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


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.