Thursday, April 29, 2010

Away We Go Again

I try not to write on this blog about my own newspaper, because 1) the blog has nothing to do with the newspaper and 2) one can always say the wrong thing inadvertently. But this week's developments would make it hard to say nothing.

The last time we were sold, it was 2006, the newspaper industry was just starting its historic collapse, and everything seemed bright.

The first time there were layoffs, as wrenching as it was, it seemed like an adjustment to a new world. But it wasn't, really. It was just a retrenchment.

The second time there were layoffs, it was in part a reaction to the economic collapse. But it was much more an adjustment to a new world. Whatever happens now, it will be further down that line.

At ACES, Nieman Lab's Josh Benton, as noted on Doug Fisher's "Common Sense Journalism," tried to put what John McIntyre calls the War on Editing into an economic package:

When print was the only model, it saved the publisher money to have editors, because 1) the more sharply the story was edited, the more room there was for more content, including ads; 2) the more accurately the story was edited the first time, less money was spent in replates; 3) (and this is my point and not his) if you were selling a "product," a physical artifact, people want to be sure that, like any physical product, it is well-made before they invest money or time in it.

In an electronic world, it doesn't matter how long the story is or how loosely written, because space is infinite; the cost of making a correction is zero, since there are no plates involved; and if what you are selling is quick-hit brain candy, updates to be perused when you're bored with work or wondering what's going on, the quality of the product is secondary to the appeal of the information. It can have typos, it can have run-on words, because you've invested no money in it and you can click away from it in a second and it's gone, as opposed to the newspaper, which is still in your hands even as you yell at it. Heck, the user may not really care where the end page of the information comes from. If you got it through Yahoo News, does it matter if you click through to the Chicago Tribune or the Sleepy Eye Herald-Dispatch?

Thus, the only thing you should invest in is content creation, because absent a mass audience, the only thing you can possibly provide is, simply, MORE. Not better, although better can help, but just MORE, to try to get a bit of any and every niche.

Now, against that, one could note that bots archive the first version of the story, which then can't be fixed without mammoth effort; and that part of the reason advertising costs pennies on the Internet is the infinite inventory, including publishers creating page after page after page in order to get high page views, but then having to sell ads for nearly zero because of the vast number of pages they produce.

But the end argument is still the quality of the brand -- that if anything will give newspapers a secure place in the electronic world, it is the years and years of brand recognition that carries over. The Huffington Post also is building a brand. But newspapers still have a brand that exists independent of the Web world and thus carries a competitive double whammy.

And, if money was still flowing in, they probably would recognize this and recognize what good editing -- and good copy editing -- brings to their brand. Alas, it isn't. And so I fear another front may open in the war, even if many good people really don't want it to.


New Jersey Memories said...

Well said,David. I just hope that the top newspapers are still existing in print form in ten years -- but I doubt it. I will miss them.

You have a very interesting blog, by the way. The combination of press, editing, and old department stores is unique. Gee, I wish I'd seen some of those old stores *sigh*.

Edward Hanes said...

i like it how you break the truth in here: "The first time there were layoffs, as wrenching as it was, it seemed like an adjustment to a new world. But it wasn't, really. It was just a retrenchment."..

it was as though the we are just convincing ourselves that the whole thing was just part of a painful change...but it wasnt! was retrenchment..