Monday, January 25, 2010

Watch Your Count, Part II

When I got out of college and decided to work for newspapers despite my degree from the College of Architecture and Urban Planning, I didn't know that my wanting to work on the desk without spending years as a reporter was a trendlet. I just knew that I loved editing and working to put out the Ball State Daily News, while I didn't much enjoy interviewing people, and didn't want to have to wait until I was in my 40s to do what I liked.

So, of course, my first job was as a reporter. But I was lucky -- there was a completely unexpected opening on the desk within months, and I was moved into the job, with a lot of hemming and hawing about how normally this wouldn't happen and of course I didn't have enough experience as a reporter.

As the years went by, I found more people like myself, and by the time I was interviewing people for copy editing jobs or internships, I had found many more -- people who loved the news, loved newspapers, loved the language, and usually were either too shy or too nonaggressive (which are not the same thing) to want to spend years as a reporter. They wanted to work as editors, and a lot of them wanted to be copy editors.

Thankfully, by the 1990s the newspaper business -- thanks to pagination taking so much of prepress out of the composing room and putting it into the newsroom -- had jobs for people like us.

But the job kept changing as technology whipped ahead. The wonderful old mechanisms for getting copy to and from composing, like the conveyor belt with hooks at the Chicago Sun-Times and The Inquirer's pneumatic tubes, fell by the wayside. The copy logs became less important. Physical dummies disappeared, along with the rubber stamps and time recorders that marked their priority and progress, and lots of local-color things that had grown up over the years. (At The Inquirer, page dummies had to be drawn using black, blue and red pencils to indicate different elements.) And more and more, the job became more laying out pages and less editing copy, particularly with pagination.

But at the Flint Journal and The Inquirer I noticed a difference between younger and older copy editors. Many of the older copy editors were of the "copy reader" style -- your main job was to write the heads and check for obvious errors of grammar or a lack of names, but not to go off "challenging the copy" too deeply. And the older reporters and city editors did not take kindly to our doing so. We of the younger school thought it was our job to kick the crap out of the copy if it needed it. In part, this was because the crusty old city editor had been replaced by today's assigning editor. But we took seriously our role as "last editor and first reader." If a sentence didn't pass our muster, even if it was grammatically correct, we took it out or demanded that it be rewritten. If the story didn't meet our standards, we held it out of the paper and kicked it back. If an adjective was superfluous -- death.

We had to, because we had memorable ledes such as this (very close approximation, but not work for word): "Like his namesake, Robert E. Lee loved to fight. But while the Confederate general devoted his energy to harassing the Union army, Lee, of Somesuburb, spent his time beating his wife."

Or the story that had no lede, to which we were told: "The absence of a lede is a lede."

Or the 25-inch story to which a reporter responded to a challenge with "I spent so much time getting one side of the story, I forgot to get the other."

These are low-hanging fruit, but these were stories that had made it to the copy desk. We saw ourselves as copy editors the way Tim McGuire or John McIntyre describe them, not just as people who caught spelling errors and wrote headlines. We wanted to be the consciences of our newspapers, the heart of how they were viewed by the readers. We saw ourselves -- as most journalists see themselves -- as inspired maquis bringing forth the truth. We just pointed our lances internally.

Unfortunately, some of our editors -- and, I would venture, most of our publishers -- saw us primarily as people who got raw copy set into type, whether it was sending flimsies back to composing or paginating the front page. Some of them just didn't care what anyone did as long as it made money, but more of them, particularly on the business side, felt that one editor should catch all this stuff, so why did you need all these layers of editors? People read most of the stories in a minute or less anyway. But times were good, so they didn't start questioning it until newspaper revenue failed to bounce back after the 2001 recession.

Then, they started asking. And then, everyone started being able to publish online without going through a copy desk. Including their own newspapers.

And then it became apparent that what copy editors and their advocates wanted to do wasn't what most newspapers had really hired them for. It was just that you couldn't get a machine to do all this mechanical stuff yet, spellchecking and formatting and toning and such, and since you had to have people to do that, gosh, I guess they might as well edit the stories and write headlines, too. But in the end, they were hiring lots of copy editors (as opposed to the handful they had before) because they were cheaper than printers-added-to-proofreaders-added-to-engravers.

Next: And who's right?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Watch Your Count

Lots of buzz about how some newspapers are making another slash to the throat, in immolating their long-established copy desks. (The now-infamous Minneapolis memo largely killing the copy desk has led to comments by editing guru John McIntyre and newspaper management consultant Tim McGuire; and the Washington Post ombudsman continues the tradition of on the one hand, chastising the Post for cutting back on copy editing, while on the other hand saying, But what can be done ... this is the price of the Internet.)

As McIntyre and McGuire note (and as TTPB has also noted in the past), part of the problem is that many editors really have no idea what copy editors do. In their minds, reporters write stories, something happens, and the paper comes out -- so maybe the "something" isn't very important. (This view particularly appeals to those editors who, as reporters, didn't like their copy being changed. They aren't the majority, but I've worked for two.) But part of the problem is that what copy editors actually do has changed dramatically over the years, while for reporters some of the "how they do it" has changed -- more use of data analysis, less sitting in routine government meetings -- but the "what they do" is essentially the same: They talk to people and write stories.

"The Paper" by Richard Kluger talks about the old New York Herald Tribune night desk and its leader for decades, Everett Kallgren, who was known as the Count because of a vague European connection but who also always would say to headline writers, "Watch your count." Kluger writes, "The surest measure of the seriousness and thoroughness with which a newspaper was edited in the pre-television age was its headlines." This was also the end of the era when newspapers were rated among America's best to some degree on the strength of their editorial pages. Major local investigations didn't move the meter much back then.

The production process of newspapers was totally different then, with hot type and composing rooms. Slot editors (the ones in charge of a copy desk) were in part responsible for making sure the Linotype operators in the composing room were kept busy but not overloaded. Thus, in the beginning of the cycle went down the fillers and timeless wire and local copy. The closer one got to deadline, the work shifted to breaking news.

In those long-gone days, on-deadline stories might go to the composing room in takes as they were written. There was no way a 25-inch breaking story could be set in type by one operator, then proofread and corrected in the composing room, if the entire story went down at once, and still make deadline. You would send it down take by take. That meant the slot had to make sure all the takes of the story went to the same copy editor, who would check to make sure there were no people without first references, and that the location of the news didn't move from North Broad to South.

Slot editors kept a log of what went down to composing and who did it also because the makeup editor, working in composing, would have to reorder headlines. (Back then headlines were assigned by the originating editor or the news editor based on what they saw as the importance of the news, and the makeup editor's job was to fit them all into the available space, somehow. Often only the tops of pages were "dummied" with a specific story; the rest of the page was marked "Fill" or something.)

If a story with a 2-36-2 could only get in the paper with a 6-42-1 because of ad configurations, the makeup editor -- whose job was to put the pages together, not know what all the stories were about -- sent a note back to the copy desk, and the slot gave it to the rim editor with the new head order, which then went back to the typesetters, proofreaders, etc. The same happened for large papers between editions when breaking news meant moving things around.

The slot's log also was checked against the paper to see what didn't make it -- some of the contents of each day's paper were a mystery until it was printed, as they had been set in type days earlier -- and what was still there for the next day. When the paper came off the presses, copy editors checked it to make sure that the right headline was on the story (errors here more often than you might think), that an entire take hadn't been left out or the story failed to end, etc.

Writing headlines back then was an adventure, because there was no computer to count them. You counted each letter according to its weight (m's 1 and a half, l's a half, etc.) and then matched it against the count for that headline that was written in a book or on a piece of paper. The slot then double-checked your count, because it was so easy to get it wrong, and a headline that didn't fit could make the paper late. Even at that, old papers show lines of headlines all jammed together. Part of the reason for using capital letters at the start of every work was to let you jam the words together if the headline was too long.

Much of what copy editors did was tied to the wire -- grabbing the copy off the AP or UPI tickers, hanging grafs, chasing with new ledes, and the like. At a paper like the Count's Herald Tribune, all local copy went through the copy desk; at smaller papers, the city desk moved all of its own copy, with headlines. It had to be a very large and very editing-intensive paper for the copy desk to actually "edit" local copy; newsrooms were not as large then as they became in the 1970s and onward, and city editors were the gruff old green-eyeshade guys of legend back then, whose job was to tear your 20-inch story apart and send it down as three paragraphs. (As the Count often would say, "There's no story that can't be cut.") The cult of the singer-songwriter journalist had not yet arrived in most newsrooms, and the mission was to get in as many stories as you could, so being writerly was saved for the local Nellie Bly and everyone else learned staccato AP-style writing.

Copy editors were often called "copy readers" back then, and many of them were reporters whose feet were tired but who had served the newsroom well in their younger days. Many newspapers didn't hire anyone as a copy reader; you moved your older folks onto the desk when they got tired of the grind. They knew the names of all the local politicians and the spellings of all the weird street names, and it was assumed that nearly everyone knew basic English. If they missed some after coming back from lunch at the bar, there was always a typesetter or proofreader in the composing room to catch the mistake.

For all the importance of accuracy and good language, a large part of the copy desk's job was to be the interface -- though no one would have used that word then -- between the writing produced in the newsroom and the vast mechanical beast that turned it into a newspaper. Then came cold type, computerized page makeup, direct to plate output -- while at the same time, into newsrooms came a growing group of young journalists who weren't copy boys turned into obit writers turned into copy reporters farmed out to the desk. They truly wanted to be newspaper copy editors from the start. There had always been some of these -- but I can remember from the incredulity that I encountered out of college trying to get such a job, at newspapers in Anderson and Hammond and LaPorte, that in many places, this Just Wasn't Done. Next: The professionalization of copy editors.

(P.S.: If you never read McGuire's post on editors vs. publishers, check it out here. There are editors who actually want to throw copy editors over the side, but many others find themselves having to do so simply because they work for people who have no belief in editorial quality, and in that situation, you have to choose which definition of quality you're going to defend the longest.)

Monday, January 18, 2010


When I was in college, I decided I was going to belong to every honorary society I could. I still have the certificates. History, sociology, journalism, etc... if I majored or minored in them, however briefly, I joined the honorary. And thus I came to join Sigma Delta Chi. I think I participated in the last year of a candlelight initiation, but I may have it confused with Gamma Ramma No. Like many of us from the 1970s, my memories of college have gaps.

In any event, I did go to a meeting at which Casey Bukro, the environmental writer for the Chicago Tribune and Society of Professional Journalists stalwart, explained why SDX was becoming SPJ. Journalists, he said, had to change from being jack-of-any-story-and-master-of-few wretches who could be bought off by the mayor's whiskey. There were two reasons, as I remember. One was that as professionals, we could demand more respect (and, presumably, more money). After all, didn't accountants, lawyers, etc. regulate their professions? The other was that we wanted to be in a position to use that new respect to tell society where it was going wrong, to point out its faults on issues such as, say, environmentalism, and be taken seriously. We couldn't very well do that if we were acting like a cross between visiting Shriners and lapdogs in heat.

It all sounded great until the inevitable point was brought up: Can we regulate who becomes a journalist in the same way that one is admitted to the bar or passes a CPA examination? There was no good answer for that, because to do so would probably impinge on the First Amendment, or require some sort of licensing that would restrict who could be published in a newspaper, which seemed kind of antidemocratic. (In that pre-Internet day, it did seem possible, though.)

We did come up eventually in the business with a sort of definition, which was: Someone whom most other professional journalists would acknowledge as a professional journalist. That led us to be able to stretch the boundaries from George Will to Charles Apple, from investigative reporters to home and design writers, editoralists to copy editors. But it could still never cope with issues such as: Was Zola a journalist when he wrote "J'accuse"? Is Sarah Palin a journalist today? I'm serious. In her first go-round as a TV sports reporter, of course she was. So why not now?

Well, you answer, because a professional journalist is distinguished by adherence to the SPJ code of ethics, maybe. Or has a detachment from open identification with partisan issues. (Rachel Maddow, anyone?) Or never crossed the line into public relations. Or follows the dictums of the Committee of Concerned Journalists. Really, though, we never could define very strictly who was in the club and who wasn't. It seemed too much like trying to erect an All-Union Committee of Journalism in Moscow. What we did know, of course, is that there was a group that I would call High Church Journalists. We did have our ethics codes, and our conflict of interest resolutions, and we wanted to do what Casey Bukro had imagined: Use our professionalism, knowledge, and journalistic skills to tell society what its problems were, and hope that society would respect us enough to then fix the problem. We worked for big newspapers, the wires, top magazines, broadcasters. And all of a sudden, we were, many of us, making decent money. It must be working, right?

This all struck me back after the closure of the Ann Arbor News, when government officials in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti and Washtenaw County were asking themselves: Without the AA News, how do we get our news out? I've been a little hesitant about things since then because I realized that if you're a press critic, new media theorist, whatever, you would look at that concept -- "our news" -- and perhaps rejoice that the Ann Arbor News no longer existed.

The Pew analysis of what's happened recently in Baltimore tells a similar tale: Cutbacks in reporting at the Sun -- and in local TV, but primarily at the Sun -- have led to fewer stories that are other than rewritten press releases. One might say that in Baltimore, "our news" has made a comeback. High Church Journalism has suffered.

Back before newspapers became the range of professional journalists, they ran whatever news release came across the transom. Papers were full of "Area Man Named to Masonic Post" and "Business Group Honors Ronzone's" stories. This is how they filled their acres of space back when they had staffs in many cases smaller than today's severely cut-back models. In the 1970s, newspapers started to ghettoize this stuff, and then stop publishing it altogether. Newspapers, the thinking was, should only contain work done by (or at least thoroughly vetted by) professional journalists. After all, maybe the Area Man bribed his fellow Masons to get the post, and was a child molester to boot. Maybe the business group also honored a store that didn't buy pages of advertising in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Who knew? Unless a journalist had checked it out, don't publish it.

As, alas, the growth of myriad new media has shown us, while the public is interested in High Church Journalism, they're not as interested -- or, more to the point, as impressed -- as we thought they would be. (At least, great numbers of them. There are also many who absolutely live and breathe for it. They tend, however, to find newspapers lacking because they will do things like run photos of 5-year-olds making artworks than an exhaustive analysis of the fire department.)

And while maybe the public didn't care that much about the Masonic leadership or department store honors, people whom the newspaper did make feel important tended to buy ads. (What other reason was there for progress editions, those raise-cash sections that came out in winter talking about the amazing business of the National Panamerican Automated Tool Co.? Professional journalists stopped doing those, too, but they paid those journalists' salaries.)

Robert Picard, astoundingly on-point media analyst, decries the fact that even despite the Newspaper Holocaust, journalists seem no more interested in controlling their own fate as businesses than they did 10 years ago, when they were underwritten by classified ads. But it misses the entire point of being a High Church Journalist, which is: I should be paid to take the hard looks at society that it is unwilling to take on its own. I perform a public good. Coming up with the money isn't my problem. The fact that society tends to not agree with us has led to this current mess.

When I went to the Flint Journal, we published marriages, births and divorces. I was part of a group arguing that we should drop divorces (which we did). After all, weren't we just shaking our finger at these people and publicly shaming them? It was pointed out that this was a Public Record and gee, isn't that part of what a newspaper does? No, we said, and oh, by the way, about those births, y'know, some of them don't list a father, or the couple has different last names -- which we were in favor of, of course, using as long as you were married; but if you were not married, it was just another middle-class finger-wagging moment.

OK, but isn't this off point? Not really. We were being High Church Journalists, not only objecting to the use of news columns for information we didn't create, but also directing our news columns toward social progress (it was the era when no-fault divorce was being introduced). All this would have had a point if what we put in its place had been really interesting. We just ran more filler wire or "The township board failed for a third consecutive week to consider" stories. But we performed a public good, and if the people who looked every day for the Vital Records had one less reason to read the paper, well, good for us. We deserved better customers.

It's hard to come out against the unanticipated side effects of journalistic professionalism. Back when the Ann Arbor News was doing its last Hail Mary pass in late 2008, a competing online medium -- the Ann Arbor Chronicle -- published a critique of the News. The Chronicle's editor was a former AA News person. Back then this drew 36 comments, most decrying the ineptitude of the News in covering the "real news." When I got down to comment 27, I read:

"Although a fair amount of the comments on this thread come from former employees like myself, there are almost a dozen from readers. I think that’s very telling."

Let's say "almost a dozen" was 10. By that point, then, there had been 17 comments from former News employees. Professional journalists, let down by the fact that in cultured, educated, opinionated Ann Arbor, the News had not lived up to their expectations. I have no idea of the source of this comment:

"Today is a perfect example of why the News is increasingly irrelevant to me. When I became aware of the widespread power outages due to last night’s wind storm (via Twitter), I went to MLive to see what the News had to say – which turned out to be nothing. The “Latest News” highlighted in a red box at the top of the page was about the University’s plan to move the zoology museum’s specimen collection."

Many a professional journalist has said to me: Why do we cover the weather? Weather happens every day. When there are storms, power goes out. Why is that news?

Friday, January 15, 2010

Fascinating Fact

UPDATE: This fact was so fascinating, there's probably no way it's correct, as Martin Langeveld points out in his comment that kindly doesn't say, "You moron." (I had tried to view the original document, but couldn't find my way to it without having to pay for it.) Let's just say, as Martin says, that what the original document was trying to say was... and leave it at the fact that the original original document actually didn't say what the original document seemed to read as saying. The only way it made sense to me, I admit, was that the cost of most online advertising had been driven down so low that real estate was some sort of exception.

The great thing about blogs is you get to completely embarrass yourself once or twice a year, as opposed to simply making a fool of yourself with every post.


It really is. And so, before we get to the professionalization of reporters:

Three out of every five dollars spent on online advertising is for real estate.

Think of that.

Sixty percent of online advertising is real estate.

This same report says newspaper real estate advertising, which everyone, literally everyone, calls outmoded, will rise 16 percent this year (after falling 34 percent last year) while the amount spent on online real estate advertising, while still "pivotal," will decline further.

I don't know enough about this to really put it in any context, other than that so much help wanted and private party advertising that went into classifieds is now free that it probably explains part of this. The story notes that as more real estate advertising online becomes search-based, it will cost less.


Sixty percent of online billable ads are from one industry.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Nobody Said It'd Be Pretty

Remember when newspapers really did believe they could make a nearly seamless transition to being Web-oriented organizations? They thought they could just post stories on the Web, readers would follow, advertisers would follow, they could do what they did but avoid the costs of printing, ad revenue would grow in one place as it fell in another, and truth, justice, the American way and 20 percent margins would continue.

The new-media analysts who weren't condemning newspapers for not shutting off their presses in, oh, 1994 at least didn't see it that way. Some saw a generation of upheaval in which nothing might be as good as it had been. Inevitable, of course, and eventually it would be much better, they said, but for a while, not just business chaos, but an era in which journalism and media would not serve society as well as they had, while things sorted themselves out.

We're clearly there.

The Jay Leno contretemps does not directly involve news, of course, except for those who think that Simon Cowell's leaving "American Idol" is a bigger story because "Idol" has five times the audience of "Tonight" and no one under 50 cares about Leno. (Note to critics: Someone leaving a show but keeping his financial stake in it, and officially announcing it after unofficially announcing it a month before, is not as big news as a major media organization saying it had totally screwed up and being humiliated by its talent, regardless of how many people watch.)

I haven't read what the prophets of the coming age have had to say about this story, which I suspect they would interpret as: Who cares? Broadcast is doomed anyway. It'll all be streamed, Comcast will make NBC into a cable channel and eliminate the affiliates, so who cares about their stupid 11 p.m. news lead-ins? Of course, there's the question of whether GE used this whole Leno thing as a dodge to hold down costs to make NBC more attractive to a buyer, while knowing it wouldn't work in a programming sense. And the fact that NBC is now running around buying pilots shows that all those stories about how "drama is forevermore dead on the major networks" are a combination of new-media hype and love of the you're-in-the-cool-gang aspects of watching "Mad Men" and "Nurse Jackie." (Tell me again how many hours of original programming there are on cable services each week, and what the audience is compared with "CSI"? Doesn't make "CSI" a better show, but it still makes the network a viable business, just a smaller one.)

NBC's affiliates are 1) scared, 2) caught in the same maelstrom as newspapers, and 3) perhaps more politically connected and astute, as they have to have government licenses. NBC didn't respond to its own financial woes over Leno (it was so cheap, it was making money); the affiliates know that if they screamed loud enough, there could be hearing after hearing on GE's getting rid of the darn thing. The affiliates are interested in protecting their own "legacy" business the same way newspapers are interested in protecting their print revenues. Gosh, some newspapers even think they can win back classified ads. (Gosh, some of the newspapers I read actually have done so. What was down to a page of classifieds is back up to two or three.) Maybe the antennas will stop blinking at the same time the last press rolls to a stop, but people tend to protect what they have as long as it's worth something. The Leno mess shows that the affiliates still believe they have a business and are no more interested in killing it than newspaper publishers are. (Of course, as we know, they're all stupid.)

Tavi Gevinson is the talk of the fashion world, according to the Chicago Tribune. She's a 13-year-old who blogs from her bedroom. She finds that the Internet lets her escape her humdrum existence. Her "Style Rookie" has become the flavor of the year. Forget the Internet. How many variations of this story have we seen? (On the media side, Zines, Public Access Cable, Underground Newspapers. On the "precocious young teen" side -- endless.) The story has one of those "despite a lack of statistics, indications are that more and more" paragraphs in it: "Some in the industry suggest the young blogger could be more novelty than anything, but Harper's, Target, and others are betting on her." (How much of a bet? Probably a rounding error financially.)

Before this story, Tavi was getting 29,000 viewers each day. The story notes that some see the Balloon Boy in her story, but this is really Holden Caulfield -- a teen angst story, in which "the whispers and barbs from the fashion world remind her of middle school." One thing Tavi notes: "I never really liked writing before because at school I never got to write about what I like. With my blog, it's my thoughts, like my brain is being translated onto the computer." One doubts Tavi is going to take schoolwork more seriously now. (Of course, if you're deconstructing American education as well as media, you don't care. She should learn in her own way. Of course, it's wrong that everyone gets As, too. But when things sort themselves out...) If Tavi were 16, would this be part of the Death of Traditional Media, or would anyone notice?

Finally, Bob Costas' interview with Mark McGwire, which a terrific story in our paper elucidates the media issues presented. Tim Franklin, late of Chicago/Baltimore/Indianapolis/North Carolina -- this is the same Tim Franklin who sued over the Dale Earnhardt autopsy photos, in a world that now seems impossibly far away -- calls this an epochal moment from his perch as a media critic at Northwestern. Is it ethical of MLB to cover actual, real, like ISSUES in baseball, or good for society -- can the messenger be tainted -- all coupled with the fact that no one wants to call out Bob Costas as being not a professional journalist the same way they did with Connie Chung. (Of course there's still a boys' club, it's a different era, different issues. Still.) Unasked -- and sort of a broader question than this story -- is what MLB Network wouldn't cover. Publicity about Mark McGwire is "even bad publicity is publicity." MLB Network is going to be fine with some stories that show flaws in baseball, because they just keep the core audience interested. Would MLB Network run a negative story about Bud Selig or the antitrust exemption? But Franklin, bless him, says in a couple of sentences what nearly all of the endless debate over new vs. old media, including this blog, is about:

"To many people, information is information. The news source may not matter as much."

Next: The heady days of journalism professionalism.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Customer Service

The Washington Post has this problem.

No, not that problem. (Whatever you want to think. Fiscal Times, selling access to newsmakers, rampant liberalism, too much in Bush's camp on Iraq...)

The Washington Post has this problem with its readers' expectations, as ombudsman Andrew Alexander put it:

"A common lament from longtime print readers is: 'What's happened to my Post?' They want the newspaper to remain as it was. And many are put off by The Post's emphasis on the Web."

Alas, all Alexander can offer them is, basically, "your time is passing":

"... The print audience is generally older, and there is no evidence that large numbers of younger readers will acquire the habit of reading a newspaper. So The Post must do everything it can to retain its loyal print readers while preparing for the day when its Web site is dominant."

In other words, the Post must not completely alienate the people who are paying the bills, while at the same time putting most of its effort into trying to find a way to get a new group to pay the bills, and thus sort of partially alienating the first group. It's not Alexander's fault that he is left having to write a sentence such as "It's essential to maintain newspaper circulation, which inevitably will dwindle." He just works there, and he has no more idea how to solve the problem than anyone else.

Some copy editors would have challenged that sentence, even in an opinion column, as needing to be rewritten as "While newspaper circulation inevitably will dwindle, it's essential to maintain as much of it for as long as we can." But copy editing is in sad straits these days. Part of "what's happened to my Post?" is the lack of copy editing:

"Many in the newsroom, and more than a few readers, believe the quality of The Post's journalism has suffered. In some ways, I agree. For instance, excessive typos and grammatical errors are hurting credibility."

Alas, Alexander has no answer for that one either, and neither did Deborah Howell, the previous ombudsman, who left us all too soon as the result of a car crash, but while she was in that job often pointed out that the buying-out of large numbers of Post copy editors had hurt the Post in readers' eyes. Still, I understand that if your newsroom has shrunk from a staff of 900 to 550 and your paper is still losing money, bringing back copy editors is probably not going to be your first answer, although maybe it should be.

Department stores really didn't have an answer to this problem either. As their business started to decline, they reacted in basically the same way newspapers did: Cut here, prune here, whoops that's not enough, let's figure out our core mission ... which inevitably turns out to be "what do we want to do" and not "how do we execute it." I can see department stores saying, "Our survival depends on being leaders in fashions for men, women, children and the home, etc." and then saying, "So let's lay off the returns desk and let's cut back on the training our clerks receive, and then let's cut the number of clerks in half, because we've got to compete with discounters who don't employ any of those people. Oh, and make the gift boxes really flimsy and hard to get. But we'll still be leaders in fashions for men, women, children and the home, so people will come here."

As noted here before, Kohl's has become a major national chain by offering many parts of the department store experience (good lighting, classic merchandise displays) with shopping carts and a checkout. Traditional department stores cut back on the number of people working, added to their duties (such as making them handle returns), and had people working the register who had no idea how to operate it, let alone help you actually select something. But they still had you wander the floor looking for an open register. I can see how the traditional L.S. Ayres or Famous-Barr shopper would have reacted with horror if greeted by carts and a checkout aisle. But how many people also simply said, after waiting in line 25 minutes at Wanamakers, the heck with this?

People react to how they're treated, and a newspaper that says, as the Post and most newspapers basically have, that "more typos are just going to happen while we try to figure out how to survive on the Internet" runs the risk of its readers saying, "Gosh, they think I'm a moron," and thus not maintaining that essential-for-now circulation. People may not know the intricacies and lengths and efforts you went through to get an investigative story or even an interview with the stars of "Glee." They may not even care if you didn't get it and ran a story about Jay Leno instead. That's what you care about. They do know if you say "The stars of 'Glee' is planning for next year."

Unrelated but interesting note: Alexander's column notes that "Only 19 percent of those who read the newspaper go to The Post's Web site. And 86 percent of The Post's online audience is from outside The Post's newspaper circulation area." He notes, "That helps explain why The Post last year launched a 'Local Home Page' for those online visitors who live in the area," assuming that this will drive more of its print readers online. But isn't that less-than-20-percent figure the case for most newspapers? And don't most newspapers have an online audience profile that contains a lot of one-hit wonders, people who used to live there, and national sports fans? As has been noted to death, newspapers' problem is not that their readers all hate print. Most of them would have enough print readers to run for years. The problem is that advertisers find print overpriced and unresponsive to their needs -- as many of them found it for 20 years before the Internet offered an easy alternative. But hey, it's all about us journalists, right?

Department Store Building of the...

I do like to post pictures and buildings of more obscure stores, because their histories are often unheralded, but my wife's cousin Larry Stratton, visiting Stover Constitutional fellow at Waynesburg College and thus a new resident of western Pennsylvania, mentioned that he had been at Macy's in downtown Pittsburgh recently. That survivor of the Great Macyization, of course, is the former Kaufmann's Department Store, below, at Fifth Avenue and Smithfield Street, famous as much for the architectural patronage of Edgar Kaufmann and his son Edgar Jr. at Fallingwater and in Palm Springs as for its own prominence on the department store scene and its building, one of America's largest department stores.

One of the essential books on department stores is "Merchant Princes" by Leon Harris, scion of A. Harris & Co. in Dallas, which goes into great detail on Edgar Kaufmann, who reads as somewhat of a Jack Kennedy type figure -- incredibly handsome, terrifically ambitious, a connoisseur of the fine things in life, and incurably horny, sort of a type-AAA personality. Kaufmann drove out of the store those relatives who didn't support him, partly by marrying his first cousin, which gave him a controlling interest. Unlike in most families, they all didn't go quietly. Ludwig and Theodore Kaufmann showed their displeasure by opening a competing department store,  Kaufmann & Baer Co., a block away on Smithfield. In 1926, Kaufmann & Baer was sold to Gimbel Brothers, which liked not only the store but the Kaufmann family -- one member was installed as manager of Gimbels in Philadelphia, another stayed with Gimbels in Pittsburgh. It appears, though, that the Gimbels did not like Ludwig Kaufmann, who, undaunted, moved over to Penn Avenue and brought forth yet another department store, Kaufmann-Looby Company. (A much earlier post had Kaufmann-Looby becoming Gimbels, and has been corrected.)

Frances Looby had been a buyer for Kaufmann & Baer, and may have been a Philadelphia native betrayed in 1907 by her bigamist husband, a painter named Eugene Jones. Or she may not have -- the wonders of the Internet do not include obscure officials of long-ago department stores. Ludwig Kaufmann, who ends up being part of the interrelationship of the Gimbel and Guggenheim families, died in 1957 in Pittsburgh without any reference to any relationship other than professional with Frances Looby. But Ludwig's timing was off this time; the Depression hit, Kaufmann-Looby disappeared, and Ludwig built no more.


Another correction. An earlier post mentioned the Bon-Ton in Lebanon, Pa., and noted it was separate from the Bon-Ton stores owned by the Grumbacher family out of York, Pa. This is true. What I did not know at the time was that Louis Samler, owner of the Lebanon Bon-Ton, was married to a Grumbacher. This article from March 2010 in the Lebanon Daily News makes the connection clear. There was no business connection -- the Lebanon store early passed into the hands of Allied Stores and eventually became a Pomeroy's -- and I still do not know which was the first to use the name "Bon-Ton."

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Well, It's Another Year

Hope you had a good holiday, as you celebrate it, and a good new year. The end of the year came with no layoffs here, but my thoughts go out to my friends Patti Cole and Teshia Morris, who went down in the wreckage of the Washington Times as a complete newspaper rather than a competitor to Politico, Roll Call, whatever. If you happen to have any copy editing jobs open...

The Financial Times on Saturday ran a long analysis piece on Wikipedia, from which I will excerpt because some people might encounter a subscription wall:

"In spite -- or perhaps because -- of its success, Wikipedia is proving slow to adapt. Even relatively simple ideas aimed at reinforcing its basic quality and reliability have turned out to be hard to push through....

"'There's this almost religious zeal among Wikipedians that everybody has an equal role to play in the system,' says Larry Sanger, who co-founded the site with [Jimmy] Wales but fell out with him over direction of the system.

"Not that there seems much chance of a competitor displacing Wikipedia. As a charity that does not look to revenues, it hardly presents an attractive target for the Internet's other established powers....

"Any critique of Wikipedia's fundamental quality has to begin with an acknowledgement: In the field of supposedly objective reference information, there are no absolutes.

"'How many publications in human history can you trust?' asks Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist... and a Wikimedia Foundation adviser. "All have been subject to some disinformation that has been put in there by the powerful; disinformation has been a nromal part of human reality forever.' Idealists such as Mr. Newmark argue that, freed from the inherent flaws of publications dominated by a narrow range of interests, Wikipedia could become 'more reliable than anything we've ever seen.'

Yet even optimists such as he agree with the more sceptical observers on this: that, in terms of reliability and service, Wikipedia still has a long way to go. ... It points to a fundamental tension at the heart of Wikipedia that has stalled its development. Founded on an ideal of complete openness, any adjustment that seems to favor one group of contributors over another can seem like a betrayal of principle....

"The idea that experts should have a superior status is a taboo, guaranteed to produce a strong backlash. For a site -- Wikipedia prefers 'community' -- founded on ideas of radical egalitarianism, it smacks of revisionism. Yet even some enthusiastic supporters say there is no alternative in the long run. 'You need experts balanced by citizens, and vice versa,' says Mr. Newmark....

"While this struggle over the south of the Internet's most successful experiment in user participation rages, the watchword for visitors to Wikipedia will remain the same: caveat lector -- or, as the site itself helpfully translates, 'Let the reader beware.'"

And so here we are once again waiting for Pure Communism to emerge out of socialism, War Communism, whatever. It never has before, but always each generation will be the one that, empowered with new tools and new understanding, finally gets it right. I guess if my generation hadn't been through this in the '60s, it wouldn't be so bothersome. Newmark is right in that any reference is flawed; I would hate to read an encyclopedia from the 1930s or 1950s on any number of issues involving difference in races, for example. But, I'm sorry, of course experts should have a superior status in areas involving their expertise, and anything that wishes to be taken seriously as a reference needs to publicly recognize that it is calling upon experts, and needs to be led by people who are expert in evaluating experts.

The funny thing is, Wikipedia in so many aspects is, despite my occasional rants about it, reliable. I could check any 10 entries on department stores and never find a thing seriously wrong, and thanks to the fact that someone out there has, say, a Jones Store Jones, there is a record of the history of the Kansas City store that would never have merited being published on paper except in a history of department stores that might or might not be easily available. No other single reference would include Doctor Einstein and Jo Grant, the companion of the Third Doctor. But as long as Wikipedia says "we are the universal encyclopedia" and "anyone can contribute to anything," it contradicts itself. It wants to be two things at the same time.

The OED experienced such growing pains -- and the OED also was founded upon submissions from hither and yon. In that sense, Wikipedia's idea is not that radical, with the exception of the elimination of a Smoke-Filled Room at the top in which the final decisions were made. That elimination, though, is another expression of the Link Economy, in which all links, all ideas, are theoretically equal; that theory led newspapers to go after ever-non-monetizable massive numbers of hits regardless of who or where they were. And that brings us to the Washington Post ombudsman's column of Sunday, which will be the next post.