As we watch to see if Chrysler disappears into GM: Well, the U.S. auto industry is widely condemned for 30 years of management short-sightedness, and who's going to defend it?
Yet the U.S. auto industry consisted of three companies. The newspaper industry is condemned for not developing Monster, or eBay, or Craigslist, or, in some truly over-the-top moments, Google. (Asking why the newspaper business did not develop Google is like asking why GM did not develop the Atlas rocket. Why exactly would it have?) But think back to 10 years ago, when the Web is four or five years old, and newspapers were starting to put content online. What did the newspaper industry consist of in 1998?
Well, the publicly held companies that were reviled for putting profits first -- Knight Ridder, Tribune, Gannett, Journal Register. And then the two-tier stock companies such as NYT, Times Mirror, Dow Jones-Ottaway, Belo, Scripps, Post, and McClatchy, which at the time was a small company. Occasionally reviled, occasionally not.
And then the privately held giants like Hearst, Advance, Freedom and Media News. And then a host of smaller companies -- Seattle Times, Block, Central, Wehco, Morris, Media General, Cox, Copley, Guy Gannett, Pulitzer, Lee, Landmark, Donrey-Stevens, Pioneer, Swift.
And then even smaller companies with still significant holdings such as World-Herald, Forum, Ogden, Schurz, Nixon, Post & Courier, Harris. And then the independent companies in places like Cedar Rapids and Youngstown and Atlantic City and Hackensack and Arlington Heights.
They all stand in the dock accused of not developing Craigslist? Of not throwing out the old model and putting every bet on the new? Of putting short-sighted profits ahead of long-term gains? We're ranging from the occasionally bombastic and dynasty-obsessed Frank Blethen in Seattle to the quiet down-home Marcils in North Dakota, from the back-and-forth futurism of Knight Ridder and the Cue Cat fiasco at Belo to the print-is-first Walter Hussman in Little Rock. We're ranging from companies that looked for 35 percent margins to ones that were happy with 5.
If there was a way to get it right, someone, somewhere, would have done it. (And indeed, the newspaper business is full of many success stories, and despite the secular components of change, there is a cyclical nature to the newspaper economics of late 2008 as well. Most journalists, of course, ignore the successes because they happen in places like Anniston and Oklahoma City where they do not really want to end up.) This is not three giant companies, based a few miles apart, operating under nearly identical contracts. Newspapers may have been local monopolies, but nationally it was a very diverse group of businesses.
Journalists are good at pointing out how solutions could be easily obtained by doing the right thing, spending lots of other people's money and not worrying about the cost. And journalists are often pretty certain what the right thing is. But sometimes, when you eliminate the blogs of the "we saw the future in 1985" tech-editors-turned-consultants who are still angry about not having been able to do what they wanted, you are left with: We are going to lose our jobs, and it's your fault, you should have done something. We trusted you. What we do is important and so you should have taken better care of us.
Well, yes, in the early 1950s, the Big Three could have seen that given the potential of increased foreign competition, higher oil prices, the growth of environmentalism, exponential changes in health care and mortality rates, and the failure of the United States to comprehensively address medical insurance for decades while every other industrialized country did so -- so knowing, it should not have signed pattern labor contracts that essentially guaranteed health benefits for life to retirees and encouraged them to retire early, in return for relative labor peace to satisfy the post-World War II demand for cars, cars and more cars. Right.
Companies without the same legacy, operating under different conditions and political systems, with factories they had to rebuild because of wartime destruction, from markets where space was less prevalent, roads were worse and gasoline was four times as costly, would come up with different solutions not because they were freaking geniuses, but because they had a different frame of reference. What we're really reacting to is the same thing Michael Moore has said since "Roger & Me" -- why is it that the worker for a long-established successful company finds himself unemployed when it's not his fault, he's done his job well? It must be greed and incompetence. It can't just be, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.
The newspaper business has made myriad mistakes and few of its business leaders are terribly admirable. But it makes no sense to accuse it of not acting from 1993 on, or even today, as if it were a startup Internet business, or a hobby like Craigslist that just grew, or a program to organize all the world's information. Most innovation does not come from established players -- and should not be expected to.
It's tempting to think that a publisher could just stand up and say, "I'm shutting down the presses, laying off all the drivers and pressmen and carriers and circulation people and the classified ad-takers and a lot of the business side people, and I'm doing this so that we can save the news content and the reporters' jobs." Nice, but egocentric. The publisher has to operate the business he has, not the business he might start today if he were 21 and willing to starve for a while. It's true that the end product of the revolution in information may be the end of the newspaper companies we have known. That would be a shame, and readers of this blog know I do not believe it is inevitable or that the future does not involve print. But to expect that leaders of newspaper companies in the U.S. would have solved this problem by somehow developing Monster or Craigslist themselves is looking for a scapegoat. It comes from the same source as saying that if the publisher was just willing to live on $30,000 a year, eliminate all bonuses, dividends and payments to the owners, and give all that money to the newsroom, the newspaper would be a success, because think of all the great stories we could do. (CareerBuilder did take on Monster with some success. But when they have to compete with free, with niche job boards, etc., even if the newspaper business had created Monster first, it could not have kept all that classified dough rolling in. I am told that the job market in the rest of the world tends to be more localized than in North America, which has led to more success for newspapers overseas in holding onto help-wanted classifieds, which until the real estate collapse was the main source of newspapers' recent economic woes.)
The problem now is that newspaper companies are so confused that they cannot even figure out how to be successful newspaper companies, and they are surrounded by people telling them that they should not even try. It is hard in a cascading-to-the-bottom economy, but they really need to get a grip. More to come next week (as if this wasn't enough!)
Friday, October 31, 2008
As we watch to see if Chrysler disappears into GM: Well, the U.S. auto industry is widely condemned for 30 years of management short-sightedness, and who's going to defend it?
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
In his/her comment on my last post, Hypnosis wrote:
"I must admit that I read most newspapers online myself. Sign of the times."
Which raises in my head once again the question: What does "reading newspapers online" mean? So I ask Hypnosis and any others who mainly read newspapers online to say: What exactly do you mean by that? What do you read? Not in terms of "how long do you read it," although that is of major concern to advertisers.
By way of exemplifying what I mean, here is the print content of today's Camden Courier-Post, before Gannett cuts back by another 10 percent on staffing. I just "read the newspaper," which means I at least glanced at all the headlines, except for sports which I don't care that much about, and read some of the stories, including ones about the Phils in the World Series, which I do care about.
Front page and national-foreign:
- 2 stories on World Series postponement with photos
- Cherokee HS teacher sorry for racial remarks
- Camden budget would cut 31 jobs from city's payroll
- Rebels gain ground in Congo
- Kim Jong-Il back in hospital
- The weather
- White House prods banks to make loans
- Syrian border targeted by US to deter al-Qaeda
- Central Fla. plays key role in election
- Study says cold germs can linger in home
- NF briefs: Kristallnacht items found in dump, Kwame Kirkpatrick sentenced, Iraq to reopen talks with US, Pakistan and Afghanistan want talks with Taliban. trial at Guantanamo, Israel elections scheduled, Britain to publish list of banned extremists, 4 charged in killings at Ark. college
- Director of "Deep Throat" dies
Editorials on replacing Camden police cars, cameras at high-accident intersections, Ted Stevens; letters to the editor; columns by Michelle Malkin and Susan Estrich
Local and state:
- Mantua mother gives birth after traffic accident
- Informant tells trial of plan to attack Ft. Dix, with trial highlights sidebar
- Washington Twp. studies options for old library
- Sale of bonds approved to finance Paulsboro port
- Briefs: Mt. Holly man accused of luring, groundbreaking for Camden housing, police seek trucker in fatal, S. Jersey man dies in Alaska prison, absentee ballot reminder
- Bad weather knocks out power, brings snow
- Dems admit they wrote slush fund memo
- Corzine set to testify for second stimulus
- Corzine backs education investments
- Senate candidates differ in debate
- Big office building planned for Newark
- Kids learn to cook Halloween meal, with photos
- How to throw a cheap Halloween party
- Nine recipes
- Martha Stewart has new book
- "Rocky Horror Show" to haunt Collingswood
- Dear Abby
- Tv listings
- Comics and puzzles and horoscope
- People items: Novelists' suit, Paul Newman charity aided, LL Cool J quits tour, Russell Brand prank calls
- Flyers win
- Sixers open season
- Briefs: Arizona coach had stroke, A-10 top 2 picked
- Six field hockey stars
- Eagles column
- Phils column
- League roundups and news
- Kevin Curtis of Eagles
- College football advancer
- Penn State advancer
- Halloween sales could fall
- Commission to vote on Tropicana sale
- Wall St. surges
- Fed considers reduction in interest rate
- Briefs: Crude oil prices decline, IMF may need infusion of funds, sharp decline in home prices, Boeing union to vote on labor deal, Gannett to cut 10 pct. of staff
- Take hardship withdrawal from 401 (k) as last resort
- Short items: Investors can find bargains, attorney to discuss document issues, AmeriHealth vp named, Hydropower a 10th of energy, 46 million in US lack insurance, How to terminate MySpace account, Action to take for new manager, Web site has data on credit carrs, Exxon to set records, How to save on child care,
Special Phils in World Series section with 9 stories
And this does not count, of course, any of the advertising. Or about 30 paid death notices.
My point is not that this is better or more convenient or anything when compared with online. It is what it is. This, however, is what you would, or could, read if you read a standard American medium-size city newspaper on a Wednesday. You're not in southern New Jersey, so the local news listed here is probably meaningless to you, but you have your own. And many people do not read sports or food or whatever. And the weather and stock agate and lotteries and the sudoku game are available online from non-news sites. But this is what "reading the newspaper" -- not a huge one in this case, 48 pages -- can mean. What does reading the newspaper online mean? Is it your RSS feeds of -- what? Is it checking links from Drudge? Is it nytimes.com? Is it the equivalent of the Courier-Post Online? Looking at the top screen and a half of your local newspaper's home page, or going through it section by section? Looking at the home page of the newspaper where you grew up? Is Time a newspaper site if it posts articles daily? Is Andrew Sullivan?
I have a sense that no one really knows the answers to this, which is part of why newspapers are having the troubles they are having. We aren't going to provide the answer or answers here, but it may be interesting nevertheless.
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
As noted here on July 8 -- noted many other places far earlier -- the Christian Science Monitor will become a weekly in print in April 2009. As noted here on July 8, and noted many other places today, the decision of the Monitor has very little to do with the rest of the newspaper business. The paper was nationally distributed by mail, which meant that it closed at some unheard-of time in the afternoon. (Maybe even the morning.) It had almost no advertising. It existed, and will continue to exist, because it was the will of Mary Baker Eddy that it exist. And it carried proudly the name of a church that has a relatively small (and generally believed to be declining) number of adherents, always leading to confusion about exactly what it was.
Had the Monitor been a for-profit business, or even a break-even business, it would have been closed years ago after the debacles of Monitor Radio and the dismissal of Kay Fanning as editor. The paper's management had no clear idea how (or apparently any desire) to effectively compete in the print newspaper business in the 1980s; it is no wonder they have no wish to do so in 2009. Functioning as essentially an online news service will be a better deal for the Monitor, its readers, and Christian Science.
One must, of course, make a sad bow of nostalgia for what the Monitor was in the 1950s and 1960s -- one of the foremost proponents of true journalism at a time when newspapers were just starting to cease to be organs of bias or tawdry sensation. Of course, it was not the example of the Monitor that drove them to this; it was the collapse of competing newspapers in the mass economy of the 1950s, the end of evening newspapers in the wake of TV, and the fact that TV could always be more sensational than newspapers. But the Monitor showed editors across the country how professional, intelligent journalism could be done.
For someone growing up in Indiana in the 1960s, when the Pulliam papers basically anointed our governor, Roger Branigin, as a "favorite son" for their own purposes, and largely refused to cover Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign, the simple existence of quality newspapers like the Monitor and the Louisville Courier-Journal meant that the world as defined by the Star and the News was not the entire world.
It is not hard in the media environment of 2008 to imagine biased journalism; it is far more prevalent today than it was in 1968, if you take everything purporting to be breaking or commenting upon news as journalism. It is hard to imagine how there simply were so few outlets for political discourse. Robert Kennedy won the Indiana Democratic primary despite the Star and the News ignoring him, so it is not that they had a stranglehold upon the voters. They did try, when they wanted to, to have a stranglehold upon the political movers and shakers, which was far more important locally. Your political career could be derailed by an unfavorable comment from Ed Ziegner or Michael Padev; the City Council could be told to back off in a column by Mickey McCarty. The papers and their owner could have some control over whom the political movers and shakers were and thus control what was put forward for debate. Now you have many, many people attempting to do the same thing, all presenting what they call journalism. At least back then, you could read between the lines and find out what you were supposed to know and supposed to not know. It may have been Pravda, but you could learn how to read Pravda. Now you have no idea how much you have to read. And because the Star and News had to cover everything, they couldn't make everything in the paper biased. The Huffington Post can ignore whatever inconvenient facts it wants.
I am sure the Monitor of its day had myriad faults -- it was delivered by mail then, with later deadlines, meaning, I am sure, that it came to most readers a day late -- but partisanship was not among them. My hope is that the Monitor can be successful online as the sort of force it was founded to be, and for decades was nationally respected as in print -- a clear-eyed antidote to misleading partisanship in reporting news. But while it claims a large online readership -- hell, what paper doesn't claim a large online readership? If I click on one headline in Romenesko and stop reading after the second graf I become one of the Washington Post's online readers. The Monitor was founded in the context of print newspapers. I suspect its true online equivalent will come from that world and not from the past.
Monday, October 27, 2008
The Suburban Newspapers of America group recently took an "innovation mission" to Scandinavia. Pages of ads in Editor & Publisher trumpeted its findings along with winners of its yearly contest.
My eyebrows went up when I read in their report "Newspapers in Norway and Sweden were early adopters of a Web platform -- some taking to the Internet in the early 1990s. Because of this, pure play competitors like Monster.com and eBay.com never really penetrated their markets."
Because of this? What about Hot Coco? Nando Times? I know there is a point there, but I think that the differences in the national marketplace between Norway and the United States -- the size of the national market, for one thing, both in numbers and in geography -- played a role here as well. Craigslist, after all, happened in the home base not only of the Contra Costa Times' Hot Coco, one of the earliest newspaper Web sites I can remember, but of Sfgate as well. I don't know enough about Norway and Sweden to say this isn't true, but I suspect the Norwegians and Swedes don't know enough about the United States to authoritatively make this claim either.
But worrisome was the tale of publisher Margaretha Engstrom and her community newspaper Ystads Allehanda. She "shut down the evening shift of copy editors and put them out on the street as reporters." This is a "nearly a decade ago," according to the report. Let's give some license and say 2001. "I started wondering why we were sitting at 10 o'clock in the evening still editing stories when the reporter goes home at 5 o'clock," Engstrom says. The story says "dozens and dozens of templates -- for nearly every situation, even breaking news and long-term projects -- have shrunk the editorial day at Ystads Allehanda to half of what's experienced on a daily basis back in the states. 'Now, when reporters go home at 5 in the afternoon, the page is done. Everything is done,' she says, adding that news editors follow suit, often leaving by 6 p.m. at the latest."
"The entire paper -- with the exception of breaking news and night meetings -- is put to bed by 7 p.m."
Well, the Swedes must be more efficient. I work at a morning newspaper like Ystads Allehanda -- which had 24,000 circulation in 1997, according to an old E&P directory -- and not many of our reporters go home at 5 o'clock. OK, 6:30 to 7. But except for sports and the late wire news, most of our local stories are fully edited, except for display type, by 8. Those that aren't usually are either events that happened after 4 p.m., or stories involving the roundup of a lot of sources; and then there are the stories that the reporter just couldn't get done, for one reason or another, which I'm sure afflicts reporters in Sweden as well. The Ystads Allehanda system sounds like a good system for where you have made all your major decisions by 1 p.m. and can go home pretty confident that little will change. Perhaps very little happens in Ystad after 3 p.m. Perhaps very little happens in Sweden after 3 p.m.
But even so -- who's editing that copy at 4 or 5 in the afternoon? Are those copy editors still out on the street? Is this another misguided publisher who believed that the only reason copy editors exist is because they work at night and trim stories? What puts the lie to her statement of "I started wondering..." is that the story says that she had eliminated copy editing "within the first week of her stint." In other words, she did not analyze the workflow and practices of her new newspaper; she knew what she was going to do when she walked through the door. Usually this is someone who did not like copy editors from Day One. One hopes her previous jobs had given her the right experience, but usually when you arrive at a new place you at least pretend to study how it works before imposing what you were going to do anyway. And indeed the Canadian Newspaper Association's report on this same visit notes:
"Conference participants heard from Margaretha Engstrom, publisher of the Swedish daily Ystads Allehanda and proponent of 'layout-driven editorial,' where rather than submit their stories to a copy desk, reporters put text and photos directly onto a template version of the newspaper they can access online. The method effectively eliminates most of the work carried out by copy editors."
So Engstrom is hawking this as her signature achievement, perhaps her possible road to the top of the international Bonnier chain for which she works. SNA is bringing her to a conference in Tampa on Feb. 5 specifically to address how you can, as the come-on notes, "Find out how Engstrom improved the quality of her paper, eliminated most of the copy editor positions and put more reporters on the street." Without irony, this follows the topic on Jan. 13: "Making Your Core Product Better/More Attractive for the Reader. There's a reason why most papers in Norway/Sweden still enjoy 80% readership levels — they constantly improve their print product. From the coolest design trends to tabloid formats, Scandinavian newspapers rock!" I am only wondering if Ystads Allehanda still enjoys 80 percent readership levels. But as the Canadian story notes of newspaper success in Scandinavia: “'Part of that is sheer luck,'” said John Hinds, conference participant and CEO of the Canadian Newspaper Association and the Canadian Community Newspapers Association. “'They’re linguistically small communities, and they’re geographically isolated. They’ve traditionally had very poor television… so there’s a culture of reading newspapers.'" Eight million Swedes can't be wrong, but they probably couldn't have been a market large enough to create eBay.
Under crisis, people are always looking for The Answer. Beware the person who says, I have it. But copy editors need to figure out a way to respond to the concerns of the Suburban Newspapers of America's membership, who will simply see dollar signs.
Sunday, October 26, 2008
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Dean Singleton said the O word about copy editing at a meeting yesterday. ACES' leader, Chris Wienandt, points out far more succinctly than I could why outsourcing copy editing is a bad idea. At this point Dean probably would like anything that would let him pay the bills, and he has always seen copy editing as the sort of back-shop check-processing operation that you only keep until you can figure out a way to get rid of it.
But I do fear that part of what allows people like Dean to bring up these ideas is copy editors' tendency to martyr themselves as underappreciated cogs who will throw themselves into the machine to die rather than let a deadline be missed and then say, If the bosses valued what I was doing they would reward me, but they are not rewarding me so I will do it again just to spite them.
My former colleague Steve Lovelady once described all journalists as shy egomaniacs, and many copy editors I have known fit the bill precisely. Just as often, copy editors say of top editors, "They have no idea what we do." Clearly Dean Singleton has no idea. But yes, we have all known non-copy editors who would look at a story with five major and 20 minor flaws and say, "Seems all right to me. What's your problem?" We often dismiss them as idiots, but over time I have come to see that many of them just don't see what we see, any more than I would see the problematic weld that could bring a bridge down. That, of course, is why you are supposed to trust experts -- but it's hard for many editors to not see themselves as experts in everything journalistic.
If copy editors are only seen as the people who lay out pretty pages and put wire stories in the paper and make sure that we use "who" instead of "whom," then yes, a case could be made for commoditizing that work and selling it overseas for the cheapest rate possible -- not a case I would support, but a case. And I'm sure there are papers that have copy editors who only do that, because I have twice worked for editors who essentially wanted that. There will always be journalists who feel that errors do not undermine larger truths, who see copy editing as quibbling, who just want to go home, who think "alacrity" means "reverently" because it must be what "alack" comes from.
But a good newspaper's copy editor needs to know to look up on a map the street that runs from my town to the Ben Franklin Bridge because it is variously known as Main Street, Camden Avenue, Maple Avenue and Federal Street. and to double-check in which town each name takes effect. That in Philadelphia neighborhood boundaries matter a great deal and in Indianapolis they matter barely at all. That Councilman Bill Green is not the same person as former Mayor Bill Green and that former Mayor Wilson Goode's first name is Willie but it would be a rare occasion when you published it. That Dunkin' Donuts has an apostrophe and that saying "it happened when customers were present" does not mean it happened in the daytime even though police said that. That one state in your coverage area calls the crime DWI and another DUI. That in one state General Assembly describes the entire legislature and in another it is the name for the House. That "the Fightin's" is what people call the Phillies and should not be changed to "the Fightings." That the district attorney's name is Risa Vetri Ferman and not any of the 25 ways you could get that wrong just by hitting the wrong key.
And a newspaper copy editor partly needs to know this from memory so that minutes do not have to be lost checking references -- but mostly a newspaper copy editor needs to know what can go wrong, what questions to ask, what experience has taught him or her. If you don't know Resa Veti Furman seems odd, why would you question it? If you don't think the weld would be problematic, why would you point it out? Oops, there goes the bridge.
The problem for copy editors is that their job consists of catching other people's slipups -- because to err is human -- and thus it seems unseemly to go around pointing out what we do. It makes others look bad, and it's a lot more fun to talk about investigations we want to do. But then owners and business managers look at pages and headlines and say, oh, that's all that copy editors do. The Times of India has pages and headlines too. Hey, let's save money!
It misses the fact that the reader expects the newspaper to be His Newspaper. And he lives somewhere that he expects the newspaper to know as well as he does. And the more we weaken that connection, the more the newspaper becomes dispensible, whatever form it is delivered in.
I expect readers in India feel the same way. There are entrepreneurs there, though, who will be happy to take our money to watch us further destroy ourselves. As long as the check clears.
Thursday, October 16, 2008
1. Following my recent posts on the late Red Bank Register, I certainly never expected suburban daily newspapers to go before city ones. Thirty years ago, metro newspapers were on the ropes, and were starting their zoning efforts to try to capture the suburbs. Now papers that are based in the suburbs -- whether large, such as the Orange County Register, or small, such as the now-deceased Noblesville Times, are collapsing. The East Valley Tribune near Phoenix seems to be on its last legs, and the Columbian in Vancouver, Wash., is contemplating Chapter 11. Is this just the coincidence of bad business decisions? Is it national inserters buying newspapers by total metro penetration and punishing ones with huge penetrations in small areas? Or are suburban dailies less essential than urban ones, because you don't have the big government/big sports agenda? Whatever, it continues to amaze me, because I got into the business when everyone was putting their money on suburban dailies.
2. Personal paranoia: As a copy editor, I am starting to feel as if all the half-grudging respect given us in years past was simply pro forma. If all that copy editors did was lay out pages and do the mechanics of producing a print newspaper -- which, OK, at many papers is all they do -- then one can see the weakness in the field. But is not the elimination of error, the honing of language, the institutional memory of fact, important regardless of medium? You can say that "readers will catch it and we can correct it online," but isn't the point to keep the mistakes away from readers? You can say that the resources of the Internet make the sort of trivia arcana that copy editors keep in their heads less necessary, but that still requires a reporter or assigning editor to bring to their own story the critical mindset a copy editor has.
But copy editing positions are being massacred at newspapers, enough that I am now thinking that many of the enconiums about the "last line of defense" were simply the equivalent of crocodile tears -- not so much from reporters, who are generally thankful for the 999 mistakes you do catch even while maintaining a lifetime grudge about the one thing you make wrong, but from managers who think that as long as you get a story on the dart board, it's the same as making a bullseye. (This is decidedly not true of the folks I report to, by the way.) Assigning editors admittedly often occupy the same sort of occupational hell generally reserved for middle-school principals, but they don't get promoted because the percentages in the story add up right or the name of the company was hyphenated correctly, or the stories have (or don't have) all the first names right; they get promoted when their reporters 1) do stories that please the top brass and 2) aren't running in to the editor complaining about their supervisor. This makes the value of copy editors nice, but dispensible. Well, I'm off this weekend to the midterm board meeting of the American Copy Editors Society; perhaps we will find the answer.
I am not sure readers feel the same way, but at least that would be consistent with the theme of this blog that newspapers are in the pickle they are in because they do not think like readers do.
3. The remaining words "Nevius Voorhees" above the store entrance in Trenton reminded me that one of the things I loved about downtown department stores were the brass plaques so many had on their buildings announcing the name of the store. These were admittedly retail hubris; the typical store, as old photos showed, was often covered with gaudy signs, and department stores wanted to show their superiority through understatement. Yet the giant sign on State Street in Chicago reading
in, what, five-inch tall embossed brass letters said: This is no ordinary store. I can remember these plaques on Ayres' and Wasson's in my hometown, Hudson's in Detroit, Jordan Marsh in Boston, Pogue's in Cincinnati, and many other stores. (An alternative was the serifed letters above the door, looking like a Roman inscription, as in "THE F. & R. LAZARUS & COMPANY" over the back door of the store in Columbus. Never understood why that second "and" was there.) I wonder if anyone took photos of them before they disappeared. I wonder where they in fact went. Did heirs to the store retrieve them before the building was demolished or repurposed?
Newspapers are little better about keeping their physical history. Recently I was in the lobby of the Wilmington News Journal, where there is a large artwork that notes that it was in the lobby of the newspaper's old downtown headquarters but was left there and made its way to the new building on Basin Road circuituously and after some years. There's a similar piece in the Hackensack lobby of the Bergen Record, in a building the newspaper plans to abandon in a matter of months. Will it follow to West Paterson? Or will it simply remain there, a curiosity of newspaper days gone by?
OK, there's not much to this post. Busy week.
Sunday, October 12, 2008
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
Following up on downtown Red Bank and the former Register, there's a site called redbankgreen that deserves a look as an unheralded attempt (at least to me, but it's certainly not like the widely noticed New Haven etc. sites) to provide community news online. It is run by a couple -- he's a journalist, she's a graphic designer. Here's what they covered on Oct. 1 when I looked at it --
1. Some sort of railroad propane problem in Little Silver that tied up traffic. The initial report: "A leaking propane tank in the vicinity of the Little Silver train station is causing road and rail backups in Red Bank, according police radio transmissions. A train that's been reported to have been sitting in the Red Bank station for more than 20 minutes is causing a tie-up at Monmouth Street, according to the report." The site was doing posts every 20 minutes or so -- "5:45p: Branch Avenue in Little Silver remains closed as far north as Markham Place. 6:13p: We're still unable to get any information about the propane leak from the Little Silver Police Department, which is on the scene."
2. Man on the street interviews about the financial crisis, followed by comments of the usual sort. Pictures of all people interviewed.
3. A standalone photo of the pretty sort we all used to run on the front page back when it took three days to do color separations. Nice photo, though.
And a series of continuing references to a newer site called Red Bank oRBit, which describes itself as "a companion website to redbankgreen, delivering news, information and feature stories about all manner of amusements and culture in the verdant slice of northern Monmouth County, New Jersey that we call The Green. It is updated on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Red Bank oRBit exists because there’s just too much fun and mind-expanding stuff going on in these parts to fit into redbankgreen. It’s branded differently from its sibling website because, well, it insisted on it." What that means, exactly, I don't know. The couple works for this site as well, but it also has its own editor. Its emphasis is clearly the arts community, which has become quite large in Red Bank due to the Count Basie theater and, well, a lot of disposable income nearby.
The sites on the day I visited looked to have about 20 advertisers (I did a couple of refreshes to see if they changed) with the equivalent of newspaper contract ads. Clicking on them takes you to a Web site for the advertiser, which I suspect is hosted by redbankgreen. (To me this redbankgreen and Red Bank oRBit with a capitalized RB stuff is too cute by half, but that's just me.)
So I'm sitting here thinking:
1. Boy, you had to be a complete idiot to blow a daily newspaper franchise in this sort of market in the late 1980s. This is where Bell Labs was, for heaven's sake. Yet the Register did.
2. But how did they? Probably that they were close enough to New York and Newark that people who were looking for big news took those papers. The merchants around the malls would have put most of their inserts into the Asbury Park Press, which covered the entire county. Newspapers with sub-county-level circulation always have trouble because circulation is reported by county instead of by local trade area, so you can have 80 percent penetration in your area and 15 percent in the county as a whole and look like a weak sister. All you were left with was the merchants just in Red Bank, who by the late 1980s were probably still reeling from the mall down the road at Eatontown. (Red Bank had not yet been fully reborn as an arts center yet.)
3. In this case, regardless of county lines, the fact was that the Register was physically located less than 10 miles from the Press. Hard not to see them as direct competitors.
4. The problem of all suburban dailies. Red Bank, Fair Haven, Little Silver and Rumson are historically one unit, and what interests one interests all, but go eight more miles to Atlantic Highlands and they could give a darn about Red Bank. The propane problem in Little Silver was important if you lived near there or were driving around Red Bank; five miles away it was irrelevant unless it exploded and took part of Little Silver with it. In the Red Bank Register's case it didn't even have county government to itself as a common theme. You were just trying to shove enough local-local into the paper to appeal to someone in every town.
Speaking personally I would never care enough about local news to bother with something like redbankgreen, with its journalist wandering about and posting updates from the police scanner and asking Joe Smith what he thinks of the bailout. But then I don't use the computer flipping back and forth among five or six sites running at the same time (my problem with Facebook, Twitter, etc., which makes me so 20th-century). I can see my having more use for an arts-oriented site in terms of checking in once a week to see what to do for the weekend. On the other hand, for people whose lives revolve around the town in which they live -- whether in real terms or just in their own heads ("everyone looks at this to follow my comments on government waste!") -- this sort of thing works well.
This may be the future of local journalism, and if it is, fine, but rather than knocking it on its own terms, all I can say is that it would never have drawn me into journalism as a career in the way newspapers did. But then, I'm not growing up today. On the other hand, it is the local-local that readers want, and at my first paper as a reporter I did man on the street stuff and many a story on what ultimately was a nonevent and people liked those stories just fine. It just seems to lack a certain gravitas. If redbankgreen wants to rise up against the depredations of the Red Bank government, to be the civic conscience and scold, can it? Or is it just to be dismissed as "Joe Blow and his redbankgreen site, snicker, snicker."
Monday, October 6, 2008
It's merely conjecture on my part that Straus Co. was founded by the same family that had the David Straus Co. store in Newark. Certainly "Straus" with one "s" is a well-known spelling in the department-store world, from the very prominent family, heirs of Lazarus Straus, that owned Macy's and Abraham & Straus. But a cursory look at that family shows no first names in common with those of Newark or Red Bank, while the name Julius Straus appears connected with both stores in two different generations, plus there is a Morris D. Straus in which the D. is likely to be "David." Genealogical researchers will tell you that often the best way to propose a connection is to look for names to be used between generations and then see if those families are connected, as cousins if nothing else.
For example, the Teppers referred to in the previous department store post -- even though there had been a split in the Tepper family, the Plainfield Tepper's scion was Bertram Tepper and in Asbury Park, Sol Brooks, who was Jacob Tepper's partner and brother-in-law, had a son Bertram Brooks. Bertram is not that unusual of a name, but it's not that common, either. It can always just be coincidence, of course, but it often is a clue.
Main Street in a small town in the 1960s had many uses, which is what made shopping more vulnerable to malls -- not only were the buildings small and old, but there was such a mixture of uses. In this block in 1960, from the intersection at left, were a cigar store, a candy store, the Straus Co., a women's shop, a stationer, a liquor store, a group of vacant stores, a bakery, a drug store, an optometrist, and then the temple of the Monmouth County National Bank. Shopping across the street was broken up by the Red Bank Register newspaper office.
Friday, October 3, 2008
Paul Farhi writes in American Journalism Review to say: It's structural forces that are killing newspapers, not journalism. This is a challenge to those of us who believe that it's a combination of structural changes and journalism's own changes in emphasis over the past decades.
Farhi notes that newspapers still have a devoted, affluent, educated audience that is satisfied with newspapers, particularly when opposed to television. He notes the flight of classified to low-cost Internet sites and says, "Classified advertisers didn't desert newspapers because they disliked our political coverage or our sports sections, but because they had alternatives." Which, of course, is true. He adds in the loss of local department-store, clothing, auto-parts and other chains, and the at-least short-term failure of Web advertising to attain anything like a business model, particularly for newspapers. And all of this is true as well. And then he mixes in the unfortunate bets many companies placed on the newspaper business based on 2006 cash flows continuing, and the unpayable debt that is now owed.
As he says: "Can you really blame the newsroom for that?"
Well, no, no more than you can blame the newsroom for the emergence of television. And you cannot blame the newsroom for poor results from the advertising department. You can, however, note also that newspaper circulation began its relative decline in the 1960s and its absolute decline around 1984. You can note that survey after survey in which readers and non-readers alike said what changes they wanted from newspapers were ignored, poo-poohed or followed halfheartedly by many newsrooms. You can note the newspapers that cut back on local coverage while pursuing regional or national dreams. You might make a case that editors should have been willing to give up some of their newsroom budgets for promotion and research, although you could make a case against it as well. And you could note how some of these newspapers and newspaper companies that have encountered problems were led, in the publisher's office or higher, by people who had come up through the newsroom.
So when Farhi says, "... Dear readers: Our disappearance wasn't your fault. And as a journalist, I can safely say, it wasn't ours, either," well -- yes and no. The failure of journalists to take responsibility for the financial underpinning of their profession, through taking into account the actual needs and desires of their readers, is not the fault of individual journalists but of a profession that came to believe it was above such things because of, as Farhi notes, a business model that enjoyed a scarcity advantage -- a natural oligopoly. Otherwise, Farhi's argument could be extended to mean that journalism was essentially irrelevant to the business of newspapers. He would not go there, but if journalism is not responsible for the business' failures, it is harder to argue that it was responsible for their successes either. Your team's play doesn't count only when you're winning.
(UPDATE: In the Guardian, Roy Greenslade says that even though Brits find American papers boring, he agrees with Farhi that it's not journalists' fault here or there, mate.)
At the same time: No, the economic problems that exist today are not caused by second-rate journalism. First-rate and second-rate and third-rate papers are all feeling the same pain. Of course, that means first-rate journalism isn't the solution, either, which brings us to Steve Smith's falling on his sword at the Spokane Spokesman-Review. Smith sees his new freedom as meaning he no longer has to spend any more time on defending the print model and can advocate even more for an online-centric approach. And he notes:
“'It is no longer my job or our job to save newspapers. Our job is to save journalism and the values that underlie newspaper journalism,' such as the free flow of information and aggressive coverage of government."
(I'm not sure who the "our" refers to; perhaps all of our worlds changed at the moment his did. And given the climate, Steve is probably not going to be looking for another newspaper editorship anyway. Steve always has been one to push the envelope; I recall when he was editor of the Colorado Springs Gazette, that they once ran a Sports front that was nothing but, if I remember correctly, strips of photos of eyes, separated by white space, and that it did not go over well with Sports readers or the management. But I disgress.)
Well, who's going to disagree on saving journalistic values? So this is a discussion question: How much does technology dictate values? Television news started with many refugees from newspapers and wire services, on the national level with the Walter Cronkites and John Chancellors, on the local level in many markets as well. And in the 1950s and 1960s TV news held to the same values that newspapers had, because it also was viewed as a loss leader in a protected oligopoly. Then local news became a profit center, and we all know what happened -- no insult to the many people in TV news who do their best every day to maintain journalism in that field, but we all know what happened.
Newspaper journalism values developed as part of the production of printed products -- it's not apotheosizing print newspapers to say that. The emphasis on verifying the first rough draft of history, the very things that newspapers covered, the way they did so, came from the fact that a newspaper was the first rough draft of history, printed through enormous labor, distributed to individual readers in a physical form, ultimately bound into volumes, and looking for an edge against a limited number of competitors by selling, among other things, accuracy and objectivity.
There is no reason to believe that those values cannot carry over into an Internet-based world. On the other hand, there is no reason to believe that they will, either.
Or that they will not be either subtly or radically changed by a medium which anyone can enter at nearly zero cost, at which immediacy means real immediacy and not "immediacy after verification," in which geography no longer need be an asset or a hindrance, in which we have already seen the model of objectivity being challenged and in many cases being deemed irrelevant in a medium in which partisanship and personality draw eyeballs.
Objective coverage of local issues was a strategy that worked to maximize market share in order to gain advertising, by providing a product acceptable to the largest number of people. In the niche world of the Internet, where economies of scale seem not to apply until you get to the level of Google, what is the economic spur for objective coverage? Copy editing rose as a craft not just because stories needed copy editing, but because copy editors had to master the arcana of head counts and column widths and subbing stories on deadline. The current decline of copy editing has many causes -- immediacy vs. accuracy, the idealistic belief that online readership will point out any errors and someone will actually correct them -- but a main cause of the decline is that posting on the Internet is easier than putting something in the paper. A child could do it. So technology has and will continue to have a great impact on journalistic standards.
And, of course, many are the stories in the newspaper that do not concern the free flow of information and aggressive coverage of government. Even the smallest technological change affects journalism; you run different photos on A1 once you have them in color.
To believe that the values of print journalism will or even must be inevitably be adopted by online journalism is to believe that -- well, to believe that none of this is our fault, either. None of which makes print newspapers economically sustainable. It indicates caution in advocating their wholesale abandonment. To turn Mies on his head (CORRECTION: Louis Sullivan, not Mies! What an idiot I am), it is also true that function follows form.
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
I've written here about how newspapers used to sell trust, and the always insightful Bruce Cubbison of Syracuse noted how that trust has in many cases been transferred -- you trust, say, Jon Stewart more than you trust the New York Times, because you know -- or at least think you know -- that Jon Stewart shares your underlying attitudes. The problem with journalism's stock in trade, semi-omniscent objectivity, is that almost no one views the world with semi-omniscent objectivity. To see the world and see it whole, as a London Times editor once said of his calling (doing so before the Internet and thus having a not easily findable quote), is just not what the typical reader does, for the obvious reason that the typical reader is self-interested.
My former colleague Andy Cassel once wrote a column (I can't find it, but here's a brief comment showing it existed) on how Independence Blue Cross paid for the fireworks at a Phillies game. If IBX had the money to pay for fireworks, wrote Andy (now writing for the "Dismal Scientist" at Moody Economy.com and working with another incredibly talented journalist, the reporter and editor Colleen Gallagher), that was money that in a purely competitive economic system would have not been there because insurance prices would have been lowered. IBX's operation in a semi-protected sphere meant it could put aside money for what it saw as "good corporate citizen" activities. I don't remember, but I think Andy's point was that if the Phillies wanted to have fireworks, they could provide them themselves and build the cost into a ticket price. Thus you, Homo economicus, moving in a transparent market of goods and services, would be able to allocate your resources appropriately.
My son is the economist, but I know enough to know that 1) I don't know enough about economics to say anything rebutting Andy Cassel and 2) the Homo economicus model has been under a lot of attack because of its underlying assumption that while individuals may act irrationally, the marketplace as a whole will not act irrationally. It is like the Catholic teaching that while priests and bishops and even popes may err, the church itself cannot err -- a teaching that says that the only errors are those that the church chooses itself to call errors and correct. This asks ordinary mortals to trust the church, which is what institutions do. And we have seen the cost of institutional errors in the Catholic Church. In a pure free market there are no institutions, merely traders in the bazaar, which looks attractive when a surfeit of information makes it appear that we all know as much as everyone else.
The giant department store Rich's Inc. in Atlanta was known for having one of the most liberal returns policies anywhere. As Leon Harris wrote in "Merchant Princes":
"In each generation there were dozens of tales -- the true stories often more remarkable than the apocryphal ones -- of how Rich's resolutely, unremittingly, satisified its customers no matter how unreasonable, outrageous, or provocative. The store refunded the full price of an unused pair of high-buttoned shoes thirty yearsold, of an unworn man's shirt ten years old, of a dead canary. It accepted for credit or exchange merchandise that customers had bought not at Rich's but from its competitors, because when a customer alleged that she had bought it at Rich's, the Riches did not propose to call her a liar."
The Rich family took the omniscent view -- what appears to not be in our self-interest is actually in the interest of the store as an institution, and indeed in the interest of Atlanta. Harris notes that clerks tended to act in self-interest, though:
"Such a liberal program was very difficult to enforce because employees usually felt that they were giving away their money, their profits, that they were being taken advantage of. ... The store's liberal return policy was only one aspect of the family's insistence that the store must be run to suit the needs of its customers."
In other words, hey, Mr. Rich, if you didn't take that shirt back, you'd have more money to pay me. But Rich's was incredibly successful for generations, becoming the largest downtown department store in the South and helping build the reputation of Atlanta as a place to be. Clearly Rich's built the cost of its return policy into its prices.
What probably made the policy less important was that as many goods got cheaper, it seemed less of a hassle to throw things away than return them. In a country with what many analysts (yeah, I know, that's a journalistic thing that means "some analysts whom I happen to agree with but don't want to take the time to cite") say there are too many stores, Homo economicus could buy the same toaster oven at Rich's or Wal-mart or CVS. Rich's could no longer build in its convenience premium. But Rich's then lost the ability to offer the consumer the same level of trust in the Rich's brand. Rich's then lost the ability to be a good corporate citizen as it had been with such programs as the Christmas Tree Bridge and its activities in the Depression:
"In 1930, when the virtually bankrupted city had no money to meet the schoolteachers' payroll, the store's president, Walter Rich .... called the mayor to suggest that the city issue scrip to pay the teachers, which the story would not only accept in payment but also cash at full value with no obligation that a penny be spent at the store. Rich's paid out $645,000 for this scrip and held it until the city could redeem it." (Harris.)
The individual gets the toaster oven for 30 cents, but society suffers unless your model of the world says there is no such thing as society, only self-interested individuals pursing maximum satisfaction. The weaknesses in that model are why institutions and regulations wax and wane. Institutions -- department stores, newspapers, banks, what have you -- tend to build "trust" in as part of their economic model. (IBX says, we'll put on fireworks to show we're good guys and you will trust us for your health coverage. Of course, good customer service is also necessary.) But "trust" is just another expense to throw over the side when the only market value is the highest return for the least effort -- the lowest cost. Homo economicus, being fundamentally irrational, throws trust out the window in pursuit of short-term gain, then rails back, wounded, when institutions are no longer trustworthy, having pursued nothing but short-term programs themselves.
All of which is a long way of wondering whether newspapers would have adopted the "everything is free" model of Internet service in an era less driven by a laissez-faire model -- or indeed whether they would have been able to (imagine the Internet appearing between 1905 and 1945, the era in which license plates, broadcasting licenses and modern banking regulations were established). Newspapers used to charge in part for "trust." The conundrum, of course, is that if people are told that anything except pure self-interest is "being taken advantage of," no one wants to pay for it. And then they find trust in people who they feel think as they do -- who, in journalism's case, mainly take what newspapers, newsmagazines and network broadcasters do, comment on it, and present it for their circle of fans. (Jon Stewart does his own form of original reporting, of course, which is why he has been honored, seemingly against his will, as a journalist.)
If newspapers were to suddenly say, "Hey, bloggers, you know, if you now want to comment on this information, you will have to pay for it," what would happen? Yes, I know the nature of digital information means that after the first person paid for it, it would be free. But for people to be able to trust anything other than "my friend whom I agree with," a price for trust -- for example, to employ editors whose job is to verify that the information is correct -- has to be paid.
All of which comes to mind in the current apparent failure of a system founded on laissez-faire unregulated self-interest. Will trust will be more important to the younger people now in high school, college and early jobs? And can institutions, such as newspapers, use this to emphasize trust as a value, even though it cannot come free?