Monday, January 19, 2009

Digital Youth, and Other Dramas

A previous post noted that college students are not all uniformly digital masters, noting that the use of, say, Twitter was a minority interest at the University of Kansas. Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies and law at Virginia, reports the same thing in an article summarized in the Winter Wilson Quarterly (behind a wall). He writes:

"I am in the constant company of 18-to-23-year-olds. I have taught at both public and private universities, and I have to report that the levels of comfort with, understanding of, and dexterity with digital technologies vary greatly within every class." The writer of the summary adds: "Overall, Vaidhyanathan finds, students' level of computer savvy hasn't budged in a decade." The professor adds: "Mystical talk about a generational shift and all the claims that kids won't read books are just not true... They all (I mean all) tell me that they prefer the technology of the bound book to the PDF or webpage."

To be honest, this sounds just as anecdotal as my report from Kansas. But it lines up with the anecdotes my son tells me -- that there are the super-technological savvy, then there are the ones like him who are heavy users of technology but not wishing at heart to download themselves into it, and then there is the other four-fifths of the university. At the same time, clearly they all use Facebook. The point, as the summary notes: "College students are more complicated than any 'imaginary generations' can portray." A snapshot of the heaviest technology users among them is not a predictor of the whole, even though newspapers seem to have become convinced that it is.

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As noted before, when I get really depressed about the future I look forward to Newspapers & Technology. The January issue has three articles well worth one's time. Douglas Page, identified as a "media executive" -- wish we knew a little more -- writes about how "David is winning because Goliath either doesn't understand how to use all the tools available to him or is too lazy to do so." He quotes ad agency executive David Walker as saying of newspapers' audience, "You can't get to 120 million in virtually any audience, other than television, on a specific day and date like you can with newspapers. You certainly can't get there digitally." But the article also notes how newspapers are "still fighting the fight from 20 years ago -- frequency and reach." (We can't do anything special for you, Mr. Advertiser, but we have 600,000 circulation!)

Mark Johnson of the direct-mail firm Valassis says successful advertising sales come down to telling the advertiser how a consumer uses the print product. "Does it have a shelf life and is it used as a reference piece? Do they pass it on to others? Do they clip coupons, do the puzzles...?" The article ends by noting, "Executives see advertisers taking their business elsewhere and feel they have no choice than to be like everyone else on the Web. The problem with that solution is that newspapers risk being commoditized. No other Web site offers a print product.... newspaper executives should consider that a strength." Alas, it seems that Page's first point -- that newspapers are simply lazy -- is going to win out.

A story on newspapers' road to financial recovery shows that "Publishers are obsessed with the notion of monetizing their Web audience. To that end, they've launched dozens of sites, spanning the spectrum of interests. Those sites have attracted traffic, but they've also fueled an exponential increase in the amount of ad space to be sold. The result? Plummeting ad rates." (But we have 3.5 million unique visitors, which is the equivalent of -- 6oo,ooo circulation!) Newspapers need, as has been said here before, to concentrate on making money, not just on having big numbers. But the newspaper business has been based its entire life on circulation numbers, and it appears to be unable to wean itself.

Finally, the redoubtable Jim Chisholm of iMedia adds:
"Promote newspapers' selling card: Quality. During crises newspaper readership increases."
"Increase sales staff, don't sink it."
"Offer advertisers new solutions."
"All our staff losses are in part an inability of management to identify and pursue new product opportunities, and in part an internal aversion to change."
And he closes by saying: "We are now at the bottom of the cycle."

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As with department stores, newspapers have to deal with the customers they have, not the customers they want. My hometown paper, the Indianapolis Star, decided to drop the daily prayer, which had been a staple of the paper for nearly 50 years. This was not done for space reasons or to save the $20 they were paying a retired minister per week to write it; it was done for the usual high-minded newsroom reasons, expressed by editor Dennis Ryerson as, essentially, why should a secular institution be offering prayers to a specific God? Well, they heard from the customers they have, and now the prayer is back.

Star religion writer Robert King puts the matter into perspective on his blog item. The editors of the Star, good people all, looked at it from a journalistic perspective. They did not look at it from the standpoint of, how do our customers use the product and what do they want from it? But now they have alienated those readers who thought the prayer was stupid but never would have bothered themselves about it. Those readers now will see the Star as having caved in to conservative Christians. This was not worth it for seven lines of type per day and $20 a week, but I'm sure the editors of the Star thought they were doing what was in the best interest of the People of Indiana, without asking the actual people of Indiana what they wanted from the Star.

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Finally, Gottschalk's, the Fresno-based chain that has been one of the last independent department stores, filed for bankruptcy. It's hard to tell from the stories exactly what is going on, but this story from the Bakersfield Californian indicates that the store might end up in the hands of El Corte Ingles S.A., which is already a minority owner. El Corte Ingles is the incredibly successful Spanish department store that owned the Harris Co., a San Bernardino department store that Gottschalk's bought. In downtown department store days Harris' was the largest store between Los Angeles and Phoenix. This will be interesting to watch. Usually, what El Corte touches turns to gold.

2 comments:

Luke Morris said...

It's just that the nerd are more vocal now.

Juan Antonio Giner said...

David,

One thing is for sure.

EL CORTE INGLES can make money and do good journalism publishing newspapers.

The have superb managers.