many hotels did, to become a "Motor Inn" and failing, after the closure of the West, the Mayfair, the Martin, the Jackson.... In larger cities, many hotels soldiered on, some making the transition and remaining open today, others being reopened after a decade of quiet, and many others simply fading away.

What happened? Ask Dwight Eisenhower about the third disruptive change. More to come, with possible implications for newspapers.

Monday, May 12, 2008

A News Day?

Just back from my niece's wedding near Grand Rapids, in honor of which here is the former building of the Herpolsheimer Co., one of America's most unpronounceable department stores (Hochschild Kohn in Baltimore still being the winner as far as I am concerned).

If you saw the movie of "The Polar Express" there is a wonderful scene where the train appears to pass along Monroe Street in front of Herp's and you can see the store name in gold script to the right. Of course if you had no association with Grand Rapids you would just wonder what it meant. Author Chris Van Allsburg is from Grand Rapids.
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And that brings us to the sale of Newsday (no, it doesn't, but I have no good transition here). One has to hope for the best, but these days it's often just hope. The always interesting though increasingly downbeat Alan Mutter writes: "Cablevision’s vision evidently is to develop a holistic advertising sales program that will enable merchants to buy everything from print to cable to Internet from a single representative offering a comprehensive bundle of integrated and interactive services." (I like that phrase "Cablevision's vision.")
Mutter goes on to wonder if that can happen, given the free fall of newspaper revenues, and comes up with ways in which he thinks Murdoch's offer would have made more sense economically -- which are interesting because they relate primarily to print-newspaper marketing and not to a holistic vision. He saw more upside in a Post-Newsday Sunday combination buy, for example, coupled with a joint printing agreement, but as he notes the same thing could have worked for the Daily News. As it is, Cablevision now owns a stand-alone newspaper with a fractional share of the New York metropolitan newspaper market. So all it can do is hope for synergy.
Now for the synergy with this story by Jim Chisholm of Newspapers & Technology. He notes about advertising:
The downward trend in newspaper advertising "has been accelerated by the absurdity of upselling and encouraging converged advertising sales. .... By forcing salespeople to sell print and online together we are encouraging them to focus on the few advertisers who need or wish to buy both together, at the expense of the others.

"Our experience demonstrates that by simply encouraging salespeople to end the month with more advertisers than when the month began, and by compensating them appropriately, the rot can be stopped.

"This habit of replacing loss by selling more space at a higher price to fewer advertisers can no longer be supported. Increasing ad rates has forced smaller companies to look elsewhere. Selling bigger and more frequent insertions has not resulted in advertisers getting a proportionately better ROI.

"Today, as the Web becomes an increasingly significant part of the revenue mix — and more importantly, an important contributor to potential profit and value — it is vital that we revisit these smaller lapsed advertisers.

"We can certainly woo these companies to buy space online, but we also should encourage them back into print, either in the main product or perhaps a niche product."
Will Cablevision assume that its only customers are those who want to buy cable, print and online together? Or will its salespeople simply fall into that default mode? Here, only time will tell. The Harbinger assault on Media General asked for the sale of the Tampa operation that was one of the first and most heralded sites of convergence (a term less used these days). That may be more related to Florida real estate than anything else, but it was interesting.
Is any of this stuff going to be the much-awaited big score, or is it simply that in a more competitive world nothing will ever replace the $1,000-an-inch Sunday help wanted ad, and we should stop looking for the big score and get used to slogging it out in the trenches?

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Department Store Building of the, oh, whatever

Recently in Richmond, Va., driving on West Broad Street, I drove by what obviously was a former Sears, Roebuck & Co. store. Its identity was confirmed when I was close enough to see a symbol with "SR&Co." on the walls. I pass another old Sears store every day on the way to work.
Former purpose-built Sears stores can be problematic today because when Sears built a store before the Mall Era, it usually was on the edge of downtown or in a neighborhood. (Sears was a pioneer in recognizing the need for parking lots, and also usually had adjacent Farm Stores.) These tend to be in bigger markets; in your typical Anderson or Muncie, Sears just took over a store on the main street.
So their location may mean there's not much call to adapt them or tear them down for new downtown development. On the other hand, that means there are a lot of old department store buildings that exist largely unchanged. Bad for property development, good for nostalgia.
Old Sears stores usually have one or more of three characteristics: A tower, a "classical" style, or yellow or tan brick.
This one on Main Street in Hackensack, N.J., tends toward the Moderne. but it's got the tower and the brick. Best of all is the lettering on the tower, which resembes the logo inside the black circle that Sears used for years before going to the upper-and-lower "Sears" in a square box. I don't know if the tower has historic preservation status, but I hope so; I haven't seen that many old Sears stores, but I've never seen another like this.

Copy Editing: Medal of Honor

I've learned as a copy editor that if there are two things wrong in a sentence, generally a copy editor will catch one. This is in part why you have slots.

It becomes more of a problem when the errors are of different types. Two misspellings in one sentence stand a better chance of being caught than do one misspelling and one factual error. It's the way we're all taught on tests; look for "the error" in this sentence.

Now I have to further amend it to: If you are looking for one thing that might be wrong, you may miss another. We ran a story last week on a winner of the Medal of Honor. Like every good copy editor, I have been told for decades that it is a factual error to call it the Congressional Medal of Honor, even though nearly everyone in America calls it that. As the Wikipedia entry notes, "the Medal of Honor is presented by the president on behalf of the Congress. Although commonplace, the term 'Congressional Medal of Honor' is not correct.'"

So I was making sure that we didn't ever say "Congressional Medal of Honor" and in doing so fell afoul of the other phrasing that often accompanies it, one that also veterans are always quick to point out and which I also knew, but was not looking for and thus overlooked. We referred to the soldier as a "Medal of Honor winner." Medal of Honor etiquette calls for the verb to be "awarded" or "given" or such, not "won," as opposed to service medals. So we got some calls about that.

In my experience, after retired English teachers, retired military are the quickest to call about factual or phrasing issues. Warning to all copy editors: Never, ever call anyone an "ex-Marine." (Anyone except Lee Harvey Oswald, that is.)

Monday, May 5, 2008

Fall in Spring, part II

"TTPB" is honored to have received a post from Jay Rosen, the father of Civic Journalism. If you missed it in the comments, it's here.

Professor Rosen takes me (and others) to task, and indeed does show what happens when one overly conflates one's train of thought. For example, he rightly notes that it is wrong-headed to criticize Civic Journalism as not being a business model, because it never offered itself as one. I do stand somewhat embarrassed.

So this time let me try to get from A to D by going through B and C, and not tar Civic Journalism for the circulation problems of the industry or anything else, because I find a great deal to admire in Civic Journalism. The basic philosophy as I have long understood it (having heard Rosen speak to editors at my paper about it a decade ago, when it was still aborning) is to find out what the readers, and thus starting from there the community, are interested in happen, would like leaders to address, instead of simply quoting and speaking to power elites; and to use the power of the press to initiate methods of bringing people together for discourse, discussion, possible problem-solving, idea generation, instead of waiting to simply quote those who speak out on their own. And then to present those ideas to a candid public (and to those political, civic, national leaders) and not simply reflect the ideas of vested stakeholders, and from this all work together to try to overcome the detachment and alientation people often feel from civic issues. Hope that's close enough and I'm sure it misses nuance but I hope it does not overstate.

Listening to the readers is a good thing. Finding out what they think even if they're not telling you is a good thing. Promoting civic engagement is a good thing. Civic Journalism and its backers are not responsible for people linking it to things that it is not, or misusing its tenets. "Crowdsourcing" is not Civic Journalism (thank heavens I didn't say that, at least). And Civic Journalism never said it was going to solve the financial problems of the newspaper industry or provide any sort of a financial model.

That was where I went from A to D. As Rosen notes, Civic Journalism is something that appeals to Good Government types (I hate the phrase Goo Goos, but he used it, albeit pejoratively, so onward...) My point was not in the end with Civic Journalism is not with it as a philosophy or practice, but with how it by appealing to and supporting the nascent utopianism inside journalism it has, without meaning to, provided an underpinning to other trends that are more pernicious.

Civic Journalism says that one of the highest and best things a newspaper can do is to engage its readership in civic issues. (The root of the original idea, if I remember, was just to get more people to vote.) Well, who could argue? To do this it in part needs to abet, encourage, and provide forums for that readership to engage. Or, creating a conversation. To Civic Journalism's great credit, it said that creating a conversation on civic issues and not just quoting official sources was a legitimate thing for a newspaper to do. There was much debate about this at the time -- that this was breaking down the fourth wall, that it was involving ourselves as partisans, that our job was just to reflect what was being said and not encourage its saying. There still is debate.

But creating and engaging in a "conversation" (as opposed to simply allowing a forum for debate, such as the Letters page) thus became a legitimized thing for a newspaper to do at the moment that technology was allowing anyone to have a much louder voice, through postings, blogs, listservs, whatever. And the "conversation," whatever it was, became an end in itself -- as shown by the virtual incoherence of newspapers that vigorously edit whatever appears in print, allow nearly anything (no matter how erroneous, defamatory, racist or whatever) to be posted on the Web site, and say that this makes no difference in the perception of the newspaper, its brand, what it stands for, in the community. Why? Because to do so is perceived as elitist. (Bob Costas' reaction, which I have been searching for but can't find, to the Buzz Bissinger imbroglio was essentially to say, that anyone who objects to the uncivil, if not savage, tone of comments online is accused of ignoring the voice of the people and thus is dismissed ipso facto.) This goes back to Jefferson and Hamilton, but it puts newspapers in a bind.

If our role is simply to provide a forum for the conversation to happen, and the conversation involves the community, then by definition whatever the conversation is is a legitimate conversation, and far be it from us to say, no, a newspaper is not the place for this. We end up being even more passive than before. So poor struggling Newsweek sees its role as "making itself indispensible to the conversation." But exactly what conversation can Newsweek possibly be indispensible to? The conversation of political elites? The conversation of movie fans? The conversation of airline travelers?

TechDirt's comment on this story noted that "sites will be more successful covering a few topics really well (and attracting a lot of links from other sites for their best coverage) than they will trying to cover every topic and often producing superficial, mediocre coverage. It also means that it's not reasonable to expect that most of a site's traffic will come from people who visit their home page on a daily basis. Rather, traffic is driven by being a part of the online conversation and getting other sites to link to and comment on your work. That's going to be a culture shock for a news organization that is used to having a more or less captive audience of several million subscribers who gets its magazine each and every week."

In fact, Newsweek cannot survive in that environment unless it ceases to be Newsweek. (Link in original, and it's telling, in that it to some degree calls the Wall Street Journal irrevelant and the Christian Science Monitor a vital player.) So for Newsweek to seek its future in the maelstrom of the conversation is, to me, a business model with one outcome, the end of Newsweek. The "conversation" is one of individuals, not of organizations. That has a certain utopian appeal, but in the end is anyone in the conversation disinterested in the way a newspaper or news magazine is supposed to be? I'm probably there because I have an axe to grind. Heck, that's why I'm here.
Professor Rosen is right to point out that none of this inevitably proceeds from Civic Journalism, and I admit my error. (Also, the opinions were sinply mine, so I did not source them.) What I meant to say was that CJ legitimized the concept of journalism's creating and enabling civic conversations to the mainstream media, and that while enabling conversations appeals to the disinterested Goo Goo side of journalists, it is not a business model to pay for creating journalism, and journalists who think it is one simply help create more unemployed journalists. If you think the MSM and journalism is a pack of hooey anyway, unemployed journalists do not bother you at all. But they do bother journalists in the MSM.

I have no idea why Blogger lets me have this space to comment, except that it effectively costs them nothing and I, or you, may follow some link, and clink on something, and some money will be made somehow. As long as Blogger lets me post free, why not? Let someone else worry about the money. But in newsrooms we no longer have that luxury. As my friend Doug Fisher puts it, we can't think we can write our way out of this one. Assembling the community in a virtual agora won't do it either.