After last week, one hesitates to say anything other than "collapse." Newspapers looked in the coffee can and found nothing. It doesn't matter how much of this is caused by the economic doldrums; it's a question of whether that business ever comes back. And to what business.
On our road trip to Long Island last week, I drove down the wrong road at Newsday's office and we ended up passing their truck parking lot. One after the other, blue delivery trucks parked, ready for service, still distributing more than 350,000 copies a day despite all the trauma that paper has been through, much of it of course self-inflicted.
That was when it hit me on the point that Doug Fisher and I have been going back and forth on, about core competency. And it brought me back to another low point in recent newspaper history -- when I was the newsroom representative to the committee planning operations if there was a strike. (The possible strike was not the low point, the company's putting me on such a committee was.)
I learned a lot about non-journalism operations during my year-plus on this group, whose goal was -- how do we not get shut down? My editor and managing editor, however, were of a different mind than the group. The committee had drawn together a plan to publish with our nonunion staff. "But if we just posted stories online," my bosses said (yes, this is a collective quote, a copy editing sin, sorry), "we wouldn't need layout people and photo toners and someone to gather sports agate and all the rest." We could divert most of the people we had assigned to produce the paper to reporting, keep a few of them to edit and post online, and double the number of reporters. We could just tell people, the paper's on strike, go to our Web site for news updates, run whatever we could gather with the AP feed, and there we are. Journalism is produced, major events are covered, the public is better served.
So I presented that to the committee, and there was one of those silences, whereupon the discussion returned to the previous point, which had been how many papers could be printed by the hour by nonunion supervisors.
That was when I realized that to the rest of the people in the room, the company was an enterprise that, yes, collected information and sold advertising, but it was primarily an operation that produced, distributed and delivered a physical product. That product contained information (whether it be news or ads) but the point was that we owned presses and we owned trucks and we owned inserters and we employed drivers and platemakers (back then) and we bought ink and diesel fuel. Oh, yeah, and we had to produce the content. But our main business was producing and delivering the product.
So sure, we'll hold to get in a late ball game, but we have to get the trucks off the dock by X time to get them to the carriers to get them to the homes. That is the core business of the company -- getting a product to the customer, particularly getting the paid-for advertising to the customer.
Endless conversations on the committee concerned how we could devote enough resources to do a Travel section, even though we were going to be overtaxed simply to produce 12 daily pages of news, because they needed a wrapper for the inserts.
Hearing that, online news advocates may rise up and say, "And that's why newspapers must die!" Even in the worst of situations, the point was the mechanical problems -- which is why printed newspapers, when they arrive at your house, are old news. They ask, why does such madness exist?
But newspapers are essentially a logistics business that happens to employ journalists. That's why newspapers didn't invent Google. That's why journalists, most of whom have little idea what an inserter is, always seem ahead of the business side folks on new technology. (Journalists have no idea of the technology used on the other side. It's overwhelming. It's also largely mechanical or in the service of a mechanical technology.) That's why, in the end, you can lay off reporters easier than you can lay off truck drivers. You have less in the paper, but you get it to the dropoff site on time, because the core financial contract (for 80 percent of your money) was always -- we distribute the ads to the right place on time.
Now, this may not be the core competence of journalists -- who may be collecting, evaluating and presenting news and information to people in whatever form they wish and at whatever time they wish, doing it for themselves or in the pay of all types of companies. And in today's environment, perhaps journalists and their work would be better served by an employer who had different competencies. But of all their employers, the newspaper company also knows best how to run a factory, and the bigger ones know how to run a trucking company.
It's true that many newspaper companies are trying to figure out how to unbundle themselves from this. Outsource printing, contract for trucking, At the same time, others are trying to make themselves into more of this sort of company -- take on printing of other papers, distribute other newspapers through their carrier network. (After all, most of the moves in printing have been to other newspapers. Rare is the company that, like the San Francisco Chronicle or now the Boston Herald, contracts with a third party, and the Herald tried to get a deal with the Globe. Why keep it in the family? Well, who else understands inserting?) Usually this is to eliminate press downtime or get out of union contracts. But it is still unlikely that a newspaper company can suddenly stop being a newspaper company.
When Sam Zell says that newspapers should have awoken from their monopoly stupor years ago, he's talking in part about the Internet, but he's also clearly talking about print -- being responsive to readers. Internet wisdom changes that to say he is talking about how stupid print is, which is not what he was saying.
I didn't like being on the strike committee that much, but I never again saw our paper in the same way. Like any journalist I saw the company as existing to present the news, to the indifference of many of its employees. Afterward I saw the news as existing to draw customers to the product. That's why newspaper companies need to figure out how to save print as much or more than they need to figure out how to dominate online. The "product" online will always be unbundled. No one knows what its business model will be; it changes from year to year. As Doug has noted, when analog broadcasting goes away and more avenues open up for cell-phone transmission of data, no one really knows what happens. We do know how to create and distribute a printed product that still reaches more than half the people in most communities -- an incredible reach. That part, the mechanical part, isn't broken. At the moment, though, we don't know how to satisfy advertisers profitably to pay for it.
Next: GE, the Monitor and mass transit.
Monday, June 30, 2008
After last week, one hesitates to say anything other than "collapse." Newspapers looked in the coffee can and found nothing. It doesn't matter how much of this is caused by the economic doldrums; it's a question of whether that business ever comes back. And to what business.
Saturday, June 28, 2008
Friday, June 27, 2008
On a road trip yesterday one of my colleagues told this story: He was at the American Press Institute back in the 1970s or 1980s, and they had put together a reader panel. One of the readers was asked what he considered to be a really well-designed newspaper.
The Wall Street Journal, he replied.
This was in the days when the Journal had an unvarying Page One layout -- lead story in Column 6, off-lead in Column 1, the A-head feature in Column 4 under a graphic, "What's News" in Cols. 2 and 3, and a column like "Market Watch" in Column 5. There were no photos, there was no color. The paper looked the same every day.
So everyone started to inwardly chuckle. The man was asked why he felt this.
I know where everything is every time I read it, he said.
A lot of the fear surrounding redesigns such as Orlando's comes from a sense that if you start moving things around too much, people will simply throw the paper down in disgust. (This can work the same way with home pages, of course, but let's just talk about print for now.) Move things around and the readers will get confused.
Let's go back to our department store. The goods on offer (I love that phrase, picked it up from Lonely Planet) changed with the season, with availability, with holidays. But women's wear was on 2 and 3, housewares on 4, furniture on 5. The structure changed but the specifics did not. It might be summer blouses or winter sweaters, but they were at the top of the escalator.
A newspaper is not bricks and mortar. And newspapers have come far in this area from the pre-USA Today days, when sports might appear on A12 or B6 or C1. But we still overestimate the reader's desire for novelty, because it is linked to our own desire for novelty. How many times do we hear, we can't do that front page, it looks like yesterday's? That clearly did not bother the Journal then and bothers them just a little more today, and it seems as if the Journal in print is going great guns. It doesn't bother the New York Times all that much. It often bothers a lot of us a great deal.
Occasionally the department store would feel it had gotten dowdy and would do, in essence, a redesign. Here bricks and mortar made a difference as opposed to newsprint; part of the store would be closed off for a while, then another. So the store changed bit by bit. (This was a point I think Alan Jacobson made, but perhaps it was someone else -- make your content changes first, then do the redesign.)
But when the new department was done, there would be new signage saying where it was, both in the department and elsewhere in the store. Advertising would herald, "Visit our new Women's World, now on the third floor." There would be a week or two of ads concentrating on the new department and then it would fall to something like "Store hours, including our new Women's World on 3: 9:30 to 5 Monday...." at the bottom of the furniture ads for a couple more weeks before falling off.
Newspapers tend to redesign everything at once, issue in the first day's paper a justification and a "guide to the redesign" (which also can be found online, as if anyone is going to take the physical paper, sit in front of the computer, and go through the tutorial and the paper page by page), and then move on, lest it eat up valuable newshole or we commit the newspaper sin of running something twice. By Wednesday, hey, you're all used to the new paper, right? We are. What can we do on Page One to not make it look like the new redesign looked yesterday? But a whole bunch of your readers are out of town. Or they didn't read the paper that day. Or they weren't looking for the obits that day. When they are, suddenly it's a new world and they have no idea where they are in it. Ooh, let's go online and hit that search button.
An editor I talked with yesterday said that in rethinking, not redesigning, the features section -- his paper really did throw out the old template -- they didn't change much of what Jacobson calls static content and what we call furniture -- the comics, the crossword, the TV listings. Maybe newspapers are finally learning. If you walked into the department store to buy a hat, going through the revolving door with your wet umbrella, you didn't want to walk in and not know where the hat department was. If you were looking for rugs, you tended to be more patient in seeking it out. So if you're looking for sports agate because it's the first thing you look for, you want it to be on Page 3 of sports every day and you want sports to be in the same place. If you're looking for news about furniture, you are more willing to just want a sign that says "News about furniture, this way."
(There was a large department store chain, Mercantile Stores, that into the 1970s had a prohibition against internal signs saying "Men's Wear" or "Notions." I remember this from The Root Store in Terre Haute. [Here's an old photo of the Ohio Street annex.] I asked someone who said it was the chain's policy. I have no idea, I think they thought it made the stores look junky. I also remember they dropped it because it didn't work anymore. People got lost.)
Many European newspapers often run labels page by page saying what sort of news is there, and they try to run the same pages in the same place every day. They could do this more than American papers because they had less advertising. (Well, that's not stopping us now.) But we still have trouble just mastering where things go. I know it's all about color positions and collect runs and the like. Today in one of my local papers, obituaries are on B4 and Business began on the back of the B section and moved backward (like sports in a tabloid). Yesterday obits were on B11 and Business began on B14 and moved forward. Try to explain to a potential young reader why we do this in any phrase other than "it solves our problems." It sure doesn't solve the reader's problem. Things seem much more organized on the Internet. Young readers would have no idea why they should try to use a product that offers new challenges to use every day and assumes you it's up to you to know what we're doing. (Plus, they generally hate broadsheets.)
If on Tuesdays gloves were on the first floor and on Fridays gloves were on the second floor, our department store would be dead. Now most of our traditional department stores are dead, in some cases because they had the same attitude. (Yes, hosiery is on the mezzanine. No, there's no way you would know that. That's just where we had room to put it. No, there's no sign saying where the steps to the mezzanine are. Have you shopped here often?) But there are many bricks-and-mortar successors. Walk into a Kohl's store today. Walk into it six months from now and most things will be in the same place even though the merchandise will have changed seasonally. Walk into a Kohl's store in another city and it will be basically the same. Things will be placed where they are based on Kohl's idea of how shoppers use the store. In the newspaper business, maybe Sports is section C today and section E tomorrow. If Kohl's owned a newspaper, would it be?
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
I was going to lay off the jeremiads. But this is Bloody Wednesday 2008. The ax at Baltimore. The ax at Hartford. The ax coming for the rest of Tribune, we know. And 130 newsroom jobs at West Palm. One-hundred-thirty newsroom jobs. Estimates are, around 35 percent of the newsroom. In one swoop. At a really strong, solid newspaper.
Good lord. Outsourcing copy editing to India in Santa Ana was bad enough. By the end of the day it was almost a minor annoyance.
At Follow the Media, Philip Stone weighs in on the Orlando redesign. He quotes his son, who lives in Orlando. (Well, why not. I'd quote my son, except he lives in D.C.) His son doesn't dislike the redesign (almost no one in Orlando seems to have, which is good); he finds some of it attractive; he just says, well, who cares.
"... 3) The newspaper is still outdated about 5 minutes after it is dropped off the delivery truck.
“Unfortunately, issue number 3 remains the real problem. The Sentinel has obviously tried to boost its reader base with a new format. The format is not the problem, it never has been. The problem, not just with the Sentinel, but with newspapers in general, is that they cannot compete in a world that is fast paced, information rich, and saturated in opinion. ... My generation, as well as future generations, will be able to access information literally on demand, in full color, and then be able to, just as easily, get as many different viewpoints on that in a span of minutes. How on earth does a newspaper, printed hours before, compete with that?
“Today’s society is not one that relies on their city paper to educate them on what happened yesterday; we are a generation that insists upon immediate and detailed media that allows us to know news as it is happening. It is for these reasons that the Sentinel, and papers everywhere, can give themselves all the makeovers they wish to give, but at the end of the day the makeover will suffer the same result as the content within it -- it will be old news.”
Stone concludes: "So, still no sale to the 30-something!"
OK, pick up your morning newspaper. Look at the stories in it. Ask yourself: By 9 a.m., how many of these stories have advanced in any significant way, if at all, beyond what was in the newspaper?
Not many, particularly on the local level, but that misses the question perhaps, so here's another: How many stories have happened between the start of the press run and the time you read the newspaper, that because they happened during that time then were not included in the newspaper?
Probably even fewer, unless Mugabe killed himself at night or something. So maybe the newspaper should just cede that arena and concentrate on things that don't change much. Many have tried to. The younger Mr. Stone is saying two things, though:
1) I don't care what happened then. Tell me what's happening now. Even if it's the same thing as what happened then.
2) Tell me what people think now about what happened.
Maybe that's the point of "the conversation." At the mid-point of the day today it was about outsourcing copy editing to India. By the end of the day it was that and newspapers making drastic cutbacks. By tomorrow morning it will be about groups like ACES protesting what's happening by starting the site "Why Editing Matters" and ACES co-founder Pam Robinson's eloquent plea at http://www.wordsatwork.blogspot.com/. And perhaps Alan Mutter will have posted something. And Romenesko will have posted something. And the conversation will go on and on in my social network, which is largely journalism junkies and copy editing advocates.
And what newspapers have sold as their strength in this new world -- their ability to analyze, to look deeply at an issue -- well, maybe Joe Blo said that when the newspaper came out in his breathtaking analysis, but by this time Jane Smith has already reacted to Joe Blo's comments, so the story is Jane Smith and then what Jack Frack thinks of Jane's comments, and someone will have a statement on that soon. So your analysis is old news! Why should I read it in print? Hell, why should I read it at all? I might as well read Jack Frack. But the conversation shifts with the wind. It's so full of so much of which so much is so little. Including this blog. If the conversation takes the place of the newspaper, the newspaper has very little place in the conversation. The newspaper is not the same as the conversation, because the newspaper is finite and the conversation is endless. We can't compete with infinity.
But the cuts at Baltimore and West Palm and Hartford are not coming because of the conversation. They're not coming because Philip Stone's son doesn't buy the Orlando Sentinel, redesign or not. They're coming because we lost help wanted and real estate classifieds and competing department stores, and papers can barely meet payroll. And we didn't lose those because our journalistic content was out of date. We lost them because they were cheaper and easier to use online and we used classified as a cash cow. People like Keven Stone will simply not be our readers. Not everyone is Keven Stone. Let's figure out who our readers and advertisers will be.
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
I've been going off on too many jeremiads lately. Was down in D.C. this weekend and drove by the former Julius Garfinkel & Co. store at 14th and F -- it now is a coffee shop on the ground floor -- and realized I've gotten too far away from how department stores and newspapers are joined at the hip.
And, thankfully, the revolving door is opened by the redesign of the Orlando Sentinel -- the most-talked about redesign in a couple of years, because of the fact that it is done under the control of the Zellots (great word, Alan Mutter!), even though it appears not to have been originated by them, just speeded up. (Orlando, Fla.: Dickson-Ives Co. and Yowell-Drew-Ivey Co.)
Alan Jacobsen, in his critique of the design (with a number of examples so this is a good link to check out Orlando's thinking), pays a bit too much attention to redesign X and Y worked without saying that his designs were X and Y ("Recent redesigns in Cheyenne, Wyoming and Waterbury, Connecticut, and Pocatello, Idaho have boosted readership and revenue ..." Fair enough, Alan, but just say "My recent redesigns...") And his critique is of the prototype. So it would be easy to dismiss his points. But Jacobsen is also keenly aware that if you just make it look prettier but keep selling the same merchandise, it won't matter in the end that you produce the spiffiest store directory in the world.
(Remember store directories? Most big department stores had them. They were printed and folded on about 5x7 paper and were kept near the elevators, so that if you wanted "furniture" you knew to go to the seventh floor. They were quite useful as long as you knew what "domestics" and "notions" and the like were. If you walked into the store and said, "I want to buy some candles, let me look in the store directory," you were on your own. And, of course, maybe that department store didn't stock candles.)
Jacobsen's fear -- again, based on the prototypes, so let's give the highly respected and inventive Bonita Burton and her staff time to show what they can do -- is that it's old wine in new labels, that, as he put it, "no substantive changes have been made to story selection." And by that he's not saying, don't do watchdog journalism or substantive reporting. He is saying, pay attention to what you do on A1 and aim it at the reader as much as, or more than, it aims at journalistic significance or respectability or your internal system for rewarding reporters through story play.
When you walked into a department store -- heck, when you do so now -- what do you find at the entrance? Perfume and cosmetics, usually -- high profit items that are often bought on a whim. (Used to be hosiery, when it always got runs.) The idea traditionally was that women would be drawn into the store by those sorts of items and then see what else was on sale inside the store, but people who were just looking for quick-hit purchases could run in and out. Newspapers face a huge front-page quandary. For years it was easy -- this happened most recently and is most important! But except for things that happen late at night, newspapers can barely sell "recently." And what defines important? Contrast two newspapers I get at home daily on their A1s today (no, neither of these is the one I work for):
Headlines in Paper A: Above fold, (Area) Man charged with attempted murder; 160 jobs eliminated at loan firm; Below fold, (State) Benefits reform bill gets approval; Crackdown on aggressive drivers begins.
In paper B: Above fold, Restitution OK'd in $20 million scheme; Phila., Army OK deal on dredging; Pension bill wins approval in Assembly; Below fold, Fire department's overtime pay burns up savings.
Many big controversies in New Jersey; the pension changes had nearly held up the budget and state workers and teachers will lose benefits, and the dredging battle has been going on for years over where to dump what's dredged up. Now let's look at today's A1 from Jacobsen's most recent redesign in Cheyenne, where the front page (I'd link to it, but they don't archive these) has
Above the fold: "McCain: $300 million for the person who develops vehicle that plugs into long-lasting battery." "Woman's cause of death still unknown." Below the fold: "Little bullies" teaser to story on grade-school bullying; "Rocket to moon could fly by 2013"; "Americans split by race over presidential candidates."
Now as a journalist I can shoot holes through this page without even saying, "Maybe nothing happens in Cheyenne, Wyo." McCain's electric-car plan got one paragraph in one of our two local papers and didn't even get a mention in the other. It looks like a campaign stunt, a blue-sky idea to tap into our frustration with $4 gas and, as analysts noted on "All Things Considered" last night, one that would have no effect for years even if it were workable. And giving a quarter of the front page to it seems like stacking the campaign deck (although it was accompanied by an A1 box summing up Obama's and McCain's views on fuel economy).
So yes, in the short term it's a magic bullet, which is probably why lots of people would want to read about it -- they heard a sentence or two about it on TV or saw a headline on a Web page. Everyone buys gasoline. Not everyone lives near a dump for dredging spoils. Heck, after hearing about it on NPR, I might buy the paper just to read that story, even if only to say, it's a blue-sky idea that won't do anything.
Race, rockets to the moon, school bullying --topics that people will read about no matter what the story says, and stories that are probably being overplayed by our usual standards in Cheyenne. They're speculative stories, or trial balloons, or whatever. Nothing actually happens in them. Saying they're important could provoke responses that otherwise might not happen. Saying they're more important than whatever else Cheyenne put on A2 or B1 could be seen as hyping the news or pandering. Here in South Jersey, we've kept our definition of "most important," but largely restricted it to local news (i.e. whatever is most important that our staff has written about).
But if the newspaper is a department store and your problem is to get people to come in...
Thursday, June 19, 2008
Doug Fisher's "Common Sense Journalism" is, gosh, next to "That's the Press, Baby," the most vital blog about journalism. ... Seriously, it is something everyone interested in the future of the business -- and particularly in the future of copy editing, which Doug is also greatly interested in -- should be reading regularly. Doug and I differ on whether newspapers are basically print publishers who can also do other things or information providers who look for the best medium, as the exchange after my last post shows. But we agree on a lot of the rest -- such as that there is no one magic bullet -- and his viewpoint is always enlightened and enlightening. And he zeroes in on tidbits that don't get noticed widely elsewhere. He pays attention to more input in a day than I can follow in a week. These ex-radio guys, how do they do it?
In a post about his post in response to my post before this post -- God, this is what I love about blogging, it's like the old Velveeta Box Infinity Paradox -- Doug's quote of John C. Abell at Wired News (yep, a link from a link) really struck home with me:
"If nobody pays for news –- or rather, if the people that gather the news aren’t paid -– then there is no business model for journalism. ... But free often only means that it isn’t me who has to turn my pockets inside-out, that someone else is paying what amounts to a subsidy. In all media – online and offline -- that subsidy is generally advertising.
"But there is a rub: pre-internet, that subsidy always went one way – straight to the content creators. Now, it can go in infinite directions. It can even go to a site that makes use of what the market determines are the most valuable bits of a news package and not to the writers and producers. Is that wrong? This is more a matter of nature than the law; you can’t make hurricanes illegal."
It comes to mind because of this quote from Sun-Times editorial page editor Tom McNamee as quoted in Chicago Reader:
“'Even bands like Wilco, nobody's buying the records, they get them free online. So what's going to happen, music is not going to die, people still love music, there will still be bands out there making fantastic music, but they won’t make megafortunes. There's nothing wrong with that. That’s a wonderful thing -- the only people it’s bad for is Wilco. Same thing here.'"
So we're not going to get paid as well, maybe not very well at all. But hey, that's OK because there'll still be fantastic journalism, and whaddya gonna do? This is truly an aesthetic appreciation of one's own plight. It reminds me of one of my college professors, who one day told us we would be lucky as the first generation of journalists who made enough money throughout our careers that we could raise families and not have to go into P.R. A couple of days later, he said: I'd write for free for a byline, and so should you. So as for Wilco's diminshed paychecks -- well, who cares? I downloaded their music free. Let 'em live in a garage. Just keep turning out those tunes, Jeff. I love your stuff. Not gonna pay ya for it, though. Find someone else to subsidize it.
Somehow Tom Lehrer's famous lyric comes to mind: "'Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department,' says Wernher von Braun." And that's why Doug's thoughts are so worth reading. We may disagree on tactics, but he knows that journalistic idealism and a hope that something will somehow take care of things is not going to get us out of our problems.
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
OK, the head of USA Today said it, now Gary Pruitt of McClatchy said it:
"McClatchy will likely end up with online revenue around a couple hundred million dollars this year. But it will not equal print revenue in the foreseeable future."
As an anonymous poster on Gannett Blog noted today:
"News gathering is too expensive to be sustained in the low-rent world of the Internet. We can't produce a page of news as cheaply as a competing site fills its screen with user-generated content -- or stolen digests of what the newspaper world produced at great expense."
Fine. Can we stop having to believe now that the online fairy is going to make everything OK again at some unknown point down the road? Can we start really talking about how to save ourselves and what we do and believe in, for those of us who believe in it, and stop saying it's all about the conversation and trying to match the economic model of bloggers? More niche products, fewer but smarter pages (whether just for now or forever), higher cost to consumers, pay walls like Little Rock's, whether beneath the bombast of Lee Abrams' notes are ideas that could save the sort of journalism we need to do while producing the sort of products readers may want more than we do? Every idea gores someone's ox. Can we do this without running for cover every time someone says, "You're just trying to save your stupid 19th-century buggy whip business"?
We've believed for a decade that at some point in the future, we'd strike online gold and clean up there like we cleaned up in print. It's not going to happen. That doesn't mean, forget online. It means we need a strategy based on what we are, and not based on a complete metamorphosis into something else that in any event hasn't happened in the last decade anyway. In the end, our core competency is that we publish newspapers. Let the people who want to be something else be something else.
Monday, June 16, 2008
Lawrence Downes, clearly a friend of newspaper copy editors, waxes elegiac in today's New York Times after visiting Washington's new Newseum and not finding a copy editing gallery:
"I was one for a long time, and I know that obscurity and unpopularity are part of the job. Copy editors work late hours and can get testy. They never sign their work.
"As for what they do, here’s the short version: After news happens in the chaos and clutter of the real world, it travels through a reporter’s mind, a photographer’s eye, a notebook and camera lens, into computer files, then through multiple layers of editing. Copy editors handle the final transition to an ink-on-paper object. On the news-factory floor, they do the refining and packaging. They trim words, fix grammar, punctuation and style, write headlines and captions.
"But they also do a lot more. Copy editors are the last set of eyes before yours. They are more powerful than proofreaders. They untangle twisted prose. They are surgeons, removing growths of error and irrelevance; they are minimalist chefs, straining fat. Their goal is to make sure that the day’s work of a newspaper staff becomes an object of lasting beauty and excellence once it hits the presses."
But then Downes hears the flapping wings of mortality above him:
"Presses. It has probably already struck you how irrelevant many of these skills may seem in the endlessly shifting, eternal glow of the Web. ... In that world of the perpetual present tense — post it now, fix it later, update constantly — old-time, persnickety editing may be a luxury in which only a few large news operations will indulge. It will be an artisanal product, like monastery honey and wooden yachts."
Copy editing can work just as effectively, copy editors can do their jobs just as well, in online or print, for the same reason that copy editors could do their work on a single-edition morning paper or on a multiple-edition afternoon paper (which is what the Web increasingly resembles for newsrooms). Subbing out wire stories with 17th leads, rewriting headlines when a story was bumped inside, cutting five grafs for the last edition -- that was part of our job, too. With a Web story, you may not have time to do the math the first time, but you can fix it on the fly. With a morning newspaper, you do what you do and the next morning find out if you did it right. There are pluses and minuses to both.
Stupid newspaper editors, who can't see beyond "feet on the street," downplay the role and involvement of copy editors, and stupid Web site chiefs, who can't see beyond "sticky eyeballs," do the same. And there have always been stupid newspaper editors, so there will always be stupid Web site chiefs.
The biggest difference for copy editing is workflow -- the mechanics of putting out a printed newspaper dictate the time sequencing of your job. The mechanics of a Web operation are still free form. Eventually, though, they will settle into some sort of general workflow and routine, because people want their jobs to have a routine, except for those with gnatlike attention spans who want permanent revolution -- who, alas, are still controlling too much of the conversation about the Web.
As for editing audio and video, some copy editors will excel at this and some will not, and eventually, I think, it will rotate back everywhere to visual editors and word editors -- but everyone's too strapped for money at the moment. The movement to regional toning centers, while bad in the short term for employment, holds the promise that the people who used to tone photos in St. Cloud and Muskogee might be replaced locally by people who edit video, thus letting copy editors edit copy. Is there anything about toning a photo that demands local expertise? (There may be, but I expect in an age of filmless photography that it is far less important than it was when the toners were lab techs.)
Downes should take a closer look at the Newseum, though. Are the exhibit captions correct, spelled right, done to style? Are the quotes properly attributed? Do the exhibits make clear why they are there? Do the brochures have the right verb tenses? If so, the whole building is a tribute to copy editors. I haven't been yet, but I hope copy editors' work is seen everywhere in the Newseum the same as it is seen in newspapers every day -- the anonymous thing in the background that lets the reader (or visitor) concentrate on the content and not question the professionalism or credibility or relevance.
Sunday, June 15, 2008
Friday, June 13, 2008
More on advertising: I haven't found the link yet, but May's Presstime also reported that among young people newspaper inserts were the second-most-favored method of researching purchases. Link TK. Alan Mutter reports today that the cost of printing may increase ROP advertising -- and thus newsprint space. And a study by Google seems to indicate that for at least some readers, internet shopping works better with newspaper advertising. As the article notes, "Yet, it may suggest that newspaper and Web work best when working together."
As noted, today's topic is W. Dean Singleton, and even to in some places praise him, which can be a hard thing to do. Dean is like the old Thomson chain -- even when they were doing the right thing, you wondered what they were hiding and you feared it couldn't last. The headline on Dean's speech at the WAN conference in Stockholm was that 19 of the top 50 U.S. newspapers were losing money. (For years journalists have railed about obscene profit margins and money-grubbing management. Now, papers are being kept alive by their owners despite no profits, and journalists are railing about money-grubbing management.)
But back to Dean, who noted (here is his speech) that the only industries as challenged as newspapers are airlines and -- yes -- department stores. (It's good to know we're still joined at the hip and are going to hell together.) He adds:
"Despite the growth of radio beginning in the 1930’s and TV in the 1950’s, we continued to enjoy growth in revenue even if our market share declined. Life was good. But in the 1990’s something began to change for us.
"Was it the proliferation of cable news channels, the inexorable trend toward two-wage earners per household working outside the home, time pressed lifestyles, the emergence of the Internet, or the explosion and fragmentation of all forms of media? Was it the consequence of consolidation in our industry, combined with public ownership and subsequent pressure from institutional and large shareholders? It was all of these factors."
It may seem obvious for Dean to note this, but Dean is right to note once again that our problems didn't begin with broadband or this generation of young people. Market share has been declining since the 1960s and circulation has been declining since the 1980s and we didn't care because we kept charging more money for advertising. Of course, Dean was among those who did that. But he was far from alone.
He goes on: "The merger of Macy’s and May Co. resulted in substantial consolidation of department store print spending. The merger of Sears and K-Mart had the same effect. Newspaper advertising from all general merchandisers has declined by 20% across the industry over the past 5 years, and within that category, department store spending has declined even more steeply." (And Wal-mart barely even advertises in newspapers.)
"In the national advertising category, revenue is down almost 30% from last year. In better times, we enjoyed brand advertising from General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. We also benefited from the wave of growth in telecommunications products, such as cell phones, long distance services and Internet access. But as you know, the telecom industry has succumbed to a surge of consolidation, hitting hard our ad revenue form this important category."
It's not just that newspaper advertising is down. All kinds of advertising are down. Read Advertising Age long enough and you will read "Death of Advertising" stories. But Dean wants to keep the presses rolling.
"At MediaNews, we believe in print. Our newspapers and partnerships have, in the past two years, invested almost half a billion dollars in new, modern and efficient printing and mailroom plants. Why? Because these investments help make our core more efficient as revenue is challenged. Efficiency in our core product is a key building block in our new strategy, because our core newspapers fund our growth of new business. ..."
I believe in anyone who believes in print. But Dean then wanders into the newsroom:
"We have also been more creative about how content is produced, with an emphasis on maintaining quality and localness while sharing resources among newspapers and on making these changes transparent to the reader. ... In San Francisco, we have consolidated reporting and editing functions to eliminate costly duplication, just as we’ve merged production, administration, accounting and circulation of our newspapers. And in Los Angeles, we’re merging functions of our nine dailies in areas of news, production, accounting, advertising, circulation and administration. And in most of our newsrooms, we’re eliminating costly infrastructures as we protect our core news gathering functions and expand online staffing."
We know this means, in general, that instead of reporters from Pasadena, the Valley, Long Beach and Torrance covering the Los Angeles County government, one reporter is covering Los Angeles county government. And "costly infrastructures" mean "copy editors, layout editors, graphic artists..." So, yeah, as a journalist, this is the point at which I stop praising Dean for his clear-eyed realism, his investments in print, his willingness to see a future for newspapers, and say: Hey, Dean, stop goring my ox. I love my ox. Go lay off some more pressmen.
Dean does know how to end a speech, though, with a rousing call to arms:
"... We must not lose sight of why we’re in business in the first place and why ensuring a dynamic future for newspapers is so important. Sure, economic performance is important. After all, without solid earnings you can’t fund future growth. But there is also a greater calling to us all.
Newspapers are the cornerstone of democracies everywhere. We owe it to our countries to succeed in navigating a new newspaper model.
"So this 400-year-old industry has been a leader since the first newspapers were formed in this country … we were there before government … we are the model for emerging democracies even today … and we can be on the cutting edge of the new social revolution that’s before us now … … if we stay true to the role we are meant to play.
"If we print what our readers … not what we … want. If we discard our arrogance and old ideas. If we let our readers participate. There is more at stake here than our economic fortunes. The old newspaper model, without major changes, is destined to fail. Paired with a revolutionary new model, we can succeed. If we fail, democracy fails. Failure is not an option."
You can parse that one backward and forward, but let's take Dean at his word. He's based in Denver, so he could have made his money in Chipotle franchises. Something has kept him coming back to newspapers. Why not the same thing that all journalists believe, that we're doing this for the good of mankind? And Dean, bless his well-brought-up Texas soul, knows enough not to say "fuck" to meetings of journalists. So whatever he said here, he can relax knowing that it's Sam Zell they're after this year, not him.
No, our problem with Dean isn't with his motivations. It's not with whether he centralizes call centers or lays off pressmen. Our problem with Dean, with Sam, with Tony Ridder, with Gannett, comes down in the end to one sentence the always praiseworthy Rem Rieder says in his response to Zell's byline count plan:
"The contribution of staffers is measured by the quality of their work."
Rem is a wonderful writer and editor and is a realistic man. But he is saying: What we do can't be measured quantitatively. And who can measure quality? People who understand quality. Thus, I would hear Rem saying, we are the best judges of what we do.
If the measure of my work is quality, and the people who can measure quality are myself and my peers, and I know that the sort of work I and my peers do and want to do is quality work ... Dean, just sit down and write some checks. Your ideas are not welcome.
And if we are the definers of quality, and if the public says something like, we want shorter stories on routine matters, thus fewer (not no) jumps, and someone says (as someone with a swath of major prizes always will) that if we give that to them, we are diminishing quality... then one who disagrees risks automatic definition as a Philistine. That's at the far edge. We know most people in a newsroom do not live there. We know some do. We know how that can block any sort of change in a newsroom, whether it's for print, for online, for anything.
Yes, when we talk about the "Death of Newspapers," we're not all talking about the same thing. We're talking about newspapers and journalism and how and whether they're linked. We're talking about some people who love print and some people who don't give a damn about it and pr0bably hated it before there was an alternative. We're talking about whether democracy can in the end be served by a company that has to make money or whether journalism should be a publicly funded good like NPR. We're talking about whether reporting on high school soccer games is information or news or journalism and whether journalists should have to be involved in it. About whether resources spent on sizing engagement photos mean fewer resources spent asking Scott McClellan, "Why did you lie?" Whether quality is our only criterion. And whether Wal-mart will ever run ads with us. Questions that didn't matter much when it looked as if newspapers would keep having more and more money endlessly.
That's a hell of a lot for an economically challenged industry to deal with. So those of us who believe in newspapers may have to position ourselves away from those who believe that newspapers are irrelevant or revanchist or have too many distractions from journalism. We may just have to say, we're trying to save newspapers, with an online component and a mobile component sure, but we're saving newspapers as a product that has this and that and the other, that creates and binds a community, and that means not just saving but enhancing our core product instead of abandoning it as a carcass to feed senile wolves. We believe in the end that this will be good and that if we fail, some part of democracy is lessened. We have common ground with Dean Singleton and we think that a newspaper put on a better financial basis might be able to afford more reporters to cover Los Angeles county government, but if one reporter speaking to thousands of newspaper readers is what we can do today, it's not wrong because it's not optimal. If that's not where you are, fine, seek your happiness, but we're not going to listen to "newspapers are dead" anymore. And we aren't Philistines because of it.
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
It seems like we're at the watershed.
It isn't just gas prices and lack of advertising that brought us here. It's Sam Zell. Or, rather, it's Sam Zell and the Los Angeles Times.
But what a week it's been.
The Wall Street Journal looks at the Washington Post's local-local effort in Loudoun County, Va., and pronounces it a failure. The hitherto golden-child Rob Curley flees to Las Vegas, saying it's all his fault and that he tried to do local-local without actually being part of the community he was doing it for. Jon Talton weighs in, writing in part:
The Journal story says local-local "'embraces the idea that a high-school prom is as newsworthy as a debate over where to build a hospital, and that Little League deserves major-league attention. ....' This kind of sophistry was rammed down the throats of newsrooms around the country, backed by questionable research. ... I sat in countless focus groups where regular readers reacted with disdain to these schemes, while non-readers said "gee, kewl," but would still refuse to buy the paper. Yet the corporate bosses plunged ahead. ...
"Highly skilled journalists were demoralized and pushed out the door. These are the very people who could indeed compete 'with the Internet or cable TV.' To take one example, Knight-Ridder's superb Washington bureau was the only mainstream news organization to provide skeptical coverage of the run-up to the Iraq folly. And newsrooms were discouraged from compelling, high-impact coverage of local news. ... Scripps shut down the Cincinnati Post rather than try something like an Internet newspaper, with a staff of 10 top-notch journalists and propellerheads on a mission to cover real news in a fascinating but secretive city. Get this: The failure has been the business model, not real journalism."
Meanwhile, over at the current definition of journalistic evil, Tribune Co., the innovation officer Lee Abrams, famed for his rock-radio memos, has been to Baltimore and sees them saving the newspaper:
"Creating something that is both economically viable and completely engaging and credible that will delight existing fans and significantly raise the interest of occasional readers and re ignite interest among non and former readers. ... Looking overseas. That's where reinvention is happening...and circulations are often rocketing upwards. Ideas influenced by papers like Excelsior in Mexico City. Looking outside of the obvious circle for inspiration. Foreign papers are far from perfect...but they ARE trying things we aren't. And keeping our eyes outside of the traditional circle will feed ideas. ... Defining it as a Lifestyle paper. Hard news? Of course! But also tools for better living. A lot to like. The hard stuff is there...it's all about a really modern presentation that mobilized the skills, talents and visions of a passionate group.... The paper will be smaller and more compact, BUT far more focused and engaging which at the end of the day will be more satisfying. Despite the words of the pundits, the idea is not to equate economic reality with quality loss. There's NO reason that quality can't soar in a new reality environment. Though it's understandable that an initial reaction would be that quality will decline...but only if we let it."
Fie on that, says Ken Doctor in looking at the Zellibune's cuts (not Abrams' memo specifically) in his blog Content Bridges, because it's too late, too late, nothing will help:
Tribune's Randy Michaels' "saying the papers will become more USA Today-like, with:
"a new look and feel in each market, emphasizing what people are telling us they want in the research: charts, graphs, maps, lists. ... Wow. Great solution for 1992 perhaps, 10 years after USA Today turned the newspaper world, Pleasantvillelike, from black and white to color. The problem with that is that USA Today is essentially flat last several years in circulation, and it's got a national base and multiplicity of hotel/travel programs to keep the numbers up. The biggest innovation of the last couple of years isn't the color weather map on USA Today's back page; it's Google's ability to map everything and anything, instantly -- at the customer's fingertips and choice, 24/7...."
The end of newspapers "is, at this point, inevitable anyhow. I give Michaels credit in publicly announcing some thinking about how to justify cuts, but he could have put it more simply. People and paper are our two biggest costs, and we don't have enough money to maintain current levels of spending. That's less fancy, but more to the point. ... Anyhow, the whole notion of a daily newspaper is now obsolescent. It has taken way too long to get to 24/7 newsrooms and news output, but that's what the national players -- from CNN to the New York Times to the BBC -- have adjusted to. ... The old daily paper is being -- as we watched Hillary Clinton's concession on Saturday and its instant analysis on TV and web -- replaced by the web."
Fie on that, says Fortune's Stanley Bing in his blog:
"Newspapers are dead. Dead dead dead. Yes, Rupert Murdoch doesn’t seem to believe so, but he is incorrect in this, or doesn’t see the truth right now, or whatever. Because you know newspapers? They’re dead. This is not helped at all by the appearance of Sam Zell, who bought Tribune ... and whose chief operating officer recently announced they would begin to judge the value of journalists by the column inches they produced in a year. This is sort of like saying that Chichi’s is the best restaurant in America because it serves the greatest weight in nachos. That aside, however, everybody does agree: they’re dead. One day there will be no newspapers, because No Young People Read Newspapers.
"Is this true? My kids are of sentient age. They read newspapers. In fact, they’re both knee deep in Obamamania right now, and read everything they can get their hands on. I see people reading newspapers on the street, in parks, on subways and buses… when you get a bad story in the newspaper it still ruins your day… But no. They’re dead. Know why? Because Advertising is Down in newspapers. Now of course, advertising is sort of down across the board, and actually MUCH more disappointing on all those social networks everybody loves so much… and newspapers still attract a HUGE proportion of total advertising…
"But no. Newspapers are dead. And advertisers read that and, timid little lambkins that they are, cut their budgets even more, because after all who wants to advertise in a dead medium?
Finally, newspapers are, you know, dead because they Haven’t Changed With The Times and News Is A Commodity That You Can Get Just As Well Online. Except guess what. It’s not. ...
So let’s take a breath and just agree: newspapers aren’t any deader right now than any other coughing, wheezing business in this lousy environment. Lehman is losing nearly $3 billion dollars this quarter. Nobody talks about investment banking being dead. Broadcast television just racked up more than $9.2 billion in its upfront sales season, in spite of analysts’ predictions that this year would be its last. And not one social network is really making a go of it yet."
Dead? Living? At least nearly everyone agrees: Fie on Sam Zell! Juan Giner, who advocates for smaller but better print newspapers, says: Fie on Sam Zell! A story in the New York Times said: Fie on Sam Zell! And Harold Meyerson writes on the op-ed page of the Post, which started all this by not succeeding with local-local in Loudon County:
"During his first year in journalism, Zell has visited the city rooms and Washington bureaus of a number of Trib publications to deliver obscenity-laced warnings and threats to employees that whatever it was they were doing, it wasn't working. There was too much coverage of world and national affairs, he told Times writers and editors; readers don't want that stuff. Last week, the company decreed that its 12 papers would have to cut by 500 the number of pages they devoted every week to news, features and editorials, until the ratio of pages devoted to copy and pages devoted to advertising was a nice, even 1 to 1. At the Times, that would mean eliminating 82 pages a week.
"As the company prepares to shed more reporters, it has measured writers' performances by the number of column inches of stories they ground out. It found, said one Zell executive, that the level of pages per reporter at one of Zell's smaller papers, the Hartford Courant (about 300), greatly exceeded that at the Times (about 50). As one of the handful of major national papers, however, the Times employs the kind of investigative and expert beat reporters not found at most smaller papers. I could name a number of Times writers who labored for months on stories that went on to win Pulitzers and other prizes, and whose column-inch production, accordingly, was relatively light. Doing so, I fear, would only put their necks on Zell's chopping block. So let me instead note that if The Post's Dana Priest and Anne Hull, who spent months uncovering the scandalous conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and whose reporting not only won a Pulitzer but caused a shake-up in the Army's treatment of wounded veterans, had been subjected to the Zellometer productivity index, they'd be prime candidates for termination."
I don't want to put words in Meyerson's mouth. I'm sure he feels bad for the overworked wretches at the Courant or the Newport News Daily Press or the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. But they are not his main concern. They might even be doing local-local news. The Times, the Post, the L.A. Times, the Journal, are playing the world-and-national-affairs game, and Zell comes along and says: That's not my game. Readers don't want that game. Fie!
On a side note, over at Presstime, the NAA magazine, vice president of advertising Jim Conaghan writes about reader behavior:
"The washing machine in my home was leaking badly and needed to be replaced. So I found myself in the elite category of less than 1 percent of adults who were in the market to buy a major appliance during a typical week (see chart). But all I needed to do when I returned home from the trip was pick up the Sunday newspaper in my driveway and look through the inserts. Which I did, just like 87 percent of newspaper readers."
Wow. 87 percent of newspaper readers look at the Sunday inserts. I am wondering if Jon Talton, Rob Curley, Lee Abrams, Ken Doctor, Harold Meyerson or even Stanley Bing look at the Sunday inserts. (I don't look at the Sunday inserts.)
Now to Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson, the creators of EPIC2014, writing from the National Conference for Media Reform at their blog Smarkmarket:
"When we finally got to the question-and-answer part of the session, I asked, 'What do we mean when we talk about "saving The Newspaper"?' A newspaper is actually a collection of rather disparate things, I pointed out. And I inferred from the panelists’ remarks that some of The Newspaper’s contents seem more urgent candidates for salvation than others. ... Coverage of high school football games, political punditry, and breezy trend stories, for example — all typical and significant components of many newspapers — might not be in any danger of imminent death. Nor, some would argue, might Democracy suffer much if they were. Yet [outgoing Newspaper Guild chairman] Linda Foley speaks of 2,500 journalists leaving the industry last year as though each of them was out on the streets exposing slumlords and investigating groundwater quality.
"Serious, detailed, local, investigative journalism is a relatively small component of what composes the modern newspaper. As is nuanced, context-rich news analysis. Or even probing coverage of school district developments, city council meetings, business mergers, etc. All of these things used to sit rather innocuously alongside the flood of rehashed national and international briefs, crime reports, traffic accidents, weather updates, game recaps, home decor tips, pizza coupons, casserole recipes, movie reviews, and gossip columns that make up your typical newspaper. But I suspect the union of all these types of content in a single package has always been something of a shotgun wedding.
"And in the age of the long tail, there are fewer and fewer reasons why a cobbled-together Frankenstein monster like The Newspaper should exist. If what we want to ask is 'How can we save serious, detailed, local investigative journalism?' then I suspect we can have a more focused and productive conversation if we actually asked that question. Ditto if the question is 'How can we make sure the local school board meeting is covered?' When folks rightly say that there’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all answer to the problems plaguing journalism, it’s because we lack even a one-size-fits-all question. 'How do we save The Newspaper?' certainly isn’t it."
I suspect they don't like Sam Zell either. If they were commenting on him, they would say: Fie! And they may not read the inserts. Sloan and Thompson do need to admit the possibility of asking the question: How do we save the newspaper? Because that question can be asked just as legitimately as: How do we save serious journalism? But they are right in saying: These are not just different ways of asking the same question. These are different questions, and if we try to find one answer that will satisfy everyone, we will fail. The watershed is deciding what questions each of us wants to answer.
In an earlier post Sloan and Thompson, like Ken Doctor, said: Why are we still having the same conversations we were having 12 years ago? Because we're not really having a conversation about the same thing. We're talking about:
1) The package -- the newspaper -- as a product, whether in print or online, vs. news coverage. If news can be conveyed instantly, is there any purpose for something that does not convey news instantly?
2) What the typical newspaper customer wants from the product vs. what the heavy news reader wants from some source or product. Does the product have any purpose apart from journalism? If 87 percent read the inserts, are the inserts nevertheless irrelevant?
3) What constitutes journalism, what constitutes news, what constitutes information.
4) Is journalism too important to be entrusted to newspaper owners?
We THINK we're talking about the same thing -- the future of newspapers -- but we're not. We're talking about whether a newspaper exists to produces a consumer product that contains journalism, and/or whether it exists to enable journalism and all the other stuff is there to be thrown over the side if necessary. We're talking about economically supporting a product of varied news and advertising and/or economically supporting a watchdog group on the powerful and on civic matters. We're talking about space and time to investigate Walter Reed and/or putting space and time into local-local news. We're talking about whether the Web is just so superior in letting people access movie reviews that everything else just needs to give up, and/or whether a staff position can be given to a movie critic if that means that someone is not looking into the financing of the housing authority. We're talking about whether readers want a union of world briefs, marriage licenses, garden columns and Macy's ads from a newspaper and/or whether they want the I-Team.
And what makes the conversation harder is that some people are seeing those questions as "or" and some are seeing them as "and." Lee Abrams says there's lots that can be done to save newspapers. Ken Doctor says nothing can be done to save newspapers. Some say newspapers are not worth saving unless they concentrate their fullest resources on their highest calling. Others say newspapers are a viable product regardless. We get business arguments conflated with moral arguments conflated with professional self-definition arguments conflated with past/future arguments. No wonder we can't figure out what to do. We can't figure out what we want to do. Maybe we need to accept that we used to all live in the same house, and now we can't anymore.
I've gone on too long, and I am about to write something praising some remarks of Dean Singleton's, which will totally discredit me for some, so ... more to come.
Sunday, June 8, 2008
Friday, June 6, 2008
Busy, busy, busy. Back at work.
If newspapers have been department stores, alt-weeklies have grown from head shops into -- the Harvard Co-op? Whatever they are, they spent a good bit of the 1990s taking shots at their daily brethren. They may have been the original ones kvetching about the shortcomings of the MSM -- how their ability to write with a point of view allowed them to get at a greater truth about a story.
Turns out, though, they're just another challenged print media hurt by the defection of classifieds. They've been having their convention in Philadelphia, and they know the answer:
"'We write for intelligent readers,' says Tony Ortega, editor of The Village Voice, the oldest and most historic alt-weekly. 'Dailies cater to people who don’t like to read. Look at the way they’re written.'...
"'You hear talk that dailies will publish less frequently,' says Dan Kennedy, media critic and longtime contributor to The Boston Phoenix. 'That they’ll go free and encourage writers to express themselves openly. They’re talking about what alt newspapers have been doing for decades.'"
To the carpenter, any problem can be solved with the right wood.
But no, says Tribune Co., it's not wood, it's metal:
"1. We are not giving readers what they want, and 2. We are printing bigger papers than we can afford to print. First, our publishing business -- and to reiterate, it IS a business -- needs to retool itself to a customer-centric model. We have now reviewed dozens of reader studies done by Tribune over the years, and they present clear and consistent findings. Readers want:* Unbiased, honest journalism* LOCAL consumer and community news* Maps, graphics, lists, ranking and stats."
So bring in the nuts and bolts and throw out the nails and wood glue. But wait. Maybe it's wallboard and a molly bolt. To my former colleague Dave Lieber, a longtime leader in the newspaper columnists' association, the answer is: Columnists.
"In the end, all that will be left for a newspaper is, I believe, the marketing of its brand name personalities. In York, Pa., future billboards should say, 'We've got Mike Argento and nobody else does.' In Massachusetts, when you click on a paper's Web site (or whatever the eventual preferred medium is) a video image of self-syndicated columnist Terry Marotta should pop up and say, 'Today, I'm going to tell you a story about how one of your neighbors. . .' The personality is what will give the dying product life. Personality sells. Personality is the print equivalent to 'must-see TV.' Personality delivers the unexpected."
But maybe it isn't the building material. Maybe it's the size of the house, as Juan Giner and the Innovation team roll out a proposed new size format for newspapers (their copyright (c) 2008 Bermer/Innovation hereby noted)
"Short and deep. Newsy. Smart. Sharp. Less of More. More of Less. Analytical. Easy to read.
We know that when the hammer looks at a problem, it sees a nail as the solution. The alt-weekly sees alt-weekly writing as the solution. The businessman sees fewer pages and more lists as the solution. The columnist sees columns as the solution. The format designer sees format as the solution.
But look at the common areas. The businessman says readers want unbiased, honest journalism. The alt-weekly says, we've been providing honest journalism, unlike the dailies.
The columnist says he wants personality. The designer says he wants smart, sharp, analytical.
The designer says he wants "less of more, more of less." The businessman says he wants fewer pages.
The businessman says readers want more lists. The alt-weekly has been providing pages of lists for decades.
Great areas of common ground. Yet often an inability to find it. Because behind it all lies pride and fear as well: "Journalism ain't widgets.... Important stories take longer than less important stories. Analysis takes longer than stenography."
The answer may be to use nails and molly bolts and metal screws and at the same time redesign the building. But the carpenter is darn good with those nails. He's spent years honing his craft. A building that isn't composed mainly of studs and nails just doesn't seem like the sort of building he wants to work on. The metal worker sees returning to lumber as falling back to the past. Both may see wallboard as a cheap substitute for their own labor. And none of them really wants to hear, "The size house you guys have been building for years is wrong."
We all want a solution for the future. We just want a solution that lets us keep doing what we want to do the way we want to do it.
Tribune Co. is getting nailed today and will keep getting nailed because it hit one of the third rails of journalism, byline counts. Byline counts can be pernicious. They can be done stupidly. Obviously every reporter sees them as a threat. Analyzing what your employees are doing in terms of what readers want from your product is not stupid. Analyzing why employees at operation A do X amount of work and employees at operation B do Y, particularly if operation A is doing better than B in terms of reader satisfaction, is not stupid. It does fly in the face of the journalistic belief that you go from A to B so that you can do Y and not X -- that operation B is for the kids and the untalented, but operation A is real journalism.
As said here before: If great journalism was the only answer, we'd be wallowing in money today.