Saturday, April 19, 2008

Book a Sea Cruise

Recently I drove by the old S.S. United States, which has come to a permanent home of abandonment in Philadelphia. This was once one of the fastest passenger liners afloat, favored on the transatlantic crossing business along with the Queen Mary, the Normandie, and other ships. You can drive by it on South Delaware Avenue near the Ikea store.

It made me think about the cruise-ship business. Before jet planes, crossing the ocean on a liner made perfect sense. Once you could get from New York to London in relative comfort in six hours instead of four days, the business shriveled. But passenger liners remain. People realized that it no longer made sense to run a boat from New York to Southampton because when crossing to Europe, what people wanted was to get to Europe. But if you were to make the ship itself the destination... and thus came Royal Caribbean and Carnival. The technology wasn't obsolete. It just had to find a different use.

With breaking news, what people want is to get the news quickly. That doesn't make the printed newspaper obsolete. That means the newspaper has to be a destination for something else. How little of what we publish is actually "breaking news." But it also means the newspaper has to hold itself to a higher standard of pleasing the customer. Think how awful those tales of steerage and lower-level cabins were. But White Star could get away with it when there was no other way across. Now think of a Caribbean cruise ship today. Yes, this means color on every page, and better paper instead of worse, and designing the paper to help the reader instead of simply quickly filling space. And whatever the newspaper equivalent of climbing walls is. Yes, it would be a better world if this wasn't necessary. Sorry.

Cunard and Matson aren't the leaders in cruise traffic today, as far as I know. It may take companies that are willing to re-invent the printed newspaper while established operators flounder.

As for "book," my colleage Inga Saffron, who normally goes after large-scale architectural game, wrote this week about a much smaller scale -- a cafe at the Free Library. In her discussion of the proposed addition to Philadelphia's central library, she noted:

"Because the same information will be available everywhere, the library will need the marketing skills of a P.T. Barnum to bring people -- especially teens -- into its building. Its architecture will have to borrow from the language of entertainment and commerce. The library can't merely promise exciting services, it has to look exciting..."

Gee, "the same information" available everywhere? Sounds like a problem facing newspapers. (Substitute "merchandise" and you had the problem facing department stores in the 1980s.)
Newspapers have to sell the sizzle and not just say, wow, we have good steak. They have to borrow from the language of entertainment because that is the real language of the 21st century. They have to look and act like there's something in them that you really, really need to read. Otherwise, why bother?

A final quote from Inga that applies to our city but speaks to a newspaper dilemma as well:

"Philadelphia is a city where a deep-rooted impulse for propriety is at odds with modern demands for visual stimulation." Substitute "Newspapers are a business..." and you get the idea.

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