Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Moving Finger Writes, and Having Written

... As noted, I'm now in a position to end my career working for a newspaper in a department store. Life was too busy to post in the runup to moving to 801 Market St.

We;re on the third floor all the way from the bridge over Ninth Street (at the left) to Eighth Street on the right. That's the whole company; the newsroom is on the third floor of the main building, The Inquirer to the front. Where the two-story added height at the center of the building is, is where the elevators are; the Daily News is to the rear of that.

All in all, it's a very nice office space, and bless them for adaptive reuse of a building; Philadelphia still has three of its old department store buildings (one of which is still a Macy's) plus parts of two others, the Chestnut Street additions to Gimbel Bros. and N. Snellenburg & Co. Compare with Detroit (no Hudson's, no Crowley's, no Kern's) or most smaller cities. But also, in today's terms, look at that building (with the smaller one to its left) and imagine -- this was just one store. And there were five others like it. Compare this with even your largest big-box store or mall department store.

Our old building at 400 N. Broad was pretty decrepit by the time we left. The collapse of the newspaper business had left us unable to do most maintenance, the downsizing had meant large areas were abandoned. But it was in looking at that building in our last days there that I realized part of why the history of old department stores (and what, it is becoming increasingly clear, will soon be the history of old daily newspapers) interests me in ways that don't appeal to others.

The movers taking our belongings down the freight elevators had no idea that those were there to move the chases with lines of lead type and engravings from the composing room to the stereotyping room where the mat was made to form the printing plate. The odd steps leading from the lobby to the Daily News newsroom indicated that it wasn't public access, it was simply a way into the mailroom where the papers were bundled for distribution. Along the sidewalk on 15th Street is a long rail bolted into the concrete; that was to keep the  trucks from backing over the sidewalk as they pulled out with the papers. One of the last things to go was what we always called the "APS room," where, when I started, union printers controlled the output of film from the typesetters. It was still being used for what now is known as prepress until a couple of months ago, even though the printing plant moved away almost two decades ago.

When my wife and son and I were shopping at the Herald Square Macy's last winter, I came across a place on one of the higher floors where I remember my father saying in 1964, after riding the wooden-slat escalators: "This place is a dump." It's an entryway into the bowels of the store, and the fact that it is still there in 2012 means there's nothing they can do about it. Like the painted-over rotunda in the old John Shillito & Co. store in Cincinnati, or the odd, narrow entryway into Gilmore Bros. in Kalamazoo, it was just one of those things, a mark of the improvised, quirky, adaptive uses that institutions such as department stores (and newspapers) had to make back when technology was heavy and our expectations were less determined by set design and virtual backdrops. Weird, sure. Best we can do. Deal with it.

The Macy's store in Cherry Hill Mall, the oldest enclosed mall on the East Coast, is 51 years old. A 10-year-old shopping there with her mother is in a store built 41 years before she was born. For me, that would have been 1911, just around the time that the William H. Block Co. store at Illinois and Market Streets in Indianapolis was being built. Yet the Cherry Hill Macy's (built as a branch of Bamberger's from Newark) is clearly simply a cousin to the Macy's at Moorestown Mall that was built about 10 years ago after the old Wanamaker's branch was pulled down. It's a suburban box, three floors, escalators built in the middle, no nooks or crannnies to speak of. Whereas when I was young, it was clear that the downtown stores of Ayres, Wasson's and Block's were already from another era. Part of Wasson's was built before the Civil War and had ceiling fans because it was not air-conditioned. At both Ayres and Wasson's, alleys ran through the center of the stores and you had to watch for traffic as you went from part of the main floor to the other part. This was just seen as normal -- teach your kids to watch for trucks in the middle of a department store -- and then it became irrelevant when Ayres at Glendale didn't have an alley in the middle.

The merchants wanted to build modern, air-conditioned stores at which space could be utilized more economically, because, as Jan Whitaker's books on department store make clear, owners came to realize that an architecturally interesting building drew attention away from the merchandise, and every square foot needed to pull its weight. Shoppers, for the most part, didn't care because they were there to shop, not wonder why there were steps in the middle of the third floor at Pogue's or why the escalators above the third floor were in a different part of the store from those on the main floor. And then there were the people like myself for whom that created a personality, that made an Ayres an Ayres and made Indianapolis Indianapolis. But clearly we were in the minority.

And so it was with newspapers as they increasingly fade into that dark night. Those who grew up in St. Louis may remember when the makeup of the Post-Dispatch was so chaotic that the page folios were used to fill space by the printers; the page number floated around each page at random. This made the Post-Dispatch very different from the regimented look of the Louisville Courier-Journal, and made it clear you were in St. Louis and not Louisville. But, it turns out, just like the shopper at Famous-Barr didn't really care how it was different from Stewart's but was there to buy shoes, the readers who looked at newspapers didn't really care about the endearing quirks of their paper. They read the articles and ads regardless of how they were presented, and once someone gave them a new way to read them, one that didn't involve ink on your hands and bad jumps, they were happy to move on.

Two years ago I would have said that daily newspapers, despite their problems, would always survive because newspapers weren't like film. Film was just a medium on which pictures were taken; the picture was the point to the viewer, not the medium, and thus digital media made Kodak irrelevant. But a newspaper, to me, was a way of organizing and presenting information that was more than the sum of its parts. The printed page was not just film; it had value in and of itself. It's clear from the growth of replica editions and tablets that this is true to some degree. But it's also clear that the many positive attributes of print advertising simply can't overcome the combination of low price and targeted delivery found online, and thus newspapers, like any high fixed-cost industry, simply can't cope. And so the film question is irrelevant. The "this is my newspaper" question becomes so as well. Some people will miss daily newspapers the same way they miss downtown department stores, but those who never used them, or who simply found them irritating, overly complex warehouses with no free parking and lines for the elevator, will of course see nothing to miss. In the end, the big stores and the daily papers were not essential. They just were lovable.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Newhouse model

Gee, has it really been two months away. ACES conference. Problems with a new editing system. Moving the newsroom. New owners. Inflamed Achilles tendon. Probably have lost all my readers. Thought about just letting it fade away -- who blogs now, anyway... Whoops, it turns out that's the answer!

As Charles Apple said in his great blog for ACES, we will remember the day -- the day when Advance Publications turned its Digital All-In strategy from a curiosity associated with the poor economy in Michigan into an incipient national policy by saying that its newspapers in Birmingham, Mobile, Huntsville, and New Orleans -- gasp, New Orleans, where we still remember people eagerly scooping up Times-Picayunes after Katrina, where the newspaper has proudly boasted of its highest household penetration rate in the nation -- will move to three-day-a-week publication in print and put their major emphasis online.

There are many things to be cynical about here -- this will result in a large loss not only of jobs, but of compensation as people must reapply for jobs. To hear it discussed, daily coverage may be more on a blog model. I don't know how Advance runs these days, but in the old days when I worked in Flint, the model was -- as long as you made enough money that you did your proportional share of supporting the Newhouse family, what you did with the rest of it was up to you. When times were good, this meant that many once-mediocre papers -- such as the Times-Picayune -- suddenly became really good. Now times are bad and are projected to remain so forever. And these papers are in monopoly markets (in the old days) and so Advance can do whatever it wants -- as opposed to, say, the family's beloved Newark Star-Ledger. As a diehard printie, I have been in mourning for days.

But at the same time I have to look at this from the other angle and see it this way -- is Advance the only company that really is committed to the philosophy of Digital First as opposed to merely talking the talk? Earl Wilkinson of the International Newsmedia Marketing Association has been writing extensively about how publishers are saying the biggest enemy in their embracing the future is their own staffs -- people who grew up in the newspaper business, were successful in it, loved it, adapted to it, and really can't think of how to do things except in the way they were taught to do it for decades. (As a new story in Philadelphia Magazine puts it about the owners of alt-weeklies: "It’s that they care just enough to be paralyzed—to lean back and do nothing and watch their papers, their brands, their properties, bleed."

(Note to reader: This is a really long post, but it didn't provide a good way to break it into two.)

In newspapers, we study things, we analyze the risks, we create committees, we do mockups, we expect that the time and money to do things the "right" way should be provided. We don't like things that damage our historical integrity. We like to build securely on the foundation we have established, to make things that will stand the test of time. Meanwhile, people who do not care about these things as much keep developing new online products that people immediately flock to and love, even if their attention proves fickle and they abandon them a few months later. As a former Australian newspaper executive put it: "Forests of customers are not holding their breath, waiting for a newspaper to launch with a new font or with a few more photos, or a new writer or two. In fact, they are not waiting for anything. People are quite happy with the news they are receiving, whether from news brands or Facebook or Twitter. It is up to publishers to provide them with an alternative that is better than what they are now content to consume."

I don't like the fact that publishers seem to be blaming their problems on the people who work for them. Generally people will follow a clear direction, and you play the cards you're dealt. But Advance has apparently decided to have a new deal. And these sometimes are people who, as with the executives of Media General, just said for years, "Heck, we've got a strong business and we just have to cut to keep it afloat," instead of saying, "Holy cow, something's gone really wrong here." And now they blame their staffs? C'mon. But still...

The Internet utopians and digiterati for years have been saying, "Stop trying to defend your dying or dead print business." Had they simply used the word "declining," they might have gotten more traction. But they had seen the future and had little respect for those who had not. And those who held the fort thus felt they had to defend it, because -- that's what you do when under attack. Still, other than screaming "Never trust anyone who wants to run a printing press," what was being said?

  • Newspapers have to be smaller. People have more things to read and no longer are willing to block out 20 minutes to just "read the paper."
  • Newspapers that simply state the next morning what people already know are irrelevant.
  • The cost structure of daily print newspapers is not sustainable without classified revenue.
  • People during a week go back and forth among print and online.
  • It's not that many young people don't read print newspapers -- it's that they don't want seven-day delivery.
  • The mistake many newspapers made with online -- well, one of the mistakes -- was to base the cost structure not on being a startup or smaller, lower-paying venture, but to run them as corporate divisions with the staffing a mature organization would bring.
  • The "story" -- in terms of being the 20-inch summing-up -- no longer works for some news events. People want little bits of update -- to follow the story in real time like it was a TV show. The omniscient lead is off-putting.
  • All that money that's going to defend and support the "declining" print product should be spent on digital development instead. In the short run it may look like throwing good money after bad, but in the long run if you don't, you'll be stuck with a print product no one reads and a digital product -- no one reads.
  • The skills of your legacy staff may not match today's business requirements, no matter if you have the best newspaper staff in the country.
  • Local news isn't as important to provide daily as national news. People like to catch up on their community once or twice a week. They want to gossip about Obama or Romney every day.
  • Instead of trying to serve everyone in the market -- the business model of "our customers are everyone within range of our trucks" -- figure out who your customers really are, serve them, and forget most of the rest.
Lots of companies have said, "Well, Digital First." But it seems that only Advance Publications -- which was forced into this in Michigan by the Detroit papers' decision to cut back home delivery while still printing seven days a week (which I have been told, although not authoritatively, had something to do with a condition in the JOA agreement affecting Media News Group's share of the pie if it didn't publish a daily newspaper until 2012) and the resulting loss of preprint business in its newspapers in Ann Arbor, Flint, Saginaw and Bay City, which were reeling from the then-current collapse of the auto business already -- said, as a result, "You know, we can do this today. We don't need to keep the daily newspaper alive for a couple more years. We can turn it into a thrice-weekly and suffer no ill effect -- because, except for Sunday, no one buys the paper for anything except ads anyway." (Last part my interpretation.)

At first the answer was to kill the Ann Arbor News -- which, although a reasonably large and seemingly successful paper, had had market penetration problems for years and was getting weaker as Ann Arbor became ever more a suburb of Detroit -- replacing it with a twice-weekly mix of hometown-weekly and alt-magazine -- and drop the other papers back to three days a week. Demand -- apparently much of it by politicians who wanted their night meetings covered -- brought back a fourth day outstate. But the seed was planted. What was the point of a Saturday paper if people could get high school sports online? What was the point of a Monday paper if the only real news in it was sports? And what was the point of a Tuesday paper since Tuesday had always been the weakest ad day after Saturday? Here was a model. Maybe. Maybe we didn't want to do it, but we did it.

For the rest of Michigan, a different model was tried later -- the Detroit model of seven-day publication, but three-day home delivery. Apparently the conclusion Advance has drawn is either 1) if you're only going to home deliver three days, you don't need the other four days in print, or 2) further research is needed to see if you can get away with just the three-day-a-week print paper.

Also, it appears -- I'm not completely sure -- that Advance is going to a more blog-centric model for breaking news. Now, the Los Angeles Times has done this online, but then has people write a print paper story as well, or offers one or the other -- it seems that in New Orleans nothing will be written specifically for the paper, everything will be repurposed. Really, the print paper will only exist as something for people to be weaned off of. And this is quite a volte-face, for until recently Advance had been using Birmingham as a model of its commitment to print.

(At this point it is worth noting that one of Newhouse's advisers is Jeff Jarvis. Longtime readers of this column will, of course, know that name. Jeff has at least, apparently, learned not to scream, "Print is dead." One assumes he is now getting consulting contracts from people who do not wish him to say that.)

To do this, Advance in Alabama and Louisiana is getting rid of a number of things:
  • As in Michigan, it's getting rid of its old newspaper buildings, moving reporters and assigning editors into smaller downtown offices.
  • By reorganizing itself as a new company (NOLA Live) or whatever that's in a fundamentally different business (no longer a daily newspaper), it is in essence laying off its entire staff and hiring back who it wants -- at, in many cases, doubtless lesser pay.
  • By eliminating seven-day delivery, it will abandon that sizable chunk of senior-citizen readers who don't have computers or who buy the paper every day just to work the puzzle -- but whom advertisers have no interest in reaching, because they don't buy anything. It can do this because with new ABC rules including digital editions, the hit to circulation figures will not be as extensive.
  • By eliminating a lot of production costs, it will be able to adjust its profits -- and the Newhouse family's checks -- more toward what an online site can actually produce, which will never be what print could.
  • By making the print product into essentially a higher-class triweekly, it can compress advertising into three days, presumably making it a more efficient vehicle for the print advertiser.
One has to assume that based on its experiences in Michigan, Advance believes this will work. One also has to assume that Advance, by being willing to wager the farm in a way no one else has, is willing to say -- if it doesn't work and our papers fade into irrelevance, well, they were going out of business anyway in the long run and at least we weren't subsidizing the same level of losses in the short. If we lose the franchise, we were going to lose it anyway. This is, after all, the company that let the Long Island Press, one of America's largest dailies, simply wither into insignificance. And let's not forget the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.

As an earlier edition of this blog noted, we have now entered the era where some cities will have daily newspapers and others will not depending merely upon who owns the franchise. (Papers near New Orleans, such as the Baton Rouge Advocate, have said they will continue seven-day publication. Indeed, there are still seven-day papers near Detroit.) What happens to the daily paper in your town now depends on its owners' long-term business strategy.

What this means to the people of New Orleans who have seen the Times-Picayune as part of their city's rebirth; what this means to the people of Birmingham who have seen the News as a vital part of investigating the county's miasma of bad decisions; what this means to the people of Huntsville, Mobile and Pascagoula, who suddenly live in cities without daily newspapers -- this remains to be seen. Some opportunists will jump on this bandwagon in other cities, others will "study it with interest" but hold back to see the advertising numbers at the end of the year. The same thing is happening in England, where the Johnstone Press has said that by 2020 it expects most of its papers to be weeklies, whereas another major publisher has said it is basing its strategy on seven days in print now and then.

Advance did a heck of a job in its own papers of trying to spin this as a wonderful thing, an advance, so to speak, and not do the usual newspaper thing of "To our readers, we regret that circumstances cause us to..." And as meters and pay walls grow in popularity, more publishers will be saying -- if I can get circulation revenue off digital, why should I pay for diesel fuel and ink? On the other hand, the daily print newspaper has been a market avatar. Why throw away the thing that makes you distinctive? As David Carr noted in the New York Times, "A newspaper, even one short on advertising, is a great ad for at least one thing: the paper itself. The constancy of a daily paper — in the rack at the convenience store on Frenchman Street or on the tables of the coffeehouse on Maple Street — is a reminder to a city that someone is out there watching. Important journalism will still be done at The Times-Picayune. ... But you have to wonder whether it will still have the same impact when it doesn’t land day after day on doorsteps all over the city."

And what does this do to the civic leadership of these towns -- is a daily newspaper something like a symphony orchestra, something you need to have to be taken seriously even if it doesn't make money? (The civic leadership is still largely people who grew up with and were validated by newspapers.) And while we're at it, what exactly is Warren Buffett's strategy for Omaha and Richmond and Greensboro?

But we have now crossed a line. A major newspaper publisher has said it is no longer necessary for a major city to have a major daily print newspaper. Now, the ball is in the hands of the readers. My gut feeling: Many of them will say how sorry they are and how much they miss it -- on social media, as they look for links to things friends tell them they want to read..

Friday, March 30, 2012

Final Laurels

On Thursday, the Laurel Leader-Call in Mississippi -- a four-day-a-week newspaper for the last few months, which still qualified it as a daily -- suddenly announced, We're done. This is it. Goodbye. Doubtless the death-of-print people will hail this as another example of the triumphs of the digital world.

But -- Laurel, Miss.? This is even weirder an epicenter than lower Michigan.

It seems to be in large part a different story, one that's been seen before. Community Newspaper Holdings owned the Leader-Call, and had people in the community write local columns. One of them was Jim Cegielski, who moved to Laurel in 1996, possibly -- it's hard to track some of this stuff -- from right here in Burlington County, N.J. (He may be the same Jim Cegielski who wrote a fan book about Howard Stern, or he may not.) At any rate, when the newspaper holocaust started in the mid-2000s, CNHI apparently cut off its freelance local columnists' pay, asking them to write free. (Getting this from a fuzzy copy of a front page of the ReView.) Among them were Cegielski and some other local citizens, including Mark Thornton, who became editor of the ReView, who was a local businessman. They started a competing weekly newspaper, the ReView of Jones County, which delighted in pointing out what it considered the shortcomings of the Leader-Call. It also pointed out that the Leader-Call's owners were based in Alabama. Didn't know there was an Alabama-Mississippi feud, but apparently.

This wasn't a matter of a small newspaper not having a Web presence -- the Leader-Call posted everything, while it appears that the ReView kept stuff behind a paywall. It's hard to tell, there's little online documentation. But we've seen this before in small towns. Big newspaper company lets go of publisher, editor, columnists, whoever. Publisher, editor, columnists, whoever, being the sort who have determined they plan to spend their lives in this community, get P.O.'d and start their own weekly newspaper. They defy the conventions of the newspaper business and get personal about the competitor. They often run articles with a bit more of an attitude than the competition, and go to John Q. Storekeeper and say, Now don't you want to keep your money in the community?. Local merchants put their ads in the locally owned (and cheaper) competitor. As there aren't that many local merchants, the established paper's profit margin quickly falls away.

The publisher of the upstart always says that the big, bad chain paper isn't serving the local community. And it very well may not be. However, it usually was serving the community just fine until it let him or her go. (How many upstart weeklies and websites and journalism critiques are started by people whose initial motive is revenge!) There's nothing wrong with this at all. It's old-fashioned newspaper warfare. And today, the winner doesn't feel the need to go to six days a week, because daily obits and the like can be published online. But it doesn't say very much about the future of journalism in print or online. It says a lot more about, don't piss off the wanna-be opinion makers in a small town. If Jim Cegielski indeed was the guy who wrote a book about Howard Stern, CNHI should have known that he was going to take having his pay cut as 1) the Evil Empire against the Little Guy and 2) don't be bound by the conventions of propriety.

At my first job, in Richmond, Ind., we had a weekly paper, the Graphic, run by a man named Vic Jose. Our paper had no classified base because the Graphic basically gave away the ads. It merely needed enough money to enable Vic Jose to opine every week on what was wrong with Richmond and the world. (Full disclosure: His son lived next door to my mother and I went to grade school with his nephew. In the small world of the North Side, Vic Jose was a childhood friend of Kurt Vonnegut Jr., whose uncles owned the Vonnegut Hardware Co. where my grandfather and grandmother worked.)  Vic was often attacking the Pal-Item. The Pal-Item rarely even deigned to notice Jose. In part, Vic was running an alt-weekly without the counterculture gloss. Vic was a hard-working, often crusading journalist tilting against the windmills of the power structure and the Way Things Are, who cared deeply about his community, his country, freedom of the press, and the role of the small-weekly, mad-as-hell type newspaperman. But because the Graphic very clearly was the voice of  Vic Jose, it could say things that the Pal-Item -- both when it was owned by a prominent local family and when it was owned by Gannett -- thought it could not do. The Pal-Item saw itself as part of the civic leadership of the community. It felt it needed to reflect a balanced opinion. It was in the same civic sphere as the Second National Bank and Knollenberg's. Vic Jose saw himself as Vic Jose. He was a leader in the chamber of commerce, he was a contributor to civic causes, but the newspaper reflected him and not "responsible opinion." I expect the Laurel Leader-Call saw itself the same way as the Pal-Item. The ReView doubtless saw itself as a guerrilla band of local journalists saying what the Leader-Call wouldn't say, couldn't say. All well and good. But if the Leader-Call had kept paying those community columnists, they would have seen it as a perfectly fine newspaper. The lesson to take from this is: The people who want to be community journalists are not doing it because they care about your newspaper. They care about what they want to say. They can turn on you in a second. Deal with them at your peril.

CNHI wasted no time in shutting off the Leader-Call's server. That paper is just gone. You can only see some cached pages. That says to me, boy, this was personal. Someone in CNHI, I'd say, just got tired of dealing with the problem in Laurel. The question now is: What does the ReView of Jones County become? Does it reach out to all the people who liked the Leader-Call? In doing so, does it become more of a typical newspaper? Time will tell.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Time Fades Away

Went last night to hear Michael Lisicky speak on Gimbels at the New York Public Library and promote his book, "Gimbels Has It" -- and announce he's working on a book about Filene's in Boston as well as a "memories" sort of book about all four big department stores in Baltimore, not only Hutzler Bros., which he wrote about previously, but Hochschild Kohn & Co., Stewart & Co., and the Hecht Co./Hecht Bros/May Co. operations that ended up being one. Michael is such an engaging speaker -- I didn't realize he also is the Baltimore town crier. If you love old department stores, and you see him listed in your area, take the time and the effort. Amazingly, the building in which he spoke -- not the main library, but across the street -- was built as the store of Arnold Constable & Co. when it moved to Fifth Avenue from Broadway.

Michael was asked by a member of the audience why Gimbels did not survive, and he cited its stubborn resistance to moving "out of the middle" -- department stores had tried to be all things to all people, and when they lost the "price" market to discounters such as, originally, E.J. Korvette and Kmart and Caldor, some, such as Macy's -- remember, its longtime motto was "It's Smart to be Thrifty" -- and Bloomingdale's realized they could never underbid those stores, particularly on hard goods, and traded up. Gimbels continued to appeal to its traditional customer, but more of its traditional customers were leaving for lower-priced stores and, more important, their children just didn't come in at all -- they didn't see themselves as Miss or Mrs. Oldsmobile Kingsford Briquette. And as Michael noted, if you don't get the next generation through the doors, you are doomed.

Gimbels in New York also pursued an odd branch policy -- all in for a few years in the 1960s, then they forgot about branches until Bruce Gimbel came up with the Gimbels East idea to redefine Gimbels with an upscale store on the Upper East Side. But, like Oldsmobile with the Aurora, Gimbels East couldn't redefine Gimbels in the New York mind when Gimbels itself was sitting a few miles away. Macy's, Michael noted, had branches all across the country -- San Francisco, Kansas City, etc. -- from which ideas like "the Cellar" emerged. While Gimbels operated in four markets and was generally profitable outside New York, it tended not to see its units as sources of inspiration -- where would McDonald's be if the Big Mac, originated in Pittsburgh, had been  ignored by corporate?  Gimbels was Just Doing Business, which had worked well for so long but whose era was grinding to a close.

Michael didn't mention (his talk being about department stores) the effect that new entrants into the clothing field had on department stores as well. Indianapolis in my childhood was not a city of specialty stores, having essentially Morrison's and a couple of smaller stores (Peck & Peck, Schamberg's) for women and Harry Levinson for men, as well as L. Strauss & Co., a clothing store that was more like a department store. But even cities such as Detroit with many more clothing stores -- Winkelman's, Himelhoch's, and B. Siegel for women along with the national Franklin Simon chain and neighborhood stores like Belle Jacob, and Hughes Hatcher Suffrin for men -- weren't operatiing in the complicated environment that started to emerge in malls with the Gap and the Limited, and then exploded into today's world of Old Navy and Zara and H&M and niche stores like White/Black and Hot Topic. While the discounters, and later the big-box stores, ate away at department stores in appliances, furniture, and home goods, the smaller clothing stores pulled in the younger fashion shopper -- in part by being a place Mom would never take you.

So when Michael was asked -- as I'm sure he always is -- could different management have saved Gimbels, his answer was -- probably not. "Macy's," as we know it today, is not even Macy's -- which went bankrupt in the 1990s -- but Federated Department Stores, which decided that "Macy's" was a brand that meant "quality department store" across the country in a way that "Lazarus" or "Bullock's" or even "Marshall Field & Co." didn't. And "Macy's" refers to a company that operates most of the surviving store units of the divisions of Allied and Associated and Mercantile and Dayton Hudson and Marshall Field's that DID successfully trade up in the 1960s but became too beset by competition to operate as independent units -- too much money spent on having divisional staffs, different advertising, different tags, different profiles -- but when you go into a Macy's, chances are you're going into what still looks in some way like a Bamberger's or a Denver Dry Goods or a Foley's or an L.S. Ayres. While the names didn't survive, the companies didn't survive, most of the downtown temples of retailing didn't survive, the Macy's store in Cherry Hill Mall was built in 1961 -- it's now 51 years old, younger by less than a decade than then were the downtown Ayres and Block's stores I went to as a child in the 1960s that felt like Chartres Cathedral. It just doesn't feel that way because it was built the same way department stores are built today and not the way they were built even just 10 years before Bamberger's opened in Cherry Hill.

So Michael's answer -- and he, as I do, loves department stores of the past not just for the trivia and stories but because these stores defined their communities and their communities defined them, Trenton was Dunham's and Wilmington was Kennard's and therefore Trenton was not Wilmington -- was, with a tinge of sadness, that these things just went away. Society changed, retailing changed, people's self-perception changed, the middle class changed, transportation changed, zones of safety changed, and in the end we're pretty lucky that all these stores operating as Macy's are still here, let alone the occasional Boscov's and Bon Ton and Younkers.

The implication this has for the newspaper business is, alas, pretty clear. We won't get into it now, but we will in a subsequent column.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Department Store Buildings of York, Pa., No. 2

As mentioned in the previous post, York, Pa., was a city of strong department stores, one of which was the base of one of the country's last department-store chains still existing. The Bon-Ton appeared to be the strong middle-class store, with the upmarket store being Charles H. Bear & Co.

Bear's was at the northwest corner of the "square" -- which, as in so many Pennsylvania cities, was an intersection with the four corners notched back, presumably to allow a small town hall or market in the center in colonial times. The same thing was done in Camden, N.J., where to my knowledge no such structure was ever built in the small "square" that resulted. This is different from the "diamond" found in Wilkes-Barre or the many courthouse squares across the Midwest and Southwest in that it was simply an enlargement of an intersection and not a city block turned over to a public purpose, or even a large "market" widening such as in Reading or Harrisburg. Nevertheless, these "squares" served to anchor downtown in Allentown, Easton, and York, and I'm sure in other smaller communities.

Charles H. Bear opened for business in 1888, and his location never changed from 1 W. Market St. Bear, a York native, had taken over the established business of Jordan & Bro. Sometime before 1909 the business passed into the hands of his children Charles Jr. and Jennie. After World War II it was being run by, presumably, the widow and daughters of Charles Bear Jr., Anna Bear, Nora Deardorff, and Charlotte Stock. Charlotte Stock appears to have enjoyed skeet shooting, as did, according to this article, Robert R. Rodale of Emmaus, of the famous Organic Gardening & Farming family.  Not that it matters, just a curiosity. In 1970 the surviving Bear heirs sold the store to the expansion-minded Zollinger-Harned Co. of Allentown, which closed seven years later after expanding into the Lehigh Valley as well.

Here's a fine photo of downtown York, looking north on George Street from Market, in the mid-1960s, before downtowns fell apart. Bear's at this point has a "modern" front, but it's a tasteful one. The photo above shows that the building has been put back as it was. The Bear store seems to have taken up at least three buildings and probably four (the low building facing the alley with what appear to be a couple of old skylights).

Finally, a quick look at P. Wiest's Sons at 14 W. Market St., one of the stores owned by the Hydeman family and its various branches. One member, Albert, who ran Wiest's, became a noted collector of American art. Another, Edwin, owned "the Mona Lisa of Rare Coins." Peter Wiest founded the store far down West Market in 1848 and moved closer to downtown after a flood in the 1880s. When Harry Wiest was the only surviving Wiest son, he brought two former Gimbels executives, Leon Hydeman and James Rodgers, into the ownership. (Leon Hydeman at one time operated a small department store in Norristown, my records show, but Moses Hydeman, the family patriarch, had been in business in York.)

The York County Historical Society has an amazing collection of the business records of Wiest's showing that the Hydemans also had an interest in Yard's, a Trenton store. The same partnership also ran Kennard's, the Wilmington, Del., store, as this article obliquely indicates by mentioning James Rodgers. (The only way I knew this was that Kennard's and Yard's both had the same motto: "They do sell nice things at...(store name)." No one would copy that except for common ownership.) This operation kept itself pretty low-key; Rodgers lived in Philadelphia, and directory listings for the various stores would only mention the manager in most cases, although occasionally a reference to a Rodgers or a Hydeman would slip in. Yard's and Wiest's never were the dominant stores in their communities, and Kennard's simply outlasted the previously dominant Crosby & Hill's. The owners seemed to be willing to spend enough money to stay in the game by opening suburban branches, but not to try to win, as was shown when two Philadelphia stores invaded Wilmington in the 1950s because the local stores were seen as weak. Perhaps this was because the owners' main interests were politics, art, coins...  Not every department store was owned by obsessive merchants who lived and breathed retail.

When TTPB returns to looking at old department store buildings, it will go back home again to Indiana.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Department Store Buildings of York, Pa. No. 1

York, Pa., a small city west of Harrisburg, was like Wilkes-Barre in that it was the home of a number of department stores, one of which had a significant impact on national retailing. That is the Bon-Ton, which still operates a large chain of stores. Here's a look at what was the main Bon-Ton store in downtown York; which became the corporate headquarters even after the store had closed.

The company name was S. Grumbacher & Son for many years, and it started in Trenton, N.J., as Grumbacher Bros., involving Samuel and Jacob Grumbacher. The brothers went their own ways and Samuel Grumbacher maintained his own store, which eventually became S. Grumbacher & Son when Max Grumbacher became a partner. Grumbacher's sons and sons-in-law spread across Pennsylvania to open their own Bon-Ton stores; Louis Samler in Lebanon was notably successful, but Max's move to York created the modern chain. The story of the Bon-Ton is too extensive to relate here; the Wikipedia article outlines how it sucked up Hess's, AM&A's, and eventually Carson Pirie Scott and Younkers after its own regional expansion that included buying Eyerly's in Hagerstown, Md., and opening branches in downtowns close to York in the 1950s. The Bon-Ton has had struggles in recent years as one of the last determinedly midrange department store chains. A new leader was named this year, the first from outside the Grumbacher family, which still owns the company. Here's hoping he can turn the Bon-Ton around. The picture shows the Bon-Ton store at 100 W. Market St. after its false front from the 1950s had been removed; it had a large Bon-Ton logo on it and the name S. Grumbacher & Son as well. Rooftop views such as this show the persistence of the skylights that let in light before there was today's level of electric lighting, and I'm assuming that all the area with the same color of roofing belonged to the store.

York also had (not pictured here) the farthest-east branch I have been able to find of the Interstate Department Stores brands, although it is rumored there was one near Troy, N.Y. In the mid-1920s, a Stillman's was opened in the building at 31 E. Market St. that had housed James McLean & Sons, then the oldest department store in York. Rudolph Blick, one of the Interstate "old hands" from the Midwest, was the first manager, and as near as I can tell another one of them, Franklyn Mason, was in charge when the store closed in the late 1960s, when lower-end department stores were being wiped out by discounters and the York market had been invaded by Baltimore-based Hochschild Kohn with a new mall store, which led the Bon Ton and another York store, P. Wiest's Sons, to make suburban moves of their own. Stillman's was to the east of the city's other department stores. In 1940 it moved into a new building right next door that was the first air-conditioned department store in York.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Die, Infurior Bieng!

Some department store buildings from York, Pa., are lined up and were to appear today, but some things are just too good to pass by.

In Canada's National Post on Feb. 13, a writer named Yoni Goldstein decided to hail what he sees as the imminent end of copy editing as a good thing for the world. That is, unless this was a piece of satire so deep that it already would have closed on Saturday night.

First, let's take it as a simple expression of his opinion. There's no point in getting into his ad hominem descriptions of we who are "cynical, gruff, and weird in social situations" or his feeling that copy editors only apply "arcane" style rules. The Washington Post once famously wrote an article in which it characterized what "all" Pentecostals are like. We all get a certain license to be idiots.

It is Goldstein's conclusion that would raise this to the level of extreme Internet utopianism. He writes:

"... Online news sites and blogs tend to be nearly completely unconcerned with the kinds of typos and grammatical errors that copy editors are paid to seek out and fix. ... Still, this is no reason to get sentimental about the lowly copy editor. If he is unacknowledged within the newsroom and a relic online, it is because we as readers have evolved. We no longer sweat the small stuff of proper hyphenation and correct usage of semi-colons - it's the ideas and opinions that we're after. If a few words here and there are misspelled, so what? We're smart enough to know it hardly matters to the quality of the story or argument."

As I said, this COULD be simply a piece of satire written with tongue so far in cheek as to not be visible.  Because it turns out that Yoni Goldstein, M.A. in English literature, 2003, at York University, former editorial board member of the National Post, former assistant editor of the Canadian magazine Maclean's, and former editor of something called the Book for Men, and current blogger for the Huffington Post Canada, also writes pieces such as this:

"Reaction to [Prime Minister] Stephen Harper's Davos announcement of coming changes to Old Age Security was predictable. "Poor old people" was the general tenor -- one day they're heading jauntily toward retirement at 65, but now, because of our emotionless jerk of a prime minister, they'll have to work an extra two years.

"Well, boo hoo. Am I the only one unmoved by the 'Won't someone think about the old people' cries? Because it seems to me that working an extra two years is the least old people and soon-to-be-old baby boomers can do for the rest of us....

"Oldies have already been working for 40 years; they're used to the routine and it's my understanding that old people love sticking to routines -- that they turn into shriveled head cases when their daily schedules don't follow predictable patterns. So staying at work (combined with regular consumption of prunes) is actually the healthiest option for them....

"We know that we know more than you -- we've grown up in a world where all knowledge is available at the click of a mouse. The collective wisdom of the Internet trumps your meandering stories of personal hardships. We're the wise ones, not you.

"So, old people, it's time to get up off the couch and make yourselves useful. No more free rides here."

So at this point, I might be saying: Yoni, what you would truly need a copy editor to tell you is, I didn't know Jonathan Swift, but you're not Jonathan Swift. At some point, you've got to put a phrase in, a wink-wink, that says, "Hey, folks, I'm writing this as satire." Simply being over the top no longer counts, because people who really believe what you're poking fun at have been there before you and have said it already. Part of the collective wisdom of the Internet is that it is impossible to be over the top. Someone will try to surpass you just to show he or she can. And despite the old saw, words can harm.

When the Internet era was just catching fire, Mickey Kaus, one of the earliest big-name political bloggers, wrote enthusiastically about the layoff of copy editors (in what by today's terms would be small numbers) at the Los Angeles Times. I can't find it in a search of Kausfiles, it was years ago. Kaus' point was that some reporter he knew at the Times could write, as he saw it, flawless copy on a wristwatch keypad, and that all that copy editors did was mangle this 100 percent wordsmithing with their useless questions and "arcane" rules. It was clear that Kaus had had his subjunctive modes tied up in a knot about this for some time. He was not being satirical.

In this, he reminded me of a former editor at a newspaper far, far way and his tale to me of why he had abolished the local copy desk: "I'm a smart guy. I was a reporter for 20 years. Copy editors asked me a lot of dumb questions. Savvy?" Well, I savvied, and praised the stars I was leaving.

He may have been a smart guy, though I must humbly admit it was not apparent to me. He may have written flawless copy. He may have had copy editors who were obsessed with small points or arbitrary rules they couldn't back up. My experience in 35 years in newspapers is that most reporters do not write flawless copy, and about two-thirds of them know that. Those who do write nearly flawlessly for the most part appreciate the backstop. Those who do not and know it appreciate that someone is there to make their work better or at least stop it from being misinterpreted. Those who do not appreciate it tend to see writing as a form of masturbation -- I'm giving myself pleasure, and man, it feels good.

So either Yoni Goldstein thought he was aiding the cause of copy editing -- but did so too subtly that it was too easy to believe him, in a world where business-side cost cutters, egomaniacal writers, editors in chief obsessed with "feet on the street" are constantly looking for justification to get rid of all those picky, delaying, self-righteous copy editors who don't understand today's world -- because if you spell the prime minister's name Steven Harbor and follow it with "He're one superdooper dickhed," you'll get more web hits than a reasoned piece of political commentary will draw. ("Fuckin'-A! The prime minister's a dickhead! Pass me another Molson.") Canadian humor can be more savagely cutting than American. Or perhaps Yoni really does spend his days doing hand jobs. Perhaps he will enlighten us. A contribution to support the American Copy Editors Society -- which does have Canadian members -- would be a nice way to show it.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Department Store Building of the Wyoming Valley

Enough philosophizing about newspapers. Time to return to looking at buildings that once housed the department stores that were a city's pride.

Wilkes-Barre, Pa., "the heart of the valley that warms the nation" in the days of anthracite heating, was a great city for department stores -- there were five locally owned major stores in the mid-1950s on one block of South Main Street and around the "diamond," as Public Square is sometimes called. Of those, two buildings remain, one of which amazingly is still a downtown department store.

First, the fallen. Bergman's Department Store was founded during World War I by Justin Bergman. I have not been able to discover whether he was related to the Bergman who owned the Bon-Ton store in Altoona, one of myriad Bon Tons not related to the York, Pa.-based and still-existing Bon-Ton chain. While Bergman's remodeled in 1950 and held an open house, by 1958 it was gone from downtown, having moved to the area's first major shopping center, the Narrows in Edwardsville, which drew from all the towns in the area. Often this sort of thing followed a fire in those days, but I can't see any reference to one. The Bergman family, including "Mike" Bergman Jr. and relatives Seymour and John Dimond and Charles Pfifferling, ran the store until the Hurricane Agnes floods that so devastated the city.

Also a victim of Agnes was the Lazarus Department Store, 57 S. Main St., which had nothing to do with the larger Lazarus chain in Ohio. The store was founded as Lazarus Bros. by Asher and Henry Lazarus in the early 1890s after Asher Lazarus ended his partnership with Solomon Langfeld, who with his own brother Feist operated a department store in Wilkes-Barre for a number of years. In the World War I era the store was sold and reorganized as the Wilkes-Barre Dry Goods Co., which became part of the giant Claflin bankruptcy that spawned two chains. It ended up in the hands of the Milliken family's Mercantile Stores. While Mercantile, which had a strong commitment to its downtown stores, kept its chain going until 1998, the flood damage was too severe for Lazarus to reopen. Lazarus had also had a branch in Pittston.

Then there was the Isaac Long Store at 17 Public Square, one of two major stores founded by Longs in Wilkes-Barre. Isaac Long's descendants Harry and Julius Stern ran the store until 1955, when it was sold to the Cleland-Simpson Co. of Scranton, operator of the Globe Store and for a time owned by John Wanamaker. It also was a victim of the flood.

The large building in the photo in the upper corner of the diamond is the other Long store, which was begun by Jonas Long and then continued as Jonas Long's Sons. The store's original address was on Market Street, which until the 1890s was as prominent a shopping street as Main Street. Jonas Long's sons Charles, Louis, Bernhard, Arthur and Edward took over the store and expanded into Scranton. That may have been too much, because the Scranton store was sold to Isaac Oppenheim and became the Scranton Dry. William MacWilliam, an executive of Fowler, Dick & Walker, then took over the Wilkes-Barre store and for a brief time it was MacWilliam's, which also had a branch in Nanticoke. In the late 1920s Allied Stores purchased it and made it a Pomeroy's unit, thus this is one of the three surviving former downtown Pomeroy's stores, with the others in Pottsville and Easton. Harry Adamy, a spokesman for Pennsylvania merchants in fighting the sales tax in the 1930s, was later pulled away from Lazarus to manage Pomeroy's -- a cross-chain switch that was very rare, people generally moved from store to store within one company..

Pomeroy's opened a suburban branch on Route 6 in the 1960s, but the Great Macyization happened at the Wyoming Valley Mall, where what is now a Macy's was previously a Kaufmann's (Pittsburgh) and a Hess's (Allentown) and had been opened as a Zollinger's (also Allentown). Whew.

Finally -- and still operating -- at the bottom left of the photo, with the greenish front, is the aforementioned Fowler, Dick and Walker, the Boston Store, now a Boscov's branch. George Fowler, Alexander Dick, and Gilbert Walker created the partnership in Wilkes-Barre in 1879 after having worked together in Meriden, Conn.. In 1881 Fowler and Walker moved to Binghamton, N.Y., to open a second store. Walker later opened a third in Evansville, Ind., and the men remained partners even though they were spread across the country. FD&W had other branches across Pennsylvania, New York, and Indiana at various times. In Wilkes-Barre, descendants of Alexander Dick took prominent roles, among them Malcolm Burnside and Millard DeMun; in the 1960s the chairman of the store was named Alexander Dick. (FD&W was clearly a Scots store, although not part of the great Scottish-American department store chain Syndicate Trading.) My colleague Jim Remsen, who grew up near Scranton, remembers radio ads mentioning "Fowler, Dick & Walker." In Binghamton, however, the store was called "Fowler's," perhaps because that was where the Fowler heirs mostly lived. FD&W was sold to Al Boscov in 1980.

A couple of the links here are to a fine local history photo site called "Wyoming Valley Photos" posted by someone I can only see identified as James.

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.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Onward, Part Two

Perhaps because we are enjoined to spew out of our mouths that which is lukewarm, it’s always been hard to say, when confronted with the imperfections of newspapers as opposed to the ideals of journalism – well, this newspaper may not be perfect, it may not be as good as it can be, but perhaps it’s better than any of the alternatives that could reasonably be expected to occur. But part of it was, it was just the way things were. One didn’t speak back in those days of how international coverage was being passively underwritten by automobile dealers and Realtors. The concept didn’t even enter one’s head. There was advertising revenue, there was spending on news coverage, things went into a big pot and then someone doled out the honey.

At least that was the case in newsrooms, most of which were into the 1970s before the concept of “a budget” took hold – not a news budget, but a spending budget. Until then, you spent money, and if you were spending too much money, the publisher told you to spend a little less for a while. The publisher was never going to give the newsroom enough money to break the bank, and the editor had a pretty good idea of what he could spend – but it was still a business where, as happened in Alabama in the 1990s, the editor of Newhouse’s Mobile paper could be talking to a company official about wanting to obtain a sister paper’s coverage of University of Alabama football and be told, well, why don’t you just hire your own beat writer? It was informal, ad hoc and, as long as the owners got enough money to live their lives the way they wanted to, not terribly complicated.

We, of course, as journalists, were too high-minded and high-status to think about things like how the money was divided up, which brings us to progress editions. At my first two papers we did progress editions. Whether you were a reporter or an editor, you were assigned stories for the progress edition. (For those unfamiliar with the idea, it is a once-a-year section extolling the community’s economic growth and prospects, and including company-by-company profiles, which, depending upon the local view of things, were variously 1) done totally on a journalistic basis, or 2) assigned based on who bought ads but still were written objectively, or 3) were written as puff pieces that were guaranteed when you bought an ad. But they were done by the newsroom and not the advertising department.)

I, like everyone else in the newsroom, resented doing progress editions. It wasn’t my regular job. It was shilling for someone who bought an ad. It had no news peg. It wasn’t what I went to college to do. It did not benefit society. That was what advertising people did – promised an advertiser anything to get money. I was above that. I was a journalist. These were elements from a less ethical past, when reporters took free liquor at Christmas from the mayor. Still, I had to do it, so I tried to write the best article on the National Automatic Tool Co. that I could. But I knew nothing about its business, had no interest in what it did, and, to be honest, looked down on the people who worked there, managers and workers alike, as people who spent their lives assembling National Automatic Tools, whatever they were, while I was living in the world of ideas, of abstractions, of political and generational change, hanging out with hip young people who didn’t drive pickups, didn’t go hunting, didn't follow conventional morality, and didn’t wear flannel shirts except to be cool.

In the second year of my doing progress edition work – I believe this year I had to edit the stories – I asked the managing editor, why do we, professional journalists, have to do this crap? It is beneath us. To which he answered: You may not have noticed, but no one advertises in January and February. It’s winter. Most people don’t buy new cars.  Most people don’t buy new houses. Knollenberg’s and Elder-Beerman don’t run big sales.  People just buy what they have to, so other than the supermarkets, businesses don’t advertise.  This is how we make money in January and February, by appealing to the vanity and civic pride of the Wayne Works and the Second National Bank and the National Automatic Tool Co. They want to advertise in the section because everyone advertises in the section and if they don’t, someone at the Rotary will say, “I see you didn’t advertise in the progress edition. Aren’t you for our city’s progress? Are you having, er, financial problems?” If we didn’t do this, we would have less money and would have to do less the rest of the year.  So go edit the damned stories.

I was amazed, given that the American economy no longer is based upon local industries such as the National Automatic Tool Co., to see not only that progress editions are still being published, but that the reaction to them – in this case from a journalism professor – is exactly the same. Justin Martin, Ph.D., Honors preceptor at the University of Maine – yes, I had to look “preceptor” up, it basically means “head of the honors program” – reacted unfavorably to a progress edition in the Bangor Daily News, the local paper for the main campus in Orono. Unlike in my day, the stories were advertorial. Unlike in my day, the section was labeled as advertorial. But as Martin notes:

“According to the author of the articles, these stories focused only on companies that had previously purchased advertising from the paper. Editors, though, weren’t transparent about this with readers. Atop each of the seven full-page articles extolling the virtues of the businesses, there was no note to readers indicating the stories were linked to money coming into the newspaper. The content was delivered on broadsheet newsprint, not the smaller inserts of, say, Best Buy offerings or Parade magazine, which set the content apart from a paper’s own news. And the newspaper’s name listed beneath each of Fitzpatrick’s bylines seemed likely to confuse readers into believing these were standard news stories on Maine businesses.  The minuscule disclaimer is not enough. This insert feeds readers copy that looks like vetted news. In the version of the insert published online, the notice that the coverage is linked to advertising is invisible unless one zooms in considerably on the front page.”

Martin – who, and I know this is a cheap shot worthy of Michele Bachmann, not only mentions his doctorate in the tagline, but once in the article where it is not really necessary -- is severely offended by all this. His feeling: “Readers have virtually no way of knowing that the upbeat coverage of the businesses is connected to paid advertising. Even if readers saw the extremely small identification of an ‘advertising supplement’ on the front page of insert, is that enough? Readers don’t know the content inside is a thank-you to companies that have written checks to the paper. The section’s front page boasts in very visible type that ‘Maine has a rich business history, and within these pages you’ll find great examples. And we’ll honor seven of those businesses that have stood the test of time with in-depth histories.’ This language leads readers to believe The Bangor Daily News is independently appraising these companies. When flattering news coverage is in any way linked to paid advertising, news providers have an overriding obligation to fully disclose that quid pro quo to the public. Of course, it would be better if news outlets simply resolved not to flirt with deceiving their audiences in the first place.”

Well, all well and good, except, of course, we have not proved that anything in these stories is false, overwritten or deceptive beyond the fact of their existence. The editor of the Daily News, after some hemming and hawing, promised in the future to try to have each article labeled as “advertising.” And I’m not writing to defend the section – it may be a piece of junk.

But here it is 2012, after years upon years of collapse in the newspaper business, and Preceptor Martin, Ph.D., remains as high-minded as Young Journalist Sullivan was in the 1970s. The answer of “this is how the Bangor Daily News pays its bills in the winter” would doubtless not satisfy him. The answer of “we do this so that we can provide more and better journalism in the news sections” would not satisfy him either, any more than it would have me back then, although it would now. The only answer that would satisfy him is, “Journalism must be above commerce.” Because, of course, journalists should not have to deal with the sort of messy matters that confront the publisher of the Daily News – or that confronted the owners of the National Automatic Tool Co., which did not last much longer than my story about it. Journalists place in society is to do journalism, and the car dealers can subsidize the cost.

At this point in my life, my prescription would be somewhat different that Martin’s, although we might agree on some points. Make it a news section. Do two or three good stories about business in Maine and Bangor. Then have reporters do stories on firms that buy ads – not just a 1x2, you have to buy a quarter-page. Tell them the reason they are doing these stories is that today’s equivalents of NATCO – the hospitals, the trucking companies, the firms that fill the office parks -- are where most of the readers work.  Their stories, their companies’ stories, are usually untold in the newspaper, which will never notice them unless they go bankrupt or have a layoff. (We will spend our time focusing on government and agencies for the disempowered.) And no, we don’t want a piece trashing these companies. But it doesn’t have to be slimeball stuff either. It’s just a piece saying, here’s what the CEO or whoever says the next year looks like for his company, and exactly what it is his company does, and what his company's local payroll is, and is that up or down from last year, and so forth. And now you, our local journalist employee, actually know something about the people who write the checks that pay your readers who spend money on the newspaper and its advertisers. And now you, our local journalist employee, understand that your own paycheck comes from much the same place. And yes, we're going to call it a progress edition, and no, we're not going to use it to critique capitalism or call for Realtors to get 2 percent commissions or ask how the CEO can live in a $1 million house while people are homeless.

But if you can pay for more and better journalism through stratagems such as a progress edition – which John Q. Reader is not going to give a fig about its provenance one way or the other – in this financially challenged era, and can benefit your newspaper, then, to channel noted journalism critic Sarah Palin, “Sell, baby, sell.” It may not be perfect, but these days it's as good as can reasonably be expected to occur. Part Three to come.