Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Strong vs. the Stupid

Here at the American Copy Editors Society convention in Minneapolis -- one of the journalism conventions that wasn't canceled this year, unlike those that cater to our owners and publishers -- attendance as of today is 250. Attendance last April -- in Denver, also not in the middle of a megalopolis -- was just over 300. That's right, in the worst economy in decades we have 80 percent of the atttendance we had last year.

In the midst of all this madness, copy editors are spending their own money -- their own time -- because they want to do their jobs better. Because they want to learn and practice their craft. And because they want to continue to contribute to the role journalism plays in America. Sessions today have covered Twitter and online ethics; sessions to come will cover blogging and search engine optimization; and there are sessions that are, as we say, platform-agnostic. And yes, there are some sessions that center on that old warhorse, the print newspaper.

And this takes place amid the Bloody April at Baltimore, which brought the ax down on a former president of our group, John Early McIntyre, as well as any number of copy editors; and that same ax is being wielded throughout Sam Zell's empire, as Charles Apple here makes clear, because we, the journalists trying to better our craft, are seen by Tribune Co. as the equivalent of photoengravers and stereotypers, redundant production pieces to be eliminated.

If you have followed this blog, you may remember that -- unlike the journalists who were offended that Zell told a photographer to fuck off, and that his aide, a radio guy, wrote hippy-dippy rock-and-roll memos to we sophisticated newspaper types -- TTPB asked that attention be paid to Zell's points -- that newspapers can be arrogant and detached, that newspapers assume that readers should know what the newspaper is doing without being told, that newspapers do not focus on their communities. And the power of imaginations was set loose in many redesigns. Not everyone liked them, but they were honest tries to reinvent the newspaper.

And the recession hit, and Zell filed for bankruptcy, and now his attitude has changed. Bad investment; gut it; at the same time, hold onto it a while longer, because it'll be worth more at the end of the year than it is now. All those redesigns, all that rethinking about what works best in Orlando or Fort Lauderdale or Newport News; throw them out and use templated pages from Chicago. You don't count, and neither does the reader.

Sam Zell, you could give another fuck about what TTPB thinks, so that's not the point. You don't stand revealed to the world today, though, as just a businessman who made a mistake. Businessmen make mistakes, and you have admitted you made one by buying Tribune Co. in a package so heavily leveraged that the end of the lever could not be seen. Mistakes happen. But by telling your newspapers to connect with their communities, by telling your journalists to embrace new ideas, and then within a year trashing what they have done and inserting lowest-common-dollar journalism, you simply show yourself to be a hypocrite. You are not a young man, and your place in history is assured.

I feel bad for those who lost their jobs, many longtime colleagues among them; but I feel worse for people who still need to work for Tribune Co.; and the people I feel the worst for, honestly, are those among the top editors and publishers who know better, and who 10 months ago put their shoulders to the grindstone to make journalism and their news organizations better, and who need today to try to do their jobs ethically and support their families and plan their own careers while living in what is clearly a rat's nest in which they can only salute, shut up and do what they are told. I'm sorry, Mr. Publisher, Ms. Editor, you didn't get to go to your conventions, but I am even sorrier that you are not here, seeing your fellow journalists working to better themselves -- at the same time that your company gives a giant finger to them. There are many people of, alas, little business competence in the history of our business, but few whose names simply stand for Bad -- the Frank Munseys who appear from time to time. It is some of our ill fate to have worked with a new member of that group.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Through a Glass

Off to the American Copy Editors' Society's national conference in Minneapolis, on the wake of the usual depressing circulation figures. (Well, what did you expect during the greatest economic downturn since the Depression, vast upticks? If people aren't buying cars, houses, furniture, etc., gee, stands to reason they aren't buying newspapers, too. The point is whether, when things stabilize and start to turn upward, there is any way in which things will improve.)

Any readers this blog has left know my views on Jeff Jarvis. Saying "it's not about content" when newspapers have spent the last decade saying "It's all about content, not distribution" is in essence saying, "You have nowhere to go," though Jeff does offer them his way out. Jeff, I think, is to news media what perhaps community organizing set out to be in the 1970s, although my memory of a conference I went to in Detroit on the topic back then has become hazy -- that the power is in the community, and in Jeff's mind, the newspaper's role is to serve as an agora to allow the community to connect with itself. While there would still be a role for some professional reporting, the main focus is to let people work with other people to define, investigate, report on and solve the community's problems. The newspaper's main problem is not its format, it is that it sees itself as a discrete group of people whose job is to define, investigate, and report on the community's problems, and then say, well, it's up to you if you want to solve them, or whatever.

I find Jarvis utopian for the same reason I found community organizing utopian, the current president's background notwithstanding -- the sincere people either get worn down or aren't prepared for hardball, and of those who are, some either just want power or ultimately say, well, he's got power, maybe I should have some too, and then, it's meet the new boss, same as the old boss. But the problem with Jeff's vision is not that such formats, agoras, community meeting places, can't be created. It is that newspapers are not run by people who set out in life to create them, for the most part.

Whether it was a politicized editor in the 1700s, a Hearst in the 1890s, or a country-club publisher in the 1950s, newspapers are published by people who want to tell people what to think or be big wheels in the community; and are staffed by journalists who want in part to 1) tell people what to think, 2) tell people what right-thinking other people think, or 3) at least tell people what they should possibly get upset about.

Jeff writes: "Their job is to bring communities elegant organization. In a sense, they always have done that; they helped communities organize their knowledge so they could organize themselves; that’s the essence of an informed democracy. But now there are so many more ways to organize ourselves and we naturally use those tools to do it. Should newspapers create such tools? No. They’re not good at it. But they should use the tools that exist to help communities organize themselves. They need to figure out how they add value to that."

Other than that no one has yet come up with an answer to his last sentence, that's really not what newspaper people want to do. They don't exist to let communities organize themselves. They have existed traditionally because the people who work for them want to point out to those communities what their problems are -- racism, corruption, no weapons of mass destruction, poor quarterbacks, street-level parking -- and to use the institutional power of the newspaper to spur the community to deal with those problems.

On the "elegant organization" link above Jeff wrote:

"I sat next to a veteran magazine editor at a dinner one night as he lamented the loss of institutional power and feared the rise of anarchy. Ah, but that’s what you might conclude in the face of the internet if you think it’s all about individualism, about each of us going our own way. If you realize that the internet is, instead, about connections and collective actions, you come to see that institutions will reform, that they will become fluid and ad hoc, like the parliamentary system of multiple parties joining in coalitions to rule. Now we can form our own coalitions to reach the critical mass still needed to be heard and to act. "

Students of Israeli politics are not the only ones who would find Jeff's comment on parliamentary democracy perhaps too sanguine. But Jeff is firmly right that the Internet has forever changed the basis of cultural power. And here again, newspapers -- or at least newspapers that we all know, forged in the era of Vietnam and Watergate, and still run with the mindset of "We shall show the truth, and the truth shall set you free" -- are just unlikely to get to where he feels media should be.

In an era in which anything may be said and offered for public scrutiny, the journalist gets on his horse, picks up his lance, and rides off toward the battlement to show the truth -- only to find that much of the world has said, "If we say this has no power over us, it does not."

For exhibits, my newspaper's story this week on two women who are being ordained in what they consider a valid ordination as Catholic priests and bishops, and a column in the paper downstairs about product placement. The work my colleagues Dave O'Reilly and Kathy Hacker did in making the priest story as absolutely fair as it could be -- reflecting constantly the view of the women that what they are doing is completely valid, and of the Catholic Church that what they are doing is completely invalid, while not taking sides -- is first-rate. And the story itself is quite interesting.

But the story comes from an era that set up the current newspaper prism, one in which the Catholic Church was not only a powerful institution with millions of believers -- but one in which it, and other powerful institutions, had the ability to control major parts of the dialogue. Thus a newspaper's simple running of a story about women's ordination had the ability to singlehandedly alter the conversation, because Catholics would not find out about it any other way. Today, those who care for or against female Catholic priests have already split into subgroups, and the larger world does not feel that the journalist has spotlighted a hidden subtext, because nothing any longer is hidden, it is simply not paid attention to. But 40 years ago, this would have been a major blow for freedom -- if nothing else, freedom of the knowledge that there were people who did things like this.

Similarly, my compatriot Ellen Gray in her TV column notes that in general, product placement on TV shows has become endemic -- to the point where it is becoming an ally in trying to save programs such as "Chuck" -- and that no one seems to care. Well, what is product placement except, in a way, nonlinkable links -- a problem that technology will solve. So what if when Jack Bauer looks at an image on his phone, the word "Verizon" or "T-Mobile" is prominent. For those of us who grew up when advertisers such as Procter & Gamble and the tobacco firms controlled much of went on television -- and who remember the Smothers Brothers as martyrs to free expression -- why aren't you getting upset! You're being manipulated! The script was probably rewritten to have him hold the cell phone just to show the ad! This gives the advertiser too much power.

But we grew up where the only real opposing voices were things such as Mad magazine. In a world where anyone could post a YouTube satire of Jack Bauer talking on a phone that has "Verizon" and "T-Mobile" and "AT&T" crossed out (replaced by, oh, "Bin Laden Phone Company" or something), does it matter? Verizon is not trying to get you to act like Jack Bauer or pressure the scriptwriters to have Jack not kill Tony. Verizon just wants an ad.

Well, that was all Chesterfield wanted, too; but if everyone on the three networks smoked, that meant, realistically, that everyone in the world smoked, and ergo smoking was normal. There was no effective way to say, "Wait," except for the newspaper, or something like it, shining the light on deceptive advertising practices -- something with the same heft as the networks and the ad agencies.

So the brave new world Jeff points to may indeed be better, but many of us baby boomer journalists still want our old roles back. That's why we got into this. Yes, I love print newspapers; but I loved even more when I used to walk out of the 15th Street door and someone would drive by and I would imagine him or her saying, "Wow, there's someone who works for The Newspaper. They must be important." That feeling is gone, because the culture can simply ignore what we do.

Still open, though, is the question of anarchy -- not 1800s anarchism, but the question of: If anyone can do anything, can anything actually be done? Or do millions of disparate or interconnected actions with no common purposes lead to anything other than stasis? Jeff thinks a better era will result. I think that the goo-goos and idealists will tire and the powerful will have their way until a new institution with equal power arises. Frodo destroyed Mordor; but Theoden, Faramir, Gandalf and Elrond had to act in concert for him to succeed.

Well, hope to see you in Minneapolis, where blessedly we will not be discussing such matters.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Why Newspapers Need to Charge, Part II

Yesterday's post also was written before I read the American Journalism Review article "A Costly Mistake?" about the Associated Press' decision to sell its content to Web sites, even though the AP is owned by newspapers. It shows how for reasons that seemed right at the time, and some of which probably seem right still, the AP "has been strengthened by customers from outside the newspaper circle. But those new customers have helped foster a competitive climate that has weakened the health of newspapers, which threaten the newsgathering ecosystem that the AP brought into being 163 years ago."

Tom Curley, the AP president, now says: "It was a dumb idea to think that you could pay the rent on the Internet with advertising alone. Free is not a business model. The Internet means unlimited [ad] inventory, competition and a chaotic branding experience. It's a disaster for most companies."

Curley also notes: "If I had tried to suggest this a couple years ago, I'd be hollered out of the room."

Such was the sway of Internet triumphalism, and there are doubtless those who would read this article and say, Good! Death to the AP! Why do we need the AP when the world is full of tweets? Why do we need reporters when everyone can contribute something to the conversation? Corporate journalism should die anyway. The only real journalism is the voice of the people.

Why do we need electricians when anyone with the equivalent of "Electrical Wiring for Dummies" and the ability to tweet, "Hey, I'm about to connect this wire (see picture I just took) to the circuit breaker box, am I doing the right thing?" can find advice, counsel and probably someone who will say, "You moron, you're about to blow up your house." But still, I think we need electricians.

That said, newspapers, I hope, also have learned this lesson that AJR points out, which department stores, in their own hubris, also did not heed:

"Why buy a copy of the New York Times, or bother going to its Web site, when the AP's versions of the same national and international events are available just about everywhere? Who needs the Washington Post's take on politics when the AP's generally comprehensive and thorough reporting suffices?"

Which means, in essence, who needs the Washington Post's take on politics even if there was no Internet?

One of the mistakes department stores made when they lost their own hold on exclusivity and thus on pricing -- as clothing became so cheap to manufacture overseas that any store could offer a competitive selection at a low price, and as the agreements that had kept major brands out of discount stores were ruled illegal -- was to say, well, we are the department store. People have done business with us for years, and they will appreciate our neat, ordered and upscale atmosphere, not having to throw stuff into a shopping cart, being able to talk to a salesperson, the wide selection we offer, bonuses such as gift wrapping and boxes (with our name on them!), and our generous return policies.

And some people did. Others appreciated throwing stuff into a shopping cart, not having to wait for a salesperson, and were glad to do their own wrapping (with cheap boxes), etc. And the "we've been here since 1827" argument impressed few (that's nice, but I'm here today). Whereupon the department stores' business continued to suffer, so they offered fewer salespeople, cheap boxes, poor gift wrapping, etc., etc., as well as cutting back on what they sold, while continuing to go into each new mall because if they didn't, the other department store would be there by itself.

Some of this they either got away with or it didn't matter (no one wanted to buy outdoor TV antennas at department stores) but when you talked to people in the 1980s and 1990s about why they no longer went to department stores, there was one large issue -- undertrained salespeople and not enough of them -- so you had to wander through the store looking for a register that was open (in the 1960s, every department always had an open register) and be willing to be told (before computerization), "I can't take that merchandise, you have to go to him over there..." and then stand in line 10 minutes while a hapless clerk who had started yesterday was asked to exchange three shirts and a belt for two pair of pants and a swimsuit, because the department store had already eliminated its separate exchange desk as well. The department store could have gotten away with a lot, but not by making the customer experience the weak point as it tried to manage its real estate portfolio and credit lines and elevator repairs.

Newspapers also misjudged the number of people who thought that some of the bells and whistles of newspapers offered a major competitive advantage. The chore of reading news on the Web -- the fonts, the wide width, the scrolling -- yes, you can adjust some of this on your computer, but Drudge, for example, has the graphic design of a mid-1990s high school project. Few except the most avid Web users will deny that newspapers are easier to read than Web pages, and newspapers spend huge amounts of money on design, font selection, dot screens and the like, and yet it appears that many people will read anything they are interested in no matter how badly it is presented, as long as it's free.

If you talk to most good reporters, their objective is "to not do the AP story" -- to not simply tell what happened, but to add the poignancy, creative writing, and other coloratura that will distinguish the story and make it theirs. They do so largely to please themselves, but they also believe this will make the experience better for the readers. On such efforts was the old advertising motto of the Los Angeles Times -- "a special kind of journalism" -- founded. Again, the Internet era has not shown that such things don't matter at all. It has shown us that such things matter less, and to a smaller group of readers, than we perhaps thought, because the reader is not us.

The AP has brightened up its writing, but clearly a story saying "Flooding devastated North Dakota yesterday, forcing hundreds from their homes and..." is just fine with a large number of readers. The Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times and Dallas Morning News national bureau stories of the 1990s, gathered at great expense and exclusive to them and their wire clients, and beginning with something like "Jethro Bodine looked sadly at the field behind his house. It should be brimming with wheat, he said, just days away from harvest, as it has been for him and his father and grandfather on these 2,000 acres a few miles from Jamestown, decade after decade. Instead, he said, 'It's all flooded. Ruined. Probably ruined me, too'" were very well done, and some readers loved them; but many others would have been just as happy with "Flooding devastated..."

But large newspapers convinced themselves that this was their competitive advantage. It was, in luring top reporters, winning awards, getting recognition within the journalism community; it just wasn't quite as important as we thought to the general readership, which kept telling us, "I don't have time to read the paper," which we ignored. The readers didn't have 10 minutes to wait in line at Wanamakers, either.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Why Newspapers Need to Charge for Content

"I, and millions like me, are to blame for the rapid demise of ink-on-paper journalism, but I don't care. All I care about is content, and I've got content coming outta my ears."
--- Mark Kiemele of British Columbia, in a letter to Editor & Publisher.

Mr. Kiemele in this letter says he became a journalist in 1968, so, let's say he's 60 to 62. Hardly the youthquake, eh?

Chemainus, where he lives, is on Vancouver Island, about 45 miles north of the capital, Victoria; about 20 miles south of Nanaimo, a smaller city; and a ferry trip across the Strait of Georgia from Vancouver. A decade ago, Mr. Kiemele would have been assumed to be a potential customer of either the Nanaimo Daily News or the Victoria Times-Colonist if he took his local paper, the Vancouver Sun if he took the nearest major metro.

But Mr. Kiemele, who claims he hasn't bought a printed newspaper in years -- to his credit he is a supporter of the Committee of Concerned Journalists -- does not mention any of British Columbia's newspapers. Every day, he notes, he relishes reading his favorite newspaper in the world, the Guardian, along with the New York Times and the Toronto Globe and Mail. The Globe and Mail has long been "Canada's national newspaper," but there probably is not much of a readership for the New York Times, even online, in Chemainus, a former logging town of 5,000 people.

Mr. Kiemele does not mention anything having to do with advertising. He does mention as part of his daily reading the Web sites Crooks & Liars, the Daily Beast, the Drudge Report, and "anything else that catches my eye." The political differences between Crooks & Liars and Drudge being apparent, we can assume that Mr. Kiemele is not an ideologue, although he mentions that when he was a teenager he hoped to work for Ramparts. A look Friday morning at Crooks & Liars showed two ads, one for a fantasy game and the other for BJs. No ads on the Guardian home page; going to a story brought me a Best Buy ad for a photocopier, based on my computer being in the U.S. Better than an ad for Dixons, the UK equivalent of Best Buy; but the mind reels at how little the Guardian is getting from Best Buy for that ad, possibly sold out of some sort of inventory by a third party.

Every penny ads up, we remember three lines-three days-three dollars. But let's be forthright. Though he is a political junkie and an avid reader, Mr. Kiemele is not a customer of the newspaper business. He is quite happy to read lots of news and comment free -- to be correct, for the monthly cost of his ISP connection, from which the Globe and Mail etc. get zero -- some from newspapers and some not, with the content somewhat interchangeable as the mood strikes him; but he engages in no financial transaction with any newspaper, or any other kind unless he happens to post a comment. Nor does he seem particularly interested, from what we can tell, in paying any particular attention to anyone who might do so, i.e., an advertiser, particularly the local ones upon whom newspapers depend. (If that is not the case, glad to hear from him.)

The journalism of the New York Times and the Guardian are reaching Mr. Kiemele and he is part of that "more people than ever see our journalism" news-release copy newspapers like to trumpet; but he is not a customer of theirs or, apparently, of the newspapers on Vancouver Island, though Canadian newspapers are doing much better than ones in the U.S. at keeping up their print circulations. He has content coming out of his ears, much of it prepared for him at great expense and given to him for nothing, either in the hope that someone will pay the freight somehow someday, or by people whose desire to make their views known is more important than how much, if anything, they get paid for it.

(Sure is nice of the Guardian to give all that stuff free, but if they want money, y'know, maybe the Melbourne Age might look kind of interesting.) The Guardian is his favorite newspaper in the world, but at this point not a single thing in it is actually worth paying for. Or maybe it is -- but since no one is making him pay, how do we know? As Mr. Kiemele notes, it is not his responsibility that people like him are destroying the businesses of the newspapers he so loves to read. It's their responsibility.

And for this business model, we should, as Martin Langeveld said in a follow to a column that he probably wishes had not included "print is still king" -- a phrase that did obscure his point to some (thankfully not to "TTPB") -- for this we should essentially junk nearly everything we now do, to throw off the last shackles of the print mentality and become completely digital operations with no charge for content.

As a commenter to that post noted:

"Nice ideas and all, but you still don’t demonstrate how newspapers will make money! A minor point. "

To be fair, Martin responded:

"The whole point of gaining online news market share is to grow revenue. I’ve discussed in previous posts that there can be a return to reasonable (but not monopolistic) profitability essentially by shrinking the business to an online-first operation with fewer print editions (one or two in metro markets is what I would expect). This sheds a lot of expense while keeping a large percentage of the remaining print ad business."

I.e. the Detroit model on steroids, and if the Detroit model turns out to be the answer, fine -- although my suspicion is the Detroit model sheds a lot of expense, keeps a large percentage of the remaining print ad business, and does little to grow online revenue. But I wait to be proved wrong.

In the end, the main problem for the daily newspaper business is not whether Mr. Kiemele on Vancouver Island contributes to the bottom line of the Guardian. The Guardian could lose Mr. Kiemele's attention and never really care. The problem for the daily newspaper business is that Mr. Kiemele apparently contributes nothing to the bottom line of the Nanaimo Daily News or the Victoria Times-Colonist, whose advertisers, whether in print or online, are very interested in selling to a local audience such as him.

That, of course, is not the problem of journalism, journalists would say. Journalism has always had an uneasy relationship with being paid. Most of us want to be rewarded for our effort, but I still remember my college professor Earl Conn saying he would write free for a byline and we should too. Reporters traditionally are underpaid not just because newspapers were cheap-ass; there was always someone willing to fill the space for less, and the primary job of a newspaper was to fill the space next to the ads with -- something.

The Internet has shown what anyone who ran a small-town section has learned. The problem is not finding people who are willing to write something for nothing or next to nothing, or finding readers who will read what that person wrote. What you pay for is the ability to select who will write, about things they might not want to write about, at a time when they might not want to do it, and do it dependably. But if you just needed to fill pages 8 and 9 of Neighbors, a couple of ministers and the garden club and historical society presidents were happy to write 20 inches on some sort of schedule, and you could fill with Pet of the Week if they blew you off.

Mark Kiemele of Chemainus, B.C., is happy to look at whatever we wish to offer him free about what we used to call "national and international affairs." The merchants of Vancouver Island might want to talk to him through the local media, but he seems to give them a deaf ear. (Perhaps there is a local Web site he does not mention. Perhaps he gets a local shopper or orders everything online. Perhaps he has been going to the same local stores for 30 years and is set in his ways. Perhaps he has a wife who reads the Victoria Times-Colonist. In many cases, the wife has kept the newspaper while the husband spends the day going from Web site to Web site.) The advertisers in the New York Times and the Guardian may pay for hits, but is he the target audience of anyone other than the local papers?

The number of online grazers like Mr. Kiemele that the Guardian has to have to make a go of its business -- even a business without trucks and paper -- is probably going to fall short of the Guardian's expenses, because the Guardian is still going to archaically think it needs to employ professional journalists and advertising salespeople, whereas Crooks & Liars just has to pay some of John Amato's bills -- and Mark is happy to read both at exactly the same financial return to their creators, and someone is willing to sell excess ad inventory for about the same rate as well.

The Guardian still wants to publish a newspaper, online or in print or whatever; John Amato uses Crooks & Liars to tell you what he thinks, like the minister on Page 8 of Neighbors. But John Amato and the minister are not in the same business as newspapers. For a newspaper to compete with a blog economically, it has to have close to the same cost structure as a blog. In which case, it ceases to be a newspaper. To many online-journalism fans, of course, there is no problem with this; it's not just print in which they find newspapers outmoded. ("Why would I go to a newspaper for comics/weather/lotteries/ads/movie reviews/gossip/etc./etc./etc. when I can find them all at different sites online?") Newspaper owners, of course, would take a different view, as would all the retrograde fuddy-duddies of whatever age who find the newspaper's tactic of organizing the world into a coherent package still useful.

The newspaper business, like Walmart, has to devote itself to serving the customers it has and can get whom it can make a profit serving, and not worry about the rest. If you give people free anything, most will take it. If you charge for it, some will pay and some will go somewhere else, and the first group of people are your customers. If you see your customer as someone who says, "I want everything you can give me and I don't want ever to pay a cent for it," you had better have a lot of sugar daddies. If you don't, you are the U.S. newspaper business in 2009, having believed in Internet utopia far too long.

So newspapers need to find their customers among people who say, what you are doing matters enough to me that I am willing to enter into some sort of business transaction with you. I am willing to pay you something for your content because it is important to me. I have some level of commitment to your products and thus am going to dependably spend time with them and value them, which will make me a more interesting person to your advertisers. I am not just a grazer saying "gimme and if you don't gimme I'll just read something else." I am your customer. (And yes, they're not going to pay just for commodity news headlines. But they never did. Only journalists think that way.)

It doesn't matter how I do business with you, whether I deliver a paper to your doorstep seven days a week or simply publish an online resource. As long as I want to run a media business that has a higher cost structure than a blog or a shopper -- and most newspaper companies want to do something other than put out a blog or a shopper, they want to actually have capable and qualified reporters and editors and photographers covering the news, and in numbers substantial for the area -- I have to have a business that supports it.

And thus, yes, newspapers need to start charging for their content online, even though that means they will lose some, perhaps many, of their current online readers, even though disaster will be predicted, even though everything in a newspaper's DNA -- we had thousands of readers and now we have millions of hits! -- says that what we really like to sell are big, undifferentiated numbers, and even though it is a lousy time to do it.

The business model of most newspapers need not be about print, although a newspaper company's distinguishing mark still is producing and distributing printed advertising; print, online, whatever, it is about establishing committed relationships with regular customers, and someone else pays for access to them, and from all this revenue the newspaper keeps itself in business. There are many other journalistic efforts, there are freesheets, there are blogs, but we are talking about the business of the traditional newspaper company here.

Now, a journalist might not care how his journalism is distributed and might be happy making just enough money to get by from a City Hall Watchdog site with a core group of 500 readers and a sense that he is affecting public policy. But we journalists are not going to save the newspaper business' business. Journalists might love Mr. Kiemele because he is a news junkie; 21st century journalism mavens might say he is the new normal and we must adapt ourselves to him. So the typical newspaper does have to figure out if it can make money from him as well as from the great mass of people who are not like him.

But if the newspaper in the end can't make money from Mr. Kiemele, or only makes a pittance while undercutting itself in myriad other ways (such as never making enough from serving him free to make up what it could make by charging people who are willing to be charged), it has to be willing to say goodbye to him and devote itself to serving the others. As the great Juan Giner says in April's Presstime, a newspaper can no longer be for everybody, or it will end up being a newspaper for nobody.

Perhaps Mr. Kiemele would not ever pay the Guardian a cent for its content; but perhaps he would, and having done so, human nature being what it is, he probably would spend more time with it to justify his investment, and the Guardian could say that he values its content enough to pay for it, and his value to some subset of the newspaper's advertisers (British Air, perhaps) will have increased even though he lives far from London and Manchester. As long as newspapers are too scared of looking antediluvian to be willing to lose their grazers (who will howl online when the teat is cut off, of course) and find out, we will never know. Yes, they will graze elsewhere. Then it will be someone else's problem to figure out how to stay in business serving them. Not every business works really well online. Amazon works really well online; Barnes & Noble, much less so. A decade ago, Barnes & Noble was being advised that it should close all its stores and become an exclusively online business, because brick-and-mortar stores were dead. The end may yet come for Barnes & Noble, but bricks and mortar are far from dead. Not everyone lives most of life online, just the people who write about how people live most of life online.

Our journalism now has millions of readers. Terrific. Journalism needs readers, but newspapers mainly need to have customers. Without them, "our" journalism -- not journalism in some form, but "our" journalism, the journalism we in newspapers believe in -- will probably disappear. The only reason to let this happen is if newspapers truly believe that their journalism is no longer worth doing.


Note: Written last week, before Romenesko posted Mark Potts saying "Print consumers plunk down their quarters for the package, not the story, notes Mark Potts. 'News collected in a convenient, easy-to-use form that adds value. So maybe we need to figure out how to replicate those traditional collections of news by creating compelling online packages that people will want to pay for.'" And before he posted John Temple saying "'Costco charges a membership fee before customers can take advantage of the great values it offers,' and users pay it once they see the benefits, writes ex-Rocky editor John Temple. 'Instead of offering a range of benefits to their users, newspapers are still selling subscriptions to their print products rather than membership in an information company that can help people do everything from save money on groceries to pick the best school for their child to report road conditions in real time.'"

The era of Internet utopianism -- that the Web would create a medium for journalism in which the question of "How is this paid for" would be answered by, "When we have made the transition, it will all be taken care of" -- is over. There's no pot of gold, so it's back to business, boys and girls. Whether those paid memberships or prices will include "and as part of your membership price you get the printed Republican-Democrat," a la the Wall Street Journal, remains to be seen; I hope it does, but that's not the point. The customer has made it clear: If you want to be stupid and lose millions to give me free content, that's fine with me. If I have to pay, I might decide I only want free content -- but I might not, either. Let's find out.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Mysterious Deaths, Part II

This month, Gannett announced it would make major changes to what anyone who worked in southeast lower Michigan journalism knows as the O&E. What were once the heart of the chain, the Birmingham Eccentric and its West Bloomfield edition, are being closed -- in fact, anything with the moniker "Eccentric" will disappear. The footprint of the Observer papers, which I think began as a chain in Livonia -- it might have been Farmington -- and were merged with the Eccentrics when Phil Power owned the group, will continue to be supported. This was western Wayne and the South Oakland suburbs -- Southfield, Pleasant Ridge, Berkeley. But the Eccentric heartland -- oh-so-upscale Birmingham and Bloomfield, along with less-hoity but still well off Rochester and Troy -- will be abandoned, according to this story by the Detroit News, which should know, as it also is owned by Gannett. No papers, no Web site, nada.

This twice-a-week operation was once a gold mine. Coming on the heels of the end of the Ann Arbor News, the end of 7-day home delivery in Detroit, the end of 7-day publication up I-75, it says once again that recovery for Detroit is years away, if ever. One can spin the Ann Arbor News closure as a proper response to a young, hypereducated, hyperhyperlinked town. One can't spin that for Flint, Saginaw or Bay City, and the spin on Detroit is creaky. All one can do is pull out empty pockets in the manner of the Monopoly card. And unless Birmingham and Bloomfield have changed into Seattle overnight, one couldn't say it about them either -- which is probably why there was no "we're going to be making the Eccentric into" or something. Just goodbye, unless I'm totally missing something in this story as well as Editor & Publisher's.

I went to Topix and looked for local news about Birmingham, Mich., assuming that since I lived there, some other competitor had come into the market and cleaned the Eccentric clock. But the stories there were from something called Hometown, which turned out to be the soon-to-be-abandoned Web site of the Birmingham Eccentric. I googled "local news Birmingham MI" and didn't find anything relevant at the top of the list either. So much for a local online news site devastating these papers. Or maybe everyone in Birmingham tweets each other all the local news.

Now, I've heard anecdotally that Birmingham is no longer the destination it once was in Detroit terms -- the young and trendy go to Royal Oak, and the closure of Jacobson's had to hurt badly. (One of the things that made Michigan a special place to live in the 1970s was Jacobson's, a department store chain that was once equal parts Penney's, Lord & Taylor, and Lily Pulitzer. Its answer to the Michigan Malaise of the 1980s was to throw out the Penney's element and try to become a national upscale chain. That didn't work.) And the O&E is a union shop, although something nags at the back of my brain that says there was some sort of distinction between Observer people and Eccentric people. But that may be completely off base.

One main reason the Birmingham Eccentric in the 1970s and 1980s was such a gold mine -- and had journalistic talent and standards comparable to any midsize daily newspaper, including a real copy desk -- was real estate advertising. Page after page of real estate ads, not the crabbed little print of the typical daily but large photo displays for each trophy property. Birmingham and Bloomfield are, with Grosse Pointe, the home of Detroit's elite -- Bloomfield having some reputation as where you lived if you were a GM executive. The market for executive homes in Detroit is probably not going to be good for many years to come (although perhaps some Fiat executives will be looking), so union pay levels are probably unsupportable. (Goodbye Turin, hello Detroit -- I wonder how many euros as a bonus that move would have to entail.)

But still. People read print newspapers in Pittsburgh, in Milwaukee, in Rochester -- like Detroit, not cutting-edge markets for the young, hip and wired. (People of every age read them everywhere, but let's just not get into that one today.) So Detroit is becoming Ground Zero for newspaper reinvention not because the market is demanding it, but apparently because there simply is no advertising market. For those of us who can remember B. Siegel, Himelhoch's, Winkelman's, Tuttle & Clark, Grinnell Bros., the Good Housekeeping Shops, Hughes Hatcher Suffrin, Louis the Hatter, Adler-Schnee and Annis Furs, let alone Hudson's, Crowley's and Federal's, it's too sad. Any rate, if anyone has more concrete information about the Eccentric's end, please add to this.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Where It's Not At

This month I was on a panel at Temple University on finding journalism jobs. The moderator started things by asking where the students got their news -- well, actually he said something like, "You get your news online, don't you?" No student is going to contest that, given that introduction. But where did they get their news? CNN. MSNBC. BBC. New York Times.

Not sources that provide a lot of news about Temple University or Philadelphia. But then, "news" means the front pages of the New York Times until proven otherwise. Somali pirates, presidential dogs, economic crises. Robert Picard, in his perceptive looks at the actual economic situation of the news business, would be willing to pay for this sort of news, but decries what is actually offered. I can just imagine what those Temple students, let alone Picard, will do with this story on today's front page of my county daily. "Potato Yields Image of Cross" may not make it to the BBC. Most longtime journalists would tell you that this story of God's apparently placing a sign inside a potato to restore a beleaguered woman's faith will be the best-read thing in today's paper. Will it? If the paper had a most-read or most-e-mailed ... but even then, do we know if it was the most-read thing in the paper, which has a different readership than the paper online? What I do know is that most journalists would find this story probably one step away from the NBC ad on the front of the Los Angeles Times. Both assault their dignity.

I don't think I can gracefully segue from that to Martin Langeveld's analysis of online newspaper readership, so I won't. Langeveld is a sober-minded proponent of online journalism; he sees a future and pronounces it good, but not heavenly. I'm not sure I follow every bit of his analysis or agree with it down to the last jot and tittle, but the headline -- "Print is still king: Only 3 percent of newspaper reading happens online" -- tucks in nicely with the recent U.S. and Canadian statistics, quoted here earlier, showing that the online-only audience for newspapers was about 4 percent in each nation (2 percent in Australia), with an additional percentage of, oh, 10 to 20 percent, depending on the market, who read the print paper and also used the online version of it -- for updates, for e-mailing stories, for reading at work stories they didn't have time to read at home, whatever.

Langeveld's analysis does not turn him back to print as the answer, of course; he's been calling for an online-led news operation with a print product 2 or 3 days a week, and one analysis is not going to change his mind. And he makes a case for why he should not -- given the changes in advertising, as he sadly notes, "Not only is online revenue alone insufficient to sustain news operations, but the print operations of our larger newspapers, having lost most monopoly pricing power, are not sustainable either, recession or no recession."

(By the way -- another graceless segue here -- Langeveld, in a response to postings, says: "I’ll continue to disagree with those who say in effect, 'I don’t see any newspapers being read by two or more people, therefore it doesn’t happen.'" His conclusion is based on Scarborough data and points out a vital difference between print and online readership, one that any editor who has re-sectionalized the paper in recent months knows well and one that shows the "the world is me" myopia that afflicts many people online. Online readership is one person at the computer. Much of print readership is the husband and wife, or other domestic partners, sharing the paper. So, yes, in many cases two people read each copy of the paper. They live together. Two people rarely read a Web page together. Go back to your oar, solitary man.)

But now we do segue back to Picard, who, in discussing Twitter, notes: "Journalists and technology writers are enamored with communications technology and tend to portray successful technologies as representing large-scale trends. We are regularly presented with news stories and promotional materials about the rise of new technologies and about how their uses create social trends that are significantly altering society. ... The impression given by coverage is that anyone who doesn’t have an iPhone or Blackberry and anyone who doesn’t Twitter is out of touch with the mainstream and being left out of modern society. ... iPhones represents about 1 percent of mobile phone users. The number of Twitter users is currently around 1 million, representing only about 3 tenths of 1 percent of the US population." (That number may now be higher as Twitter has its CB Radio moment.)

This is 2009. Comparing online to TV is probably a fool's game, but I'm a fool. TV first started really emerging in 1946. (Think of this as newspapers trying to use channels on America Online.) My home town, one of America's 25 largest cities at the time, got television in 1949. (Nando Times and Hot Cocoa.) Uncle Miltie premiered in 1948; to quote Wikipedia, "the number of TV sets sold during Berle's run on the show was said to have grown from 500,000 his first year on the tube to over 30 million when the show ended in 1956." (Oh, the middle of this is, what, Real Cities?) In terms of comparing the growth of online and TV, this is the 1959-60 season; the peacock is blooming, "Bonanza" has just come on, and kinescopes are no longer being used, though you still see them sometimes to fill time at 3 in the afternoon. Television is far, far, far from what it will become, there are three networks, no PBS, no HBO, but it is no longer a baby either. People have fully incorporated it in their lives, except in rural areas where you can't get a signal (and even then, cable is coming, having been created in 1948 in Mahanoy City, Pa.).

So here in 2009, in the online equivalent of the 1959-60 TV season (other debuts are "77 Sunset Strip," "The Donna Reed Show" and "Naked City," so we're moving out of the Paddy Chayefsky Golden Age and into the era of the three-network mass-programming model that prevailed for decades), online is arguably 3 percent of newspapers' total readership, about 4 percent of people in a week use a newspaper site online only, and in a month, the typical online user in the U.S. views 2,405 Web pages, and 166 million people, or, what, half the population of the U.S., is listed as in the "active digital medla universe."

The point is not that some plateau has been reached; comparing 3-network TV in 1960 with 400-channel TV in 2009 shows what can happen. But digital is not a startup medium with crystal sets. People have incorporated it into their lives. And the future in which U.S. newspapers were going to simply move their pre-digital reach, influence, readership and advertising online hasn't happened and isn't going to happen, now or ever. That ship has sailed, and we are in steerage, if not simply packed in the hold. Newspapers (at least the 1,300 of them that are not the New York Times or USA Today) will be a small and not particularly dynamic niche in the online universe, and when students are asked where they go to get "news," they will probably say CNN or MSNBC.

So to close, read this story by Nicholas Carlson in "Silicon Valley Insider," called "Maybe Newspapers Don't Belong Online." Carlson makes a point made here earlier -- that whatever journalists' core competency may be, "manufacturing newspapers is the newspaper companies' core competency; solving the online advertising problem is not."

And he goes back to that famous Ur-text-f0r-all-innovators, "Marketing Myopia":

"The conventional wisdom is that all media companies need to figure out how to take their business model and transform it to the web – Almost all of them have heeded the late Harvard Professor Theodore Levitt’s famous lesson of what killed the railroads: 'They thought they were in the railroad business, not the transportation business.' But after ten years of following Levitt’s advice, it’s not at all clear that the traditional media model works on the web.
There is also the possibility that the web will not be a place where content will create sources to be viable on the web. value. In fact, there’s just one unfortunate thing about Levitt’s compelling mantra about railroads and the transportation business.

"It’s wrong.

"Transportation may have been a wonderful business on rails and sea, but it has proven a dreadful business in the air. Even today, the market cap of Burlington Northern is $22 Billion; the market cap of Carnival Cruise is $14 Billion while the market cap of American Airlines is less than $1.5 Billion. The railroads may have done many things wrong, but avoiding the airline business was not one of them."

How and where can we make money?
Where is the best use of our resources?
Where are readers and advertisers willing to pay us for being there?
How do we sustain ventures that actually make money?
How do we determine where we are throwing good money after bad?
How do we focus on reality instead of overoptimising the future, while still not closing our eyes to opportunities?

These are not just the questions for newspapers. These are the questions for journalists, whether their aim is to revive their print newspapers or create successful online news sites or seek foundation support.

But we need to say that asking the question "how can we support and revitalize printed newspapers" does not simply brand you as a retrograde caveman but is in 2009 perhaps the most important question. It is not the only question. The 4 percent has its future and its own opportunities as well, but in 1959-60, "Stereo Action Unlimited" with totally separated left and right tracks was the next great thing. Some will always want the next thing and some will want to read about crosses in potatoes. Let's do something that works.

(Addendum: The always-on-point Alan Mutter notes here that newspapers' Web revenue is continuing to crater just like print. He might say that the most important question is, how can publishers come up with creative online sites that will draw ad revenue, given the secular trends against print ads? The challenge, he notes, "is for them to develop web and mobile venues that are less like newspapers and more like the interactive, viral and fun environments operated by their competitors." My own feeling is that newspaper companies, by their nature, have trouble with "viral" and are genetically predisposed against "fun," and that this might be a harder task than figuring out how to reposition print. But we would both agree, I think, that the idea of "publishing our newspapers on the Web" as the gate to the promised land is over and that the revival of the newspaper business depends on everyone recognizing this.)

Monday, April 13, 2009

Retailing and Media

If you're reading this today, take a few moments and put some money in Gannett's pocket. Buy a copy of USA Today and go to the Money section. (If it's not April 13, here's the link. But this story is easier to comprehend on Pages 1 and 3 of Money than it will be online, I wager.)

The story is about how rumors of retailers' impending demise affects whether that demise occurs. Is there a smoking gun? No. What this story makes clear is the complex way in which information plays with reality. Substitute "newspapers" for "retailers," of course, and it's the same story; but that's a point of this blog.

The story and its sidebar makes the same point that Jon Stewart took Jim Cramer to the woodshed about -- is what you're saying about Firm X based simply on an analysis of its business, debt, competition and management, or is it affected by how you yourself will make money by cratering or hyping certain companies? In other words, is anyone who trades in stocks for any substantial part of their income able to be an independent analyst, or is he or she always positing the comments with an eye on following up himself with "Buy" and "Sell"?

As the article notes, one analyst has been predicting the closure of Sears and Kmart basically every year since 2002. But as the article notes: "Moody's downgraded Sears to Ba2 on March 23, but even that lower rating implies just a 2.5% chance it would default on its loans in a year. And even in the challenging fiscal year ended in January, the company generated free cash flow, which factors in the costs to upgrade facilities, of nearly $500 million." I guess, though, every year he says it, he has an increasing chance of getting it right sometimes.

But are all these pundits just stock manipulators? I suspect that they're just as much quote hounds, addicted to seeing their own genius in public. If I were working for the Dacron Republican-Democrat, I might call the professor of retailing at Dacron State College and ask him what he thinks about Sears. But he might be on sabbatical. Or he might say, I really haven't studied that. Or he might give some totally nonunderstandable quote. Or he might say something that sounds really good, except that he is just making it up and has never studied Sears at all. And I just wasted a half-hour. Better, for my story, to call someone who has a reputation and who I know will give me three pithy sentences or 20 terse seconds with a strong, clearly expressed opinion. As the story says, "Journalists seeking to balance often-glowing comments from companies or the consultants who work for them often turn to some of the more dependable retail contrarians, who can now point to data like the soaring unemployment rate or store liquidations they predicted as evidence of expertise."

But everyone's got a dog in this fight, except, probably for the professor at Dacron State College. (And even he may be looking for a grant, or may be using his press clips to support his bid for tenure; and the P.R. department at the college certainly has its dog.)

The problem, again, comes from the nature of "the story" -- someone says yes, we have to find someone saying no so that we can show we're not pushovers or are going to have egg on our face when Brown Trask & Thompson closes tomorrow after all. But here's the problem with "the story." Let's say Circuit City was still in business, and came out with a rosy press release. Who best would be able to say, ah, they're full of it? Probably Best Buy, which doubtless knew everything Circuit City was doing. ("Despite Circuit City's statements, our share of the business has risen at twice the rate of theirs and customer surveys...") As USA Today notes, a company like Best Buy will say no such thing, for a host of legal and competitive reasons. A credit-rating agency can speak to the financial situation, but not to the zeitgeist. Realtors are not going to tell you who has or has not paid the rent. Interviews with customers are anecdotal. Who then do we turn to to put Circuit City's shout-out into perspective? Someone who says, my job is to study the retail industry and to tell you what these companies are trying to hide. Ah, get that reportorial blood flowing! The real truth!

But why is he going to tell you that? What's his game? Whoops, don't really care, got my quote and now I can turn in my story. If Brown Trask recovers, I got it right by quoting them. If Brown Trask closes next week, I'm covered as well. But is my source covering what happens to Brown Trask's business -- or is his only real interest what happens to Brown Trask's stock, which is a very different matter?

Nearly anyone who covers Pennsylvania politics has to turn to G. Terry Madonna. He is the source -- because of the polls he runs, the conversations he has, his immersion in the topic. I've never dealt with Terry personally, but I've been editing stories quoting him for more than a decade. Is he a quote hound? Absolutely. Does he call back any reporter, anytime, with comments that can be easily inserted into a story? Absolutely. Does he make his living off politics? Certainly. But there seems to be nearly universal acknowledgment that his analyses are not biased toward one party or the other, or that he benefits from either side's winning. His dog in the fight is simply that there will be a dogfight anyway and he wants to tell you about the dogs so that he can get more money to study them, because he really loves the dogfight. (I typed in "Terry Madonna biased" in Google; the first story says he is a Democratic minion, the second accuses him of being anti-Obama.)

Such grease makes the wheels of journalism run. USA Today is pointing out that we sometimes are not sufficiently skeptical about who our sources are and what their long-term aims are -- which is a lesson for newspapers reporting on the malaise of newspapers as well. That person saying "print is dead" may in fact be a totally unbiased source who has studied the matter and has conclusive proof. Or it may be someone selling his services to help publishers maximize Web profits. Or it may just be someone who has fallen in love with seeing his own name in print when he shouts. Maybe it would be better to just say "Circuit City said its sales..." and let it go at that and not try to find "the other side." Because for every side we find, there's always another we don't.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Follow the Numbers

The current travail of the Boston Globe got me wondering: The big regional metros that are the most threatened in this environment from the loss of classified advertising -- we talk about them as if we know exactly what is happening to their sales. For example, anyone discussing Boston will comment on its being a younger and more wired market than most, which is true, and say, thus, the Globe hurts.

But where exactly does the Globe sell and to whom? If the analysis is correct, the Globe should be falling through the floor in Suffolk and Middlesex Counties, which include Boston and Cambridge -- but, of course, those also include places such as Framingham and Revere. Perhaps it would be doing better in Norfolk and Essex, which include the more traditional suburbs of the North Shore and Brookline. Or perhaps not. Perhaps everyone in blue-collar South Boston still reads it and no one in upscale Newton does. I have no idea.

But I suspect almost no one writing pieces about whether the Globe should die does either. What they know is whether they and their friends read it, or whether they think anyone should read a print newspaper ever -- or whether everyone who now reads the Globe should simply read the Times, because, of course, the debate over online news always ends up being in part a debate about whether "news" is the same as "the A section of the New York Times."

Obviously people at the Globe know where their readers were and are. They can break it down by zip code.

What I can do is tell you where the Globe's circulation was in 1991, because among the things I have kept is a book with the 1991 circulation of every newspaper broken down by county.

First off, some comparison. A typical monopoly daily newspaper in 1991 was delivering to about 50 percent or more of the households in its home county. Columbus 51 percent, Cleveland 57, Peoria 54, Wichita 52, New Orleans 50, St. Louis 46, Portland 48. (In 1991 there were still a lot of morning-evening combos, so it's hard to find direct comparisons.) So by this time we were already far past the golden era when 70 or 80 percent of households took a daily newspaper. Newsday was hitting 55 percent of Long Island, so with the metros it may still have been true there. Of course, Newsday had this problem with reporting circulation.

In 1991, the Globe's daily circulation in its metro area broke down into two tiers. In Suffolk, Norfolk and Middlesex Counties -- the inner Boston area -- the Globe was listed as going to one out of three households. Obviously this includes home delivery and street sale, deliveries to offices and libraries, whatever, and particularly in a commuter city such as Boston includes papers sold downtown to people coming in from elsewhere, so the number is approximate. But it's probably largely accurate.

In the next ring of suburbs -- Essex and Plymouth Counties, or the North Shore and the far South Shore -- the Globe was doing 17 to 20 percent. It was doing the same level in Cape Cod and the islands, but you only had to sell 500 papers on Nantucket to get that level so this was not a big deal. The only other area where the Globe had any real strength was central and southern New Hampshire, where it got far suburbanites and people who did not want to read the Manchester Union Leader. I don't know Boston that well, but I expect that most of the urban-sprawl new housing that was being built was in Plymouth County and New Hampshire.

At this point, about 80 percent of the Globe's daily circulation was in metro Boston. On Sunday, each county figure went up by about two-thirds, except in Boston's county itself; in Norfolk, the Globe's best county on Sunday, the Sunday paper went to 51 percent of households. Because few people commute on Sunday, this probably is an accurate figure.

The other 20 percent of the daily circulation was in Cape Cod, the islands, Hampshire County -- UMass, Amherst, etc. -- and New Hampshire, plus marginal copies as far away as Maine and Connecticut. The Sunday Globe did better, of course, but mainly in New Hampshire and a number of readers in Vermont -- perhaps a lot of weekend homes. The Globe may have seen itself as the newspaper of New England, but it was essentially the newspaper of eastern Massachusetts and liberals in New Hampshire.

Within this area, of course, it was not only competing with the Herald, but with myriad small dailies, in Lynn and Waltham and Framingham and Quincy and Nashua and on and on, as well as weeklies. Essex County at that time had seven daily newspapers. The Globe couldn't sell local news as its main draw in such a market. It had to sell the A section, politics, features, the Sox -- and, of course, a lot of Help Wanted ads. The sort of stuff that everyone, not just newspapers, now offers free online, but that you weren't going to get much of from the Gloucester Daily Times.

Now, where has this circulation fallen off the most? In Suffolk, perhaps, where Boston is full of singles and DINKs? In Cambridge? (Middlesex County is incredibly diverse, from Harvard to old factory towns to 1950s suburbs.) New Hampshire? Has the falloff been even across the board? I have no idea, and thus no theories. But I think it would be useful to know. For example, if we were to find that household penetration in Suffolk and Norfolk was not that much different, it might mean one thing. If we were to find that sales in Suffolk were off by 50 percent but most of that was street sales in downtown Boston, it might mean something else. If we found that the collapse has been strongest or weakest in New Hampshire it might mean something else. If it simply happened across the board everywhere, something else again.

But I remember some conversation at my paper about insert advertisers not wanting to do business with you unless your county penetration was some figure -- 28 percent, 30, 33, I don't remember exactly but it was around there. By this standpoint, the daily Globe was already becoming marginal to such advertisers. In 1991 it deliverered 34 percent of its home county. The Globe probably was publishing a profitable weekly with a six-day come-on offer. That may also have been the case in Charlotte or Wichita, but the business model was not as tenuous. But as long as that Sunday Globe was the main pipeline for classified advertising to 51 percent of largely upscale Norfolk County, they could charge whatever ad rates they wanted and staff accordingly.

Just out of curiosity I looked up another troubled paper, the San Francisco Chronicle. At this point it was still in a JOA with the Examiner, but by that point the Examiner was not a factor outside of the city of San Francisco. Even with that, the Chron had 40 percent penetration in San Francisco County, which is the same as San Francisco City. The same sort of pattern as for the Globe followed -- penetration in the 30s in the closest suburban counties, Marin and San Mateo; in the high teens in Alameda, Contra Costa and Solano, which are Oakland, Berkeley, Vallejo and lots and lots of new suburbs. By the time one got to San Jose, or Napa, the Chron was down to 6 percent of the market. (That's right, the Chron in 1991 was read by almost no one in San Jose, which is, what, 40 miles away? The Merc hit 45 percent.) But on Sunday they had 51 percent of Marin County. Talkin' 'bout Mill Valley, that's my home....

But metro area circulation accounted for only 57 percent of the Chron's figures. The paper was huge throughout northern California, getting a significant number of households almost all the way to Oregon and as far away as Carson City, Nev. By "significant" I mean "about the same number, or more, as it was getting in San Jose." So in discussing the ills of the Chron, I would want to know -- does no one read it in print in the city of San Francisco anymore? Or do they? Is it still read in Marin and San Mateo, which include the older upscale suburbs such as Sausalito and Burlingame? Or has the falloff been in Butte and Mariposa and Shasta and Siskiyou counties? Or, on the other hand, do the residents of those more traditional areas still love their Chron (and they are the main audience it has left)? Or has the Chron simply stopped trucking papers all the way to Nevada?

It's not that figures provide all the answers. But in these convoluted and diverse metro markets, it would be nice to know where the problems really are -- as opposed to anecdotes from people who are too cool to read newspapers.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Department Store Building of the Week, Vol. 28

The Bon-Ton is still an active department store chain today and is still run by the Grumbacher family. The store began in Trenton, N.J., under its longtime corporate name, S. Grumbacher & Son. The son -- Max -- quickly relocated to York, Pa. (there was some connection between Trenton and York, as the Hydeman family owned Yard's in Trenton and Wiest's in York). Max named his store "The Bon Ton," which means both "the smart thing to do" and "the social elite." This was actually the name Louis Samler was already using for his store in Lebanon, Pa., but no matter. Research!

The Bon Ton initially expanded in the 19teens, but those branch stores either closed or were sold to their managers -- the longest-lived lasted in Hazleton, Pa., into the 1960s. Thereafter the Grumbacher empire consisted of the York store and Eyerly's in Hagerstown, Md., until in the late 1940s Max Grumbacher, Jr., started looking for new opportunities. There was no strong local department store in Hanover, a city in the same county known for its shoes; all the stores that had been there had closed. Grumbacher came into the market, but he didn't use a former department store building, he went in at a new site right at the heart of Center Square. This success led to a Eyerly's in downtown Chambersburg, Pa., and a Bon Ton in downtown Carlisle, Pa., in the 1960s, as well as the purchase of the McMeen store in Lewistown, Pa. And then came the mall boom, and Bon Tons started opening up across Pennsylvania, Maryland and beyond. But this store was the first in the Bon Ton's second wave of expansion.

Hanover offers a clear link between department stores and newspapers. Until the Depression, one of its leading stores was J.W. Gitt Co., founded before the Civil War by Josiah W. Gitt. The Battle of Gettysburg was not kind to him, but he prospered and sold his business to his sons. His grandson, also Josiah W., went into the newspaper business. Although he always lived in Hanover, he published the York Gazette & Daily, which during the McCarthy era became known as possibly the most left-wing daily in the country short of the Daily Worker.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Tomorrow. Not Today.

Presstime convened a panel of 10 leaders in examining the prospects of the newspaper business and asked them: How would you reinvent the print newspaper? This is truly a blue-ribbon panel: Mario Garcia, Ken Doctor, Charlotte Hall, Juan Antonio Giner, Alan Jacobson, Tim McGuire, Alan Mutter, Ken Paulson, Howard Weaver, Ted Leonsis.

It does leave out the "there's really no print future" types -- Mindy McAdams, Jeff Jarvis, etc. -- and yes, there's only one woman there; McAdams aside, that pretty much reflects the state of blogging about the future of the newspaper business, though it certainly does not reflect the present of the newspaper business. Sandy Rowe, anyone? Geneva Overholser? Is argumentative blogging simply the online version of guys sitting around the cracker barrel saying, "Now what I think is" -- or of "Pardon the Interruption" -- while the women are less interested in beating their chests? He asked, being a he.

Although the returns are not in from the Detroit Experiment, the advance reviews were not particularly good. Mutter: "Publishers should make every effort to sustain the continuity of their publication cycles, because disruptions will anger and disorient loyal readers and send a not-so-subliminal message to advertisers that it really isn’t important to be in the newspaper on a regular basis." McGuire: "Printing some days may be a viable answer, but it’s happening for all the wrong reasons. More newspapers ought to be asking where are the holes in my media market, and how can I fill them? And they should be asking if we make certain moves in this market like publishing three times a week, what are the counter moves I can expect? I am going to be stunned if a competitor does not put a Sunday-Monday sports product into Detroit." Doctor: "Dropping days altogether saves significant costs in the short run but accelerates the transition to digital—and we know there’s far less money in digital publishing at this point.... Cutting back the core product doesn’t strengthen it. It may be a necessary evil, but pitching a less-is-more approach to readers won’t fool them."

But then, asked to look at the nearly immediate future, the response seems to be contradictory. Garcia: "In some communities, the core printed product will not be around in two, five or 10 years." Jacobson: "In less than a year, there will be very few seven-day-a-week newspapers. ... In less than 10 years, no newspapers will be printed."

OK, Garcia and Jacobson are not Mutter, McGuire and Doctor. (Doctor, for his part, does envision a daily print product of the future. And it should be noted that Garcia Media and Jacobson's Brass Tacks Design are now heavily promoting their Web consulting work. They, of course, are not the only two on this panel who make a good part of their living from consulting, but they probably are aware that this is not the year to sell consultant-led print redesigns.) But if Garcia and Jacobson are right, why would it matter what happened in Detroit? It would be what is going to happen everywhere. It just happened there first. It'll happen in your town tomorrow.

The future looks wonderful when it's the future. When the future actually arrives, suddenly it looks a lot more uncertain. Maybe it's premature. Maybe we're not ready for it. Hold up, all the other balls haven't fallen into place yet. The future will be great if it all goes according to plan. I can't of course say why the reporter chose to lead the closings with Garcia's comments instead of with someone saying that there will be print newspapers, but different; except that, as with any story, no one wants to be writing the story that isn't edgy enough or anticipating what might happen or looks like you favor the status quo. She did give the last word to Hall: "It would be foolish to try to predict even two years out in our business." (Sit down for now, Mr. Jacobson. No, wait, let's go Round the Horn! 'Cause what I think is... Pass the crackers.)

Newspapers have trouble defending themselves in their news columns because reporters and editors still think it's not objective to speak positively about themselves -- that you become a homer by doing so. By talking a lot about how bad things are -- admittedly, they are bad -- you show that you are not a shill for the publisher and that you can be trusted to write honestly about anything because you have no illusions about yourself. But there are many occasions when a newspaper cannot write objectively about itself without undermining its readers' trust in it and its ongoing business. We need to get past the idea that this is some sort of act of selfless heroism, the ultimate test of objectivity -- writing a story that would radically hurt your employer and saying your employer should print it. Why in heaven's name would it? You only do this if you have an untouchable revenue stream. Oh, wait, we did. In the 1980s.

Doing a story that says "the paper was racist in the 1960s," of course, can be both objective and good for the paper. But let other media do the "newspapers are dying" stories for a while. They will. Maybe we can do "television is dying" stories to fill the void. We don't have to do "Sam Zell today announced a breathtakingly adventurous plan..." either. We can soberly report the facts, but not pile on.

At any rate, give this Presstime article a look. It's not a really upbeat story -- at the start of 2009, who would believe it if it was -- but it is part of the continuing effort of "Let's make print work in a way that is good for readers and good for the newspaper" as opposed to just saying "Print is stupid" and betting the whole farm on Web faith.