Wednesday, November 11, 2009

I'd Take 20 Percent

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 9, 2009

Copy Editing: Over at the ACES blog...

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

Friday, November 6, 2009

How Many Axes Can Be Made?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 5, 2009

What If... Again

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

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

But she cites Owens as well, and expands:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A Death in the Desert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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