It might kill the paper overnight. Or it might work.
The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel -- excuse me, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel -- oh, hell, it's just called SunSentinel now, so let's go back to Fort Lauderdale -- has unveiled one of the most complete revamps since Peter Palazzo's Chicago Daily News back in the 1970s. That, of course, was a last-ditch effort to save a dying newspaper. (For that matter, so was his groundbreaking work for the Herald Tribune.) The Sun-Sentinel is as challenged as any of us, but is more challenged at the moment by the Zellots' debt load and the collapse of the Florida real estate market than by its own competitive issues.
Charles Apple's Visual Editors did an incredibly long look at the new SunSentinel. (It's incredibly long, so don't go there unless you want to see page after page -- but they're juicy pages.) But to excerpt from the comments of design director Paul Wallen:
..."It was becoming increasingly clear that incremental change wasn’t really going to be enough to connect with the younger and occasional readers that we were trying to reach. ..."
The New Futurist would respond: They're never going to read the paper anyway. Just give it up. Any change involving print is incremental.
"We’re trying to reach out to a very specific audience, the people who don’t read us often enough now. Readers in the 30-49 age group, time-starved readers, occasional readers. These people tell us they don’t have enough time to read the paper, that they have trouble finding the content they’re interested in and don’t want to work so hard to find it. So we really focused on things like navigation, readability and opening up the spacing for more of an 'easy to read' feeling. The thought is that if we can get these people to read us just once or twice a week more than they do now, that would add up to a big impact. ... Every decision has been made with readers in mind, in an effort to make the paper easier and more fun to read. If we’ve done our job well enough and kept our focus on the reader experience, I’d like to think the recoiling in horror should be kept to a minimum."
Fun! Less time! Easy to find! How many decades have we heard...
"Look, we understand that some people don’t like change. And there is a certain segment of any audience, including ours, made up of traditional readers. They might have been fine with, or even preferred, for us to just keep doing things the same old way. But by almost any measure you use — circulation, readership, focus groups, whatever — what we’re doing now is not working for enough people. To me, the scariest thing of all is not changing because there’s no doubt that’s a road to failure."
The old curmudgeon would respond: Who cares if it's not working? We're doing everything right. We deserve better customers. Failure in a righteous cause is not failure.
"I also personally reject the idea that a newspaper has to be dense and boring in order to deliver the news. The SunSentinel has lots of great content, we don’t apologize for making it easier for readers to enjoy it or for presenting it in a visually sophisticated way.
"Content is more important than ever. There’s nothing about this redesign that squeezes out news. I’m sure a few people will say that because we’re trying some different approaches in how we deliver that news. I expect criticism because we’re trying to do something different. Frankly, if we don’t get criticism, that will tell me we didn’t change enough.
"But we’re really just trying to do a better job giving readers what they tell us they want.
How long have studies shown that readers don’t like jumps and often don’t follow them? Why haven’t we tried harder to address that as an industry? We’re trying to do something about that.
"Readers keep telling us they don’t have time for the paper. Shouldn’t we do something to make it feel a little faster and easier to use?
"Time after time, focus groups tell us they weren’t even aware of something in the paper that they would have been very interested in. Should we ignore that and keep building dense pages so that we can feel good about cramming in as much as possible?"
The old curmudgeon says: The readers should adapt themselves to the product we produce. It is our job to produce it and it is their job to receive it. We produce it with the noblest of intentions. It is its own reward.
Broward/Palm Beach New Times -- it's interesting how the alt-weeklies have become the Old Curmudgeons when it comes to newspaper criticism -- didn't like it much. But I found most interesting this exchange in the comments:
"But I have a legitimate, non-judgmental question for The Pulp and for the other vocal neigh-sayers who have slammed everything about this redesign: What should a daily newspaper look like in 2008?
"Just playing devil's advocate here, but it seems as if no one has liked any of the changes that the S-S (with or without hyphens) has attempted during the previous couple of years, either.
So, what should they be doing?
"If the S-S has been getting things so wrong, then what is the right approach?
"I'm just curious about what people think a contemporary newspaper should look like in the early 21st century."
To which came this answer:
"You wanted to know what a newspaper should 'look like' in the early 21st century. Answer: pretty much exactly like newspapers looked at the end of the 20th Century. Yes -- just like the print New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and the Financial Times (... you can skip over the heavy-duty financial info and spend all of your time on their international news reporting).
"And yes, let us bow our heads and remember the days when the Miami Herald was almost as good as the Washington Post was... (say, around the time of the Miami Riots in May 1980)..."
The O.C. settles back with a sign and concludes: We were right then, so doing the same thing has to be right now. We did not have to worry back then about making readers want to buy our product. They just bought it. It was a better world. And the N.F. says: Just get these people out of the freaking way so we can get on with the future!
Back to Paul Wallen:
"We’re going to worry more about the people who will get it than the few who won’t."
Well, either they will or they won't. Let's see what happens. No matter how you feel about it, give them props for trying.
Thursday, August 28, 2008
It might kill the paper overnight. Or it might work.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Howard Owens quotes from Vin Crosbie. The post is about video but it applies to print -- heck, it applies to any medium.
"The overabundance of suppliers of news and information ... leads to another corollary, one that might seem to be counter-intuitive: the ‘good enough’ beats perfect. The overabundance of suppliers leads to competition that actually lowers the threshold of acceptable quality. When there were few suppliers, they used higher quality content (i.e., ‘high production values’) as a competitive weapon against each other. But now that there is an overabundance of suppliers, their competition levers towards being the first to produce content that is at least of acceptable quality.
"Millions of videos are viewed billions of times each month on sites such as YouTube.com (+3 billion per month) not because of high production values, but because the videos are at least ‘good enough’ to watch. The production of higher quality delays distribution and widespread usage. This corollary runs against the grain of traditional Mass Media organizations, which tend to delay release of their content until it is perfect, but the effect of this corollary is an observable phenomenon."
A lot of the problem we copy editors have been having with Web content is: How can you put that stuff out there? It's not good. The problem is that most of it is not really awful, either. It's just not very good, as good as it could be, as good as we know we could make it, and that makes us uneasy. But, without seeing all of Crosbie's post (for some reason I can't get to it), there are two things not addressed in this excerpt.
The ubiquity of digital communications has led to a change in attitude: Why SHOULDN'T I read it, look at it, whatever. It's free! If I'm bored in six seconds, I can blink it off. No charge. "Good enough" becomes good enough not just because of the ubiquity of content but because my investment is nearly zero. Whereas, if I actually had to pay for it, in money or time, I'd set a higher standard and ignore more of it. "Higher production values" were not just a way for NBC to try to trump CBS or AP to top UPI; they were a way to get you to stay put for a half-hour news show or pay more for a wire service for your newspaper. (If you've watched a bush-league TV station on a holiday weekend and found yourself laughing, you know that production values matter; but you've already made the investment of time in sitting down in front of the television. On the Web, you're probably doing something else, or able to do something else, at the same time, so your investment is much less. In so many cases, it's simply providing you with something to do to avoid doing something you don't want to do.)
But think of digital phones, which have worse sound quality compared with most landlines -- not awful, just not as good -- and are far more prone to skips and disconnects. And while it depends a lot on what sort of peripherals you buy, for years the quality of sound coming out of a computer was worse that the sound even a 1980s stereo system could provide. Yet -- it didn't seem to matter. Immediacy clearly trumps quality -- I can barely understand you, but I'd rather be frustrated by the phone than miss your party tonight. What is unknown is if this is transitory. Three years from now, will people just be looking at YouTube videos because someone sent them a link saying "You should watch this," or will that appetite have been sated (hey, honey, there's nothing else on TV, let's watch the test pattern) and there will be renewed competition on quality, particularly as each cohort passes out of adolescence in which everything is new again? Or does "anything other than being bored or out of the loop" hold the trump card?
So this is part of why copy desks are not faring particularly well, even though one would think a newspaper would say, "Our selling point in this media landscape is: Quality." The O.J. car chase proved that people will watch or read anything in which something might happen, for fear of missing it if it did. Most newspapers just started posting stuff on the Web without benefit of copy editors -- doing it on the cheap, not any thought-out strategy -- and thus discovered that "good enough" stories are just as effective on the Web as "really good" stories. And if there, why not everywhere? If the typical print newspaper is being read and disposed of in 20 minutes, what level of quality is really necessary? I can't recall a newspaper ever selling itself as "America's best copy edited."
But it was the concept of the newspaper as the most trusted source of news and therefore of its ads as carrying added value from being in the publication of record that led to newspapers' fixation on accuracy and quality. You trusted The Salt Lake Tribune, therefore you trusted its ads for ZCMI and Auerbach's -- and you particularly trusted its classified advertising, which could have been placed by anyone. (You also trusted clothes from a department store more than you did from Jack's Low-End Shirt Shop. Once the quality of nearly everything became about the same, this began to matter less.)
We have not yet really grappled as a culture with what it means when there is no fixed record, no stopping and starting point, just an endlessly mutable conversation. We do know which medium makes an ad incredibly cheap. But what sort of environment today makes one advertiser's message be seen as more trustworthy, a traditional added value of newspaper advertising? Or is that no longer material? It seems from some early research I've seen (and am not going to take an hour to find it and link to it, you just have to trust me) as if newspapers still have some advantage in that realm, both in print and online; that the brand is still seen as "reputable" and that that counts for something; but for what? Any ideas?
Monday, August 25, 2008
If the Burlington County Times in 1967 was a typical newspaper, the way news releases got into the paper was simple. Someone opened the mail and gave the news release to someone -- the news editor or an assistant city editor. A really significant news release would be given to a reporter to follow up on and produce a story, but most were simply announcements of promotions, meetings, garden club officers and the like.
So the editor, using a pencil, whacked out a lot of the garbage, made the lede focus on what was being announced rather than who was announcing it, and gave it some sort of standard headline -- a 1/24/2 or the like. The edited news release, either still on its original paper or cut-and-pasted (using real scissors and paste) onto another sheet of paper, then went down the chute to the composing room, where a printer set it into type on a Linotype, a proofreader checked it and ordered fixes, and the typeset slug either went onto a page as dummied or sat in a bank to be used as filler.
And thus local newspapers in the 1960s could easily find themselves filled with lots of local news releases. They were easy to process and they filled spaces around the ads. They got local names into the paper with very little effort. And journalists wondered why they were taking up all this precious space with "K. of P. Installs Grand Master." Whether readers felt that way we probably do not know, because newspapers at that point did not often ask readers what they thought. Why should they? Everyone bought the paper.
Three things happened in the 1970s. One is that journalists' view of their newspapers changed. How can we publish that press release? It could be a lie. We need to check it out, and if we don't have time, we shouldn't run it. Why do we list the garden club officers but not the officers of the AME church women's organization? But for change to happen there has to be a push and a pull. The pull was to make the newspaper more journalistic.
The push was that there no longer was a composing room. Someone in the newsroom would now have to actually input these news releases into some type of computer system. At my first paper, where we used OCR scanners, they actually hired people to do this -- retype news releases and newsletters from "country correspondents" that previously were set in type by a printer so that they could be fed through a scanner that only read Courier 12 off an IBM Selectric typewriter. (Yes, I was one of those people.) But if most newspapers had a position, they were going to hire a reporter, not a typist.
The second element was that the design of pages became more precise with computers. Previously, you really had no idea how long a story would be in type; it was an estimate. Now the computer showed you the exact length. So there was no excuse to have a one-paragraph filler headlined "SIKHS WEAR TURBANS" at the bottom of your page. Doing layout, you were no longer dashing off pages and letting a printer figure it out; you were responsible for the whole thing. This was seen as good because it gave the newsroom control. And it had been determined that readers liked modular layout and no longer wanted the cacophony of thrown-together pages. (Not debating that they did. But does anyone remember the debates about "op width" that led to 14-pica columns for Action Line on A1? Why did that matter so much then and matter so little now? Did we solve that problem, or just get bored with it and declare it solved? And why does none of this stuff about readability seem to matter on the Web?)
Your job was a lot easier if you surrounded the ads with easily cuttable wire copy requiring one headline than if you had to put four local stories on the page -- particularly if it was no one else's job to input the local "stories" in the first place. The news editor had now become in part the pagination-desk editor and was no longer whacking news releases, and a person of his dignity certainly was not retyping them. Even if they were available, they had to be rounded up and attached to the page. That took time.
And the third thing was sectionalization. Until the 1970s many daily newspapers had one or two sections -- with the break page often being dominated by a department store's ad. (The start of the second section in The Times-Picayune was generally an ad for D.H. Holmes Co. In the San Francisco Chronicle, it was the City of Paris Dry Goods Co. running next to Herb Caen.) If there was a third section, it was something like the Chronicle Sporting Green or The Des Moines Register's Peach section, or a once-a-week item like Food. A typical paper, though, had two sections, with something like news, women's and editorials in the first, and news, sports, classified and comics in the second. Sunday, of course, was different.
This meant that everything in "news" was jumbled together, as pages had to be made up and moved on a set schedule to allow the pressroom to deal with the cumbersome process of making plates. So you would tend to close out pages with small newsholes early, even if they were A5 and A14, with what you had at the time. For many papers, this meant there was no distinction between local news and wire news. It all went everywhere. It was what you had.
For a lot of good reasons, many actually involving early determinations of reader preference and others involving that pivotal 1970s question of "What do we do with the Women's Page after 1960s feminism but while people still want their weddings listed," newspapers embraced sectionalization. The New York Times used this to break out of being the Old Gray Lady, and Gannett was a leader in developing the four-section plan. At most newspapers this was A section, Metro, Sports and Features. The advertising model was: Most advertisers wanted to be at the front of the paper, so the department-store ads and the other big guns went in the A section. Metro often was backed with classified, not just because not as many advertisers wished to be in the B section, but because classified was often led with obits (paid or not) and obits were clearly B section news. Sports (or Sports/Business) had enough agate to make up a C or D section, along with the tire store ads and the like, and Features would have ads from women's clothing stores and theaters, plus the comics. You could balance the sizes of the sections, roughly, which made it better for the pressroom.
What that meant in many papers, however, was that the A section was now devoted (past the front page) exclusively to wire news. Some papers tried to make the front section local and the second section national-foreign, but some readers resisted this even though it hadn't mattered when it was jumbled together. In that era when newspapers were the only real providers of national-foreign news, it just seemed wrong to consciously give run-of-the-mill local stories precedence over national politics and foreign intrigue. (We still hear this from some traditional readers today.) If you just stuck a page of local news in the middle of the A section, the reader who assumed all local news was now in the B section would miss it. And the B section usually did not have as much space as the A, because it did not have as many display ads. So the marginal local news was squeezed out. Also, you could kill off the A section pages early with wire copy from Asia or Europe that wasn't going to change, and make your flow goals.
Part of the reason that news releases and community news suddenly look attractive again on local-local Web sites is that the person in the community in effect becomes the printer -- posting their own news without the involvement of an editorial person.
Some papers did hand out stacks of news releases to reporters, who then complained how they were unable to do real stories while retyping news releases. Many papers tried to shepherd them into briefs columns or "hometown news" pages, where they often embarrassingly became the best-read items in the paper because they were short. But in those heady days money to hire reporters at some papers was flowing like wine, and those reporters turned out news stories that tended to get longer and whose trimming now involved negotiation, because we were past the bad old days of the evil city editor who whacked 30-inch stories to three grafs because there was only three grafs of news in them. We're all Halberstams on this bus.
This served the cause of journalism. Whether it turned readers away from newspapers, which were now more full of wire stories from Almaty and contained fewer easily digestible news nuggets about people you might know, is an open question. TV news improved and expanded as well. But overall circulation began its inexorable decline and people began telling us that they did not have time to read the paper. Our response was that they should adjust their priorities and make time, and that in fact we would give them even more to read.
Readers say in focus groups that they don't expect daily papers to provide chicken-dinner news, and then they buy weekly papers that provide chicken-dinner news and increasingly turn away from the dailies. But how the daily of 1967 got to the daily of 2008 is not just a story of increasing professionalism. Technological change always involves changes you don't even know are happening, and often involves changes that reader-customers don't like but you don't notice, because you are getting to do more of what you want.
Sunday, August 24, 2008
Thursday, August 21, 2008
The Burlington County Times in mid-October of 1967 ran its share of wire stories, but they were not many. They fell into three categories: Breaking news that had to get in; "evergreen" stories to fill up around the back-page ads; and short, non-essential stories to make up a page where something else ran short. Back in these days printers made up the page, using layouts for major stories and then filling the holes with whatever was available.
At my first job, we still made up pages this way; you would write "AE" for "all edition" on the dummy after you indicated what had to go on the page, and the printer would grab some filler copy to complete it. Dick Holden had been a copy editor at The Indianapolis Times and told about a new deskman there. The page next to the comics page had to be made up early, so the news editor told him to "fill it with type" and send the dummy down to the composing room. In a few minutes an angry foreman arrived in the newsroom. The dummy had come down with the entire page marked "Fill with type." What would you like, the foreman asked, an entire page full of one-paragraph fillers with heds such as "Rats in Sumatra"?
But the majority of the content of the BCT on this October Thursday was local. And here are the headlines:
- State Denies Application for Mt. Laurel Track
- Pair Nabbed in Larcenies
- Crash Injures Woman Motorist
- Accident Claims Second Victim
- Rosh Hashanah Begins High Holy Days
- Pemberton Library Group Meeting Set
- 12 Motorists Grounded
- Willingboro Population Zooms
- Chief Retires in Burlington
- Rockets Paint Night Sky
- State Police Nab Bootleg Suspect
- Mt. Holly to Keep Log Cabin
- Medal Winner Group Speaker
- Repeater, 15, Going to Juvenile Shelter
- Lawyer Files Jail Charge
- Riverside Post Sets Installation
- Burlington County Joins Fight to "Let Freedom Ring"
- Tri-Boro Area News (a newsletter)
- Computer Education Future Reality? Moorestown Experimenting
- Church Schedules Autumnal Service
- McGuire Installs Employment Post
- Dental Society Plans Seminar
- Riverside Cubs Receive Badges
- Local PTAs to Hear Reading Coordinator
- Chiropractors Attend Seminar
- Knights to Hold Ladies Night
- Luncheonette Man's Lament: 'School Regulation Is Ruining Me'
- Martin Donohue Attends College
- Armed Forces Announce Duties of County Men
- Friends School Hosts Communication Confab
- Burlington Grad Seeks Election
- Pupil Staff Confab
- Council Sets 'Victim' Film
- Republican Clubs Host Candidates
- School Eyes Evaluation
- French Club Plans Trip
- County Welfare Council Selects Slate of Officers
- Soltesz Says GOP 'Boss' 'Personally Selected' Mauk
- Fire Chief Urges Chimney Work
- 10 Countians in Practice
- GOP Club Sets Candidates Night
- 2 Countians at Arkansas
- Kiwanis Seats Local Man as Deputy State Official
- Mt. Holly Fills Municipal Posts
- Man Completes Sales Seminar
- McGuire UF Unit Aims at New High
- Russian Trip Glassboro Topic
- Jaycees Host Bike Road-E-O
- Seamanship Course Set
- County GOP Workshop Set
- PTA Activities
- Navy Offers Trade Skills
- Democratic Club Hears Candidate
- Dann Speech Set Tonight
Of course, the vast majority of these headlines are on news releases. The story on the Mount Laurel race track was a local breaking news story; the Burlington police chief's retirement was a local piece; the luncheonette story was an oddly-placed local feature on how a closed-campus policy at a middle school had ruined life for a small businessman; and there were the typical cops and courts stories.
There were no "blow the lid off" pieces, no "social trend" stories except for the possible luncheonette piece, no business stories as we know them, no health stories; none of the stories that so rile the conservatives when they complain about newspapers, about lesbians wanting to become Catholic priests or every inner-city shooting victim being an honor student, but no stories that would rile liberals either. And while the major local news stories -- the racetrack denial or the police chief -- were the usual 12-to-14 graf essays one sees today, the typical story, wire or local, was four to six paragraphs.
Using this collection of what today's journalists would see as unpalatably thin gruel and not what they wanted to get into the newspaper business to do, the Burlington County Times in nine years, in a market where it was competing with six larger dailies from Philadephia, Trenton and Camden, plus the occasional New York Times or Daily News sold on the newsstand, had managed to build its circulation from zero to 22,000. (And an amazing thing is that it is still competing with five of those six papers.) Willingboro was new, but Mount Holly, Pemberton, Burlington and Riverside were long-established towns without much growth. Moorestown was growing, but only Mount Laurel was a "new suburb."
Not that this is a playbook for 2008. But this content resembles much of what you would find on local-local Web sites or promoted as the sort of copy that now should go there. Local institutions. Local activities. Local names -- loads and loads of local names, even though many of them were simply of people saying, "Look at me!" All delivered in short nibbles -- you didn't have all day to read the paper, after all. And it resembles much of what many newspapers threw out of the paper in the 1980s, which was followed by circulation and advertising declines, perhaps related, perhaps not. Human nature does not change, but not running news releases didn't kill Pomeroy's.
But it wasn't just journalistic snobbery that led to this change. Technology played a major part. Providing our wash lady doesn't put my new straw hat in the soap suds and take all the color out of the ribbon, we'll move on to that.
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
The Burlington County Times, one of our local newspapers, has an interesting story. Unlike most dailies, it did not grow out of a weekly or have its base in an established community. It owes its existence to William Levitt.
Having built Levittowns on Long Island and in Bucks County, Pa., Levitt looked to Burlington County for his third community (and final one on the U.S. mainland). He selected Willingboro Township, a rural area halfway between Philadelphia and Trenton and right across a bridge from Levittown, Pa. Levitt had learned from his mistake in Pennsylvania, where his community went across township lines and thus he needed approval from many levels of government. In Willingboro he would deal with one community.
His ambition had grown as well. Long Island was basically a huge subdivision, but starting with Pennsylvania he aimed to build not just subdivisions, but complete communities -- not just with schools and parks, but with shopping, movies, newspapers -- ready-made towns. In Levittown, Pa., he had convinced Pomeroy's, the Reading-based Allied Stores operator of department stores in eastern Pennsylvania, to be an anchor of the Shop-A-Rama. (Pomeroy's even developed a separate store logo for its new division.) Pomeroy's would also have a store in Willingboro.
In 1954, Stanley Calkins, publisher of newspapers in western Pennsylvania, had bought the Bristol Courier from Bucks County's political boss, Joseph Grundy. Calkins then purchased a weekly serving Levittown and created the Bucks County Courier Times. It was a natural for Calkins to be involved in creating a newspaper for the third Levittown as well. But while Levittown, Pa., was near Bristol and its established daily, the new Levittown, N.J., was in a county served only by weeklies. And the nearest towns, Burlington and Riverside, were hardly retail hubs.
The challenge was clear. The Willingboro Levittown -- it only briefly legally adopted the name of Levittown and was back to Willingboro by 1963 -- was to become the hub of Burlington County; the Fox Theater relocated there from Burlington (in a Levitt building) and the Plaza, with Pomeroy's and Sears as anchors, was to be the largest shopping area between the new South Jersey malls (Cherry Hill and Moorestown) and Trenton. That meant that once the early excitement of thousands of families establishing new homes in Willingboro was over, the mall had to draw from Mount Holly and Edgewater Park and Fort Dix. That meant the newspaper had to pull people from around the county to Willingboro as well as taking whatever ads came from stores in the established towns. In essence, the developer and the newspaper were creating a regional market where none had existed before.
The Burlington County Times is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, having been established in 1958 when the first families began moving into their Levitt houses in Willingboro.
On the one hand, the BCT had a blank slate -- it had no longtime readers to alienate with changes, as it had no readers at all. On the other hand, it was being made up and printed at the Bucks County plant until it was firmly enough established to have its own, so it had to conform to the basic makeup of that newspaper. And it had to conform to reader expectations of a newspaper so that people would not reject it in favor of the Philadelphia or Trenton papers, while recognizing that many people would take the larger papers anyway. Quite a challenge, and one that easily could have not been met. Yet the BCT sunk its roots and established itself as a paper for a county without a traditional center. It had to offer its readers what they wanted from the start. So what did it offer them?
By the fall of 1967, the nine-year-old BCT, which published Monday through Saturday afternoons, was running one or two pages of "women's news," two clear pages of editorials and news features -- the op-ed page was not filled with pundits but with in-depth wire stories as well as Dear Abby -- three or four pages (with ads) of sports, a couple of pages of comics and puzzles, and general news pages to fit the ads. A Monday might have eight to 10 news pages, a Wednesday or Thursday around 25. Page 3 was always open, but everything from there to the comics pages was clearly determined by how many ads there were. What was the news-to-ad ratio? No idea, but 60 percent news looked like a stretch. It was probably 50-50.
This was an afternoon paper, so the only way it got out the door in those days of Linotypes and stereotypers was for many of the pages to be made up the day before. Just a few pages would be reserved for breaking news, and the back pages had to consist of wire or local stories that would not change overnight. The front page would be made up late, so it would have to have a couple of "not really front page stories" available to fill it out when local copy ran short or didn't happen. But generally, as a local afternoon paper, only the most essential or interesting wire stories would get in. On one Thursday in mid-October, this meant there were nine stories on A1. Only two jumped.
This Thursday's paper -- in a typical week, no election ads, no pre-Christmas runup, just an ordinary paper -- had about 56 columns of general news (it was an eight-column page). Women's news added 10 columns and, perhaps most shocking by today's standards, Sports had 11 -- the equivalent of two pages today. This didn't take into account the comics and puzzles. There were four pages of classified, but again, the pages were wider.
Readers looking for advertising on this Thursday -- a Best Food Day, as we used to call it -- got ads for the major groceries. Sears took six pages, and Pomeroy's probably accounted for three although its ads were scattered. Other display advertisers included a carpet store, a paint store, an optometrist, a fabric store, discount stores, a beauty salon, a bank, a children's clothing shop and two tire stores -- the same odd collection of advertisers local newspapers have today. (If your memory goes back this far, the major movies playing were "Dr. Zhivago," "Up the Down Staircase," "The Sound of Music" and "A Man for All Seasons.")
But what news did the paper provide its readers as it continued to sink its roots into its county? Next post.
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
"Many teachers predict that in the school of the not-so-distant future, the textbook will be nothing more than an unhappy memory. Students will receive almost 100 percent of their information from computers.
"Dr. Stanton Leggett, educator and consultant, said, 'Computers put the kid in the game. For years our schools have had students practice things, but that's as far as they ever went. But working with a computer is like a game to a student. He learns more, yet enjoys it more. So he wants all he can get.'"
You know the punch line. From an op-ed story in the Burlington County Times on Oct. 15, 1967. The point of the article, by one Roger Doughty, was that many schools were rapidly implementing computer-based learning. (I went to a private high school in the late 1960s, and I never saw a computer until I went to college, except for the ones on "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." and "The Avengers." But it was Indiana.)
Change never happens in quite the way it is predicted. Many students may indeed be receiving 100 percent of their information through computers ("from" seems the wrong word), but some of that information consists of online -- textbooks. So much for the unhappy memory. And the "not-too-distant" future always turns out to be more distant than journalists think it will be, though this article thankfully did not say "By the 1970s students will be having information beamed into their brains" or such. The not-so-distant future could indeed have been the year 2000 in Dr. Leggett's mind.
But "working with a computer is like a game" hits on a big problem newspapers face. Reading a newspaper can be many things, but it's not fun. (I mean "enjoyable" fun, not "har-har" fun, although it's not that either unless the comics hit the mark or you have a really funny columnist.) We live in a world of Skinner's food pellets -- you do something, you get a response. You post on Facebook, and someone posts back. You click on a link, and something new happens. You book a hotel room, and you get a "Congratulations!" page. It's fun. You take a test online and you get the scores back immediately and you get a food pellet. You post a comment and someone else posts a comment disagreeing with your comment and it's a food pellet. It's certainly more fun than turning the page to find "Jobs, Cont'd from Page B1."
If I were redesigning a print newspaper in 2008 I would first say to myself, "What will make this fun for people to use?" Because otherwise I'll just be talking to the 15 percent of the population that believes that everything in life is a Serious Matter. I wouldn't say, "Let's just run fun stories." I would say, "We can't compete with online food pellets. What can we do? Make sure there is interesting stuff scattered everywhere -- don't just say, well, it's in the A section so I have to run a boring story on Mongolia because it's the A section. Put teasers throughout the paper to draw people on --not just on the fronts, but on inside pages as well. Write them as if they really are teasers instead of objective synopses. Assume that if people have over the last 15 years been willing to spend about 25 minutes reading the paper, I should provide a product that can be satisfactorially used in 20 minutes. I can't control the big news, I can't even control the small news, but can I create a framework to hang the news on that says, 'This is fun to use. You'll enjoy reading your paper. Yes, even you 28-year-olds.'?
We have come to mistrust enjoyment of the newspaper we produce. Enjoyment means we might not be Serious People. But we also are prisoners of technological models that have arisen over the last three decades. If the water in the lake doesn't get inside the milk pail and make lemonade of it, the next post will turn to that.
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
This is a post where I'm on territory I know little about, so be warned.
I looked at some newspapers from November 1966 to make sure that I wasn't being nostalgic about how much department store advertising there was. There really were 10 or more pages of Sunday advertising from each of the Big Four department stores in Philadelphia -- John Wanamaker, Strawbridge & Clothier, Gimbels and Lit Bros. With lesser amounts from Sears, Penneys, Bonwit Teller, Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor and C.A. Rowell, Philadelphia's only big neighborhood department store.
But that made me wonder -- who else advertised at that time in newspapers? How has the retail and advertising environment so changed?
So I looked at three daily Inquirers for the first week in November and the Sunday Inquirer. At that time, the Bulletin would have gotten the majority of daily advertising, but the Inquirer was larger on Sunday. Advertisers considered the daily Inquirer no bargain. The department stores were represented, and there were "co-op" advertisers (like car ads with the names of local dealers at the bottom). There were five big grocery chains -- A&P, Acme, Penn Fruit, Food Fair and Pantry Pride. And, of course, every day had movie ads -- though not as large or as many as one might recall. But the paper was not stuffed with ads.
Missing today is that there was much more national advertising -- a lot (a LOT!) of beer and liquor advertising, and patent-medicine advertising (stomach pills, nasal sprays). There were cigarette ads, of course, and ads for Hills Bros. Coffee, Canada Dry, Mott's -- but mostly liquor ads, perhaps because back then liquor could not be advertised on television. These were newspaper clients that went back decades.
The other category less seen today is "contract ads" -- to get the contract rate, you had to run an ad at a certain frequency, usually least once a week, so you had an evergreen ad that ran every Tuesday and then would get a better rate on special ads. (The Kansas City Star was a huge contract-ad paper; every day's paper had scores of 1-column-by-1-inch ads to secure the contract rate.) There were a lot of "Dental Plate Repair" ads like this, along with some plumbers, rug cleaners and the like. The daily paper had surprisingly little "buy this today!" advertising, although it did attract men's stores.
Then came the "Thursday zones," as we used to call them -- once-a-week sections with zoned advertising. They were bursting with ads, but not just for local merchants. Woolworth's was there, as was Dodge Trucks. Some chains, such as Atlantic Appliance, only advertised in the zones. Clearly they wanted to be in the paper, but not at full rate.
And then came Sunday, when more than 100 additional advertisers came forward. Probably some of them were in the daily Bulletin. These included the major niche retailers: In men's wear, Jacob Reed's Sons, Morville, Berg Bros.; in women's, Lillian Albus, Helen Caro, Franklin Simon, The Blum Store and especially Nan Duskin; in shoes, Dial, Geuting's, Baker's. Fur stores were a big category back then. Jewelers were somewhat underrepresented, but it might just have been the week.
Major space was taken by the discounters, such as E.J. Korvette and S. Klein, and the era's big-box appliance stores, such as Silo and Dee's. And the J.B. Van Sciver furniture stores took a page and a half.
What amazed me was the number of ads that I would call singles or bloopers -- 2x6, 1x4, 3x5, one per week. I remembered the department store ads correctly, but had forgotten about all the small advertisers -- like Typhoon Fence and Gumas Bros. Toys. Most advertisers in The Inquirer were small advertisers. And they advertised full-run. Marv Blatt Tire, which is still at its location four blocks from where I work, ran a full-run ad on Sundays. That was one million circulation all over Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware for a tire store with one location. The Frances Rosen Dress Shop at 2455 N. 54th St. ran a full-run ad. Nowadays Frances would be told that no one more than three or four miles from her store would ever go there.
Advertising is one of the best-read things in newspapers. The fewer ads we have, the fewer reasons there are to read the paper. Back in those days, newspapers could demand pretty much whatever rate they wanted, but I'm sure most of The Inquirer's clients were just paying for the cost of the newsprint. I'm also sure it takes more time to serve those sort of clients than one makes off their business -- back then you could charge them for the composing room work, now you just paste in a pdf -- but would people pay more attention to papers if there simply were more ads, even if we just broke even on them? (Because whatever people want, it's always coupled with: More.)
Print can never compete with click-through ad rates, but if the per-unit cost of advertising is simply declining overall, would it be better to just take less money and get more volume? I don't know enough about the advertising business to know, and I know that there are rules about unfair competition that can get you in trouble if you sell ads at a loss. But since we let classified grow to become half of ad revenue to replace the national and retail clients we lost, and if classified advertising is now What Works Best Online, maybe the only thing left is to put a "sale!" sign on the price of retail advertising for small businesses. Seeing some of the ads in our local papers, like a daily two-page ad for an appliance store that's moving, I wonder if it's being done already.
The inevitable problem for metro dailies, I know, is that these days those small merchants are in strip malls or small towns miles from the city. Except for the Thursday zones, nearly all of the small advertisers back then were in the city of Philadelphia.
The department store technique was: If it doesn't sell, mark it down until it does. In today's world, once you've marked down prices, you have to keep them there. But people go to a Wal-mart or Target not just because it has low prices but because it has lots of merchandise. The cost of newsprint being what it is, one has to break even, but who are today's equivalents of Van Scivers or Nan Duskin -- the middle-level store that draws from the whole region, that's not Wal-Mart and not La-Di-Da Gifts? I know newspapers must be making calls on them. Or was it that the only way it was profitable to keep those accounts was the money provided by 10 pages of ads from Wanamakers and Gimbels? Whatever, a paper with just-break-even ads has to be better in the short run than the acres of adless pages in the Post and the Times or the six-page A sections in some metro papers.
So I looked in one of our local papers today. Ads for Dunkin' Donuts and C&C's Spirit of Fitness. Ads for dentists. Contract ads for furniture stores. Banks, shoe stores, diners, health clubs. National ads for cell phones and Dell computers. Spine doctors. Kitchen cabinet firms. And a 30-page Kohl's back-to-school preprint. The daily paper is the same business outside of classified that it was in 1966, the same odd collection of advertisers. In the Sunday paper, it's all inserts instead of ROP ads, but it's the same products being sold -- clothes, TVs, furniture. I don't know anything about the advertising business, but a paper that's just journalism, no matter how great, has to have less appeal.
Thursday, August 7, 2008
I was checking a paper from Nov. 1, 1966, and on the entertainment page, with the ads for "Festa Italiana" and "La Traviata" and the Chamber Symphony, there it was:
Lord, it really was a simpler time. Baba Ram Dass right under the ads for Kelly's Seafood Restaurant and the Dancette Ballroom. Be There Now.
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
Living in South Jersey, I get South Jersey magazine, which ran a piece this month about a man who appears to be the father of "Action News" on Channel 6 in Philadelphia, which for decades was the highest-ranked local news show in the United States and for an equal number of decades was seen as the station that destroyed television journalism. Because there's a registration wall, I will quote from this story by Charles H. Harrison on George Koehler, and in the full understanding that TV news is linear and newspapers are not, and that one of the strengths of print is that it can provide more detail, one can draw one's own conclusions about what the newspaper business should or should not have done in listening to its own customers and what they have said they wanted, given that despite the inroads of online journalism, the most depended-upon and most trusted source of journalism, even among people 18-30, is television.
"Koehler resolved to make something big out of Channel 6.
"At the time, the typical half-hour television news program—local and national—consisted of eight to 10 stories, with the anchor and reporters spending a lot of that time talking about what had happened that day. ... If Channel 6 was going to rise above a 'poor third,' Koehler reasoned, he and his team had to make some dramatic changes, do things differently—very differently.
"The brainstorming came up with two propositions: (1) more and shorter stories, an increase from about 10 to 20 or more, and (2) more pictures and less talk. Before launching the new and improved Channel 6 news, Koehler wanted to test out what was, at the time, a very radical formula for presenting the news. He called on Frank N. Magid.
"Magid had been a college professor of social science who was building a consulting firm specializing in the communications industry. Today, the firm has grown to more than 300 employees. 'At the time,' Magid recalled recently, 'Channel 6 was really on the bottom of the rankings. They wanted an honest appraisal of what drew people to various stations. More specifically, they wanted to know what would be more meaningful and attractive to the population, so they would be able to increase their share of the audience. ...
"'It is important to understand that, while many stations’ management gives lip service to wanting to change and do things that are new, when push comes to shove, they don’t change, because they fear what is new. They aren’t willing to take the chances George was willing to take. ...'
"Magid and his team tested various formats on Philadelphia audiences. 'What the people said they wanted,' he discovered, 'was broader coverage. Well, you can’t have broader coverage with the same number of minutes, so what you have to do is increase the number of stories.' What the people preferred, then, was what Koehler and associates were proposing: more and shorter stories.
"What Magid and Koehler found out was that television viewers in the Philadelphia region wanted more news but less detail. 'Much less detail, actually,' said Koehler. “Just enough to tell the story. We would give the important elements and not a lot of background, unless, of course, for major stories, when we would give those stories much more time and information.' The new format, then, was 'lots of stories and lots of pictures. Not talking heads, but as much action as we could get into the program.'...
"Sometime later, Koehler composed an eight-page, single-spaced treatise titled How You Do the News in which he outlined and then elaborated upon 'the basic principles of the Action News format as it was first developed and as it still remains in effect.' ... Koehler closed the 'book' by observing 'most people will look at the newscast in which they feel they’re getting the most for the investment they have made…in information, in friendship, in action.' He also reminded everyone about Frank Magid’s parting line before he left as consultant: 'You don’t lose viewers; you drive them away.'"
Tuesday, August 5, 2008
Mark Bowden's Atlantic article on the Wall Street Journal sums it up with this phrase -- "In those fat and happy days." We got a subsidy to do what we wanted. We know those days are gone. But dealing with the days we have means we have to give up some of our self-definition as people up in the manor house who are not engaged in trade and are on a mission from Olympus. We have to be more ink-stained wretches again, regardless of whether that ink is digital. We need to work with the people who own our businesses to produce products that people will actually want to pay money to advertise in, at a sufficient level that it may, yes, MAY pay to also do the sort of work Mark Bowden and so many others have done.
Because we really in 2008 have no guarantee that anything is going to support serious journalism. There are lots of ideas for the future, but none of them has hit the "Sale" button on the cash register yet.
For example, Politico, the politics-based news organization founded in January 2007 specifically as a from-the-ground-up merger of print and online. As the Times wrote: "Politico’s round-the-clock online news reporting and analysis ... have made it a must-read for a large audience outside the Beltway. Politico.com averaged 2.5 million unique visitors a month in the first half of 2008, more than all but 13 American newspapers, according to Nielsen Online. ...
"([Such success does not] mean that online publications are translating page views into dollars. Politico still gets most of its revenue from ads in its printed newspaper, placed by interest groups hoping to influence the paper’s powerful readers.)" The "why" is not hard to see. How many of those 2.5 million unique visitors from across the nation are going to buy something based on an ad on Politico? They want red meat, and they want it free. They don't care if it makes no sense economically for Politico to give it to them free (it may, because it gives legitimacy to the print paper). It isn't about Politico. They'll take it from anyone who gives it to them free.
So perhaps the best thing is to do what people say they would pay for, so that we can do some of the stuff they would never pay for. (And then get them to pay for what they said they would pay for.) That is not pandering. That is serving journalism and the country as best you can in 2008, while acknowledging that it could be done more purely in 1988. (I want to say "better," but I don't want that argument again.) I believe that this is what the Zellots are trying to say amid the capitalizations and the f-- yous and the fact that they owe a lot more money than they should. I also may be the most stupid person in the room. Journalism is a terrific way to spend your life, but it never paid the bills and it never will. The bills get paid when someone wants to use journalism to make money or burnish their reputation.
But part of the new reality is recognizing that most of us are not Mark Bowden and are going to have much more mundane jobs than his career and talents have offered him. And that leads to the mismatch of expectations with occupation that Will Bunch so finely described in his American Journalism Review article. Just as television didn't lead to the end of radio but led to the end of Radio As We Had Known It -- the radio of Art Linkletter, the Green Hornet and NBC Monitor replaced over time with the radio of Alan Freed and Cousin Brucie, then the AM of Rush Limbaugh and the FM of Clear Channel -- most newspapers (regardless of their form) are being redefined into something less ambitious, more locally focused, more aimed at filling niches. Just as with radio, this is happening because the money for the old way is no longer there and so you have to figure out how to make money. But the redefinition of radio meant there was no longer much of a place in commercial radio for people who dreamed of following in the steps of Sylvester "Pat" Weaver or Henry Morgan or Ed Murrow. Their ambition went elsewhere, or it found its way to NPR. It wasn't their fault or Ed Murrow's fault. It was just the times.
The era when you could run a "national" newspaper from Philadelphia or Baltimore or Dallas, probably even from Los Angeles, is over. What's the point of sending someone from Philadelphia to cover the Midwest floods if you can get YouTube video, feeds from local TV stations, tweets from people watching the water rise, and stories from the Cedar Rapids Gazette on your home computer if you are really interested? And if you're not really interested, a wire story in the paper, a wire link on the Web page, or just 10 seconds on CNN are fine. But that makes the sort of career progression of a David Rohde -- who went from covering the Falls Township board for Inquirer Neighbors to uncovering the Srebenica massacre for The Christian Science Monitor within two years -- much harder to emulate. As Bunch says, "The entrenched job loop for ambitious journalists – sending college grads like Peace Corps Volunteers off to short-term stints in far-flung outposts, en route to isolated newsrooms that poorly cover a patchwork of neighborhoods and suburbs – isn't working for either news people or the communities that they cover." And at the moment we don't know what the new loop is, or even if there is one.
Those who remember the Internet 1.0 site NewsMAIT may remember that after a year, the advice given by employees of 1,325 of America's 1,350 daily newspapers to prospective employees was: STAY AWAY. My favorite was a person who worked for, I think, the Greeley Daily Tribune. Apparently the newspaper was located downwind from a feedlot, and the odor of bovine manure permeated the parking lot. The person who posted the "STAY AWAY" message made clear that it was a personal affront to him, a well-educated and highly trained college graduate with a presumed career at a metro daily in Manhattan or San Francisco (or at least Denver) in front of him, to have to endure this daily indignity. For the people for whom he was allegedly working and whom he hoped to leave behind, this was their town, though it smelled like a feedlot. That could have been a way to learn about and sympathize with the ordinary lives on whose behalf newspapers are supposed to speak. But it smelled bad and there were no good clubs. "I'm gettin' out of here, and if in the meantime they have problems -- unless they're going to get me a good clip, why should I care? Screw these morons. There's a reason they live out their lives in Greeley and I won't."
This all may mean that the Mark Bowdens and David Rohdes -- and David did a terrific job covering Falls Township -- take their considerable talents to another medium and newspapers ("newspapers" is a good word whether they have paper or not, just like "broadcast" works just fine as a verb for TV shown solely on cable channels) will go back to largely employing people who are comfortable as a career with doing city council, religion notes, county fair roundup with photos, and oh, an interesting feature or a big, probing local story, but you aren't going to be detached for eight weeks to work on it -- whether their work is done for print or on a local-local Web site or a niche magazine or all of the above. We can hope that we're lucky and can make enough money to be able to do serious stuff as well. But whatever these news operations are, they won't be focused on hiring and rewarding people who view covering the Lower Slobovia Borough Council as demeaning work to be passed off as quickly as possible. Those people now can start their own Web sites and appeal to the fellow disdainful.
>>And that's nearly all to be said about all that. The business climate for newspapers has deteriorated so badly in the last month that further criticism seems largely irrelevant. There may be little left to criticize very soon. In coming weeks, I will be spending more time with department stores and copy editing -- another endangered area, of course, for the same reasons -- if I don't end up having to look for a job. But a magazine arrived this weekend that brings one last point on this, to come.
>>If you, like me, loved "NBC Monitor," click here for a sound that will bring back memories:
Monday, August 4, 2008
The post "Janus and Julian" was written to be provocative, which I usually don't do and thus probably failed at doing. Here's what it wasn't saying.
It wasn't saying editorial independence is bad. Decades ago, local bigwigs and advertisers told newspapers what to print and what not to print. DUIs involving the sons of major advertisers were killed. Anything that reflected negatively on the town or its major industries was killed. A department store would open a new wing and there would be five stories about it. This was pernicious.
It wasn't saying the wants of the readers are all-powerful. Journalism, as a public trust, must do stories that most people won't want to read. Journalists, through their work, become aware of things that must be covered and that almost no one else knows about. Readers don't know what they don't know.
It wasn't saying major takeouts and projects and fanciful stories are unneeded. A diet simply of town boards and people-in-the-news gets old. The offbeat story or the project about something unexpected draws readers in.
It wasn't saying that people don't want serious news. The Miami Herald heard from its readers after its most recent cutbacks, a large number of whom said -- hey, we want investigations, we want hard coverage.
It wasn't saying that the major problem facing us isn't the business side.
Whether you believe that the newspaper business should have cornered the Internet classified market or just think it should do a better job delivering the physical paper, management in the newspaper business has showed singular ineptitude.
No, it wasn't saying any of that. It was saying that a newsroom culture that sees responding to what readers want as "pandering," that enshrines a disdain for appealing to the business' customers, puts itself in a box, because any change can be defined as pandering, and then you are a philistine to support it. "Readers don't like jumps?" Well, our stories are important, so we will jump all of them, even to different sections. "Readers like color weather maps?" Weather happens every day. Readers are stupid. "Readers like news, but also like pet photos?" Gawwwwd. "Readers like long stories on big issues and short stories on everything else?" Who are they to tell me how long my story should be? "Readers want to know about whose house was on fire when they saw smoke?" Covering your fires isn't our line. We deal in issues, friend. Don't tell the brain surgeons how to do their work. We're all Halberstams on this bus.
Again, none of this discounts poor customer service or poor ontime delivery or throwing the product in the icy street or bad reproduction or ink ruboff or inefficient technology or lousy Internet strategies. The business side has myriad sins. What we face today is largely a failure of advertising. Yet we have our issues, and among them is that we have created an unassailable high church from which any idea can be not only rejected, but dragged into the square and publicly pummeled, in the knowledge that this will be roundly cheered and zellcake will be eaten in newsrooms. You, the owners, the readers, cannot measure our work or even comprehend how it is done. Your role is to appreciate us for doing it. Do not tell us what you want or need. We deserve better owners and better customers. Someday, perhaps we will find them.
Back when Knight Ridder used to measure relative readership in each market, The Wall Street Journal had 4 percent penetration in greater Philadelphia. I have no figures but I expect that would hold true in most major metros outside New York and Chicago, and be less in smaller markets. In 2005, the average employment income of a Journal reader was nearly $200,000 a year. (Lord, was I a piker.) So The Wall Street Journal has great customers. The Wall Street Journal is Bloomingdale's. Even so, the most-read thing in each day's Journal before its recent changes was the two columns called "What's News" that summarized all the things that weren't in that day's Journal.
The front page of the Journal had its three long stories, and the paper then had page after page of financial-news arcana, business-related Washington coverage, comprehensive stock tables, editorials from somewhere to the right of the planet Jupiter, and "Pepper ... and Salt." (Do I remember right that in the 1980s there was a controversy about this standard-bearer of journalism running largely verbatim news releases on inside pages under the byline "By a Wall Street Journal Staff Reporter"?) Saying the paper was being read primarily for the ledes and the A-hed is like saying most people bought Playboy for the interviews.
Probably unlike most journalists now in their 50s, I grew up with The Wall Street Journal; my father got it every day, my mother made a Dictabelt recording of my reading it aloud when I was very young -- and I remember in the 1960s my father's commenting on the amusing A-heds. But he bought the paper to read about the financial climate and its effects on soybeans and combines. (He took Playboy, too, and he liked the interviews, but he knew what he bought it for.)
We shall continue.