Wednesday, December 16, 2009

After You, My Dear Alphonse

Ehren Meditz, one of the devoted band who will not let copy editing die, sends me this report on "Employment Projections, 2008-18," from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

According to it, the largest decline in employment over this period -- which, of course, we are two years into -- will come in: No, not that. In department store employment, which is estimated to fall by 159,000 jobs to a total of 1,398,000, or a loss of 10.2 percent.

The third highest percentage hit, however, is to come from newspaper publishing, which is estimated to lose 24.8 percent of its jobs over the period, falling to 245,000 jobs from 326,000. (What's worse? "Cut and sew apparel manufacturing" and "semiconductor and other electronic component manufacturing.")

In 1996, newspaper industry employment was 442,000 -- meaning that the estimate is for the loss of nearly half the jobs over a 22-year period. In 2005, however, we were down to 370,000 jobs. How many people have lost their jobs in 2009? Depending on where you were during the year, somewhere between 8,000 and 15,000.

Let's say it's the worse figure. That means a loss of, what, 66,000 jobs over the next eight years. Or, about 8,000 per year. In other words, every year for the next eight years would be basically like this year.

This sort of stuff is beyond me, but -- every year for the next eight years like this one?

Thank heavens, E&P is still with us, at least through December. It reacts by quoting analyst John Morton:

"I suspect what has happened in recent years has a big influence on how they predict the future. I don't know how they base those predictions. It is an unknown. A lot of it is going to depend on how the newspaper industry comes out of the recession and how successful they are in translating their business onto the Internet. One thing that would be supportive of newspaper employment is that 70% of daily newspapers have circulation under 50,000. Those kinds of newspapers have suffered far less than big city papers have. Going forward, they will suffer less."

And Poynter's Rick Edmonds:

"That is consistent with what has been happening the past three years. But I don't think the next three years will be as bad."

So what's the truth. Is it the labor statistic? Is it, well, maybe this:

"What are publishers' expectations for 2010? Not as bad as one would think according to an outlook report from Kubas Consultants that polled 500 newspapers executives in November to get their thoughts on future advertising and strategic initiatives.

"Ed Strapagiel, executive vice president of Kubas and author of the report, ventures that 2010 might be the year of the bottom. Don't expect newspapers to be turning in major positive ad growth results, though. From quarter to quarter things are anticipated to improve or 'decline less quickly.'

"'Newspaper executives and managers are significantly less pessimistic than a year ago,' Strapagiel wrote.

One of the more surprising finds to come out of the survey is that many respondents said they don't expect to outsource ad sales or printing next year. Nor do they anticipate upgrading the presses or cutting frequency.

Remarkably, one in four respondents said they plan to start a specialty, niche or lifestyle product. That said publishers intend on tightening operating budgets next year.

'Things won't get much better, but they won't get much worse either,' Strapagiel wrote. 'If the same trend continues, we could see positive growth in 2011.'"

This
would indicate that publishers see a year of somewhat consolidating where they are now, and looking for areas to make additional money while maintaining their current operations. In other words, fighting back.

It will be hard to do that if one has to cut 8,000 jobs from the industry. Moving semiconductor manufacturing overseas is probably much more predictable than the volatile information business.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects from current trends. As this blog has said from day one, current trends never continue indefinitely.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Anti-Utopia

Anyone who has read this blog during the nearly two years of its existence knows that one of its recurring themes has been: Many of the digiterati are utopians, and utopianism is not an answer for journalism.

The greatly admirable Earl Wilkison comes to this conclusion in his Nov. 25 post. And goes further, saying what I have thought but never quite said: "They" want "us" to fail. "Us" being "the news industry," even if you're old-fashioned like me and call it "the newspaper industry." (A lot of people, younger ones included, say that musical artists still release records.)

Earl writes:
"I no longer believe in the Digital Utopiasts who spread good cheer and always have a map about the new order of information architecture in their coat pocket.

"I think they serve a good purpose – stirring the pot, a parameter in the debate. Yet scratching below the surface of their Taliban-like rhetoric and passion, the straw man collapses when confronted with the real world of business plans.

"The Digital Utopiasts want the Bottom-Line Guys to fail so a new order can be imposed on how people consume information.

"The issue, for me, is that INMA members are employed by the Bottom-Line Guys....

"The Digital Utopiasts, while serving a useful purpose, essentially fuse a digital mindset with a journalism mindset. The journalism community is sometimes fine with the idea of newspapers failing because they assume their talents will be utilised by whatever new order replaces it. The Digital Utopiasts have a certainty about the future of media that, upon further review, is just a good guess and an intriguing alternative to today's information architecture – but nowhere near a business plan.

"They argue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness ... and profits be damned. They're for democracy. They argue that all eyeballs are created equally. They argue that bigger is better, and the advertising will eventually catch up to this.

"Let's dispense with the myth that the Digital Utopiasts want to help the Bottom-Line Guys figure out the digital future."

I'm putting words in Earl's mouth here, but what he is saying of the Jeff Jarvises etc. is what I have felt: They do not want to see Gannett, Hearst, the Baton Rouge Advocate, whoever make the "transition" to the new digital world. Lots of them want Gannett to fail. (This is not true of the Ken Doctors, but is true of some former digital executives at newspaper companies who found themselves losers in the boardroom.) They want the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News to fail. They probably don't want the New York Times to fail, but they will talk down the newspaper business to anyone they can, saying they are the inevitable future, because at heart they believe that the Internet is God's own gift to finally remove the hands of publishers, copy editors, press deadlines, advertisers, press agents, promotion directors, news releases, cut to fit the hole, etc. from 'journalism' and create a truer journalism of: There's me and there's you. I pick up my lance, I get on my horse, I ride into battle, and I tell you the tale. You listen, we talk, we tell others. Somehow, advertisers will eventually say, oh yeah, we want to be part of that.

From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs. But somehow, that just never works out. And, of course, they're not all Digiterati. They have an amen corner of journalists who ran afoul of some editor or had a column killed or didn't get the beat they wanted and who dream of a true journalism in which only talent -- their talent, most assuredly -- will count.

But just as newspapers need to realize that online is not simply "print the newspaper without presses" but its own medium with its own requirements -- and, honestly, decide which of the myriad information businesses available today they want to be in, instead of thinking they have to be in all of them -- newspaper companies, news companies, whatever, need to realize that Digiterati, Online Utopians, what have you, are not in their business. They don't want to save our businesses. They don't even like our businesses. Hell, they don't even like businesses.

As Dow Jones CEO Les Hinton put it this week:

"We were promised that eyeballs meant advertising, clicks meant cash. Free costs too much. News is a business and we should not be afraid to say it."

Well, I could say I wasn't afraid to say it this spring. But I'm just glad people who are actually influential are now saying it.

Bec and Call

There's something here I can't quite put my finger on, in this story by Michael Callahan in Philadelphia magazine about the perceived decline of Le Bec-Fin, for so many years Philadelphia's signature restaurant, and the confusion that its longtime eminence, Georges Perrier, finds himself in as a result.

I arrived in Philadelphia after the "Restaurant Renaissance," the sudden outburst of restaurants -- from haute cuisine to hip cafeterias like the Commissary -- in the 1970s that in some way said that despite Mayor Frank Rizzo, despite the collapse of the workshop economy, despite the Third World aspects of the place (the built-in inefficiency, the bureaucracies, the corruption), the city was not the dour place of organization men, sheltered housewives, high society and Joe Sixpacks that it had seen itself as. One could be hip in Philadelphia, which one could never be before.

The growth of The Inquirer and the eventual downfall of the Bulletin was part of that. The Bulletin was Old Philadelphia -- stable, predictable, Brooks Brothers for the rulers, Sears for the ruled. The Inquirer roared onto the scene in the same manner as Le Bec-Fin or Frog or the Garden -- saying, in essence, Yes We Can. It was in part saying that we were as sophisticated as New York, as important, even while looking over our shoulder and wincing every time New York said, no you're not. But it was also saying that we were ready to stand up to the disapproval of our "betters." Le Bec-Fin was the "we can compete with any city" restaurant; Steve Poses' restaurants were saying that it wasn't inferior to just do what we liked. One dressed to the nines for Bec-Fin, as other restaurants became increasingly informal.

I went to Bec-Fin once, with my wife. I didn't enjoy it very much. It wasn't just wearing a suit for dinner, though I don't like to bother. And the staff was, as advertised, friendly and cooperative, not full of itself. The food, the presentation, were, of course, excellent; and although Perrier is notoriously cranky, he has always wanted people to enjoy being at his restaurant. There was nothing wrong with Le Bec-Fin. It's just that I didn't want to belong to that group, and thanks to the multiplicity of restaurants with food and experiences not on Bec-Fin's level but Good Enough, I didn't have to. I didn't have to prove I could fit in at a place like Bec-Fin to prove that I was knowledgable or sophisticated. I didn't need to feel I had merited Georges Perrier's seal of approval, because it wasn't that the only other option was Howard Johnson's. I knew in my heart that I wasn't sophisticated in that old-school way, but I also said: And it doesn't matter. It's not either Brooks Brothers or Sears.

In looking at department store ads before Christmas from the 1950s, I'm struck by how many said something like "They'll appreciate your gift more when they open that Ayres (or Shillito's or Emporium or Frederick & Nelson) box." Part of the gift was showing that you 1) cared enough and 2) were couth enough to understand that buying a gift at Foley's meant something beyond the gift itself. Why? Well, there really wasn't that much variety. Men wore white shirts to work every day. Women wore gloves and hats. There was a uniform for every occasion.

The department-store box showed that you had bought quality -- possibly even paid a bit more -- for a sweater vest that didn't look that much different than the sweater vest you could have bought at Nat's Cut-Rate Men's Wear. You understood the rules. Newspapers were part of the way in which society said, every day, here's what's important, decide to what degree you are going to fit in. You can decide not to go to Le Bec-Fin, but if you do you will belong to the class of people who don't go to Le Bec-Fin, and there are really only two classes of people.

Georges Perrier's temple of gastronomy is suffering not because he has refused to change -- given the sort of chef he is, he's jumped through hoop after hoop this last decade. It's because no one needs to go to Le Bec-Fin to feel sophisticated anymore. In food, "good enough" is now as good or better than "excellent" used to be, and thus, if I think I am sophisticated, wherever my friends and I go shows our sophistication. We don't have to be "discerning," because "discerning" no longer means "figure out what people better than you say is good, and learn to like it." And thus, the death of "Gourmet."

A department store box no longer communicates that the gift-giver cares, because there's huge variety and nearly everything is of the same quality -- not as good as "excellent" used to be, but good enough that "excellent" no longer matters. And one no longer has to read a newspaper to feel informed -- even if the newspaper is no worse than it was 10 years ago, even if it is an excellent newspaper, "good enough" is sufficient because knowing what's in the newspaper is no longer a civic expectation. You no longer need to show you understand the rules; you find the group whose rules understand you. Or you create one.

"Trade-Off," a new book by Kevin Maney, a longtime USA Today journalist, gets at this from a related angle. He redefines the "you have to be Wal-Mart or Target, but Kmart is nobody" argument as: It's the balance between "fidelity" and "convenience." "Convenience" is the mass-market stuff you don't really care about but need to have. "Fidelity" is what you love. You'll pay a premium for fidelity and suffer as little inconvenience as possible for the rest. Thus, the cost of a newspaper, the getting it from the street in the cold, the ink on your hands, most important having to concentrate on it instead of multitasking are massive inconveniences -- unless you love the newspaper. The problem for newspapers is, not enough people love the newspaper.

What Maney's book doesn't bring out is that it used to be common to have mass-market fidelity. People used to love department stores because one got one's sense of self from doing what seemingly knowledgable people did, which was to buy at department stores. I think it's this sense of wanting mass-market fidelity back that animates many social conservatives -- "I want broadcast TV to reflect my values because I want to fit in with broadcast TV, I don't want to have to care about what's on HBO or AMC, I want there to be a mainstream and I want to be part of it" -- but that's just a silly personal opinion.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

I'd Take 20 Percent

A Los Angeles Times posting looks at figures on what news consumers would do if confronted with a paywall, and sees, of course, death.

The American Press Institute-Belden study, as Jon Healey's posting notes, "exposed a gap between the industry's sense of its content's value and the public's perception. Hmm, 'gap' isn't exactly the right word. Make that 'yawning chasm.'" And in that he's right. "The comparison revealed that news execs believed their stories were more valuable and harder to replace than readers did. For example, 52% of the readers surveyed said it would be somewhat easy or very easy to find a substitute for the online content that news industry websites were providing; 68% of the executives said the opposite."

But he inserts a table and says, "It shows just how slim the chances are that readers who can no longer find the content they want on a newspaper's website will migrate to the paper's print edition." Indeed it shows that for 67 percent of them, one place they would go would be to -- other Web sites. (The table must show all the places they said they would go, but ranking them in order.) But it also shows that for 30 percent, they would go to "their print newspaper," and 12 percent would go to "another newspaper," not another newspaper's Web site.

Gee, does that mean that 42 percent said that among the places they would go would be a print newspaper? I may be completely off base; I'm a journalist and can't do the math. And that indeed is far from what industry leaders think would happen. But a "slim chance" would be, 5 or 10 percent. Let's say that of that 42 percent, only 21 percent returned to a print newspaper or used it more -- that half of that number is already heavy print users. What could the newspaper business do with 21 percent more usage of its most economically lucrative product?

Yes, thinking as people in the newspaper business did -- that with pay walls, 75 percent of readers would go back to print -- is pretty unrealistic. If you're now getting sports agate from ESPN, as Warren Buffett apparently is, you're not going to go back to the Omaha World-Herald just to get the sports agate. But 20 percent is something. 10 percent would be something. 40 percent would be something. Saying "the predominant mode of communication is now Internet-based" is not the same as "there will be no further demand for print." Unless you're already in the camp of "I have no further demand for print," in which case you and all the other cool kids can laugh at the poor backward printies. Personally, given the disparity between print and online ad revenue, this is a deal I would take.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Copy Editing: Over at the ACES blog...

I don't write all that much about copy editing on this blog, less than I thought I would, because there are so many fine copy editing blogs. But here's a link to a copy-editing piece I wrote for the American Copy Editors Society blog, on the overuse and misuse of the word "community."

Friday, November 6, 2009

How Many Axes Can Be Made?

Newspaper folks used to think that, while everyone has his own ax to grind, most people were grinding one or another version of the same couple of axes. The length and brand name might be different, but, as we were taught, there were two sides to a story, we tried to get both, and people who were dissatisfied with us thought we hadn't sharpened their side of the ax enough.

A blogger named Tyler Cowen, who appears to be an economist, posted a sort of throwaway question on his blog, "Marginal Revolution": Should the New York Times drop its sports section to save money? This, of course, is the same question the New York Times has been fencing with since it added food and wine and other topics to the daily paper in the 1970s, in that pre-everything era: Should the New York Times devote itself only to serious political and cultural topics, for its serious political and cultural readers who feel that having less serious matters in the Times lessens the sense of their own seriousness they expect reading the Times to give them? The Internet has made that question harder, but it's essentially the same question as: If Oprah recommends reading your novel "The Corrections," does that mean you its writer are not an artist?

The question isn't that interesting, but the range of responses is, and really shows why our friend the newspaper is in such straits. Some examples, with comment:

"You have to wonder, does The Times really need 103 people working at the Metro desk? Does it even need 50? Does the paper need 14 book editors? My guess is, there are quite a few people that could be cut without drastically undermining the quality of the paper." Posted by Brian J. I wonder, if the Times came into Brian J.'s workplace and started asking how many fewer people it could run with, his reaction would be: What the heck do you know? But everyone thinks they know how a newspaper should run.

"The sports section is the best part of almost all newspapers because it is the section that is within the personal area of expertise of the largest part of their readership. If they screw that up, they'll lose more readers than they lose from screwing up any other section. The NYT can live without comics, but it can't live without sports." Eric, I suspect a lot of NYT readers would say that the sports section is the farthest from their personal area of expertise.

"America would be a better place if the NY Times failed -- the NY Times is a truly crappy journalistic product and it crowds out superior rivals." Thanks, Newsjunky, and if it's so truly crappy, why does it crowd out superior rivals? We've seen it's not the business acumen of its owners.

Nobody buys the NY Times for the sports section. They buy it for the A news section, for the Science on Tuesdays, for the Lifestyle sections on weekends and the Week in Review. Outsider, please get together with Eric above.

"The NY Times Sports section only concerns itself with 1 issue, RACE. Bill Rhoden is a joke. Every article re mgmt vs players......fans vs players.....mgr vs players always and everywhere goes back to....yep u guessed it...RACE....without player as slave metaphor u really don't have a NYT sports section." Well, at least this brings us newsroom types back to the most-familiar ax.

"maybe if the NYT would break more stories like this:
'The CIA relied on intelligence based on torture in prisons in Uzbekistan, a place where widespread torture practices include raping suspects with broken bottles and boiling them alive, says a former British ambassador to the central Asian country'
Instead we have to rely on the internet for real news." Well, perhaps. This is from a left-leaning Web site called Rawstory, which is based on a speech he gave, which was rebroadcast by the Real News Network, which is a Canadian-based operation that seems, from a cursory review, to be the 2009 equivalent of Pacifica radio or Ramparts or a really good underground newspaper. In other words, they may well be legitimate stories, but there are legitimate stories on Fox News as well. The question is: What is your motivation in putting them into play -- i.e. to what degree do you check for facts that are discordant with your theory of the world, or does the theory (the triumph of conservatism, the need for social justice, whatever) create its own facts? In a world where every story exists to further a worldview, newspapers -- which have their own biases to be sure, but whose base worldview is "what happened?" and not "why?" -- appear flaccid and irrelevant.

"I read an article in the Sunday Travel section, about a place that I visited a few months ago, that was a parody of what is wrong with the Times. The writer completely missed the main reasons one would want to visit the place and wrote mainly about motorbiking with his friends and trying to pick up girls. It managed to combine being annoying with giving no information to potential travellers about why you would want to visit the destination or what to do when you get there." And here's the other problem newspapers face -- their love of "the interesting well-told tale" over people who are looking for basic information. Let's say this is about Chiang Mai. The reader above went to Chiang Mai and saw the sights, enjoyed the cuisine, and looks to other articles to tell him of interesting places. The editor of the Times Travel section is bored by stories about sights, cuisine and interesting places. He or she may even be bored by stories about Chiang Mai. He or she wants to read something he or she hasn't read before. This will appeal to a number of readers, but not as many -- and presto, we're back to Gourmet magazine.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

What If... Again

Returning to the theme of the Sept. 3 post "What If," about Howard Owens' view that online should have been set up from the get-go as a separate unit:

Judy Sims, who alas was recently relieved of her job at the Toronto Star (which, even more alas, seems ready to relieve all of its copy editors of their jobs, too, sending them to Bengaluru or someplace), comes to the same conclusion. And while both are people who occupied the "online guru" jobs at their respective organizations, it's clear from her blog that Sims is more of a futurist, and more utopian, than Owens.

But she cites Owens as well, and expands:

"Economic pressures over the past few years have led many newspaper execs to convince themselves that the integrated organization is the best option.

"This will not work because the disrupted cannot manage their own disruption. Most newspaper employees are not qualified to do the strategic thinking required to manage disruption let alone create it in the form of new products that may challenge the core because they still see themselves as print newspaper employees. Just stating that you are a “news” company instead of a “newspaper” company doesn’t make it true.

"I couldn’t agree more with Howard Owens analysis. The only way newspapers can ensure the survival of their brands and the journalistic principles they hold so dearly is to separate the web organization completely from the newspaper.

"Clay Christensen talks about the “sucking sound of the core”. That’s exactly what is happening at news organizations around the world. The print product will always win because it still makes the most money, has the most people and cost associated with it and is where everyone feels comfortable.

"It would be very difficult to sit at a boardroom table and convince the room that the focus should be on the thing that makes little money, has unlimited competitors and a very unclear future or path to profitability. Michael Nielsen gives a nice explanation of this here. The sensible manager will focus on managing the core even if it is in decline and that’s why the two operations cannot co-exist."

She goes on to note why she believes print salespeople can't sell online, which is beyond my sphere, except to note that she also mentions why print people can't sell print either: "Because most print reps at most newspapers have not been sales people at all. They have been order takers. I remember several years ago hearing of the executive who quipped that his reps 'aggressively answer the phone'."

(At some newspapers in my area, my own included, this is changing. The question is whether it is too late for anyone to notice.)

What I appreciate about Sims' analysis is that she doesn't say that we "printies" (to take that term of opprobrium and claim it as a point of pride) win in boardrooms because executives are simply gutless wonders and news-paper folks are closed-minded nostalgists. As she says: "the sensible manager" will focus on the largest part of the business. Even if it's going downhill. The newspaper is still a business, and it is still unclear if online news and information will develop into a business or will always be a philosophical undertaking from which one may happen to eke out a living, somewhat like a religion. (If your margin is always going to be zero, are you a business?)

Early experiments like Nando Times were skunkworks. I once visited Tribune Interactive, which had 50 people who had nothing to do with the Chicago Tribune. But the change to make the newsroom the online driver wasn't just cost pressures. It was the belief also that 1) all we're doing is transitioning to publishing the newspaper online, as it is -- a belief that has been shown to be as absurd as building a five-story department store in a shopping mall and thinking it would function just like a downtown department store, ignoring the fact that the store's context was completely different --

and 2) the reason we are doing that is that what the newsroom is doing, right now, as it is doing it, is so beloved by readers that it is exactly what they want online. If it was that beloved by readers, they would be willing to pay for it. Hell, they'd be willing to get it in print. Time has shown us that the newspaper -- particularly one without classified ads -- is not as essential to most of its readers as journalists believe it should be. But heck, we knew that in 1980, and we ignored it then, too.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A Death in the Desert

Announced this week: The closing of the East Valley Tribune in Mesa, Ariz.

I have no inside knowledge of what happened to this paper serving the east side of Phoenix. In the 1990s, when Thomson owned it, it appeared quite the comer. Let me offer a few ideas, and if my good friend Rebecca Dyer, who alas will lose her job in December with the closing, can contradict me, all the better.

1) It's not editorial quality. The Tribune won the Pulitzer Prize last year. It received honors as Arizona's best newspaper this year. Add it to the charnel-house of good and great newspapers that have closed, along with mediocre newspapers that have closed, and remove it from the list of good and great newspapers that remain open, along with the mediocre ones that remain open as well. We've seen over and over again that editorial quality may move the needle, but not that much. But still, this is a paper that, in terms of news, will be missed.

2) The Tribune last year went to four-day (then three-day) free distribution from newsracks. This did not save it either. This makes one wonder about breaking reader habits so severely. Most readers can cope with the loss of a day. Losing vast numbers of days -- losing home delivery -- the verdict is still out in Southeastern Lower Michigan, a market no one particularly wants to be in anyway. Phoenix was a better market. As Ken Doctor has said, all this does is tell readers to "Go online, go online." Alas, the advertising dollars are not there to replace the print ones. In Detroit, "go online" may work to the advantage of the News and Free Press because there is nowhere else to go. In Phoenix, anyone wanting a daily paper simply took the Republic. The strategy was suicide.

3) Most important, mashups rarely work. Newsday is the mashup everyone looks to: Start with the southwestern Nassau County market (that had been deliniated by the Nassau Review-Star), expand into northern Nassau County (picking up the market of a separate paper there), and then blow into Suffolk and keep away the 1960s effort to create a Suffolk Sun. But Newsday had a great advantage. "Long Island" had finite geographic boundaries. People commuted on the LIRR or the LIE. The great suburban growth of the 1940s and 1950s created a sense of being a "Long Islander."

Newspapers are local institutions. As such, they have to reflect a locality. The Fargo Forum can reflect Fargo-Moorhead because it's out in the middle of nowhere. When newspapers try to create a locality, they generally lose. Remember the Peninsula Times-Tribune, merged from the Palo Alto Times and the Redwood City Tribune? Remember the attempt by the New York Times Co. to make the Gwinnett Daily News into the "Newsday of Atlanta" by expanding it throughout the northern suburbs? Or, more recently, the failed merger of two papers in Bellevue and Renton, near Seattle, to create an "Eastside Journal" that belonged to no one?

Mashups can work when the identity is already there. The Ventura County Star is a merger of four daily newspapers. But there already was an identity of "Ventura County." (The two largest constituent papers, in Ventura and Oxnard, had been direct competitors for years.) Two other big mashups that I know have worked -- the Orange County Register and Florida Today. I don't know enough about either to comment as to why.

But Palo Alto and Redwood City hated each other -- one was Stanford, the other was (at that time) more blue-collar. People in Renton never went to Bellevue. They didn't want to read about it in "their" local newspaper. As they saw it -- and I know this from years of working in Neighbors -- stories from Bellevue were simply crowding out news from Renton. (The fact that those Renton stories didn't exist doesn't occur to them. They think we're holding them out of the paper.) People resent being told by a newspaper what their "local" area is.

The East Valley Tribune was a mashup of the Mesa Tribune, Tempe Daily News, Scottsdale Daily Progress, and weeklies or zone editions in Chandler and Gilbert. Mesa and Tempe adjoin, and I have no idea what sort of communities they are. Tempe is a university town; Mesa was founded as a Mormon settlement. Perhaps there was no animosity between them. I expect, though, that Tempe sees itself as higher on the social ladder than Mesa. Scottsdale was a different matter, an upscale resort and residential town based on golf spas and western wear. I suspect people in Scottsdale never went to Tempe or Mesa (except to go to the university) and probably bailed out of the merged Tribune as quickly as they could to avoid thinking they had anything in common with those towns. (It probably seemed like a good idea to advertising: Sell Scottsdale merchants on drawing in shoppers from Mesa and Tempe. But maybe they didn't want those shoppers.)

At the end of its career, the Tribune had reverted to being the Mesa Tribune, having dumped distribution in not only Scottsdale but Tempe. I suspect this tells of the interest people in Tempe had of news in Mesa. In the end, a paper generally reflects where its main office is. It's the frame of reference.

What would have happened if the Tribune folks had made some common sections but put out the paper under three different flags, making sure that each town had enough separate space? I don't know, because of point 4:

4) It helps to have your own county. If Mesa had not been in Maricopa County, the Tribune would still be with us. The East Valley is certainly big enough to be its own county. In the East, it would have been. In Arizona, with its giant counties drawn up when almost no one lived there, the Tribune was a paper in Maricopa County with 1/5 the circulation of the larger paper. This is simply an accident of geography. But national advertising is largely bought on county circulation data. The Tribune became a dispensable second buy regardless of how much penetration it had in its home market, because its home market didn't register with national buys.

Lesson for the few "second papers" left in America: Start an editorial campaign to create your own county. (The Daily News in Los Angeles' Valley tried this, doubtless for sound editorial reasons -- but it probably also hit them that being the No. 1 paper in Valley County was a lot better than being No. 2 in Los Angeles County, even if you were reaching exactly the same people.)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Find the Money First

We will return to Valparaiso. But first: Gourmet.

The death of Gourmet is clearly part of the Newhouse family's hard, cold look at throwing good money after bad -- the same effort that led to the closing of the Ann Arbor News. The thinking has to be: When times are good again, there will be things that make money and things that either won't or won't make very much. Cut those, get out, and use what's left to rebuild. Thus, the Birmingham News, Mobile Register, Syracuse Post-Standard and Kalamazoo Gazette sail on, even though doubtless none of them is having a good year.

But stories about the closing were free of the "It's All About the Internet" reaction any story about a newspaper draws -- possibly because it is a magazine and thus newspaper people can be more objective about it. Yes, it's clearly about the Internet -- but the Internet as a way for people to swap recipes, the Internet as a companion to the world of Rachael Ray. But it's also even more clearly about the content.

The story of the death of Gourmet is in part the reaction to the Great Recession -- a combination of hard times combining with a desire for self-flagellation (if we whip ourselves first, will God let us keep our jobs?) and the desire to make whatever one does be right, creating a new world in which using French's yellow mustard will be seen as trendy by virtue of being anti-trendy. ("I feel so much better serving French's with the kids' hot dogs, Martha, you know we all have to get our priorities straight, and Debi still was putting out that spicy German stuff -- can you believe the nerve? Trying to lord it over us. I know we all used to do that, but it's so 2005. Now let me tell you about this great deal we got in Montego Bay...")

And all that is true, except that as the stories note, since the arrival of the legendary Ruth Reichl at Gourmet from the Times, the magazine -- once the only real base for foodies -- had "got away from the things that are going on in people’s homes, and seemed to be for an elite that got smaller and smaller,” as one editor put it.

To go on: "Dana Cowin, the editor in chief of Food and Wine, praised Ms. Reichl’s 'sociopolitical and cultural commentary,' as well as the magazine’s literary sensibility.... [Cooking] has also become democratized via the chatty ubiquity of Ms. Ray and the Food Network stars. Ms. Reichl is a celebrity in the food world, but of an elite type. She 'is one of those icons in chief,' said George Janson, managing partner at GroupM Print, part of the advertising company WPP. But what harried cooks want now, it seems, is less a distant idol and more a pal."

I suspect "harried cooks" always wanted that. "Harried cooks" always have made the green bean casserole with onion rings and cream of mushroom soup. "Harried cooks" used the Good Housekeeping cookbook. As the Times said it, lacking self-conscious irony: "How had the magazine that seemed more likely to stay home, broil pork chops and take care of the kids won out over its sexy, well-read, globetrotting sister?" Gawd, we at the Times don't want to stay home and broil pork chops, and if you want to, go read something else, but we thought you wanted to be like us! Which may make sense for the Times but makes sense for no other newspaper, even though some newspaper food sections spent decades trying to ape Gourmet. Most newspaper readers take care of the kids and, unless they're kosher or halal, eat pork chops.

Gourmet -- like so many publications, like so many department stores in the past -- determined what it wanted to do, what customers it wanted to have, was very successful for a time, but then times changed and it apparently stopped trying to find new customers unless they were exactly like the old ones. What does it matter what advertisers or readers want, when we are producing such wonders? I didn't read Gourmet, but one gets the feeling that it was not only serving an elite, but trying to serve an ever-more-elite elite -- one interested in not only the subject but long-form journalism on social issues.

As the failure of GEO proved in the 1980s, the market for long-form journalism on social issues is small indeed. You can only do it as long as advertisers are willing to underwrite you -- i.e., they see no real alternatives. Many people want to be better cooks; despite going green and buying local, not that many of them aspire to read about "the source of food and the politics surrounding it," and issues such as "the exploitation of tomato pickers in Florida." As another story this week noted, putting nutrition and calorie information on menus makes, in essence, no difference in what people eat.

What does this have to do with the move of the Barnes Foundation, the small, eccentric art collection in Philadelphia, from its longtime suburban home to a central site near the Art Museum? Read the Times' review of the plans for the new building, which ends up being not as much a review of the plans as a dirge that once again, a little gem known mostly to those elite enough to have heard of it is falling before the desires of commerce:

"The old Barnes is by no means an obvious model for a great museum. Its unlikely suburban setting was partly intended as a tweak to the city’s wealthy downtown art establishment. Inside the lighting is far from perfect, and the collection itself, mixing masterpieces by C├ęzanne, Picasso and Soutine with second-rate paintings by lesser-known artists, has a distinctly oddball flavor.

"But these apparent flaws are also what has made the Barnes one of the country’s most enchanting exhibition spaces. The creaky floors and cluttered rooms are light years away from the bigger, more blockbuster-oriented museums of Philadelphia, Washington and New York — a difference that has only grown more extreme in recent years, as museums have poured money into increasingly slick expansion projects. There are no distracting, superfluous spaces in the old Barnes — no education centers or contemplation zones....

"Part of the beauty of the Barnes Foundation is that it is so far removed from the tourist economy that drives major cities today. To get to it, visitors have to make an appointment, then take a train or a car to Merion, a half-hour from Philadelphia. These steps put you in a certain frame of mind by the time you arrive: they build anticipation and demand a certain commitment. They also serve as a kind of screening system, discouraging the kind of visitors who are just looking for a way to kill time.

"The new Barnes is after a different kind of audience. Although museum officials say that the existing limits on crowd size will be kept (albeit with extended hours), it is clearly meant to draw bigger numbers and more tourist dollars. For most visitors the relationship to the art will feel less immediate. And this, alas, is a problem no architect could have solved."

Preserve art from people looking to kill time! Keep those Cezannes and Picassos where only those who are truly committed will see them! Oh, and did you read that wonderful article in Gourmet about the exploitation of tomato pickers? The Barnes Foundation a decade ago was basically broke. The creaky floors result in part from no money for upkeep (one need not take sides in the never-ending dispute between students of the Barnes method of analyzing art vs. leaders of the Philadelphia business community to simply state that money is an issue whichever side you favor).

And that brings us to Alan Mutter's obit for the Rocky Mountain Independent, the attempt by staff members at the old Rocky Mountain News to create a paid online news site. As Mutter notes:

"The Independent failed for exactly the same reason the Rocky did: A suicidally stubborn determination on the part of the organizers to be in the business they wanted to be in, instead of attending to the business they needed to attend to. ... Their plan was to emulate as much as possible the work they did so well at the Rocky, while continuing to receive the same sort of pay and benefits they had enjoyed at the newspaper. ... They essentially assumed, as had their former employer, that the quality of their work would attract the patronage they needed to continue doing what they loved. ... People felt the universe would reward them for doing what they wanted to do, instead of doing what they needed to do to earn the patronage of readers and advertisers."

They were operating online, but the same principle works for a print newspaper -- indeed, has to work for a print newspaper. "Quality," alas, only pays off after you first, as Marshall Field put it, give the lady what she wants. If your definition of quality is stories people should read even if they don't want to -- because they're important, significant, long-form, and everyone should know that the tomatoes they eat are from exploited workers -- then you will be out of business soon. Yes, you can do those stories, but you have to sell what is actually useful to people. If you sell those stories, the market for them is too small to support you. Newspapers used to know how to do this, before they became more about the conflict between journalism and commerce, the conflict between the sophisticated and the mass, than about selling newspapers.

We close today's sermon with this editorial from the Seattle Times, including these fateful words that are sure to bring the opprobrium of Mark Potts down on the writer's head:

"Most readers still want their newspaper in print, so they can scan it, carry it and clip it, and the printed paper works as it always did."

It's not the form, it's the content. Give readers something they want to read, and they will read it. Give them what you want to write, and you'd better have a sugar daddy. The vast profitability of newspapers in the 1980s, caused by the loss of big-city competitors and the elimination of composing rooms, let us forget this. I love gourmet mustard and it will always be available. A newspaper is French's.

Monday, September 28, 2009

More About Valpo

I've been hither and yon, and will be for the next few weeks.

But back to local news as it was reported in 1930 in the Valparaiso Vidette-Messenger. Here's a story that one might find today:

"The Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce voted to carry its fight against the sale of the local branch of the Northwestern Telephone company to the Winona Telephone Company of Plymouth, to a finish.

"Warned that the Indiana Public Service commission which twice before had disapproved the scheme devised by Former Governor James P. Goodrich, to link the Valparaiso phone system to his Plymouth holdings, was going to change its position, the local civic body has determined to stay in the fight. The Chamber of Commerce has resisted the move through three hearings by the Public Service Commission, a court testing at Crown Point and finally a Supreme Court hearing which reversed the findings of Judge E. Miles Norton of Lake county, approving the deal, and sent it back for a rehearing."

Times are different. It's difficult in today's world to comprehend exactly why it would matter who owned the local phone company, but remember that there were no area codes or direct dial. Long distance meant connecting with another phone company. And chambers of commerce no longer command the sort of institutional authority they did 80 years ago. Still, this sounds like an outlier of an investigative story alleging corruption.

But the 1930s Vidette-Messenger practiced a sort of personal journalism that we don't see and that probably would be condemned today. As noted in my last post, the Vidette was Pro-Valparaiso. Its view was that whatever was for the development of Valparaiso as the business center of Porter County -- particularly at the expense of Chesterton -- was good for Valparaiso, Porter County, and the Vidette-Messenger and its readers and advertisers. (This, of course, was the viewpoint of most newspapers during the 1950s and 1960s, the last era when everyone read newspapers. Newspapers were For The Community back when "community" had a broader meaning than today.)

Lynn Whipple, the co-owner and editor, daily expressed (in a column that often ran more than two columns long, back in the era of wider columns and smaller type) what he thought was best for Valparaiso, and I'm sure he expected many leading citizens of Valparaiso to fall in line (if, indeed, he was not simply falling in line with them). An excerpt from his column explaining why this was an issue shows the sort of involvement a small-town editor was then expected to have with his community. This is a long excerpt, but this is less than half the column. It opens with some high-minded

"The re-electicn of Glfford Pinchot as governor of Pennsylvania and that of George W. Norris of Nebraska as U.S. Senator, are outstanding examples. These men, for years have been as voices in the wilderness, warning the people against too great centralization of public utilities, such as light, power and heat, in the hands of a relatively few men. They have made powerful business, banking, industrial and political enemies. Yet, the people believe in them and continue them in office. ...

"It would seem that those holding public office charged with the responsibility of
representing the public interest as it is concerned with regulation of utilities and utility service would now awaken to the fact that the people of the United States, who have been very liberal and unquestioning in these matters, are beginning to become aroused to the fact that advantage is being taken of them. The above serves to give a background to a question of utility management ... the question of who shall own and operate the telephone company which, until three years ago, was a local utility, owned and operated by men of this community.

"In summer of 1927, however, the local owners decided to sell ... the local telephone company -- which had closely linked the entire county into one telephone system. They knew that there was a buyer for their properties...a buyer which represented the largest telephone system in the world and which controlled telephone operations in the great industrial and metropolitan areas with which Valparaiso and Porter County are closely linked... The Illinois Bell subsidiary of the American Telephone and Telegraph Co. [was] for several years, looking forward to eventual purchase of the Northwestern Indiana Telephone Company's "Ideal" system, with stations at Valparaiso, Kouts, Wheeler, Hobart, Porter and Chesterton. The Illinois Bell Company, which controls the telephone service in Chicago, Gary, Hammond and other Calumet district cities, including Crown Point, h£d had a direct hand in the development of the Northwestern Company.

"It was natural, then, for the owners of the local company to turn to the Illinois Bell Company, as the purchaser, when they determined to dispose of their holdings. The Valparaiso and Porter county public looked with favor upon the pending negotiations as they promised to tie local telephone service directly into that of the fast developing district to the west. The Illinois Bell company financed the transfer of stock holdings.

"Under Indiana law (as under the law of most, if not all other states) the consent of the Public Service Commission has to be secured before the sale of a utility can be consummated. Before giving approval to any such transaction, the commission is required to hold hearings to determine whether or not the proposed action is against public policy and interest. It demands all the facts. Then it was that it was disclosed for the first time, that the local telephone company was not to be sold, as a unit to the Illinois Bell Telephone Company, but instead, to be divided arbitrarily between two operating companies.

"The Crown Point Telephone Company, owned by the Illinois Bell Company, was to gain possession of the Chesterton, Porter and Hobart holdings of the Northwestern
Company...and the Winona Telephone Company, with headquarters in Plymouth, was to come into possession of the exchanges at Valparaiso, Kouts and Wheeler.

"Immediately every civic interest [pointed out that the] county telephone system had been developed as a unit and ought to be so held. It pointed out that Valparaiso had no interest in the Plymouth telephone system, which is functioning some fifty miles east.... {The commission] denied the petition, and demonstrated that it was serving the purpose for which it was created... protection of the public. This left the Illinois Bell corporation the potential owner. Back of the Winona Company, however, was a man once powerful in Indiana politics, former Governor James P. Goodrich. He then took the case to court...under a law that [gives] judges the right to overrule the commission.

"The case was taken to the Lake County circuit court over which presided Judge E. Miles Norton. Why the former governor's company selected this particular court for the hearing has never been disclosed. It did develop that Judge Norton was first named to the bench by Mr. Goodrich, when governor. Judge Norton overruled the commission's order and directed it to approve the deal.

"Then the Valparaiso civic group, :through Attorney Bruce B. Loring, carried the issue direct to the Indiana supreme court... contesting the legality of the law which gave courts the right to make decisions for the Public Service Commission. It got the commission to refuse to comply with Judge Norton's order until and unless the supreme court upheld his position and the law under which he acted. Again the commission demonstrated its desire to serve the public interest.
"Finally, after months and months o£ delay, months, by the way which brought many changes to the financial set-up of the original deal when, because of a severe storm and needed development, the Illinois Bell Company had to extend credit involving many thousands of dollars...the supreme court announced its ruling. It held that part of the law which directed courts to write orders for the commission unconstitutional and sent the case back for a new start.

"Largely because of the contests made by the Valparaiso community representatives the 1929 legislature repealed so much of the 1927 act under which courts were directed to rule for the commission and directed the attorney general of the state to appoint a special deputy whose duly it would be to appear for the commission in all court contests of its rulings.

"It happens that the man now holding this important office... Deputy Attorney General George Huffsmith...is a Plymouth man and acquainted with the group which is seeking to obtain the commission's approval of the transaction opposed by the Valparaiso civic interests. That is where the issue now stands. Judge Norton has again placed the issue squarely up to the Public Service Commission under the theory that its original order, disapproving the entire transaction, was "unreasonable" and implying that it ought to approve. The commission, for some reason or another, and for the first time, seems to hesitate as to what to do. In view of this, the Valparaiso civic group has appealed to the commission to dismiss the original petition asking for approval of the transaction ...

"Even so, local spokesmen are certain that if the commission will reopen the case, and stands firmly by the policy of protecting the public good, they will be able to again conclusively demonstrate that the proposed deal should not be permitted to go through. With the founding of a new steel city in north Porter county, and the further development of the dunes industrial and recreational district there is added reason why Valparaiso, the county seat, should be directly connected by telephone service and operation, with the entire county on a radius of some ten
to fifteen miles, as it has in the past.

"If the "Goodrich deal" goes, through, Valparaiso's telephone system will be divorced from that of Chesterton, Porter, the Dunes Region and Hobart and tied back into an unnatural and unpromising hook-up with Plymouth, fifty miles east.

"Any other position, on the part of the commission will only serve to feed the fire of discontent relative to utility operation and regulation and hasten the day when control of such will again be lodged with the local communities and strong utility development seriously crippled."

Whew. Here was clearly a man who bought ink by the barrel full. I guess it was his paper and no one could cut his copy. But in other words -- maybe the Plymouth investors are using undue influence; maybe the fix is in with the Crown Point judge; maybe none of that is true and it is simply that Illinois Bell had no desire to serve Valparaiso. But let us pay that little mind. What matters here is that the deal would remove Valparaiso's phone service from that of Chicago and Gary (while leaving Chesterton's with it, by the way). The Valparaiso "civic interests" merely want the commission to see the public good by making it easier for Valparaiso to be part of the Calumet region's growth. The interests of the little guy and the "interests" seem to be one.

As it turns out, until the deregulation of the phone system in the 1970s Valparaiso was a GTE city, as was Plymouth. So clearly the commission failed to act as the Vidette wished.

Yes, we're still in the William Allen White era of journalism here, not the modern era. This is an opinion piece -- but the front-page story on the chamber of commerce, which is simply a news release, is in line with the paper's program. This is how minds were influenced then. This is the sort of journalism that would soon fall into disrepute. More to come.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

What If...

Stop what you're doing and read this post by Howard Owens if you've ever wondered why newspapers, so much more than any other medium disrupted by the Web, have presented matters as Their Imminent Demise, while TV and radio and magazines have also lost readers and business to the Web but tend not to talk about it so much.

I was thinking earlier today: Is it just newspapers' tendency to see the worst, or is it newspaper journalists thinking that in order to be fair, we must publicly flagellate ourselves? Owens has a better answer: Newspapers saw online as just another way to publish newspapers. (Radio, TV, etc., which moved into online more slowly, did so because they saw it as a threat. Newspapers saw it as higher-profit nirvana.) But newspapers' objective was to use online to support the "mother ship" -- the newspaper business as it had been known and grown up, with all the divisions and add-ons that came from print's profit margins. And that, of course, has proven to be a fatal error.

Owens presents this largely as an advertising revenue problem -- which it is -- but notes:

"Throughout the history of newspapers online, there has simply been a lot of thinking that there isn't much different between the Web and print.

"It's understandable. The Web, especially in the early days, is a text-dominated medium. The natural response is to think editors could simply move print stories into pixels and be done with it. ... If publishers thought the Web was no different for content, how could they possibly be expected to see online sales were different, too?"

His answer -- which stands the last five years on its head, but I agree with him -- is that online should have been set up from the start as a separate business unit.

"So ... if newspapers had created more totally separate business units, would newspapers be 'saved' today?

"I don't know.

"The strategy could have hastened their demise, but I think you can also make the case that by letting newspapers be newspapers, and keeping online far away, you would have had fewer readers dropping subscriptions in favor of free online content. Maybe. Maybe the online competitor would have been seen by readers as just another media outlet, not a replacement for the newspaper."

Boldface mine. Of course, publishers, whose essential aim is to not have competition, probably would never have gone for it. They would have seen it as competing with themselves. But since what we have now is, as Dominic Toretta said after hitting the truck at the end of "The Fast and the Furious," not exactly what we had in mind, think about it from Owens' view. If the Daily Reflector-Cotillion had not viewed online as a way to publish the Daily Reflector-Cotillion with no printing expenses -- thus seeming to guarantee itself 50 percent profit margins forever -- but had viewed it the way newspaper companies viewed radio and TV when they first came out, as a medium with its own rules and challenges and for which content should be developed differently -- would the Daily Reflector-Cotillion be so shunned in print? Or would it have a profitable DRC and a profitable, much smaller, Mytown Online?

As Owens says, you can't tell. But at least you would never have had people saying, "Why should I pay you when you give the same stuff away?" -- which, though they come at it from different angles, Owens and Alan Mutter essentially agree is the Original Sin. Perhaps the answer is not pay walls after all, but -- let newspapers be newspapers.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

When Everyone Read Newspapers -- Valparaiso I

I've lately been reading old newspapers through the site Newspaper Archive -- a hefty monthly fee, but you get an amazing group of papers at amazing times. Its only shortcoming is the absence of truly major metros -- although the Post is in there for a few years early in the 20th century. But from Iowa weeklies to papers on the scale of the Oakland Tribune and the Syracuse Herald-Journal, you can get a sense of what the typical American was seeing back when everyone read newspapers.

To me, the era when really everyone read newspapers was the 1950s and 1960s. That may seem curious and I invite contradiction. But small-town newspapers had pretty small circulations until the 1930s. Rural free delivery was a 1910s startup, and motor routes were just a dream for many small papers. The town and city population could easily get a paper or papers when published; if you lived elsewhere, you might get the paper in the mail a day late, or in some cases got a weekly edition with the local news that had been published during the previous week; or you might have to pick up the paper when you went into town. Also, World War II drove increased interest in the news, to follow the boys from your town -- from your family -- as they fought and died in Europe and the Pacific. And in the 1930s, a lot of people simply didn't have the money for a newspaper.

So I'm going to concentrate on the 1950s and 1960s. But I did want to look back and see what readers of a small-town newspaper would have gotten in the 1930s. I took the Valparaiso Vidette-Messenger for a couple of reasons; I know Indiana, and the paper was merged into a zone edition of the Hammond Times in the 1980s, I think, so there's no one there to yell at me.

Background: Valparaiso is the county seat of Porter County, which is the first county east of Lake County (Hammond, Gary, East Chicago). Porter and LaPorte Counties are the popcorn center of America (home of Orville Redenbacher) and were mostly agricultural or small industries until the steel industry took over Lake County and created Gary. Valpo, as it's known, is over to the west side of the county and thus started to become an exurb. So the Valparaiso paper would have been fighting off the Gary Post-Tribune as well as all the Chicago papers for the reader's interest. So the news consumer had more choices than, say, in Butte or Waco.

The Vidette-Messenger in the first week of December 1930 -- I figured it would be at its fattest that month, even though the Depression had taken hold -- was about 8 to 10 pages an issue. (I looked for 1929 and it was 10 to 12.) It was owned by its editor and publisher, Lynn Whipple, in partnership with another man, Humphrey Gray of Benton Harbor, Mich. Circulation was just under 5,000. Porter County had about 22,000 population at that point, with 8,000 in the city of Valparaiso. I don't know what ratio per household to use for 1930, but using three per household, that would put the Vidette in, what, 60 percent of county households?

The Vidette was a booster of Valparaiso. Its flag contained the following mottos: "Published in the Ideal Residential City in the Great Calumet District"; "Valparaiso, the Home of Valparaiso University"; "Valparaiso, the Gateway to Indiana Dunes State Park." (Valparaiso University had some national fame as the "Poor Man's Harvard.") That may have been too Valpo-centric, so stuck between the rules was "A Daily Newspaper for All Porter County." (Valparaiso had an eternal war for dominance in the county with Chesterton, a smaller city but closer to the long-planned lake harbor that finally was developed in the 1960s.)

The Vidette ran a streamer on Page One every day. No one could accuse it of subtlety on Dec. 11:
"Bandits Rob Leroy Postoffice; Negroes With Guns Get $145, Make Escape"

But even then, Porter County was seen as a middle-class white escape from ethnically diverse Lake County. The Vidette knew it was in a competitive market and had to get attention. Its front page was designed to "sell newspapers." In the 1930s, of course, photos were few -- engravings cost a lot of money and time -- but the Vidette found A1 room for this:

"Girl, 11, Wanted Live Doll -- So She Kidnapped a Baby!" The caption read:

"I wanted a live baby instead of dolls," ll-year-old Mary Fieder sobbed to detectives after she was found with Evelyn Gaffney, 2, whose mysterious kidnapping had terrorized neighboring families in Newark, N. J. The girl kidnaper is shown, at the left, after her arrest, with police and the stolen baby. She was held for Children's Court. She is alleged to have confessed to authorities that she entered through a window of the Gaffney home, lifted the infant from her crib, and escaped unnoticed."

And Albert Einstein was making his first trip to New York, which was noted on the front page: "Master Mind of Cool Thought Warms to Welcome by American Metropolis." But human interest had the best chance of landing a national or world story on A1. Most of the content on A1 was local or in proportion to the Vidette's mission -- cover Porter County; cover top news from Chicago; get in as much news from Indiana as you can, to compete with the Illinois papers; and then look elsewhere. In the 1930s, the Vidette was largely following the model newspapers are encouraged to use today -- keep it local.

Thus readers were told: "Stormy Time Expected at Sewer Hearing; Property Owners Hardest Hit by Assessment Spread to Appear Before City Council Friday." Gee, assessment appeals. Nothing really ever changes. And "Liberty Township Girl, Noted as Dancer, Succumbs After Three-Year Fight Against Odds." (She was 30.)

We sort of know this newspaper; a newspaper from the 1900-10 period looked at today seems impossibly distant in its style, content and distribution, but we can see here a good bit of what we all recognize as the American Newspaper, along with anachronisms that distance us. What's the point of this exercise? To look at what newspapers were doing back when everyone read them, to see if there's anything that relates to today. There's more fascinating stuff in the 1930s Vidette, but we'll make that another post.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Once More -- It's More Than Paper and Ink

A blogger named Lewis Grossberger -- who probably would object to my referring to him as "a blogger named Lewis Grossberger," in that he seems to post identically on more than one blog, has written books, was a columnist for MediaWeek, teaches Humor and Comedy Writing at NYU, and graduated from Syracuse, of which my son will in nine months be an alumnus, and therefore I Simply Should Know Who He Is -- takes Times ombudsman Clark Hoyt to the cleaners over a skanky column in the Times about J.C. Penney Co. (see, a department store link at last!) opening a store in Manhattan. No, not to the cleaners. He puts him through the chemical process of dry cleaning. He pulls every thread from his garment.

The skanky column isn't the media divide. (I read the lede of it aloud to my boss. She laughed and thought it was really funny. I was queasy about it myself.) Newspapers have always done weird things. The divide is between Clark's saying this:

Writer Cintra "Wilson told me she usually writes about 'obscure stores that don’t exist outside of Manhattan,' and she thinks of her audience as '1,300 women in Connecticut and urban gay guys in Manhattan.' She said it was 'kind of provincial of me' not to realize how big The Times was and how her audience would expand when she reviewed a store like Penney’s." ... Wilson's "sort of arch tone is pushing it even when reviewing the highbrow likes of Christian Louboutin, Gucci or Christian Lacroix. It really doesn’t work when taking on a mainstream retailer like J. C. Penney."

And Lewis' saying this:

"Hoyt, Keller, the rest of you fatuous, Sanforized twits, let me explain something to you that for some reason they don’t teach in journalism school. I’ll make it simple: Funny not bad. Funny good! People like funny. Funny make people larf. People larf, people feel good! They maybe buy paper again. True, funny usually offend some jackball or other. Too bad! Why you always scared silly of a few whining dunces? Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke."

In other words, Wilson got to write what she thought of as, well, sort of a blog, which was published in the New York Times, and probably was treated basically as a blog by its readers -- we know you, Cintra, we're hip to you and you're hip to us -- and decided to blog (in print) about how just, eew, middle-American polyester Penney's is. (Does this mean that -- gasp -- Manhattan is suddenly Like the Rest of America?) Readers saw the headline about Penney's -- readers who weren't hip to Cintra -- and read it because, well, lots of people buy clothes at Penney's and are interested in Penney's. Cintra basically said they were all fat and tasteless. (Penney's said the average weight of a woman in the U.S. is 150. They also said, basically, that they quickly realized that was not the case in Manhattan.)

Readers wrote in to say they were offended. The Times was putting down the Average American. The Times was making fun of everyone who couldn't have been in "Sex and the City." Not some writer named Cintra Wilson. The New York Times was making fun of them. So, Clark Hoyt, Bill Keller, everyone at the Times basically lines up and says, yeah, this was a Bad Thing for us to do. And Lewis Grossberger responds: They don't get it! It's fucking funny! Otherwise the Times is JUST LIKE SHOPPERS AT PENNEY'S! It's just a big, lumbering, middle-class, middle-income, middlebrow organization. It's Brian Williams vs. Jon Stewart. (Forget that recent poll that showed Stewart to be Walter Cronkite's successor as the Most Trusted Man. As the writer in Entertainment Tonight noted, it was results of online readers of his column who bothered to respond, not an actual poll. They might get Cintra, too.)

In other words, a lot of this never-ending argument isn't old media vs. new media. It's square vs. hip. It's we get it vs. you don't. It's the quasi-public-utility approach newspapers adopted when competing newspapers largely went by the wayside in the 1970s and 1980s (our job is to serve everyone and thus we should never purposelessly offend anyone) vs. those who feel that the job is to just do it and if you don't like it, it's because you're stupid, not me. It's once again saying, our real problem is that we should have better customers. Unfortunately, newspapers -- even the New York Times -- are more like Penney's than Bendel's, and so this is what we have.

(Full disclosure: Worked with Clark Hoyt on a couple of projects when we were both part of Knight Ridder. Found him to be a straightforward person. His view of a responsible press would not include taking cheap shots at Penney's customers even if he were still working for the Free Press.)

(Second full disclosure: Boy, how embarrassing, that I got Cintra Wilson's first name wrong -- even after I went back to Clark Hoyt's post to double-check that I had it right, because something seemed wrong about it. And then I had it wrong anyway. Who double-checks the copy editors? When they blog, no one, which is why everyone needs an editor. At any rate, I've corrected it throughout the copy, and thanks for catching it!)

The Wonderful Meaning of Me, Vol. 2

Just saw this in a Balt-Sun story we are running about Tweeter and movies:

“Just two years ago, if I saw a movie I loved or I hated, I’d be able to tell a dozen friends, tops,” says John Singh, who works for the movie and social networking Web site Flixster. "Now I can be walking out of a theater as the credits are rolling and immediately tell 500 people what I thought. … "It’s never been this easy to be this influential."

OK, he works for a Web site. But isn't he speaking for everyone who uses Twitter (or perhaps any social site)? Let's assume of his 500 followers, 100 tell some of their friends. He's thus been read by, oh, 1,000 people -- not bad. At our height of circulation, using current readership figures, more than 1 million people would have been able to read our critics' reviews. (Counting online readership, who knows how widely they are read today?) Assume in the old days that 10 percent read our reviews. 100,000 people. Get in line, John. We'll leave aside the question of whether anyone should have had Clive Barnes-like power or whether it could ever be attained again. And I don't know what John Singh's aspirations are -- whether he ultimately wants to be the Charles Champlin of Twitter. But social networking is all about the "I" -- I want to tell you this, I want you to pay attention to me. Whether "I" have anything you should bother to pay attention to -- for that matter, whether any of John Singh's followers actually pay attention to him -- isn't even a large part of the equation. The gatekeeper was a gatekeeper for a reason, which is that most "content" is drivel and that gatekeepers were paid to recognize drivel so that John Q. Citizen would not have to waste time on it. (No offense to John Singh, who for all I know may be the next Carrie Rickey.)

Witness this story from the Columbus Dispatch on life in Ann Arbor after the end of the News, in which the Powers That Be -- government, agencies, the university and its vast sports operation -- are finding that they have no reliable way of getting their information out -- and that wrong information, stupid information, whatever information suddenly has just as much credence as their information -- and that they don't really think that anyone should trust even their OWN web sites as much as they trusted the Ann Arbor News. In other words, in a way even the Powers That Be are saying, why should you trust what we say any more than anyone else? You need a reliable third party. And -- admittedly just a month into the News-less world -- TPTB in Ann Arbor are not finding it online. (Of course, that's because they didn't early-adopt it or they didn't grow up with it or they are held back by nostalgia for print.... There's always a reason why any shortcoming of the Internet is simply the problem of true communism waiting to emerge from war communism or socialist-communist or Great Leap Forward communism. Hold on, folks. Eventually true communism will be here, and all problems will be addressed. In the meantime, trust the pundits of the Internet and they will guide you amid the dictatorship of the Twittertariat.)

On another point: My esteemed friend Doug Fisher has written about how some of newspapers' problems come from their desire to make one tool -- the story -- serve all purposes. (And of the over-worship of The Story as the sole praiseworthy goal of journalism, as with one, I would guess professor, whom he quotes: "Twitter strikes me as ridiculous. It begs the question: What is news? Is it a stark factual sentence, or a well-crafted story steeped in sensory details, heavily dependent on the reporter's presence at the scene?" To which Doug responds: Well, that's a non-question. And of course, it doesn't beg the question, it prompts it.)

But now comes Poynter advisory board member Matt Thompson with a must-read article pointing out that that story -- well-crafted, steeped, presence-filled, as yeasty and tasty as a Richard Thompson song, presumably -- comes to the reader with a large number of gaping holes.

While he elaborates on them to great effect -- you really should read him as soon as you're tired of me talking about it -- all of them come down to this: The reporter is swimming in a sea of data, history, connections, facts, inferences, rumors, personal actions and expertise and inexpertise, journalistic conventions, out of which she must produce a "story" -- that, according to journalistic convention, should assume that you, the reader, want "the news of the day" followed by a summation of the basic outlines of the controversy (for those who came in late). But that largely serves just to recount the posturings of the major players -- access to whom, of course, give the reporter standing to play her part in the swirl -- and by convention leaves out most of the data, history, connections, facts, inferences, rumors, personal actions and expertise and inexpertise by which the reader could actually get a sense of what's going on. Is it any wonder that people look away from newspapers and news sites to a more "personal" journalism? Increasingly I think that the albatross around our necks is not the hardware of the press, but the convention of "the news story" in matters of controversy. (The story works quite well in talking about John Singh and Twitter, though.)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Why I Love New Media People So

So James Warren, of the Chicago Tribune, goes to England for a wedding and, like many an American visitor before him, picks up British newspapers and marvels at their intelligence, depth, breadth of world news, and spirited cheekiness.

Wouldn't it be nice if we had some of that in American newspapers? he asks. Our newspapers are so darn boring, it's no wonder no one reads many of them.

All of which has been said before, but, of course, no challenge must go unanswered, and Roy Greenslade immediately leaps to the fore:

"Indeed, I wonder whether editorial content would make any difference at all to newsprint sales.

"After all, despite Warren's praise for "British high-energy imagination and flair" in our papers, sales here are in decline, as the latest set of the ABC figures show (here and here and here).

"That is not to say that the quality and range of journalism is irrelevant to readers and potential readers. Far from it. But print, as veteran editors seemingly find it impossible to admit, is a failing medium."

But while Warren is certainly writing from a print background, nothing he says could not be equally true of U.S. newspapers' online operations. Consider:

"That (middle-class) strategy twinned with a firm belief in most newsrooms that being too colourful, impressionistic or intentionally provocative undermined one's air of authority and legitimacy. By and large, balance meant rarely offending. The premeditatedly provocative tended to be relegated to the occasional serious investigation or editorial, or to the approved ranting of a well-compensated "populist" sports columnist, inveighing on ultimately inconsequential topics."

Since much of the content of American newspapers online is produced by, and is often identical with, the content in print, it seems like Warren's point could be made regardless of medium. And what if more people might read a better print paper? But let us not ponder such issues. Greenslade must make the point again: You print people are dead, dead, dead. Stop trying to do better, stop trying anything. Nothing you do can do anything. Just roll over and die.

How this can possibly be useful is beyond me. All it really says is: Those of us who got it early got it, and those of you who didn't are chum.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Incoherence

In an earlier post I said that newspapers, like department stores, had become incoherent.

Looking at ads from department stores from the 1930s through the 1960s, their message was pretty clear: Here's what we sell, here's when we're open. Most department stores competed on price; a few competed on class, but not as many as you'd think; almost all competed on breadth. Discounters' steady growth put department stores' message in flux. They couldn't compete head to head on price because they had higher fixed costs; increasingly, they couldn't compete on breadth.

I found one ad from a small-town store in the 1930s that sold tires right out of the men's wear department. But the stores had to move upscale to fight the discounters; the middle-income store went after a more upper-middle market. The bargain basement stuff increasingly got in the way. Kmart didn't have that image problem.

Department stores traditionally had little sales (this just in, read the paper for the price!) and big sales (End of Month, January White Sale, etc.) to move out merchandise too long in the tooth. Now they had to have coupons, weekly markdowns, etc., to try to compete with the discounters and big box stores. So no one knew what their price was. Unless you walked in during a big sale with a coupon, you felt like you were paying too much. Call in William Shatner! You might actually pay more at Walmart, but you didn't feel like you were an idiot, because Walmart's price stayed the same. The department store was playing you.

So the department store's message became: Come here and buy stuff, some of which is better quality but some is not, and pay more, unless you get here on the right time or do lots of homework, and you still have to go to another store to get stuff we don't carry anymore. Gee. Macy's and Penney's sell "shopping environment" -- nicer store than a discounter, more fashionable clothes -- but even some lines I thought would never fall from department stores, such as bridal registries, increasingly are going to places like Bed, Bath & Beyond. The bride doesn't shop at Macy's, her friends don't shop at Macy's, they bought all their dorm stuff at Bed, Bath & Beyond, and you no longer have to impress the bride's mother by having the stuff in a box that says The Killian Co. or Meier & Frank.

Some examples of newspaper incoherence:

One of my three dailies at home has in the last year made great strides in packaging and presentation -- color nearly everywhere, lots of brief wire stories instead of just running evergreens at length to close a page. The paper has a fraction of its old staff, yet in some ways is more readable. But it shares content with two papers that serve a neighboring county in another state (one that's not that easy to get to from here, being across a major river and having an ancient highway system). For an inside-the-paper news story, that's not a big problem. But the food section week after week is about people and events in that county and not in ours. Why? Only one food writer, and a common food cover for all three papers. Since recipes are available everywhere now, all a local paper can sell in food is local cooks and food events --which should be quite salable. I know it's the best they can do under the circumstances, but it makes the local mission of the paper incoherent (we're about your county HERE, but their county THERE, and you figure out why).

The New York Times runs its famous obit of Walter Cronkite with, depending on what you count as an error, seven to nine factual errors. Anyone in the newspaper business knows that sometimes stuff like this happens. The Times, which wants to be seen as the gold standard of journalism in the world, ends up trying to explain the thing with and on top of a garbled mess of statements about how the reporter is a really terrific reporter but on the other hand she's not always good at facts and so we had to assign a copy editor to fact-check her but then because the copy editor was fact-checking her she didn't have as many errors so we took off the copy editor who fact-checked her because there wasn't a problem anymore and now we'll probably have to put one back and this was an internal problem of passing off the story among editors but we are still the gold standard of journalism in the world and you should trust us because we have now told you all the ways our system broke down and are transparent. This may be the best they can do, but it is incoherent to the reader who can't understand how the gold standard of journalism would put the assassination of Dr. King on the wrong day. (Why didn't they just say, when Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, and forget the date? The more minute the historical facts you have, the more they can be wrong.)

The Detroit home-delivery plan is incoherent (we'll publish the paper, but somedays we'll get it to you and some we won't, and it's our choice). In my former home of Flint, they simply made the paper a three-day-a-week operation. That at least sounds coherent, and so when I got a copy of the revamped paper I expected it to have been rethought. But the paper still has (or at least had as of a month and a half ago) a nation-world section and the previous night's baseball standings, just as if it came out every day. It was the same old Flint Journal as before, only three days a week. If it's not a daily paper, it's not a daily paper. This is incoherence.

The consumer does not have the time or money to waste on incoherent businesses. Newspapers still think the reader should understand that we have problems and thus accept our product on our terms. What is amazing is how many readers still do.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

It's the Summer

As noted previously -- I haven't missed doing this. Perhaps I have said everything I had to say on the point. Or perhaps everyone has said everything they had to say, and now, in the manner of sports coverage, we're down to memes and themes, repeated annually.

Steve Yelvington -- who, as noted here previously, makes a lot of sense except when talking about copy editors (or perhaps I'm just too parochial) -- said a number of things this year that have really made me think. One was that journalism, while nice for newspapers, is not essential -- they are in the business of selling solutions to other businesses through advertising. So much of the high-minded discussion of journalism in an era of weaker newspapers has been from journalists, who look at newspapers as if they should be -- well, foundations that exist to publish journalism, which is why doing journalism for a nonprofit foundation looks pretty good to them. (And then they don't understand people who talk about, We're not making any money!) In a lot of ways, a foundation is what we had in metro newspapers in the 1980s and early 1990s. Journalists these days are not newspaper(wo)men as of yore, who wrote a puff piece on the new addition to H. Gordon & Sons in Gary if they were assigned to, and then did a completely factual report on city hall corrpution. For a brief time, newspapers just happened to provide a well-paying home for the sort of journalism that high-church journalists want to do now.

This was less the case 40 years ago, and I've been spending a lot of time looking at newspapers from that era -- the only era when everyone read newspapers, if you look at circulation figures -- to see what it is that newspaper(wo)men did then. I'll be posting some looks at that in days ahead.

But Yelvington also said something that made it clear where things such as Mark Potts' famous sneer at "printies" come from:

"Digital people generally lose power struggles with print people."

How many of the death-to-print bloggers took up their cudgels after one too many bureaucratic losses, in which they, who had seen the glorious future, who had shown the company how to be part of the New Jerusalem, found themselves losing out to some pissant production director who wanted the investment for iron, or an editor who wanted to save the exclusive for print, or an advertising director who thought he could stick his finger in the dike and stop the classifieds from escaping? So there's bitterness there, and a sense (which Yelvington does not have) of, screw all you stupid, backward, print-oriented folks. Stop your freaking presses. I saw the future, I showed you the future, and you did not fund it. Now you will pay. (Even though print still pays 90 percent of the bills.)

Overpainting, but: Journalists, as noted before, are shy egomaniacs. Tech people are incomprehensible egomaniacs. Techy journalists are...

But also note that Yelvington does make a difference between "digital people" and "print people." It's not simply the difference between "old-fashioned people" and "modern people" who are all "journalist people." There are digital people in journalism just the same as there are radio people and TV people and magazine people and newspaper people, just the same as there are investigative reporters and graphic artists and photographers and copy editors and producers. And chances are, after the dust settles, there still will be, even if the newspapers are delivered to a printer in your house or are read on a Kindle with links, and you watch TV programs on your computer screen. Or even if newspapers are delivered by being thrown from cars and people watch TV on televisions.

The idea that all of us were simply meant to evolve from a retrograde print level to a higher digital level is -- a techy conceit, which kicked the confidence out of print people by the commingling of "Web page" with "Internet" when the Internet is really just an incredibly good delivery system and a Web page is just something it can deliver, and is probably an intermediate form. It is just my belief, but new technology usually creates more specialization, not less; and at some future point the idea that one reporter can do a print story and a video story and a blog and a tweet, all of which can be handled by the same editor, will probably be broken apart in some manner. The quality will be insufficient in all media. But that will require news providers to accept that each will occupy a smaller place in the cosmos, and newspapers still don't want to accept that, still want to be the Universal Source.

I did want to close with a shout-out to Yelvington for this post on real estate advertising, which has been all but written off by many analysts, Alan Mutter included. The gist:

"There are two things you can do with advertising. You can create demand. And you can channel demand to a preferred resolution. Some advertising may do both, but they're really different functions.

"Printed newspaper classifieds perform both of those functions. You're flipping through the paper, you idly glance through the classifieds, and the next thing you know, you're daydreaming about a "Beautiful home situated on Lake Thurmond w/ dock!" or a 1997 Harley Davidson Softail Classic, less than 14kmi, $10,000." You had no idea that you wanted one, but here you are.

"But for years the place where newspaper classifieds really performed beyond all competitors was in the second function: channeling demand to a resolution. You're already looking for a house: Here's what I have to offer this week. You're already looking for a car: Here's what's on my lot.

"And this is where print classifieds are really getting clobbered. Forget all the whining about Craigslist; it's a convenient target, but not very important. What hurts print is that it's lost its primacy in channeling existing demand by providing data to the seeker.

"This doesn't mean newspaper companies are locked out of the action. Far from it; they're very well positioned to channel online demand through behavioral targeting of advertising that helps connect seekers to the treasure they seek. And both print and Internet advertising can work in that other dimension of advertising, creating demand. I did not know that property up at the lake is selling today for less than half what it was going for before the economy tanked. Probably a good long-term investment, certainly smarter than a Harley. Priced at $70K, a lakefront lot is out of my reach, but not out of reach of others. Demand gets created, maybe a lot gets sold, and somebody gets a 7% commission.

"This dimension of creating demand is one that deserves more attention that it gets. Google can't do it. Yellow Pages can't do it. There's plenty of competition. But it's not something you can lose to a smarter algorithm."

Yep, here's a "digital person" saying, "here's where print comes in" -- stop trying to lure back the liner ads for houses (3 BR 2 BA gd schls, riv vu, $138,500, contact...) because they are gone because the Internet can do that better -- but sell in print how to make the reader think he really wants a new house, with something like a river view, in a better neighborhood, because the Internet can't do that very well at all.

So listen to people such as him, instead of those whose answer is always, "Print is dead." The fact that print will not be what it was does not mean it is dead. The fact that you want print to be dead does not make you a prophet of the future.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

And Then Came A Time

... when I realized that I wasn't posting, and that I really didn't miss it.

But that left a loose end, and I couldn't figure out how to tie it up, until the last week. So to return:

The professionalization of journalism in the 1970s meant that, over time, being editor of a newspaper became a little less like being responsible for all the non-advertising content, and more like being an uber-city editor. I recall back when I was young and ideological, objecting to why we published "sewing patterns" syndicated features. We could be running news there! I was told that even though they brought in, oh, $40 a month, that that was revenue credited to the news department and kept it from being a total cost center.

The editor who made that determination knew every comic in his newspaper, every syndicated column, every part of the package. I would guess that many top editors today don't even know what comics and columns their papers publish (except as "how can we get this off the budget"), nor do they read them. As professional journalists, their role is to push investigations and local coverage. Anything else -- such as "does anyone actually read the replacement for Ann Landers" -- is not what they got into journalism to do. In the old days, part of training for becoming the top editor was learning how to select what your staff didn't produce. Being editor of the newspaper was not just about journalism. It was about producing a newspaper.

But a newspaper, as any longtime readers of this blog will remember, is a department store. People came into the newspaper store for lots of reasons -- to read news, to read comics, to read ads, to look for jobs or houses. The same with the department store, but as more competitors rose up it had to figure out what areas it simply couldn't compete in profitably (white goods) and make choices. Some department stores made bad choices, basing their businesses on having more upscale customers than the market actually had; others simply did business as always until there wasn't enough business left. But at one time it was unimaginable that a city would not have at least one locally-based department store.

Many of them did badly, but their aim was still to serve the customer. Journalists' aim was to serve society, and it wasn't their business to make society buy their content. In fact, it became kind of against the point. Those of us who worked in the business in the early 1980s will remember that it was a time when newspaper editors were stuck on the point, "Why don't they love us?" We had brought down Nixon! We had exposed the hard truth about their communities! They did not appreciate us. We would keep doing what we did, until they learned to.

Even at that point, when the business model seemed unassailable, journalists had fallen into their position of, "If the public doesn't like what you're doing, get a different public." The wall between church and state had liberated newsrooms from having to write puff pieces about major advertisers and keep their children's DUIs out of the paper. The professionalization of journalism meant that space devoted to things such as police blotters, marriages and divorces, club notes and small-town newsletters would be instead used for actual journalism written by trained journalists. It didn't matter that those items were what some people bought the paper for. (Some readers actually read progress editions.) We would educate those readers to appreciate what they should want. It was like the impressionists vs. the academy.

So there was no need to ask if this was what readers wanted. It was what we were going to do to make a better society. (We brought down Nixon!) Did a doctor ask his patients what they wanted? He tried to cure them. The prospect that a reader would plunk down the price of a newspaper to do the crossword, but wouldn't pay one red cent for journalism, either didn't enter people's minds, or if it did -- well, those people were the wrong public. We're all the New York Times on this bus.

European newspaper people, looking at the problems in America, often say: It's because you don't know how to compete. But American journalists are very competitive. They knew very well how to compete -- with other newspaper journalists. They knew how to get the scoop first. As nearly every city found itself with one newspaper, they learned to compete increasingly through entering contests. But competing for the reader's time by putting out a product the average reader wanted to buy -- this was harder. (Many, many readers, of course, wanted -- still want -- the newspaper product.) Then came the online revolution, and newspapers were told that it was all about "content" -- which they interpreted as being "do what you're doing and someone will pay for it" -- and here we are. OK, but so what?

The problem is that where we are is incoherent regardless of whether it's print or online or cellular or whatever. Department stores became incoherent in the late 1980s when no one could figure out what they really were about (selection? price? service?). Trying to adapt to a new world, newspapers cannot figure out what they are. Steve Yelvington -- who may not know what copy editors do in the 2000s, but is a strong and clear-eyed analyst of newspapers' problems and opportunities -- made the point that hit home with me:

"Journalism has never had a business model of its own. It's always been a tool in the execution of some other agenda. This was true in the era of the partisan press, and it's true in the era of the commercial press. Newspapers are in the business of helping other businesses sell goods/services. Journalism is useful in that business, but it's not essential."

More to come.