Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Someone Must Pay

Earl Wilkinson of the International Newsmedia Marketing Association, his blog published in the New Jersey Press Association's newsletter, InPrint:

"What would happen if our local newspaper went out of business? ... My pat answer is that hypothetically, bloggers and nonprofit Web sites would rise up and take over the role of the local newspaper. Eventually, amateurs would become professionals, a Web site would emerge as the leader, a business model would revolve around their audience, and the ecosystem would return to equilibrium....

"How did E&P really die?" Of course, it's been resurrected, but still. "Like newspapers, its classifieds shifted to free online sources. Like newspapers, there was an overreliance on a certain advertising category.... Like newspapers, it gave away far too much for free on its Website. Like newspapers, its coverage became too broad for its resources.

"The E&P story should serve as a sober warning for newspapers on several levels:

"First, influence is great, but it rarely pays the bills.

"Second, to create value for content there must be the perception of scarcity. Don't give it away.

"Third, don't try to build audience by being all things to all people...."

Doug Page writes in February's News & Tech:

"The Internet forces yet another dismal economic model on newspaper Web sites: perfect competition.

"In this scenario, many players produce the same product -- as consumers see it -- which, because of this abundance, lowers the price and, more importantly, gives Internet users an incredible advantage: the substitution effect.

"And keep this in mind: The substitute need not be perfect.

"'The comparative advantage that newspapers have is professional reporting,' said Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, a New York University game theory specialist. 'They have the ability to take information, digest it and inform better than an amateur can.

'But that doesn't mean anyone will pay for it.'...

"The smartest Internet strategy may come from a publisher whose embrace of the Internet is more like a weak squeeze.

"Former USA Today Publisher Cathie Black, now leading Hearst Magazines, maintains only skeletal Web sites for her titles.

"As the New York Times quoted her last year, Ms. Black wants this: 'I want 1.6 million women to go to the newsstand and every month to buy Cosmo....'

"If you listen to what Black is saying, you'll know what's really important: The print edition is the only thing that cannot be substituted; the only thing that makes any newspaper unique; and the only thing that assures an advertiser that their message is displayed."

Of course, any new-media theorist will simply dismiss all this as: "They're so stupid!" But it's really up to the owners of newspapers. Most journalists don't think in terms of workable business models; indeed, a workable business model often seems to be the enemy of journalism, in the same way that doctors don't really want to run businesses, which is why their offices are so often an operational mess. So publishers and chairmen have to take the lead.

They can act boldly for print, as Walter Hussman in Little Rock has done; or they can act boldly for online, as in Ann Arbor; or they can say: "Well, I don't know, if I do something, there might be a downside." Since most newspaper publishers and prospective publishers who came out of the 1990s and early 2000s got their jobs for keeping profits churning while avoiding any substantive risk, I suspect Earl's projection of the future -- current big media swept away, replaced by new big media -- will happen, much more than a future in which the independent citizen-entrepreneur-journalist model prevails. Permanent revolution didn't work for Mao, so why should it work in the news business?

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.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Sudden Thoughts and Second Thoughts

(Apologies to Bill Lyon for the title, of course).

"The end of a belief in a universal standard of beauty had created a climate in which no one style could be immune from criticism.... Hence the attractions of a scientific language with which to ward off detractors and convince the wavering ... Technology would be the Modernists' burning bush. ... To speak of technology in relation to one's houses was to appeal... to the most prestigious force in society."

So writes Alain de Botton in "The Architecture of Happiness," the book that was a minor character in "(500) Days of Summer." Think about how many houses resemble Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye when you read something like Ken Auletta's paeans to the engineer.


"Long-time residents are often diehard skeptics. They see things as they are without fresh vision of what can be. They remember what things were and think that nothing as good as that can replace that. They long ago gave up on downtown, took their loyalties elsewhere, and view suspiciously anyone else who refuses to give up on downtown."

From "Cities: Back From the Edge: New Life for Downtown" -- yes, it has two subtitles, this is going too far -- by Roberta Brandes Gratz with Norman Mintz. Downtowns have been going through the same buffeting as newspapers, for longer, in many cases even less successfully. Even though I haven't lived in Muncie since 1974, I couild probably replicate half the downtown from memory -- Ball Stores, Stillman's, the dime stores, the jewelers and shoe stores, the Rivoli and the Strand. Like most small downtowns, the dime stores became Kmart and Woolco, the chain jewelers and shoe stores moved to the mall, suburban theaters started showing first-run movies, the local merchants and department stores tried to keep going but lost their critical mass of customers, and suddenly downtown looked deserted, decrepit and unsfafe. And since downtown couldn't again be what it was, people felt it couldn't be anything -- just tear it down, like in Newport News, Va.

Yes, downtowns, department stores, newspapers, can never again be what they were. The question is: What can they be? But people who remember them the way they were are not going to have the best answers to that. They'll say nothing can be done, because all they really want is for it either to go back to what it was, or just go away.


"In Western markets, at least, newspapers have been denigrated by a number of beliefs. The first? The view that the only requirement a publisher must meet to become the local brand is merely being available. Publishers increasingly believed that just being out there is enough. Imagine if Coca-Cola or McDonald's assumed that being in the fridge or down the street were adequate branding....

"...Too many newspaper companies are now over-focusing on their digital activities and in the process underprioritizing their print products. ... We should be proud of print, innovate in print, and realize that technological developments will push the cost of print down while increasing its value as a targeted medium."

Thus Jim Chisholm in News & Tech's January issue. (Chisholm also notes: "Newspapers will survive only if they keep their news brands alive across multiple media channels.")

What are the common threads here from a book of ruminations on Le Corbusier, a how-to guide for revitalizing small-city downtowns, and a European who looks at the newspaper business?

1. The world changes regardless of whether it should or whether you want it to.
2. It's important how you frame the problem and that you tell people what you're doing.
3. People who see it differently will frame the problem differently. Some people are in love with futurism. Some are in love with the rationality of engineering. Some are in love with the past. That's fine, but that may not be the business you are in or the view you have.
4. Those people generally will frame it as that the Wings of History beat inevitably in their favor and that you are stupid for trying to stand against the wind they generate.
5. You can't bring back the past, but don't abandon it either. Take what you have left after the storm and make it work in a new way.
6. It's always easier to say no, and it makes you feel smart and hip and insightful, that you've seen the truth the masses ignore. That doesn't mean it's right.
7. It may not work anyway, but you might as well try. The people who said you were stupid will still see you as stupid even if you come around to their view, because it took you so long. And you know what you want to do. You just need to stop looking at the guy saying, "And here is the burning bush. Put off thy shoes from off thy feet," unless it really is Charlton Heston.

(Note: IMDB says Heston voiced that part of God's role; it wasn't Cecil B. DeMille. It's not as sure about the giving of the commandments.)

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Watch Your Count, Part 3: Who's Right?

In their recent essays on the decline of newspaper copy editing, Tim McGuire and John McIntyre both referred to the subtleties of the craft. In particular, John noted the difference between the sort of nuts-and-bolts editing that spellcheck programs can purport to replace -- although they are of course useless if the person operating them doesn't know what's right to begin with, or the differences between various homonyms and homophones, or basic subject-verb agreement -- and what McIntyre calls analytical editing, which he describes as:

"It involves the things that make articles readable, such as focus, structure, organization within the structure, tone, and the legal and ethical issues that get people into trouble. Readers who spot errors in grammar or street names are unlikely to think about the text in these terms, but they can tell very quickly when a story is hard going."

John, my heart is with you. That's what I do just as you have done and taught. The late and great Steve Klock, longtime slot editor at my paper, would say that if he had to choose he'd take a rim editor who could fix the deep problems in a story and didn't catch most of the style problems. He, as the slot, could catch those, but he didn't have time to re-argue the story.

But one of the themes of this blog is that newspapers continually hear their customers' complaints and then say, "Well, we don't want to do that. We want to do this, and we deserve customers who appreciate that." Part of my job involves being the reader-feedback editor for corrections and clarifications. While few of those hang on copy editors' work, people with general complaints find their way to me as well.

I pride myself on my ability to eliminate excess words from a story -- "in order to" becomes "to," "at the intersection of" becomes "at," "early yesterday morning" becomes "early yesterday." I have never heard a reader complain about a story in which that has not been done.

We have, as most publications do, extremely specific rules about style, capitalization and the like. I have heard two categories of complaint about this: One, from companies wanting us to use their style (all-caps or the like) as opposed to ours, and two, from people who don't like our style of referring to the mayor and governor as simply "Gov. Rendell" and "Mayor Nutter." I have never heard a reader object to a story in which "City Councilman" was not capitalized before a name or in which "Street" was spelled out in a numbered address.

Like most papers, we aim to make names in captions consistent with names in stories. Occasionally we fail, and "James K. Fox" becomes "Jim Fox" in a caption because that's what Mr. Fox told the photographer. As long as the photo is of James K. "Jim" Fox, I have never heard anyone complain.

And while people are annoyed by typos and complain in general terms about their number, they often are unable upon request to actually cite any, and almost all of them seem to accept the view that typos just happen.

Most important, while certainly many of the calls pertaining to issues of deep editing would go to the reporter or the city desk, I never hear about them, anyway, unless they involve a story that ran on Fox News.

What I do hear about are all variations on "If I can't trust you on these small things, how can I trust you on the big ones?" -- the actual meaning of this being, "If you do something that I know is wrong, how can I trust you on something I don't know anything firsthand about"? The reader does not know firsthand the situation in Haiti. Most readers are not wordsmiths who can craft flawless English, or see a gigantic difference between Dan Brown and Ernest Hemingway. Many readers do know the difference between "who" and "whom." Spellcheck programs do not. Many reporters also do not.

The reader does not know much more about the "cash-for-kids" scandal in Luzerne County, Pa., than what he or she reads in the paper. The reader does know that "a annual publication" is wrong and cannot believe that anyone who is paid to write does not. Spellcheck programs generally do not, and it doesn't matter that it was written as "a semiannual publication" and you found out it was yearly and forgot to change the "a" to "an."

The reader in Philadelphia does not know what happened yesterday until he or she is told by the media, but he or she does know that Calumet is a Street and not an Avenue and where the Calumet Street bridge crosses. We recently ran a double correction. In a story we located this bridge in the wrong neighborhood. In preparing the clear, I had a brain freeze and wrote it as Calumet Avenue because, well, it's Calumet Avenue in Chicago. I had to write another clear the next day after readers pointed out that there is no Calumet Avenue in Philadelphia. Nothing can catch this other than having someone whose job it is to check this and who actually does that job. (A colleague of mine often checks the corrections, but they don't move as a slug through the copy desk.)

Readers "know" that in Philadelphia addresses are given as "Eighth and Market," not "Market and Eighth," and that we have "expressways," not "freeways" as they have in California. Readers know what TV stations Larry Kane was the news anchor on. Some
know that the supermarket on the Black Horse Pike across from Audubon Park was not always Acme but once was Penn Fruit. When we do not, they know we are wrong. They usually do not know if we are wrong in reporting on Pakistan, even if we report it in pedestrian and graceless prose lacking focus or structure.

Readers may get bored by a story that is overwritten, or with too many hanging clauses. They may find it lacking in depth or subtlety. Some of this may cause them ultimately to slip away from the paper. What causes them to distrust the paper is when it simply seems to be stupid. Even in an era of everyone's a publisher, people still expect the paper to know what they know, and more. Misspelling "cooperatively" is an error. Saying "The priest are praying" appears to be ignorance. They can understand mistyping, but they do know their own lives.

So I have to admit that the most important function of what I do is not the stuff I most enjoy doing -- the "honing" of stories, the subtle word choices, the playing with nuance, the oh-so-clever headlines. If people are interested in a story and believe it, they'll read it even if it's lazily written. What's most important about my job is to look at a story and say -- is the typical person going to find anything wrong with this story? (One of the things the typical person looks for is that any politician is identified by party, for example. Some just want to know, and others assume you are trying to hide it. Reporters can forget to put it in, because, you know, everyone knows that.)

Newspapers dispense with that at their peril. As McGuire and others have noted, the laugher in the Minneapolis cutbacks was not the laying off of vast numbers of copy editors; that was a personal tragedy for a bunch of good folks. It was the belief -- which even the editors' note showed little faith in -- that somehow, spellcheck and reporters reading their own stories and the like were going to take care of the problem this layoff created. If that were the case, newspapers would never have hired copy editors in the first place. (Well, OK, someone had to know spelling before spellcheck.) Need new evidence? Ask Rip Torn.

McGuire is right that the system that we have was not actually created to catch problems; it was created to get edited copy to the composing room efficiently and monitor what the composing room did, and morphed into something else as the composing room went away, something that may not be economically sustainable after the loss of at least one-third of ad revenue by the newspaper business. So there may need to be a revised system with more definite priorities. But trusting in faith and good works is not a system.

So the answer for newspapers isn't just "get rid of all those people who are sitting at desks giving a second read so that all we have on staff are people who are creating content." It ignores the context of newspapers. Rightly or wrongly, legacy newspapers have to meet a different standard in the public mind than a blog or even the Huffington Post. People expect newspapers to use accurate English. People expect newspapers to know about their communities. That's what newspapers sold themselves for years as doing. Online, whatever its charms, has never sold itself in this manner.

Institutions such as newspapers, department stores, mainline churches and temples, symphony orchestras, stood for what a community aspired to. All are in trouble now. All are undergoing radical change because of changes in public tastes and preferences. But the only competitive advantage they can have, I believe, is to try to respond to those changes while holding onto the strengths that have distinguished them. You can be High Church and successful as long as you are providing a High Church answer to what people want. If not, they'll go with the Low Church. But it's not inevitable.