Thursday, February 2, 2012

Onward, Part Three

In the early days of “TTPB” it tried to make the point that print offered a pipeline into readers’ homes, and that the newspaper business could forget the concept of a pipeline at its peril. It is cheered by the endorsement of print by Halifax Media, the new owners of the former NYT Regional papers. It hopes the new owners in San Diego find their way. At the same time there are decisions such as that of Booth Newspapers to cut back home delivery to such an extent as to try to force people to get the news online (or at their own inconvenience), which, as Doug Page notes in a controversy-drawing article in News & Tech, simply changes them from one among 1,400 daily newspapers to one of about 100 million websites.

These moves say that the newspaper business is no longer just a one-size-fits-all model in which the New York Times and the Kingman Daily Miner essentially do the same thing. Different companies try different strategies. Time will tell which succeed. And the end product is that cities that now have daily newspapers may not have them, while other cities will – a daily newspaper may be like an Olive Garden, there’s one here and one there, but not one way over there. Not every town big enough to have a daily newspaper has a Macy’s, and nowadays not every town big enough to have a Macy’s has a daily newspaper.

This seems inevitable, though regrettable. But then, the files of the Library of Congress are filled with old titles that when they closed left their cities without a daily newspaper. Here in New Jersey, Union City, Hoboken, Dover, Passaic, Long Branch, Toms River, Elizabeth, Red Bank, all had local daily newspapers that foundered for one reason or another. Typically a larger nearby competitor would pick up part of the slack, but no one covered the heck out of the town in the same way. And local people said, “Sure was nice when we had that Elizabeth Journal,” and either read another paper or watched “Good Morning America.” Somehow for most the gap was filled. (The people in City Hall, of course, varied between exultation – we no longer have someone watching our every move – and agony – we no longer have someone doing a story every day about our every move!)

News is not a necessity. The closing of their local Food Fair or Wrigley Market did not stop people from going to the grocery. Newspapers’ Achilles’ heel has always been their sense of indispensability, because for the most part the people who work for them, business side or news side, find them indispensable and therefore feel, wrongly, that they need do little to promote their use. (Remember the downbeat Renault ads in the 1970s at the end of which George C. Scott intoned, “It sells itself”? Sure are a lot of Renaults on the roads here.) Most of us believe in what we do, and many of us are terrified that we are doing the wrong thing. We need to listen to owners who say, yes, there’s a future for print as well as a future for newspapers in digital. We also need to look for owners who are willing to support that with marketing, with promotion, yes, with progress editions if they want, with intelligent efforts focused on the desires of readers and not the importance of the First Amendment. (The First Amendment is vital, but it’s not going to make me buy a newspaper.)

Newspapers are too un-hip to do a Cadillac-style reinvention to the voice of Robert Plant, but they need to avoid how Oldsmobile spiraled into the grave by having a choir out of a 1950s soap ad sing, “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.” Because we cannot simply change ourselves into the Huffington Post. And we need to not listen to the people who say, there is no future for you unless you do exactly what I say, which, amazingly enough, is exactly what I want to do.

We need to remind ourselves that a website got it wrong about Paterno, CBS got it wrong about Paterno, and yes, some newspapers got it wrong about Paterno, but the AP didn’t, the New York Times didn’t, my own newspaper didn’t, most newspapers didn’t, not in print or online, and the reason is that we don’t see ourselves as organizations throwing out the baby to have the coolest 21st-century bathwater you’ve ever seen. At the same time, we need to remember that Hearst’s people made things up, Pulitzer’s people made things up, there have always been and always will be journalists who make things up or publish half-baked rumors because they’re good stories.

Part of the reason newspapers cracked down on this was that their advertisers wanted a reliable, truthful, respected medium in which to advertise so that their own ads would be seen as believable. Left to ourselves, we could have kept on writing the legend. Storytelling is easier when you can fill in the gaps with speculation or obtain the information by, say, tapping into someone’s voicemail illegally; when you can say, “Hey, someone told us this, what are we going to do, not publish it?” Yes. Someone will publish it anyway these days. It just shouldn't be you.

We need to acknowledge that in many ways we will always be unhip and that even if we end up publishing only a tablet-based product with an associated website, what we do is compile, create, and distribute a product to customers, and the ideals of journalism and the needs of the writer are part of that but are not the core or only competency of the industry. We want to meet people’s needs for a journalistic product, but we are not foundations to underwrite journalism. It just seemed that way when newspapers were licenses to print money. A foundation may be a successful journalistic model, on a small scale with a tight focus. But it has not been terribly successful in the newspaper business and it would be folly to try to make ourselves into it. As Page wrote, “Your job as a newspaper executive is to figure out how to successfully operate in these tricky times while still holding your business true to what it is: a newspaper.” It is easier to ignore this if you believe that your business is simply journalism.

If you want to be a pure journalist, with no strings holding you back in your service to society; if you want to analyze the communications patterns of a wired world and write articles on paradigm shifts; that world offers you more opportunity than ever before. Good luck to you. And then there is the newspaper business, which, despite what its many critics say, does not exist only as a sort of catalyst to allow the creation of journalism. Unlike the motto of “Newspaper Death Watch,” the death of newspapers would not necessarily bring about the rebirth of journalism. It would just be the death of newspapers. Journalism might be better. It might be worse. Newspapers are not what holds journalism back from the salvation of the world. The inherent limits of journalism and human nature do that. Newspapers exist to bring a community together and they exist to sell dry goods. They exist to shine a light on society and they exist to not gratuitously offend longtime readers. They exist to take principled stands against the misuse of power and they exist to be part of the town’s power structure. They exist to quote professors decrying the hold sports has over their campuses and they exist to run 16 columns of college sports results on Sunday. Newspapering is a business, and journalism is an idea.

Newspapers employ journalists, but do not exist simply to enable them. If that becomes the case, the focus becomes them and not the customers. Which of the business practices being trotted out now will be successful, we will see. But newspapers need to remember what they are about, even though scores of journalists will deride them for that and work to make them feel uncomfortable about themselves.


gottacook said...

I appreciate your automotive analogies, but I'm not sure whether the "not your father's Oldsmobile" ad campaign (which ran in 1988-89, concomitant with the introduction of the first front-wheel-drive Cutlass Supreme) really was the primary factor in Olds' downfall. Of course it may well have contributed to alienating the large portion of Olds' customer base who were fathers, but in addition the products themselves became more mediocre and less appealing. In 1994 Olds introduced its "halo" car the Aurora (sans Oldsmobile badging), and if that car had been used to resurrect the entire marque (by renaming the marque Aurora, as GM had contemplated), perhaps it would still be around today.

Davisull said...

You're right, the word "while" would have been better there... "spiraled into the grave while..."

It was certainly not the primary factor in Olds' downfall. It does stand as part of GM's confusion and inability to do anything consistent or meaningful about Olds' decline, which, as you note, was also muffed with the Aurora ... contemplated to revive the division by dumping the "ride with me Lucille" name, but then by the time the Aurora was redesigned in the 2000s, it was being firmly linked to Oldsmobile again even while GM was throwing Olds into the trashcan. Did Olds dealers play a big role in that decision? Always wondered.