Thursday, July 31, 2008

We Interrupt This Rant

Everything that's been said here having being said:

This could be the month when the newspaper business as we know it dies.

Newhouse says that if it doesn't get concessions, it will sell The Star-Ledger and close the Trenton Times. Well, there's still The Trentonian. Whoops, it's owned by Journal Register, which may be in technical default. So the state capital of New Jersey could wind up without a daily newspaper and simply get whatever attention gave Trenton local news without having a Trenton newspaper to support. (That's assuming still exists, if Newhouse sells the Star-Ledger. Why would it?) There would still be some journalism being done, but would anyone who isn't already involved in government or civic activism really care? (UPDATE: While the New York Times story said the Trenton Times would be closed, the Star-Ledger story says the papers would be sold "as a unit." Whom to believe?)

Gatehouse, which owns 98 dailies and was a Wall Street darling not 18 months ago, is down to selling for peanuts and is seen as likely to default. Journal Register is selling for less than a peanut. Both of these companies not only own dailies, they own tons of weeklies that are usually the only sources of news for their communities. The only sources. There's no citizen journalism in Cinnaminson. There might be someone who would want to rant about trash collection or fourth grade teachers. My biggest problem with online journalism is those who see no difference between news and ax-grinding, indeed who feel there should be no difference. It's all information, it's all content, and none of us needs mediators. If you think it's just peachy to have someone who was fired by the city and failed to be elected to the council as the main source of local political news, that it's just another voice in the debate and that readers know enough to discount the bias, you have a faith in discernment and involvement that makes the concerns about the New Yorker's Obama cover look small.

Newspaper companies have churned over the years. Remember Ingersoll? Panax? Daily newspapers have disappeared from troubled markets. Remember the Metro-East Journal in East St. Louis?

This didn't use to be a problem because someone would have bought these papers. But who will buy them now? Who will step into the void, as the Belleville News-Democrat did in East St. Louis?

People have been talking about how some metro newspapers may not make it. Forget that for today. Lots of county-seat newspapers, which were immune until now, are owned by companies that may just blow away. This is not just going to two-day-a-week publication and updating the Web site and saying your main problem is going to be older people who won't see online obituaries. This is, gone. Look on Topix or Yahoo News for "Palmyra, N.J." or "Norristown, Pa." and see what you get, and from where.

This is not just the disappearance of classified advertising to the Web or the migration of readers, who in print still greatly outnumber those on Web sites. This is not small-town merchants who can't afford to advertise in metro papers. These are small-town or small-city papers. This is newsprint price rises and high-priced gasoline and collapsing retail sales and big-box stores that don't advertise. This is newspapers getting declining shares of local online advertising. These were decent bets for which loans were taken out in 2006 and that have gone bad. This is panic, and its result.

And there's nothing one can do about it, short of lots of people falling on their swords. But somehow, I don't think that this is what those predicting the glorious death of printed newspapers, replaced by a cornucopia of online information, exactly had in mind. One can imagine how one would replicate most of the functions of the Los Angeles Times online in some form or another and make actual businesses out of them, because of the scale of the market and the Times' emphasis on national and world news and stories affecting a vast region. One can imagine creating a Web site in Los Angeles serving an affluent neighborhood or one filled with goo-goo activists and making it into a business.

One struggles to say the same of Trenton, Ewing and Hamilton. At that point, it's someone's hobby. We have not yet come to terms with what happens when local journalism becomes a hobby.

Janus and Julian

My former colleague Mark Bowden is one of the notable journalists of our time. His "Black Hawk Down" was arguably the first major newspaper project to make full use of the Internet. He writes and reports with great facility. He tells interesting tales. And he understands what copy desks do. In his Atlantic piece on Rupert Murdoch's takeover of The Wall Street Journal, written weeks before they announced the end of the Global Copy Desk, he wrote:

"Thomson has made clear that he intends to 'clarify reporting lines,' which is taken to mean that he plans to thin the ranks of the mid-level editors who were the newspaper's line of defense against sloppiness and error. It is worth noting that the number of corrections in the first quarter of this year, under Murdoch's reign, has risen by more than 25 percent compared with the first quarter of 2007, an increase that the company says reflects an increase in the number of stories the new Journal is running." (They have 25 percent more stories? I doubt it, and clearly Bowden clearly does too.)

So who am I to criticize Mark Bowden? Well, I'm a guy with a blog, and this is the 21st century. But the problem is not Mark Bowden, it's an idea that ran wild, an ideal with two faces.

Bowden's article is an incredibly good read and I am only going to be pulling excerpts from it. in his review of the changes that came upon newspapers after TV and radio had rendered them virtual print monopolies:

"The concepts of objectivity and editorial independence grew into a kind of public religion. ... Newsrooms were increasingly peopled by a new generation of white-collar journalists, gentlemen (and ladies) of the Fourth Estate, arbiters of style, taste and decency, who took upon themselves the tasks of keeping government honest and educating the public. ... If only [skeptics] knew how mightily the newsroom looked down its nose at the business side of the operation...

"This vision of a newspaper ... ensured that the paper was not just a propaganda mill, the house organ of some rich man or political party, but a community of street-smart shoe-leather scholars who worked as the eyes, ears, and conscience of their city. This was the world of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, of David Halberstam's and Neil Sheehan's courageous reporting from Vietnam, and of countless other examples...

"Even literary ambition began to creep into the pages of the great newspapers. At the best ones, when the material justified it, reporters were encouraged to write creatively and at length. A certain kind of reporter -- and I was one -- competed against each other not so much for scoops, but for recognition, prizes, and tenured positions at papers where the rarefied work of 'serious' journalism was underwritten. Mine was The Philadelphia Inquirer, where my byline read not 'staff reporter' or 'staff correspondent' but 'staff writer,' and which we writers called, in its heyday, 'the greatest care-and-feeding system for journalism ever invented.'

"In this elevated climate, The Wall Street Journal was held in unique regard. Its disdain for street sales was defining. In appearance, it was defiantly dull and predictable... The Journal broadcast its refusal to pander to readers. Every day the front page featured two 'leders' and the incomparable 'a-hed.' These were long, ambitious, exceedingly well-written stories. ... A probe of backdated stock options ... or Geeta Anand's moving narrative about the crisis at a biotech company that had been asked to provide an experimental drug for a dying child.

"The a-hed was a quirky profile or narrative, usually brilliantly reported, a master class in feature writing: Carrie Dolan on fainting goats, Barry Newman on a man who has a doctorate in bug gunk, or Tony Horwitz on going to work in a slaughterhouse. Breaking news, no matter how shocking, was relegated to a brisk summary in two regular columns. This was a serious newspaper for serious readers...

"When journalists worry about the decline of newspapers, this sort of seriousness is what they fear is being lost. ... The worst part of this is, the public doesn't seem to care....

"Murdoch is a panderer. Like most businessmen, he wants to figure out what his customers want and then deliver it."

Think about this for a while, thinking at the same time about terms such as "USA Today," "local-local," "focus groups," "declining circulation," "public service," "church and state," "readership," "major investigations," "prizes," "Los Angeles Times," "Bloomingdale's," "Wal-mart."

And we shall return to apostacism.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

It's Time for the 50-50 Club

The Zellots at Tribune Co. have gotten rid of a big chunk of their news staffs -- although it's interesting that they also were criticized for imposing a 50-50 ad ratio. When I got into the business the ratio was generally 60 percent ads, 40 percent news. An alleged primer called "How to Run a Newspaper" on Wikibooks says: "Some publications use a ratio of 50 percent advertising to 50 percent content, while others use a 60/40 ad-to-content ratio, and still others use a 70/30 ad-to-content ratio. While each publication determines its own ratio, the closer to a 50/50 balance you maintain, the better your publication will be viewed by your readers. The reason: it will seem like they have actual content to read -- not just ads to pass by in a vain attempt to find your content." Gee, maybe Sam Zell did a Wikipedia search and said, "Aha, 50-50! Wow, this Wikibooks page explains the whole newspaper business to me."

An AJR article about the former Thomson Newspapers in 1998 said: "The ratio used to be 60-40 -- 60 percent ads, 40 percent news. Any local newspaper that can get 40 percent now considers itself riding high. But the 40 is ads." So if the newspaper business went from 60-40 ads to 40-60 ads, it wasn't strictly through its own desire, it was a lack of ads. And was Tribune really running all of its newspapers at a 40-60 ad ratio pre-Zell? This is, after all, the allegedly bean-counter-run Tribune Co., the organization whose only aim in life was to destroy the Los Angeles Times. (As opposed to today's Tribune Co., whose only aim in life apparently is to destroy the Los Angeles Times AND the Chicago Tribune.) Actually, it's hard to tell. Roy Greenslade in The Guardian indicates that Philip Stone in Follow the Media said they were, but the article is behind a pay wall so I can't tell what it really said.

Since Tribune clearly cut space, their news-to-ads ratio was higher than 50-50. But 20 years ago, when papers were chock-full of ads from Dayton's and Donaldson's and Powers', a 50-50 news-ad ratio would have been seen in most markets as manna from heaven. It still would at most Gannett papers, I expect. I assume they had space budgets based on 1990s ad volume and hadn't adjusted downward.

More to the point, I cannot find a story -- perhaps I am just not looking hard enough -- in which anyone asked Tribune what its previous news-ad ratio was across the chain, or called the Newspaper Association of America to ask whether it had any figures on what the typical news-ad ratio is in an American newspaper today. Indeed, many blogs referred to a 60-40 news-ad split as if it were a tradition of long standing, if not divine origin. It was far easier to simply decry the whole Zell business than to ask if what the Zellots are up to had any standing in our business today -- or even the traditions of our business. Zell says: I have to do this. There is no money. I have to save these businesses. Journalists say: We don't trust you. You didn't treat us with sufficient respect. You are a tradesman who does not understand what we do. We do not wish to lower ourselves to work for you in the first place. (But sometimes a check is just a check, of course.)

Zell's ideas may not work. At least he and his associates are putting ideas on the table instead of saying, "God, we bought a pig in a poke, let's just do nothing and let it collapse and sell the real estate." When they put ideas on the table, many journalists respond, "Those ideas have already been tried and failed." Some have, not all, and some have only been tried halfheartedly. (Not that Zell won't try some only halfheartedly himself.) We say, "We know the answer. Good journalism. It's not our fault it isn't working financially. It's your fault. But don't tell us what we should do. Who do you think you are, a brain surgeon?"

What is it about our business that when people show up and say, "We want to save your frickin' business," we tell them to go frick themselves? As it turns out, one of America's best journalists has just told us something about this in an article in the Atlantic, to which we will turn next.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Department Store Segue: Boscov's

The New York Post says Boscov's is in trouble. I went to our local Boscov's yesterday; it's a chain that prides itself on being stuffed with merchandise, and there were obvious holes. So it looks like it's in trouble.

This could be disastrous for newspapers in Pennsylvania, New York and Delaware, where Boscov's is a major advertiser. And, of course, even more disastrous for the people who work for Boscov's. In normal times, if Boscov's was in trouble you would wait for The Bon-Ton to buy it, but that chain is hurting as well. But in normal times Boscov's would not be in trouble. Boscov's has never forgotten who its customers are and what they want; it never made a frantic rush upmarket to find no one waiting for it there and its usual customers walking away.

(Never heard of Boscov's? Most of the country hasn't. Until the mid-1960s it was a neighborhood department store in Reading. Most of these little stores simply shut down when the founder retired, but Al Boscov, the son, took Boscov's into the Reading suburbs, then into the small markets in Pennsylvania. Through heavy promotions and sales it became a large regional chain. In the mid-1980s it moved into Philadelphia's suburbs.

(A couple of years ago Al Boscov and his brother-in-law Ed Lakin sold the company to the next generation and Boscov's picked up some stores set adrift in the Great Macyization; thus, like anyone who took on debt in 2006 based on expected cash flow, they're now dying. As usual, newspapers and department stores are joined at the hip.)

News coverage mentions the usual suspects -- the continuing decline of the department store model, the difficulty in being a mid-market store (you aren't the cheapest and you aren't the most stylish). Boscov's has these issues, yet with its aggressive prices, discounts, sales and promotions, Boscov's has been known as a place for bargains. I'm sure it's hurting as people trade down to Wal-marts and even dollar stores, but this seems more a case of expansion at the wrong time.

Mark Potts did a recent post called "The End of Mass," reiterating a point many have made, that there is no longer any mass market. In many ways that is true, but it can be overstated. If it were the End of Mass, Wal-mart would be in huge trouble, as would Home Depot, and not just Boscov's. In fact, in terms of product line, department stores offered far more choice than many big-box retailers do.

In television, as the New York Times noted, the total cable audience has been overtaking the total broadcast audience even while the four major networks remain the largest operations in the field. As it noted, "despite the gains, only a handful of cable series and specials — 'High School Musical,' 'WWE Raw' — draw audiences comparable to those of broadcast." And that's with broadcast drawing far fewer people than 20 years ago. So we can assume from this that mass media are dead at the same time as we can assume that mass media still have a large, though smaller, audience.

But another line in that article makes me think of newspapers and department stores more than trying to define "mass" or talking about long tails:

"It is not a totally fair fight. More than broadcasters, cable networks rely extensively on repeats and a handful of signature shows that define their brand. If viewers miss a new episode of 'Zoey 101' on Nickelodeon, they know the episode will be replayed many times. ... 'Cable’s dependable. Broadcast isn’t,' said [Ted] Harbert, a former programming executive at ABC. 'If you like the kind of stuff that E! does, you can turn it on any night and it’s there.'"

That's what Wal-mart's been selling for years, down to its trucks just bearing the word "Always." That's paint at Home Depot; we only sell Behr and Glidden, but we'll always have what you want. You can't get more mass than that, and mass retail has been driving out less mass-oriented competitors for years. And since Wal-mart is really a department store that we call a discount store, it made me think about a major difference between department stores and other mass retailers.

Department stores originally had all their goods behind the counter, on shelves or in counters. As stores moved into ready-to-wear this became less workable -- although I have a vague memory of my mother being discomfited when I was about 6 by one of our three big stores' having boys' wear kept in locked bins. (This would have been about 1958.) I do remember that Block's toy department had most of its merchandise behind the counter. You had to ask a salesperson to show you anything you wanted. I liked Ayres' a lot better.

Because there was no computer to track sales and because each department was run like a fiefdom, you had to pay at that department. If you had men's clothing to buy, but the line was long and there was no one at women's wear, that didn't matter; the salespeople there would not take your money. (I guess this is because it needed to be written up in the men's department so that a proper accounting could be made and commissions could be paid, even though the money was sent by pneumatic tube to the central cash office until the 1960s.)

Clearly that did not trouble the original discount store owners, though they did not have computers to track sales. The checkout people took the money, and that was that. Though anyone at a department store can now handle any merchandise, I was well trained and, like many department store shoppers, won't walk across the store with underwear to check it out at the furniture department, because I'll look like I'm trying to walk out with the underwear and the guy in furniture will look offended that he has to ring it up. The checkout person at Target doesn't care what you have.

What's the difference? The shopping cart. The traditional department store model was: You saw something, paid for it, put it in your bag, went to another department, saw something else, paid for it, put it in your bag. ... But the discount store, or Best Buy, or Kohl's, etc., gives you a cart. You wander the store at will, you only stand in line once, and because your merchandise is in the cart you don't look like you're holding it close to your body trying to steal it. You don't have to look for a cash register with an open salesperson until you're ready to leave, so there's less anxiety. And you have somewhere to put the baby. At Boscov's, you're walking around holding some purchases in your hands (along with the baby) that you have to pay for so you can go to another department and start over, because if you have any more stuff you're going to drop the clothes or the baby. Wal-Mart and Kohl's are more convenient and more dependable, even though they offer less selection -- and are therefore more "mass" -- than Boscov's.

So to bring this back to newspapers: In newspapers you often have no idea what the content is going to be or where it is going to be placed. Maybe the sports agate is on the fourth sports page, maybe on the sixth. Comics are here, or they're there. Maybe there'll be a story about what I care about today, or maybe there won't. And we keep wanting the readers to start reading a story, turn forward to Page 12 to read the rest of the story, then go back to Page One, then go to Page Seven, then back to Page One, and then start reading the rest of the inside pages. Or else they follow the jump to 12 and then go on from there, missing all the content and ads on 2 through 11.

It may be a great product editorially, but it's not very good as a consumer product. Mass still works, but mass without convenience doesn't work in the 21st century. Wal-mart doesn't expect all of its shoppers to go to the toy department, but it does let them know where the toy department is and doesn't move it from day to day, or put part of it here and part of it there. Some of what newspapers face is inevitable with different ad volumes and color positions, but some of it is just a lack of self-discipline. Combine that with our hostility to criticism and you've got a business bound for trouble even without an economic downturn. All you need is a consumer-focused competitor and you're toast. And that will bring us to Zell's 50-50 club.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Wiki Weekend No. 2

From the page for Casa Grande, Ariz.:

"Little Rock, Arkansas was supposedly the only city in the United States of America that was an adjective but this is proven false as Casa Grande means 'big house' in Spanish."

Oh, Little Rock being an adjective is too-low-hanging fruit. Let's assume this meant to say "Little Rock, Arkansas, was supposedly the only city whose name was an adjective-and-noun phrase." South Bend? Terre Haute? Baton Rouge? OK, still too easy. How about "an adjective and noun phrase dealing with size"? Big Spring, Texas, easily comes to mind -- it's big enough to have a daily newspaper -- and you might be able to stretch it to include Great Falls, Mont. (Grand Rapids doesn't work because it's on the Grand River, and let's leave out Little Falls, N.Y., because it only shared a daily newspaper with nearby Herkimer. We must have SOME standards.) Beyond that it does get hard, except that doubtless there are cities with American Indian-based names meaning "big" or "little." Perhaps we can say "Little Rock and Casa Grande are the only U.S. cities whose names are adjective-and-noun phrases in European languages involving size but not involving water." Whoops, forgot about Alamogordo, N.M. -- meaning "fat cottonwood." So we have to make it "two-word adjective-and-noun"...

But I guess it's still OK to say that "Little Rock and Casa Grande are the only U.S. cities that are adjectives." Put that in your next travel piece and say, "But I checked it against an encyclopedia."

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Chisholm Trail

Looking Sam Zell in the eye, the redoubtable Jim Chisholm in Newspapers & Technology decided not to go with the received wisdom:

"So, Sam Zell plans to trim 500 pages of content each week across his group of Tribune newspapers. Zell... and Randy Michaels ... have concluded that less is better, and not just because it is cheaper. ... Well, they're right on both counts."

I now lower my head for 20 seconds to miss the rotten vegetables being thrown.... OK, back to Jim:

"Newspapers produce far more content than readers have time to read. Why do we insist on delivering two to four hours of reading material to an audience with a window of 20 minutes... Which would you rather have? Sixteen pages of great content you read from end to end? Or 60 pages that you begin to feel you don't have time for."

Readers have told us for years, "I don't have time to read it and it just sits in the corner unread until I recycle it." Well, we respond, it's important stuff and you should make time for it. Find what you want to read and throw away the rest. That probably has a good deal to do with our current advertising problem -- "that's right, most of our readers will throw away your ad" -- but we press on with Chisholm:

"Journalism ... may be vital to social freedom, democracy and so on, but in its current manifestation it is failing. And this failure, I believe, is internally cultural as much as it is externally demand driven. In any other industry, if sales start to fall it's generally regarded as evidence that something is wrong with the business. In our industry, it's the customers' fault."

Well, they don't appreciate what we're giving them. If they were just more like us, they'd want it. And if they would just read it, they would become more like us, and thus they would want more of it. So the brickbats are coming pretty fast at Chisholm. But as he notes:

"By focusing on quality rather than quantity, it ups the perception and value of a newspaper."

The brickbat throwers sit for a moment. Can't disagree with that. Might even bring in some ads, if the product were perceived as of higher quality and value. But then Chisholm touches the third rail.

"A few years ago, I wrote a report for the World Association of Newspapers called 'Editorial Management.' It was a fairly straightforward analysis of how newspapers can measure the quantity, quality, efficiency and effectiveness of what they produce.... Friends told me I was insane. WAN's director received letters that said that what I was doing was wrong and dangerous. I was -- how do I put it -- verbally abused on three occasions by people who said journalists could not be measured. ... The level of aggression against what I was saying was extraordinary. It summed up everything to do with why our industry is in the mess it is."

Sort of like the reaction Tribune's Randy Michaels got when he proposed evaluating the productivity of the news staff. He admittedly proposed this in an unsophisticated manner -- appearing to just wish to divide column inches per reporter without any sort of quality or time-spent rating -- that harked back to the 1970s. But -- zzzzzppp! -- he touched the third rail, and whatever good will the Zellots had left at that point went up in smoke, as Rem Rieder's column notes:

"It assumes that newspapers are like factories in which everyone is doing the same thing. It ignores the fact that important journalism – investigative reporting, enterprise pieces, projects, in-depth profiles – takes time. A lot more time than quick-hit stories from press conferences and press releases. ... There's nothing wrong with quick-hit pieces. But failing to distinguish between them and more time-consuming, yet essential, reporting is silly."

Rieder, an excellent editor and press critic, did say it this way: "Evaluating the productivity of reporters this way is astonishingly dumb." Rieder is too smart to say that evaluating the productivity of reporters at all is wrong. Chisholm seems to have heard from others who believe that it is. The new Chicago Tribune editor, Gerould Kern, has said that Michaels was not simply counting bylines and was taking into account what types of stories they were. But the message to Tribune was clear: You cannot quantify what we do. You cannot evaluate what we do. "Not to say that they are dummies, but this is a complex business and I don't think they understand that," one reporter said. "Look, I wouldn't walk into Northwestern [Memorial Hospital] and tell the brain surgeon how to do his job." And even if you can develop a sophisticated tool to do it, you should not do it, because quantification will inevitably lead to a conflict with quality. Don't open that door, McGee!

The room was turning against Zell anyway, with Lee Abrams' rock-and-roll memos saying he didn't know there were actually newspaper reporters overseas, but Michaels' comment clinched it. (Whatever can be said for these guys' ideas, they are singularly inept at presenting them. But they can learn. Abrams, for example, is learning to write without capitalizing every third word.) And then there's Zell's 50-50 club. A good Cincinnati reference if you know it. On to the next post.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Things to Do in Print When You're Dead

Newspapers are dead. We know this. Mindy McAdams tells us so. "Newspapers were a nice business. ... However, this is clearly over. It’s done. It worked for a long time, but now, like trans-Atlantic leisure travel in big passenger ships, it will never work again.... Future generations will not read newspapers. Ever. "

This nevertheless presents a problem for McAdams, because "journalism is vital to a democratic system of government, because without independent busybodies (yes, journalists) sticking their nose into everything, governments and large corporations can cheat, oppress, and starve people. ... {But} the business model to sustain journalism in the 21st century has not been seen yet."

But newspapers are dead. Out with the old, and in with -- well, we're waiting...

This presents a problem for Douglas Page, CEO of, "a Web-based news and opinion syndication service." He writes:

"A newspaper is both a consumer product and an advertisising vehicle. The latter's success hinges on the former. So if publishers want better results, they had better find a solution to the one part of their business that no other media wishes to replicate -- the daily printed newspaper. This requires a print strategy ... If Tribune and its fellow companies fail to formulate a plan to own the one thing that no other media outlet.... is interested in promoting or duplicating -- a daily printed newspaper -- publishers face a grim future indeed."

Shut up, Doug. There is no grim future because there is no future. Though as McAdams says:

"I don’t usually address this subject because I don’t know much at all about business, running a company, generating profits, and so on. ... The absence of any viable model is something we need to accept and (quickly) move past — so we can invent one that will work."

McAdams often provides very pragmatic information on her blog, "Teaching Online Journalism." So praise her candor about what she does not know. But one feels that that approach -- taken from two quotes about the same point -- is like the Shakers' saying, "We practice celibacy, and therefore do not have children to increase our numbers. We need to accept the absence of the children model to perpetuate ourselves, so we can invent a model that will work. Of course, we haven't a clue what that is, and neither does anyone else. Let us pray."

As McAdams notes, "In my current lifestyle, I concluded, the printed newspaper just does not fit. I spend a lot of time in front of a computer, in various environments. ... In that, I’m not so different from most people in North America." Leave aside that the use of "most" for the people of North America probably kicks Mexico out of the continent. Even if it were true for the U.S. and Canada, do those people have the same freedom to use it to graze that McAdams does? Is there any environment more conducive to spending nearly all of your time in front of a computer, with absolute freedom to look at whatever you want, than a university? I don't know.

There may be. Perhaps it is a newsroom. Perhaps government economics research. Perhaps it is Wall Street or perhaps it is the people doing logistics for UPS. What McAdams really knows is that the people with whom she interacts are kind of like her. And newspapers don't fit their lifestyle. And the customers are just like us. Ergo, it's dead.

This presents a problem for Mary Nesbitt of the Readership Institute. She notes that "readership among 18-24 year olds in the general population continues to slowly decline." I suppose this is another way of saying "Future generations will not read newspapers. Ever" but being more polite about it. She's Canadian, you know. North American.

But Nesbitt also notes that readership is fairly stable among all other groups, and those people spend 27 minutes a day with newspapers, as they did in 2002. She also notes that "the penetration of newspaper Web sites is still quite low in most communities." All this leaves Nesbitt scratching her head about the numbers: "Why aren't they much worse, when the imminent demise of newspapers seems to be all we ever hear about? The short answer is that reading customers aren't deserting newspapers at anything approaching the rate that advertising customers are... Lots of people still want it and lots of people are paying attention to the local newspaper." Darn, how can that be? Mindy told me they're dead.

When reading letters to the editor, you can tell that an overly sure-of-himself citizen thinks he has stumbled upon some major breakthrough in exposing cant when he starts his letter, "Now, let me get this straight."

So, let me get this straight.

Newspaper readership largely holds steady except among the youngest. "Readers are more engaged with print than the Web site." Lots of people are still paying attention. And the CEO of an online site says the only way for newspapers to save themselves is to come up with a workable print model. But none of it matters. We're dead.

Nesbitt does note: "The very youngest adults have media and news habits very different from their parents." So she asks the question: "Is it asking the impossible to expect newspapers to maintain a relevant, engaging print product for that large swathe of the population that clearly still reads and enjoys print; and to create something differently compelling online; and to build a new business model?"

Well, the answer is probably yes if "new business model" means "completely unlike the old one." Page notes: "About two years ago, Netcraft, an Internet monitoring company, announced that there are 100 million Web sites. ... If you're a newspaper publisher, take note: If you're struggling to sell ads in a monopoly market, how are you going to effectively compete against 99.9 million other Web sites?" He then quotes a Harvard Business School professor -- always dangerous -- named Michael E. Porter as saying, "A firm that engages in each generic strategy.... but fails to achieve any of them is stuck in the middle. It achieves no competitive advantage."

Page adds: "The daily newspaper industry can differentiate and stand out from all other media by creating a printed product that people want to read and advertisers find attractive." Part of his solution: The tabloid. Which seems to be a popular option on campuses where those 18-24-year-olds are. As my son said, "If they published The New York Times as a tabloid, I'd read it in print every day." OK, Arthur Sulzburger, over to you....

Alan Jacobson, of course, would shoot that down in a second. And maybe tabloids won't work. Or maybe they'll work for some readers and not for others. Maybe they work better for younger readers, and don't work as well for couples who want to read separate sections of the same paper at the same time.

In the long run, Mindy McAdams might be right. Or online newspapers might turn out to be a niche product unable to support themselves -- which, according to the Pew report released this week, seems to be what newspapers are becoming. Print might enjoy a brief nostalgia boom, like B&Bs in the 1970s. Or, maybe, someone would come up with a workable answer. No one knows the future. The current trend works for Mindy. She loves journalism and sees myriad ways to do it excellently online. She doesn't have much use anymore for printed newspapers. Therefore, why should she care about saving them? Any money used to save them inhibits the glorious future, which someone will figure out how to pay for sometime. Begone.

So those of us who see a future with print -- indeed, see a future with print as linked to the success of the sort of journalism we all love -- need to find a way to not be pulled down by those who say, "Print's doom is inevitable -- why look, everyone online says it is." Print without online is a losing bet today, but online without print remains a technology in search of a business plan that, like the 13th Imam, is still in occlusion.

The best way to help print is to Put Ideas on the Table. Lots of them. Counterattack can be the best defense.

Milton Friedman is quoted in the current New Republic -- actually he is quoted by Naomi Klein in "The Shock Doctrine," which then is quoted by reviewer Jonathan Chait, but let's assume that someone, perhaps a copy editor, verified that Friedman actually said this -- "Only a crisis -- actual or perceived -- produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around."

Chait dismisses this as obvious, and I'm fine with putdowns of Milton Friedman, but the second sentence is the more interesting. You're in a crisis, so what do you do? You ask, "Anybody know what to do about this?" But the U.S. newspaper business may be unrivaled in its ability to internally shoot down any effort at innovation. Too many senses of professional identity are tied to doing things a certain way. We often confuse practices with outcomes. So there were very few print ideas on the table and a lot of frustrated online people with lots of ideas. Publishers were riding the money train and journalists fall prey to the idea that any change is "making the paper like USA Today." There are, in fact, many ideas for "a solution to the daily printed newspaper," some good and some bad. And that, of course, will bring us back to Sam Zell.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Department Store Segue: Those Guys From Harrison

An earlier response to a post asked about Two Guys. I normally follow mainline department stores and not discount stores, but when Chase closed in the former Kresge-Newark store in 1967, Two Guys moved in and operated there for about a decade. I hadn't known that. So they merit a mention for having run a downtown department store.

Two Guys started as a snack bar in the RCA plant in Harrison, N.J., which is an industrial suburb just across the river from Newark. The brothers who owned the snack bar started selling damaged RCA TVs. Word spread. As Bill Newman wrote:

"In the trade the Hubschman brothers became known as 'those two bastards from Harrison.' Shortly later they were ready to run their first newspaper ad and to name the business. They decided to taunt their competitors and call their business 'The Two Bastards From Harrison.' This move failed, as no newspaper would accept their ad. The name was changed to 'Two Guys From Harrison' and the ads ran."

Maybe an urban legend, but a hell of a good one. Newman also notes: "Herb and Sid became leaders in the fight to break the Fair Trade laws, which they did and to eliminate 'Blue Laws' in many places and to set the discount business in motion." The Fair Trade laws kept discounters from selling major brands for less than the department stores could. Once you could buy a GE toaster at Two Guys for less than at Hahne's, department stores started losing business. So one can see why they were known as those two bastards.

The original Two Guys store was at the RCA plant in Harrison. The eventual main store was in Kearny, the next town north. Apparently that store is now a Marshalls location, but I have no idea if it is the same building so I did not provide a photo.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Weekend Wiki

I don't know if I will be able to pull this off, but it's always nice to end the work week with a laugh, and Wikipedia, for all its strengths, offers so many. So I may try to find a Wiki of the Week.

My wife and I are great fans of "The Tudors," the occasional series on Showtime. We both know enough about the life and times of Henry VIII to know it's not entirely accurate. We enjoy it anyway, although Sam Neill's Wolsey is badly missed -- but at least "The Tudors" doesn't play with history so much as to make Wolsey a continuing character down through Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleves. ("Off with his head! Wait, sign him up for 16 more.")

At any rate, yesterday I decided to check out the page for "The Tudors," and found that this sentence was in the lede:

"The Tudors is a historical fiction television series created and entirely written by British screenwriter Michael Hirst. The series is loosely based upon the early reign of English monarch Henry VIII. It is marred by its misleading inaccuracies (see treatment below of "Princess Margaret"), and this deprives it of any authoritative status."

Later in the day the second sentence read:

"It is marred by its misleading inaccuracies (see treatment below of "Princess Margaret"), and the "departures from history" (dealt with below) which deprive it of any authoritative status, and make it at most, an entertaining well-acted fiction based largely upon real events."

But if you'd called up the page, oh, seven minutes later:

"It is marred by its misleading inaccuracies (see treatment below of "Princess Margaret"), and the "departures from history" (dealt with below) which deprive it of any authoritative status, and make it at most, an entertaining well-acted fiction based largely upon real events. It is devoid of real historical interest and is midleading as it is impossible for the general viewer to distinguish fact from fiction."

One minute later, an editor swoops in and changes it back to what it was the day before:

"The Tudors is a historical fiction television series created and entirely written by British screenwriter Michael Hirst. The series is closely based upon the early reign of English monarch Henry VIII." (end of paragraph).

But the anti-"Tudors" watch is lurking and within 10 minutes it has been changed to:

"The Tudors is a historical fiction television series created and entirely written by British screenwriter Michael Hirst. The series is loosely based upon the early reign of English monarch Henry VIII. It is marred by its inaccuracies (see treatment below of "Princess Margaret"), and the "departures from history" (dealt with below) which deprive it of any authoritative status, and make it at most, an entertaining albeit arguably well-acted fiction based largely upon real events. It is devoid of any real historical interest and is downright midleading as it does not give the general viewer assistance to distinguish fact from fiction. In this sense, it is an extraordinarily arrogant work from the point of view of the general viewer, as it alters facts and produces fiction, prserving accurate historical knowledge as the province of an elite and disseminating inaccuracy."

And three hours later, that's all gone again and it's back to the way it was two days ago. I visited the page with its second iteration of "Hollywood schlock!" and said, "Wow, that's the lede of the entry on 'The Tudors'?" I had no idea that a guerrilla battle was going on. Meanwhile, the article itself consists in about 2/3 part of a list of historical errors of "The Tudors," probably put there by the writer of "extraordinarily arrogant" and "province of an elite." That's still there. Perhaps it's useful, and perhaps it's totally made up.

"The Tudors" is not "Hill Street Blues." It's not epochal television. It's a fun costume drama. So I didn't expect the depth that would be devoted to a true cultural change, like, say, Pokemon. I mainly wanted to see if there was a reason Henry Czerny was not brought back. (How can you have Henry VIII without Norfolk?) I did not find that, but I did find all this. Maybe Henry Czerny was dropped from the cast and devotes his days to rewriting "The Tudors" site on Wikipedia as revenge.

So why, if, for example, if I want to check a fact on Desmond Llewellyn, the famous "Q" of James Bond films, and Wikipedia tells me that his name was Desmond W. Llewellyn and he was born Sept. 12, 1914, should I believe it? Maybe it says that today. Maybe tomorrow it will say "Desmond Llewellyn was the stage name of Rhys W. Llewellyn, born in Wales on May 1, 1912 (although many records give his birth date as Sept. 12, 1914). Llewellyn felt that international audiences would not know how to pronounce "Rhys," so he changed his first name to honor Nick Desmond, a local troubador." And maybe one of the Wikipedia editors will catch that and send someone a note for violating Wikipedia's quality standards. Or maybe they won't, for days or weeks. (How many times a day does someone look up Desmond Llewellyn? I'm sure there's a way to see. Does it really matter?) And someone somewhere will post a Web page repeating that, and Rhys Llewellyn will become a possible truth.

Well, watch "The Tudors" page, which for a few hours was even more interesting than "The Tudors." And now we have a new Wikipedia axiom. Check a fact against it, then come back four hours later and see if the fact's still there. If it is, it might be a fact.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Copy Editing: The WSJ Cuts Back

News yesterday that the Wall Street Journal is shutting down its Global Copy Desk near Princeton. While plans apparently call for at least some of those jobs to be effectively moved to New York and even overseas, a large number will simply fade away. As has happened at newspapers far and wide. In this case, it affects three of my friends. Had it not been for a quirk of timing, I might have been among them.

Last weekend a friend who used to report for our paper and now does so at a large newspaper near the Ohio River came up to me and said: It's scary working for a newspaper that really doesn't have any copy editing. There's no one behind you. No one checking your math. No one making sure your work makes any sense. No safety net. And sometimes, no matter how good you are, you're just going to fall.

This, of course, is simply higher productivity. When the rockets go up...

I know about how copy desks are cost centers and how there are legendary stories "touched" by nine editors. I know about urban legends, too. And I also know that a cost center is how you define it on your balance sheet. This section (say, Sports) has almost no advertising but that's OK, while that section (say, Culture) has almost no advertising and that's not OK, while that other section (say, Travel) has enough advertising to be profitable, but that may not be OK either. I'm not talking about pulling in readership, but Sports has become the largest section in terms of space in U.S. newspapers and has almost no ads and isn't viewed as a cost center.

Back-office sorting operations are a classic cost center; check processing, post office routing, telephone switching, etc. You figure out a way to handle most of the work (bar codes, whatever) mechanically and then you only need enough people to deal with rogue stuff (envelopes with handwriting so poor that a machine can't read them). I'm sure the people who did these back-office jobs felt that their individual skills were irreplaceable. So I may just be another self-interested civil servant in whining about cuts in copy editing. But it does seem that the sort of judgment calls one makes as an editor of any sort are less replaceable by technology or simply squeezing staff.

There are wonderful editing-check systems on the market that do so much more than spellcheck; if set up right, they can indicate that the phrase "on trial for murder" is libelous and that if you use the address "Springfield Township" you need to specify which of the five it is. These are things that copy editors keep in their hip pockets but many reporters and assigning editors barely think about. If used simply on the copy desk, they can make the copy editor's job easier and indeed more productive; if used from the start of the process, from the reporter on, they can probably make the process more efficient -- i.e., involving fewer people -- and they certainly can make stories more accurate.

But everything still involves a judgment call. A mail sorting system can route mail to 08057 and problems can be dealt with; an intelligent checking program can't say, "Whoops, the D.A. used the phrase 'on trial for murder' in a direct quote so it shouldn't be changed." Someone not only has to make that determination; someone has to be make sure that the determination actually is being made. What we call "copy" is a bunch of piecework components, each by definition put together uniquely. Anyone who has worked in a newsroom knows that you can't even tell what level of procedure was applied to any given story. ("It's deadline and I gotta move it and I'm sick of the damn story anyway!") It truly is herding cats, and if for some reason you needed to herd cats, it would become clear that it was not a back-office function.

But just as important is the loss -- and here I do sound like beating my own drum, but I will beat it anyway -- of the leaders of copy desks in newspapers as their departments are subsumed into others. As the columnist Susan Estrich said this week on an entirely different subject, "I understand there are more important things in life than having a show or a column or a fancy title. But it matters whose voice gets heard and whose doesn't. It matters who has a megaphone and who has the power to hire and fire and make the rules we all live by."

At the beginning of this decade many newspapers had given that megaphone to people whose job was to oversee, improve, and advocate for the copy editing of the news. People like Alex Cruden of the Detroit Free Press and Leslie Guevarra of the San Francisco Chronicle and Kay Jarvis of The Denver Post and Don Podesta of The Washington Post. And people like Christine Glancey of The Wall Street Journal. Part of the job is to draw up schedules and rule on the use of semicolons, but the job also exists to say: Hey, this is just as important as anything else we do. Not more important; if the place is being downsized, down we go as well. But as important.

Christine moved on to Hong Kong before this happened, but the rest either got the parachute or the sword, and while someone still draws up schedules, that seat at the front table was removed. It's still there for some people. Other papers never put it there. They had, of course, city editors and features editors and sports editors, and then there were those check-processors over in the corner.

Is the failure partly ours -- too many conversations about who and whom and not enough about how to cover fraud in the legislature; too many "your lead sounded fine, but I changed it to say 'He felt it strongly' instead of 'He felt it strong' anyway" and not enough "I really liked how you told this story"? Not from the copy desk leaders I know, but maybe that's what some others hear. Or maybe it is just economics. Whatever, forgive me for thinking that once again, this is just the story of a newspaper stabbing itself in the chest while saying, "I'm protecting the heart of the mission." Stabbing an artery can be just as effective as stabbing the heart itself.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

R.H. Macy, J.W. Macy, H.B. Macy, L.L. Macy

So Macy's says, after the Great Macyization, that it "wants to bring back the local department store."


Of course, it'll still be Macy's. But Macy's national apologist -- sorry, vice president for corporate communications and external affairs -- says, "We want a customer to walk into her local Macy's store and say, 'This store has exactly what I want. You get me. This is my Macy's.'"

Well, duh.

The story as linked to notes: "While no one suggests that Macy's should become discounter, analysts universally say that Macy's needs to improve and sharpen its image." Alas for the reputation of copy editors, that poorly written line appeared in my local newspaper as "Analysts are suggesting that Macy's should become a discounter. But they do say Macy's needs to improve and sharpen its image." Which, of course, is meaningless. But that's not the fault of the originating newspaper, whose sin was simply to not put an "a" before "discounter." (Part of the reason you need copy editors is that when you force anyone --another copy editor or the reader -- to guess what you mean, usually half of them will guess wrong.)

An analyst says: "Part of what Macy's did when they bought all these other department store companies was argue that they could save money by doing all the buying in New York. You could argue for years that the best department stores were the ones that were merchandized to the local market. But how are you going to do that when the local stores have no buying power?"

Lesson to embattled newspapers: Yes, you can centralize too much. On the other hand, another analyst would have just come in and said, "We're going to kill these department store stocks because they don't have centralized buying." Another lesson to embattled newspapers, although it comes too late for most: Some analyst is going to find a reason to kill your stock no matter what you do. There's always something you're doing wrong. Destroying your companies to please analysts by keeping earnings higher than they legitimately should be will not make them like you any better in the end. It may get you another couple of years of bonuses, of course. But Old Testament vengeance eventually occurs.

Lesson to Macy's: If you suddenly find yourself owning stores in Billings and Great Falls, your customers are going to be the same people who were in Billings and Great Falls before, and hoping that they will suddenly like the same styles at the same time as people in North Jersey or North Dallas just because you do is probably an error.

But, of course, the real problem with this story is that this is essentially the same program that Macy's announced in September 2007. Now they appear to be announcing it again.

Didn't work before? Didn't get done? No one paid attention? Well, no. This story, which a search will show ran all over the place, Detroit to West Virginia to Tucson, was a cut-down Gannett News Service version of a story in the Arizona Republic, which bore the nut graf:

"But signs that Macy's wants to shed its generic chain-store image are already apparent at its Biltmore Fashion Park store, which is remodeling and changing merchandise based on its own customer research."

In other words, a local follow-up story got spit into the wire machine and was churned out as a new initiative. Macy's must have been pretty surprised to learn that they were announcing as a plan in 2008 what they announced in 2007. This sort of nonsense gets published because even good newspapers treat the wire as filler, and assign a copy editor of the day to pull some stories off it to dummy the page. The copy editor says, "Hey, Macy's, they operate here. I don't know anything about the 'Automatic' Sprinkler Co. And I've got a 14-inch hole and the story is 14 inches. Voila!" And the copy editor who knew they ran the original story had been laid off and the business editor is running his staff copy and not paying attention to the wire. Under our current stress, even great newspapers are starting to do this.

The original Phoenix story is a decent local story, despite missing that "a" that led a copy editor in New Jersey astray. As the V.P. for C.C. notes near its end:

"'Other retailers attempt to localize their stores based on computer spreadsheets and historical sales data,'" he said. "'We are starting with what customers want and need. It requires much more human observation and insight.'"

Give the man a prize! (God, I'm turning into a snarky blogger.) Or, as Marshall Field said: "Give the lady what she wants." When department stores such as Macy's were young, there were lots of them. Those that gave the lady what she wanted succeeded. (Giving the lady what she wants is not always checking off the lady's list. Part of it is figuring out what the lady wants before she knows it. But if you guess wrong, stop saying you were right and it's her fault.)

Department stores became oligopolies. They had great reputations and set the pace. Then discounters arrived. Department stores wanted to maintain their margins, so they tried to figure out what sort of customer and lines would pay the margins they needed. Alas, they found that that customer often was not there, and that the customers they had wanted different merchandise, often more mainstream, than was in the store. They left and no one else came in. And then came the Great Macyization.

Now Macy's in so many markets has to overcome the hurdle of being a store that no one has any emotional attachment to and that many people say isn't selling what they want. Can it be overcome? Sure. Penneys has been doing it. But you have to figure out who your customer is and what the customer wants of you. What they will pay you for.

Newspapers haven't figured this out yet, of course. Many of them still haven't figured out that this is how you stay in business.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

It's Rectangular to Be Square

As its part of the 2008 newspaper meltdown the Philadelphia Inquirer decided to cut back on space for Sunday comics. A memo went out, which of course within seconds had found its way out of the building to Philadelphia Weekly, which posted it and noted with the usual alt-weekly snark: "Okay, get this: The Inquirer only has two comics pages. (I guess she could be writing about Sunday's comics section.) If I can't get my Dennis the Menace and Ziggy fix there, where the hell will I get it?"

All right, it's a blog, so let's ignore that a simple e-mail could have discovered that yes, the note was talking about Sunday comics pages. Never let a fact stand in the way of a good punch line. Of note is the attitude: "Ohmigod, can you believe anyone still READS those comics? Dennis the freaking Menace? He hasn't been funny since 1956."

One of our local dailies ran a Gannett News Service story about how a Nigerian named Siku has written? drawn? adapted? the Bible into "The Manga Bible," not the whole Bible -- one tries hard to imagine the genealogy lists being read by a talking penguin, perhaps -- but "an overview with stories selected that basically provide an understanding of what the whole bible includes." A good copy editor could help that sentence a lot, but you get the point. The story originated in Springfield, Mo., the home town of John Ashcroft, and so possibly the local Borders does not have shelves of manga books, as ours does; but our paper nevertheless conveniently provided the sidebar trying to explain what manga is. I can see the Philadelphia Weekly blogger falling off his chair, convulsed in laughter, while reading "Manga publications are generally done in black and white, but some are in color." Yet if you were to throw the word "manga" out in a room with a cross-section of your community, how many hands would be raised?

When I was in my early 20s I read "Heavy Metal" -- I loved "Tex Arcana" -- and I probably read a manga book for the first time 15 years ago. So I could have laughed too. When I was at my first paper, my mother asked me if it ran "The Family Circus" and how she loved that comic because it was "so true to life." Gawd, not true to my life, I said to myself -- ignoring that if she was my mother, and it was about a family, perhaps I was missing something. All I could think of was those oval heads and the occasional angel and the all-suffusing banal good will of the thing. I don't remember if my paper ran Bil Keane's circular panel, but if it did, I probably got out my resume that night.

I still find "The Family Circus" to be treacle but it no longer bothers me to be in the same room with it. At age 55, with my son grown, I think our lives didn't resemble Bill and Thel and Jeffy's. Or maybe they did and I'm in denial. At 23, I didn't know what my life would be. Without diligent effort I would be sucked into the maw of PJdom. I wanted to be hip, intellectual, knowing. I wanted to be able to say, with a look of forced agony, "God, how WILL I live without my Dennis the Menace fix." I had my own equivalent, which I used often: "For 3,812 consecutive days, Nancy has failed to be funny." Of course, Nancy wasn't aimed at me any more than Tic-Tac-Toe was. Nancy was Candy Land, a strip 8-year-olds would find funny and thus they would want to read the paper. We had Nancy, we had Doonesbury, we had Mary Worth. Something for everyone. Buy it!

A columnist or feature can occasionally be hip; but a newspaper can't be hip. It can't be the counterculture. It is the culture. It has been part of how new ideas are absorbed into the mainstream. Sometimes journalists guess wrong at the speed of that absorption. Part of the fun in the 1960s and 1970s was watching mainstream journalists try to fit the counterculture into their frame of reference. (The first two verses of "Ballad of a Thin Man" say it all.) But it was fun while being a counterculture youth who could sneer at the clueless. My father, who was a smart and worldly man, could not figure out what "Penny Lane" really MEANT, but he knew it MEANT something. The barber shaves another customer? Is that an LSD reference? Yes, I sneered at him, too.

Then, somehow, I and most of us became part of the culture. But it can be hard to find one's place in the culture, which grows more complicated by the day; the Internet, with its social networking and postings and chat, provides a new counterculture, or multiple ones, ones that make the mainstream look even lamer than "The Family Circus" did to me in the 1970s. The argument about the future of news is partly about whether the mainstream ends with the baby boomers, like the parents left behind in "Childhood's End" as the children join the ubermind. Of course, the mainstream didn't end with "The Ed Sullivan Show," either.

Journalists are often too cool for the room, which is why alt-weekly journalists can have such fun with those on the dailies; freed of the responsibility to serve an audience that found "The Facts of Life" funny, for years they could take shots while floating on a bubble of concert ads and "SWF seeks MBM with versatile poodle" listings. (In which they're being killed just as we are by online classifieds.) This is part of why many newspaper people spend a good bit of time trying to deny or avoid what it is their readers want from them, which is, in ways large and small, journalistic and non, "The Family Circus." Along this road we will make further stops.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Copy Editing: In This Pizness Is Much Prosecco

A break from analogies for a while.

The AP recently reported on words added to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (which is what my newspaper uses as its standard reference). It noted that many are culinary terms, such as "prosecco," a sparkling wine, and "dirty bomb," which is not sparkling at all. I would have thought dirty bomb was already there. And then there's this word about a word:

"And then there's 'mondegreen.' In a category of its own, it describes words mistaken for other words. A mondegreen most often comes from misunderstood phrases or lyrics. It comes from an old Scottish ballad in which the lyric 'laid him on the green' has been confused over time with 'Lady Mondegreen.' Among the best-known modern examples: 'There's a bathroom on the right' in place of Creedence Clearwater Revival's 'There's a bad moon on the rise' and 'Scuse me, while I kiss this guy' in place of 'kiss the sky' in the 1967 Jimi Hendrix classic 'Purple Haze.'"

Don't know about you, but I have never heard the word "mondegreen" used, although M-W says it was first spotted in print in 1954. (You wonder what song it was for. "Hey, Bob, did you hear what that wacky Dean Martin did? He sang a song to his pet eel. 'That's a Moray.' When are he and Jerry coming out with a new movie?") I wonder if one needs to distinguish between purposeful mondegreens (such as the one I just did) and accidental mondegreens. I remember pulling off the freeway between Hartford and New Haven so I could figure out why Michael Jackson was singing, "But the chair is not my son." I thought John Fogerty was singing "a bad moon on the right," but "bathroom" seems like fifth-grade silliness. (At least the story spelled Creedence right.) And what of antimondegreens, the most famous being "I speak of the pompetous of love" -- where you hear it right but it doesn't mean anything? Of course, that goes back to "Hud-sut rawlson on the rillerah and a brawla, brawla sooit."

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate is a descriptive dictionary and not prescriptive; the Wiki entry on this is useful but tends to concentrate on taboo words and slang, while the question is broader and comes down to the Hopefully Conundrum: If the majority of the American population uses "hopefully" not as an adverb ("He said in a hopeful manner") but as the English equivalent of the Arabic "Inshallah" -- "If this works out, it will be good, but it's out of my control" as opposed to the "I really, really want this to happen" expressed by "I hope" -- then does "hopefully" now mean the way it is generally used, though a prescriptive dictionary will say it should not be used that way? After all, Winston tastes good like a cigarette should. But I know there are still thousands of red pens out there poised to change that "like" to "the way."

I don't know about copy editors outside the newspaper business, but I know we do face challenges from, on the one side, writers who want to tell their story the way they want to tell it, or who do not want to appear clueless to their sources -- this particularly afflicts those writing about pop culture, in terms of word usage, and those covering education, in terms of throwing around jargon -- and from the other, readers who often identify themselves as retired English teachers and who expect the newspaper to uphold the standards they taught. In the middle are the great masses of readers who are just trying to make sense of an article in the few seconds they give it. So if one is editing a story and it mentions "the famous mondegreen by Jimi Hendrix," does one put mondegreen in quotes as a word unfamiliar to most readers, or leave it out of quotes because it's now in Merriam-Webster's? And does one add a dashed-off phrase -- "a word describing a misunderstood phrase in a lyric" -- and risk the writer's complaining that you made her look clueless, and the five readers who post on It'sNotEasyBeingMondegreen calling her and your paper 19th-century hacks?

Newspapers face this problem in particular because, whatever else they may or may not be, now or in the future, newspapers are not hip. Never have been, never will be. The fact that the AP felt the need to say "the 1967 Jimi Hendrix classic" about a song that begins with perhaps the four most recognizable notes since Beethoven's Ninth says it all. But I will say more on that point anyway in a subsequent post.

(The title of this post, by the way? A one-word substitution in the opening line of a James Bond short story.)

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Department Store Building of the Week, Vol. 11

When I was a child in Indiana, New Brunswick, N.J., seemed like a hub of the universe. It was the headquarters of the Boy Scouts of America, and while I was only a scout for a short time, I loved Boys' Life magazine. And we were a Band-Aid family. When I would get a cut at a friend's house and they used Curad, I knew it was going to hurt more when it came off. Johnson & Johnson was an old friend.

Then I moved to New Jersey and found that despite having J&J, Rutgers University and the Robert Wood Johnson Hospital -- the Boy Scouts had moved on -- New Brunswick was kind of an ordinary industrial city. They were working hard to revive it, but it wasn't Princeton, and it wasn't laced by Indian trails and hideouts.

And so it was no surprise to find that New Brunswick's major department store, the P.J. Young Dry Goods Co., 358 George St., was just another small-town store, not a Marshall Field's of central New Jersey. But Young's does have two items of interest.

One is that it was a branch of the Nevius Bros. chain that was a force in central New Jersey retailing. Anyone who grew up in Trenton before the 1970s will remember Nevius-Voorhees. But the heart of the chain was a little store in Flemington, a county seat not even large enough to have a daily newspaper. The Nevius family put outposts in Trenton and Somerville, then closed the Somerville outlet after buying Young's. George Nevius kept his home in Somerville but managed the New Brunswick operation for decades. This was not a big deal. They're 10 miles apart.

The other is that New Brunswick is New Jersey's best, possibly only, example of a downtown shopping district that moved from its original hub to a new location. While New York City is the great example of this sort of hegira, it's more rare than one would think. The center of downtown Indianapolis, for example, is exactly where it was in 1825. It was common for the heart of downtown to move around by a block or so on the same street. This happened in Indiana's larger cities such as South Bend and Terre Haute. The center of downtown Trenton in 1960 was a block from where it was during the Revolution.

But occasionally the merchants simply decamped. Downtown Fort Wayne for years was on Columbia Street; a decade later, it wasn't. Some stores in downtown Muncie moved five blocks, from the 200 block of East Main to the 300 block of South Walnut, almost overnight. Why in some cities they stayed and rebuilt at the same place, and in other cities they moved on, might be someone's graduate paper. Except for Muncie, where it was linked to the building of an interurban-railroad station, I really don't know much about this.

Downtown New Brunswick in the 1890s was on a group of small streets along the Raritan River -- Burnet, Hiram, Peace, New, Church. Young's was at 27 Church St.. near the historic Dutch Reformed church. Then, after the turn of the century, downtown changed. Some stores simply moved a bit up Church Street, but the heart of shopping suddenly was on George Street and Livingston Avenue, blocks from where it had been. Department stores were no longer found on Burnet, Hiram, Peace. Indeed, some of those entire streets are no longer found, having been urbanly renewed out of existence. If you have been to the Frog and the Peach restaurant in New Brunswick, that's where the heart of downtown was more than a century ago. Anyhow, the photo shows Young's at its location after 1910.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Buggy Whips, With a Superior Segue

The Superior Daily Telegram has announced that it will move to twice-weekly print publication and transfer its main operation to online. A trend was seen. Stories did note that the Telegram and the Duluth News Tribune are both owned by Forum Communications. The AP story noted that Superior, Wis., is five miles from Duluth, Minn. The E&P story notes that Telegram subscribers already receive the Sunday News Tribune as part of their subscription. Neither the AP nor E&P noted that stories from the Superior Telegram already appear in the News Tribune -- and certainly will continue to do so, if not even more often now that there is no daily Telegram circulation to support.

Neither story noted either that the economy of Duluth-Superior has not been gangbusters for decades. (My mother-in-law grew up in Duluth and I've been there. Pretty town, nice tourism business, but the area never recovered from the loss of U.S. Steel and the entire Great Lakes shipping business is a shadow of what it was.) The cities saw themselves as rivals for a century. Now they are partners in a somewhat distressed area. So it is not as if people in Superior who want one are going to be left without a local daily print newspaper. Indeed, the Twin Ports may get a slightly better daily paper than they have now. This may be part of an online trend, but it would have made as much sense in 1995 when it was not. (Similarly, had we had the JOA in Madison, $4-a-gallon gas and no Internet, we might have had a combined Wisconsin State Journal-Capital Times daily print product at this point to reduce trucking costs, in the Las Vegas manner. The Internet allows you to claim that a failing paper is actually a sign of the future.)

So, to analogies and buggy whips. People often say that newspapers need to realize that they are in the "buggy whip business" -- i.e., it's dead, so get out. The buggy whip business example is a famous economics example. Its main point is that had protections been put in place to preserve the buggy-whip business from the competition caused by automobiles, the rules might have stifled the nascent automotive business, which proved to be immeasurably more important to the U.S. economy -- thus it is a bad thing to protect existing businesses from economic change even if those businesses are wrecked as a result. Presumably the change in the long term will be better, and if the hurricane is coming you can't stop it anyway.

When I lived in Flint, Mich., the example was even more specific; it was the "buggy-whip socket business." Flint was the center of the buggy business in the 1890s, called the Vehicle City because more buggies and accompanying products were made there than anywhere else, and there was a company that made buggy-whip sockets -- places to put the whip when you were not using it on the horse. The wonderfully named Flint Specialty Co. was making up to one million whip sockets a year around 1900, according to my former colleague Larry Gustin in his book "Billy Durant: Creator of General Motors."

And, yes, the buggy-whip-socket business did go away. But the buggy business did not go away; the horse was replaced by the engine and the rest of the buggy became the "horseless carriage." (Indeed, the buggy whip business was a part of the whip business, which did not go away either.) Many of the people who ran parts of the buggy business, such as Billy Durant and J. Dallas Dort and Charlie Nash, moved into the automobile business. They continued to make vehicles, just ones with engines. Flint remained for decades the Vehicle City and only went into its sad decline when half of GM's market share was taken. GM still builds horseless carriages.

Eventually the buggy business, except for specialty trades such as the Amish, did transmute itself into the auto business -- some companies changed over, some went out of business, some went into business, some people owned buggy factories and car factories and kept both churning along, and eventually the auto business went from being a small craft business with many producers to a giant factory business with an oligopoly. (The buggy business was already going through the same sort of consolidation. At the turn of the century, Flint's three buggy companies were making 150,000 vehicles a year. The tentative nature of the early auto business meant someone could produce 20 cars a year and call himself an auto manufacturer.)

An analogy for our news businesses transmuting to online? Seemingly so. But the revolutionary change was the internal combustion engine, while the rest of the physical product -- in which you sat down and it got you from where you were to where you were going, on four wheels, with space for cargo and gloves -- remained the same. "Contrary to popular perception, it was... the low-cost horse-drawn vehicle that introduced Americans to personal transportation," wrote Ed Duggan in the Journal of American History. The car had the advantages of speed, greater distance for the fuel, and not needing to stable a horse; but it is still a carriage. A really-souped-up buggy.

Now, the poor Flint Specialty Co. probably faded away, but for all I know its owners started producing steering wheels or -- close to the equivalent of buggy-whip sockets -- accelerator and clutch pedals. (In the early auto business, there was a separate company for nearly every part of the car. Those who remember "Body by Fisher" remember a vestige of that era. Ford was the originator of vertical integration in the car business, but it took a couple of decades to complete that process.) So there are analogies here, but there are just as easily analogies to hot type vs. cold type, or broadsheets vs. tabloids. The auto business still creates a physical product doing what it was doing before it had an engine. This is not the same as eliminating the physical product. The glove doesn't quite fit, so we must not convict.

When people say, "Oh, you're just the buggy-whip business," ask yourself: Is the newspaper a buggy whip, or is it the buggy? Most of us use a buggy every day. The buggy needed to be adapted to a revolutionary change -- the internal-combustion engine -- but it was not thrown away. I suppose you could have mandated that cars be sold with a buggy whip, just in case. The newspaper equivalent of a buggy whip might be -- oh, comprehensive print stock tables. It's an accessory, not the thing itself.

But are newspapers photographic film? Another analogy next week.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Why Copy Editing Matters

The previous post on "That's the Press, Baby," contained the following errors until they were caught by the blogger, who is a copy editor but did not edit his own copy or have anyone else do so.

The sentence "Earlier, I missed this post by a guest contributor to Newsosaur, and you may have to." should have read "you may have too." The writer did not mean to state that you should not read the post.

The phrase "probably creating new products, whether print or online, that will benefit the company as a hole" should have read "as a whole." The writer did not mean to state that the company was a cesspool.

The writer acknowledges the immediately correctable nature of the Internet, but notes that the damage has already been done to anyone who had already read the post or received it by RSS feed or similar system, who now thinks the writer is an illiterate idiot whose viewpoints may be further discounted.

The writer, humbled, wonders why more people who are pondering the future of the newspaper business and seeing copy editing as simply a cost center to be eliminated just don't seem to get this.

Only In the Newspaper Business

The Daily Mirror in London is redesigning. The Daily Mirror says it is doing this because of competitive pressure. Cool.

The Daily Mirror in 2008 is responding to competitive pressure it first noticed in 1969. Not cool.

Associate editor Matt Kelly says: “In 1903, the Mirror invented the concept of popular journalism – at one stage it sold seven million copies in one day. It didn’t do that without being innovative and brilliant. But it lost its way 40 years ago when Rupert Murdoch took a newspaper we owned called The Sun and relaunched it as a tabloid. He stole our clothes. And that was the start of an identity crisis that we are only now beginning to shake off.”

Yes, that's right. Change, four decades in the making. Oh, the newsroom committees! "Now into its second decade of imagining the Mirror of the late 20th century, the long-range planning group..."

And one can just imagine the jubilation in, say, the Pleasant Passings Country Home in Upper Lower Algernon, Hamps., where, say, longtime Sun reader Archie Swinburn, 105, says: "In 1969 the Sun came out with a better product and I switched from the Mirror. But I knew eventually the Mirror would come through and win me back. I'm proud to say I'm a Mirror reader again. Good old Mirror."

Earlier, I missed this post by a guest contributor to Newsosaur, and you may have too. As Tim McGuire noted, while everything is a problem at the moment this is an advertising problem more than a readership problem. Print readership is declining, but decline can be managed; classified revenue simply jumped off the top of the building to its demise below, which is not a manageable problem. Yet newspaper ad departments often seem to be waiting by the phone for the ad manager of Kistler-Collister or Sanger-Harris or Sterling-Lindner to be calling to say they'll again buy 10 5x18s in the Sunday C section. (A tip of the Hatlo Hat to anyone who can name the three cities where those department stores operated without checking Wikipedia.)

There's really not much we in newsrooms can do about this, but publishers can. At least one new owner of a major newspaper quickly identified that the major problem facing him when he walked in the building, was the advertising department, and took action. At this point, though, even more radical action is needed -- probably creating new products, whether print or online, that will benefit the company as a whole even if they simply let the basic news product become a sort of brand-signifier for the whole operation even if it operates essentially in the red. (A local-local weekly associated with but not produced by the staff of Big Newspaper still has more credibility and clout in the market than a weekly produced by someone else.) Yes, that means Big Daily Newspaper becomes a loss leader in a company with a lot of other higher-profit publications and products. But Big Daily Newspaper provides the goodwill that makes the other products more effective.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Monitor, GE, and other analogies

As promised! I love analogies, though my former colleague Frank Wilson often told me they were the weakest form of argument. Jesus, of course, also loved analogies. I can just see Frank now. "Forgive me, Master, but your comparison of heaven to a mustard seed? It doesn't hold up." But are there stories of other transformations out there that might offer clear guidance to the poor, beleaguered newspaper business?

Within the field, the presumed transformation of the Christian Science Monitor to an online news service with a weekly newspaper -- no one knows whether this will happen, but knowledge is less interesting than speculation, as most conversations about sports show -- seems to offer an in-the-trade analogy. Why not just do what they presumably will do? But the Monitor is very different from your traditional newspaper company. First, of course, it is not a newspaper company. It is an outreach of a church, and while the church has said it no longer wants the newspaper to be a financial loser, it is not looking for a profit center either. (The Wikipedia entry on the Monitor, with all the usual Wiki caveats, is here and does seem to address most of the major issues.) Were the Monitor simply a business, it would have closed long ago. It still exists because Mary Baker Eddy said it was to exist. Journalists can praise Mrs. Eddy's decision, but it isn't a business model.

Second, the Monitor doesn't own presses or delivery trucks. It doesn't deliver Best Buy inserts. It arrives in the mail. Well, so does the West Plains Quill in Missouri, but the Monitor also doesn't have a local circulation area. Neither, of course, do the Wall Street Journal or USA Today. But the Monitor also doesn't have much advertising and it has a national circulation around, what, 60,000. The Monitor is unlike anything else in the daily newspaper field, which is why it is hard to use it as a model for anything else in the daily newspaper field.

Dropping the daily print paper may be the only move left for the Monitor, and in 2008 might be the only move left even if they had not thrown millions away on Monitor Radio and had stayed with Kay Fanning's efforts in the 1980s to again make the newspaper a national institution. But the Monitor's owners have made more bad business decisions than any other newspaper short of the Brooklyn Eagle ("Long Island outside the city will never amount to much"), so no one can be sure. And while I do not want to wade into the morass of hopes, fantasies and conflicts that constitute the membership statistics of nearly any church, it is hard to find anyone outside the Church of Christ, Scientist who believes that the Church of Christ, Scientist is a growing denomination in the United States. Some put its membership as low as 100,000, which makes a circulation of 60,000 for the print newspaper pretty impressive. But this also makes the Monitor unique. We move on.

General Electric no longer makes toaster ovens or televisions and apparently is planning to get out of its last consumer-goods operation, major appliances. Does this moving out of old businesses provide a model? GE is getting out of low-profit, highly competitive businesses and concentrating on, as its Web site puts it, "jet engines to power generation, financial services to water processing, and medical images to media content." (NBC.) They're not saying the key to success is to concentrate on a business with no effective bar to competition and where you make five cents for every dollar you made in the previous business. But that's a business decision and not a journalistic one.

At any rate, GE did not turn the light-bulb business into the jet engine business. It started some divisions and bought others and sold off others, such as when it sold small appliances to Black & Decker. (Let's not even get into the tortured history of television-set branding.) GE was at one time one of the largest computer companies. GE, a giant in the locomotive business. GE was and is a massive conglomerate that in the 1960s looked to viewers of "College Bowl" like a light-bulb and toaster-oven company. Had GE been involved in the newspaper business, it would have sold off its newspapers by now; but the newspapers would have been sold off, not made into something else. GE transforms itself, but its units do what they did under new owners. So GE's move out of refrigerators does not look like an analogy.

Mass transit once was vital to newspapers and department stores. (For European free sheets, mass transit still is.) Trolleys brought the customers to a centralized shopping area whose merchants needed the newspaper to draw them in. The newspapers used the trolleys and interurbans to get their papers to outlying distributors. Streetcars had their main day from the late 1880s to the early 1920s. But many a streetcar line ran in the red. Transit operators made their real money off real estate development and amusement parks along their lines, and in smaller towns they barely made any money at all.

So mass transit was already in trouble by the 1920s, but it was given new life by the Depression and was saved by war rationing, so companies bought PCC cars or converted to buses. But it was back in trouble by the 1950s and was basically done as a business by the late 1960s, when it became a governmental responsibility. Now it is having a new vogue. We could have a nice libertarian vs. social responsibility debate about whether light rail is smart development or government coercion on property development, but that's not the point here (so let's not).

The mass transit analogy has some uses for people who want a PBS-like structure for journalism. It's a social good and therefore it shouldn't be simply a profitmaking business. The histories are very different, though. The justification for saving mass transit as a social good was to provide transportation to those who had no alternative -- the poor, the disabled, the young, the old. (The bickering over L.A. mass transit -- is it subways for the middle-class or buses for the poor -- shows this question remains active.) But news, in some form, is offered free everywhere you go. The cost for the poor or otherwise disadvantaged is for broadband access, not news. So we move on.

So that leaves us with that old standby, the buggy-whip business, to come.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Department Store Building of the Week, Vol. 10

And we complete our look at old downtown Newark with this view of New Jersey's largest department store, L. Bamberger & Co. at 131 Market St. Louis Bamberger of Baltimore bought the Hill & Craig store in 1892 with his (in succession) brothers-in-law, Louis Frank and Felix Fuld. The big store was built in 1912.

In the 1920s it became part of Macy's back in an era when Macy's did not change store names; the LaSalle & Koch Co. in Toledo and the Davison-Paxon Co. in Atlanta similarly kept their names, but added the red star to their logos. (When Macy's expanded again in the 1940s, the George Innes Dry Goods Co. in Wichita and O'Connor, Moffat & Co. in San Francisco were subsumed in the First Macyization.) Bam's kept its own name until 1986. This store was closed in 1992.

Although Bamberger's had a resort branch in Asbury Park in the 1930s, it was not until the 1950s that it became New Jersey's statewide store. First came the downtown branches in Morristown and Plainfield. In the mid-1950s, Bamberger's opened a store in Princeton, which is certainly in the orbit of New York but essentially at its southern edge; and it was a shopping center store, not downtown. (This may have been the brainchild of John Williams, who was at the time president of Bamberger's and who lived in Princeton.) Then Bam's rode the shopping center boom to Menlo Park in Middlesex County, Monmouth Mall in Monmouth County, Garden State Plaza in Passaic County (correction: Bergen County) -- and on and on, out to malls in Rockaway and Wayne and beyond. Around the same time the name of the store was changed from "L. Bamberger & Co." to "Bamberger's New Jersey."

In the 1960s when Philadelphia's Strawbridge & Clothier was looking to build the nation's first enclosed mall in Cherry Hill, it wanted a second anchor store but did not want it to be one of its Philadelphia rivals. It turned to Bamberger's, which used the opportunity to invade South Jersey. There are very few department stores that became statewide institutions -- Younker Bros. in Iowa, Burdine's in Florida (or at least South Florida), maybe The Bon Marche in Washington. Bamberger's is on that short list.

Bamberger's became a farm team for Macy's New York in the 1960s. Gerald Goldstein and Ed Finkelstein, the architects of Macy's repositioning in the 1970s and 1980s, were posted to Bam's in the 1960s.

Bam's had one other effect on New Jersey; Louis Bamberger, who never married, and the Fuld family were among its great philanthropists. Among their benefactions was the Institute for Advanced Study, which housed Albert Einstein. And while I don't know of a direct connection between the Helene Fuld Health Trust and Bamberger's, since the trust was started by Helene Fuld and her brother, L. Felix Fuld, in honor of her mother, and Felix Fuld's second wife was Caroline Bamberger Frank, it seems possible that they were Felix Fuld's children with his first wife. If you add that to the contributions of Louis Bamberger, it is amazing what this one family did.

Here are some other photos of Bamberger's.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Too Much Fun

It's too close to a holiday to write about the differences among GE, mass transit and newspapers. And it's been, of course, an awful week. Something should be amusing.

There's no comparisons between CB radio and fax machines and the Internet. Those were appliances while the Internet is a medium, if not more. But both of those did grow so far and then were overtaken by a better medium (cell phones and the Internet), but part of the dissatisfaction with them was that they were taken over by junk and cranks. E-mail seems to be having some of the same issues, which is partly why young people largely use it just to communicate with their parents, who have little or no interest in IMs or Facebook.

When the Hartford Courant announced its cuts in Bloody Summer 2008, for some reason I decided to check the comments. Nearly all of them concerned the alleged politics of the Courant, particularly its columnists. There were the usual comments about poor service and outdated medium, but the "Moscow Courant" people were very much in evidence.

Courant editor Barbara T. Roessner wrote a column about the cuts that while not free of the "to better position ourselves for the future" cant at least had a certain self-deprecating humor rare in these spin exercises: "You might discover that a sleeker, smarter paper is actually a better experience on weekdays, when your time and energy are pretty much sapped by your jobs, your families and your $4-a-gallon gas prices. ... Or, I may soon be tending bar in Vermont. We'll see."

So I plunged ahead and started reading the posts. They start off on the usual angles, but poster Greg Boyington of Prospect, Conn. -- let's assume that he actually is Greg Boyington of Prospect, Conn., and just doesn't want to call himself "Liberal Boy" for some archaic reason like credibility -- turns up often, asking for proof of the alleged liberal bias. Poster "Comunistitution State" of Granby, Conn. -- you can see where he is coming from, and it's not just Granby, Conn. -- decides to offer examples. And it's off to the races. If you don't want to read through the whole thing, Page 2 here is particularly fun.

Eventually they get tired of this and others join in, but the discussion stays centered on the alleged politics of the paper and the decline of Hartford, with the occasional comment on poor service. Whatever the politics of the paper, I have trouble imagining 200,000 readers every day saying, "What I hate about this paper is its liberal politics!" Maybe I'm wrong.

Well, I'm sure it's getting eyeballs, even though Google Ads is having trouble figuring out what they might be interested in buying related to this topic -- the best it can come up with is the ironically named "Newspaper Obituaries." Will postings be a sustainable use or will it quickly become a "same old same old" that most readers shy away from after one or two tastings? Who knows. And it's clear that to some of these posters the defining characteristic of the Courant's pinko liberalism is that it writes positive stories about poor and minority people. Not sure what Lenin would think about that, since it's also clear that to some of these readers, the specter that is haunting the world is still communism, which has had about the same success recently as newspapers. ("I'll use the Web site of an outdated medium to condemn an outdated political philosophy!" Ah, the 21st century.)

In any event, if nothing else to honor for Independence Day the robust political debate that the Founding Fathers wanted, spend a minute or two with Greg and Comunistitution.