Monday, February 15, 2010


I overheard a woman at our township library recently as she was checking out a video: "This is so much better than when there were video stores, and when you had to bring them back by noon the next day or something."

Blockbuster is already in the grave if late-middle-aged women in an older suburb think it's gone out of business. The Blockbuster in a strip mall close to us closed late last year, and the small Main Street video store maybe three years ago. There are still a number of Blockbusters in our area. But as far as this woman was concerned, only a bad memory -- "when there were video stores."

But while our library has a decent selection of DVDs, it's not as many as Blockbuster -- and there's only one copy of each. That didn't matter to this woman, however. The main thing to her was that she didn't have to bring it back by noon the next day or two or three days, or whatever the video store had once done, or face an unknown penalty, maybe, or maybe not. The last couple of times I've gone to Blockbuster, they've given me a week to bring it back. But memories die hard, and nearly everyone remembers Blockbuster and other video stores for their attitude of a decade ago -- have it back by noon or pay a substantial fine, collected by a clerk who sneers at you as you fumble through your pockets and your kid says he has to go potty. You can't even run to the ATM to get the money, because the pastor droned on and you arrived at the store at 11:58 just to beat the deadline, and if you leave to get some money, you'll miss it.

Our library charges a fine as well, but less, and later, and it's set. No one expected Blockbuster to not charge a fine; but they expected it to be minimal and straightforward and not based on having to rush there in the morning.

NetFlix by itself can't kill video stores; not everyone is willing to wait two to three days to get a video in the mail. RedBox can't kill them by itself, because it doesn't have the selection and you have to pay an extra dollar for every day you don't bring it back (although again, the fee is 24 hours after you rented the movie, not necessarily noon). On Demand can't kill them because not everyone has cable or premium channels. All these together can kill Blockbuster, but a lot of people never forgave Blockbuster for policies such as its hidden sale for late returns and only went there because there was no better alternative.

One of my -- I was going to say oldest friends, but I'm getting too old for that, so let's say one of my longest-time friends -- who has been a journalist all her life, and who works for a Big Media company -- recently wrote me that she was dropping the Washington Post. She lives in Northern Virginia and is a news junkie -- and reads some Post stories online. But, she said, when she gets stuck in a two-hour traffic jam at Tysons, there's never anything about it in the Post. What it gives her are self-indugent articles by its writers about their lives. Why should she waste her time paying for it and having to go out in the snow and get it? They don't pay attention to what I want, she says. The Post is a great paper, but it's an inconvenience to flip through page after page to find nothing that relates to me.

A relative of my wife's takes the Harrisburg Patriot-News and says it's a fine paper and he really likes it. But he's probably going to drop it anyway, he says. The reason is that in an attempt to appeal to time-pressed readers, the paper is now wrapping a sort-of-spadea -- if you don't know journalism lingo, it's that page-and-a-half thing that wraps partway around the front of a section; in Harrisburg, it's an actual half-page on both sides -- with a "five-minute read" on it. Advertisers love spadeas because they get a front-page ad without having to argue with the newsroom over buying half the front page. Readers tend to hate spadeas because when you're holding the section up, the spadea just falls away. There's no upper right corner to grab when you're holding the paper. When I tell people, "Just take the thing off and throw it away" -- spadeas usually contain no irreplaceable news content -- they get that mortally offended look in their eye or timbre in their voice, that combination of "But it's part of the newspaper and I might miss something" coupled with "Why should I have to inconvenience myself for your damn half-page ad?"

Alan Mutter wrote recently that newspapers theoretically could go on in print into the 2040s (by which time they might have figured out what to do) but on the other hand could all start to fall within a year if the hemorrhaging of readers continued. They will just become too expensive to distribute to a smaller reader base. This is not the issue of "no one under 35 reads newspapers." This is the loss of people in their 50s and 60s, people who have loved newspapers. Partly they're irate about one specific thing. But also they recognize that there's no longer any social opprobrium attached to not taking a newspaper. You can consider yourself well informed from online. You can even feel progressive (green, modern, whatever) by not taking a newspaper. You will no longer be seen as somehow a little less than fully cognizant. You can join that group that says, "This is why newspapers are going out of business." So why put up with the inconvenience?

Soon, that woman at my library may be saying, "This is so much better than when there were newspapers." She may like the experience of curling up with a newspaper and a cup of coffee, or being distracted by it over a solitary lunch, or whatever. But eventually a vacation stop that isn't followed through on, or too many wet papers, or a spadea too many, will make her say, oh, heck, it's not worth it, even if all she does to replace it is watch a little more CNN.

Some inconvenience just is built into newspapers, just as it is at Blockbuster. But Blockbuster's interaction with customers became centered on "you have to go out of your way to bring it back." (With RedBox, maybe you're going to the grocery anyway.) Newspapers have a lot of fault lines, but in my experience the ones that kill us are poor delivery service and content that readers aren't interested in -- not the "saving democracy even if you don't care" stories, but ones that are either irrelevant or at variance with their own view of the world. And of the two, I'd put poor delivery service at the top. It just mystifies people when they don't get the paper reliably. They get the mail every day. And what really honks them off is when they call to complain and they don't speak to a real person even though they keep pressing 1 or 0 or whatever. They know what we're telling them -- that their problem is not really important to us.

No comments: