Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Back again

The American Copy Editors Society once again had a successful and enlightening conference -- OK, in virtual terms it's tremendously old news -- it happened two weeks ago almost! -- but check out coverage at the ACES web site if you're interested. Every year, people at the conference say how they leave feeling renewed and encouraged about what they do. In these discouraging times, that's so wonderful to hear.

Part of that discouragement for some people seems to be what we used to call "information overload" before the overload went into hyperdrive. Andrew Ferguson, author of "Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College," puts it well, even though he does write for the Weekly Standard:

"Accustomed to turning to the Web to find any elusive piece of information... we now turn to it even for things that don't technically count as information -- advice, for example. ... As in other areas of life, such as pornography and day trading, the Internet hasn't caused the problem, it has just made it worse." Ferguson notes how nearly every hotel has reviews ranging from "good bargain" to "hellhole" and adds: "I of course had no way of knowing which advice to take. I'd search the comments for telltale clues that might indicate who was the bigger crank. ... The clues weren't there. And I'd be no better off than if I hadn't asked the question to begin with -- worse, maybe." And I love this graf:

"Internet utopians like to call message boards like College Confidential a 'community' ... What it is, is a Web site where people from all walks of life, from every income level and background, create a communal space without fear of reprisal and in a spirit of perfect openness, so they can spread misinformation, gossip, and lunatic conjecture to people who are as desperate as themselves. Cultural hierarchies are indeed upended, just as the utopians said they would be -- for example, the tyrannical, suffocating top-down arrangement that privileges people who know what they're talking about above people who don't." Maybe I have more in common with the Weekly Standard than I thought. (Whiggish! quoth the Internet utopian.)

And Scranton Times-Tribune columnist Chris Kelly: "The Internet has only amplified the din. Even the most specious arguments are granted legitimacy simply for having been made. Every opinion, however uninformed, is seen as inherently valuable. No argument is too preposterous or dishonest to share. If you are shameless enough to stand up and say it, someone is bound to agree and pass it along."

(To which I'm sure the Internet Utopian answers: Chaff from people already on the dustbin of history, pining for an era when there were gatekeepers. Judy Miller was a gatekeeper and here we still are in Iraq. Every argument is equally valuable because every argument may be equally wrong. But it does bring to mind from a somewhat enthusiastic story about the underground press of the 1960s this reference: “Editors rarely exercised the discretion that their title implied, for fear of being labeled ‘elitist’ or ‘professional,’” McMillian concludes. Naturally, this had ramifications on efficiency and consistency. At an Atlanta, Georgia paper called The Great Speckled Bird, the entire staff would sometimes convene for 'long and tedious meetings' whose sole purpose was to decide whether or not to cut a single paragraph from a piece.")

So, in the spirit of my argument being as good as anyone else's, let's let the always incisive Jim Chisholm make it:

"Whether our self-professed industry visionaries like it or not, 80 percent of our revenues will still be in print in five years' time. ... Newspapers are not so much losing readers as they are losing frequency and loyalty. In the United Kingdom, for example, over the last five years, the number of people who ever read a newspaper has fallen by 3.7 percent, but average issue readership has slid by 17.5 percent." But as he notes: "While around 60 percent of Web users visit a newspaper website, newspaper sites account for less than 1 percent of all pages viewed Internetwide." A chart shows that the average print reader spends 30 minutes with the paper, the average digital reader 4.4 minutes with the newspaper online; print newspapers reach 45 percent of the U.S. population, digital 10 percent.

Now, I do have my suspicion about this chart, because it says the average "Pages read" is 40, and a lot of papers have a hell of a time getting up to 40 pages. (And always have. When I grew up in Indiana, most daily newspapers outside the bigger cities struggled to get to 12.) And this is not controlled for age. But Chisholm's point remains true: "Our industry needs to refocus. That starts with recognizing that the 80 percent of the revenues that will continue to underpin our industry for the foreseeable future: Print circulation and advertising. Then, let's revisit the key drivers of success across all of our businesses, namely frequency, loyalty, and intensity."

Here in Philadelphia, my employer and nearly all the other area publishers of daily newspapers -- Calkins, Gannett, and Journal Register, everyone except Advance Publications and Metro -- have brought back the old idea of a Total Market Coverage vehicle, called Savings Spree!. Hate the name, but, the idea -- again, it's not a new one, but one newspapers dropped in the 1990s when all you needed to do to be rolling in dough was publish a Sunday help-wanted and real-estate section -- is to distribute "to more than 158,000 households not currently being reached by advertisers through Sunday newspaper subscriptions." The difference between then and now? Every newspaper back then -- and remember, we have more than 15 in the Philadelphia area -- put out its own product and gave it to people who weren't getting ITS newspaper. But many of them were getting someone ELSE'S newspaper, so advertisers were paying for duplicate circulation anyway. Under this plan, the product goes to homes that aren't taking ANYONE's newspaper. Also, combination buys used to be suburban papers vs. city papers. This brings both together.

"Who says traditional media like newspapers can't innovate?" asked Michael Scobey of Calkins, which also published in March a "Best Places to Work" section that reads suspiciously like that old newspaper standby for the low-revenue winter months, a Progress Edition. Well, two groups of people -- Internet utopians (who say it doesn't matter even if they do) and traditional newspaper journalists (who see every change as pearls rewarding swine and diminishing their status as social arbiters). Unfortunately, those two groups are very loud. The same issue of News & Tech that contains Chisholm's column also notes that the Fort Worth Star-Telegram expects a half-million in added revenue this year from a premium television guide. Of course, we all know that newspapers should all drop their TV guides because no one uses them anyway, particularly Internet utopians and traditional newspaper journalists. Our readers, though, continue to be Not Us.

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