Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Onward, Part One

A story for Bloomberg News by Nathan Myhrvol reminds “TTPB” that two things happened to the newspaper business as we knew it and only one of them has to do with new approaches to journalism.

One is that the growth of the Internet provided an alternative to classified advertising that was easier to use, less costly, and more versatile. People started fleeing in large numbers from classified before newspaper circulations started to follow suit. The falloff in newspaper revenue since the high-water year of 2005 has been tremendous, but how much larger it would have been had volume after the dot-com crash followed its usual upward slope with the recovery. Instead, newspaper advertising volume remained pretty flat in the first years of the 21st century, and revenue was boosted through raising rates. It’s true that people were pounding on the door looking for ads. It’s also clear that a lot of people were no longer pounding on the door.

The other is that not that many of the attacks on benighted newspapers from journalists – need we mention the name Jarvis here? --  are not only about the loss of revenue and the industry’s generally poor, disorganized, and fitful response. Some critics have concentrated on the interplay of the decline of the business model and the journalism produced – the always thoughtful Howard Owens, the redesign artist Alan Jacobson, and Alan Mutter with his continuing chronicle of the industry’s descent into the flame. But others would have been attacking daily newspapers if classified revenue was still storming along, if a way had been found to finance newspapers in print as well as adapt to the Internet age.

Their criticism, to me, is that “newspapers” does not mean the same thing as “journalism,” and either 1) should or 2) since it doesn’t, newspapers should just die.

The momentary crisis over “Is Joe Paterno dead” shines light on the point. Until its premature obituary Saturday night, Onward State was being hailed as an avatar of the new way, of throwing out all the barnacles that have held back newspaper journalism. It was being hailed in the same way that “underground” newspapers had been hailed. It was being hailed somewhat in the same way that the “new journalism” had been hailed. Now, these guys at State College just made a mistake in the same way that UPI used to make mistakes. They thought they had something and they didn’t. Careers should not be ended. But is their process, their approach – described in the article as “smashing some sacred journalism traditions, quaint rituals like editing, striving for objectivity, and verifying rumors before publication” -- truly a model for us to emulate, or is it simply the desire to let the id run free?

There’s always something to appeal to journalists, professors, and other critics who want to decry newspapers for being, as they forever have been, not hip, not disinterested, and not solely devoted to the care and feeding of journalists. They call out newspapers as institutional. Subject to the whim of editors who may not be as knowledgeable as they should be. Closely allied with the traditional power structure. Wary of “offending” their longtime readers. Subject to competitive marketplace pressures. Occasionally willing to kill stories to satisfy car dealers, real estate agents, and the like. Aimed at a mass market that doesn’t know Uganda from Uzbekistan. Reporting on the deeds of institutions and not the needs of people. Mainly printed to sell dry goods. Alternating between a principled stand against intimidation and fear that their readers are so easily swayed that they will lose them unless they “balance” the editorial page 80-20. In big cities, largely staffed (until recent years) by college-educated cosmopolitans whose interests were not the same as Joe Sixpack’s.

And some of the critics are people who strode into newspapers full of purpose and ideals and self-regard, as we all did, and then were told, after writing a poetic 250-word lede or wanting to spend six months researching the problems of adoptions from Tanzania (if there indeed are such problems), that, well, we don’t do that. Give me 10 inches on this car crash. Some of us said, OK, that’s what the job is, and others said that this was not what they intended to do with their lives and talents, and therefore what they had been told to do was wrong, irrelevant, out of date.

From the time of the penny press, through the muckracking era, into the attempt to create PM, through the readership of I.F. Stone’s Weekly to the era of alt-weeklies, and now to today’s world of the Huffington Post, there have always been efforts to break the perceived stranglehold of the establishment press, the mainstream media. And there have always been people who portray themselves as the honest seekers of the truth as opposed to the dull scribes, who feel that if we could just break down the walls of tradition and process and manufacturing there would be a journalism that would finally shine its light on the darkest corner, finally do its fullest part to end whatever evils one perceives. Oh, and a journalism that would never, ever make me change my lede or trim to length.

And all of us bow before this criticism and feel duly chastened, because we know we are not as high-minded as we once were, and with the loss of revenue we can lose faith in what we do, which, as Steve Yelvington noted, traditionally has been to work in a business whose core competence was manufacturing and delivering a product to people’s homes. 

Newspaper companies would like to tell you that their core competence has always been storytelling or creating content. They would like to say this because in part they believe it, in part because they want to believe it, and in part because they see the business of delivering a product to people’s homes falling apart. But this is not what they have been. Regardless of whether you spent gadzillions on journalism, like the New York Times, or tried to eke out an inferior report on starvation-level expenditures, as the Jelenic-era management of Journal Register did, the product was essentially the same. You brought together whatever you had, news and ads, you put it on pages, you printed them, and you delivered them. That was the business.

What you made into the content and how much you paid to get it was secondary, and was to some extent a loss leader to give people a reason to buy the product. Your customers were your advertisers and people who paid to have something in their hands every day as they sipped their coffee. Your customer was not the needs of society. Your product was not simply journalism. You were glad that your business allowed you to commit journalism, within certain strictures – such as not “offending” longtime readers, not being critical of 6 percent real estate commissions, and being gingerly in covering the affairs of the powerful who decided whether they would buy ads. It was not ideal. It looked to ideals for inspiration and fell short. Still, the good far outweighed the bad. But to some, the fact that there was bad simply invalidated the good.

Part Two to follow.

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