Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Media Jones

Because we assume that our readers are, or should be, like us, or that we really in our hearts only want readers who are like us, we overemphasize the role of news junkies in today's media environment.

Who spends most of their day working on a computer -- not monitoring nuclear power plants or fixing problems with air reservations, but working free-form on a computer -- able to regularly, even somewhat obsessively, check various news sites for updates during the day?

Among the people who do are pundits, journalism professors and journalists. Does the typical American worker even have the ability to check in with CNN, USA, two, three, four times a day? Does the typical American worker even care that much? Doctors are seeing patients or operating. Lawyers are seeing clients or in court. Department-store workers are selling goods. Car dealers are selling cars. Linemen are fixing lines.

But how often do you, can you, check Romenesko?

People who make their living working in media have to obsessively monitor media -- to not miss something, but also, that's why they work in media. They have to know, right now. Are they the major component of newspapers' audience? Have they ever been?

How many "death of the newspaper" stories have begun with some variation of, "I used to begin my day with the print edition of the New York Times," or, even better, the Times and the Post. What percentage of the American population ever read the print edition of the New York Times? What percentage of the people writing about the problems of newspapers do or did? (It doesn't matter if they also read their local daily.) Nothing against the New York Times, I'm a media person, I find the New York Times fascinating. It's just that the vast majority of Americans do not read the New York Times.

Journalists and the newspaper business do have to accept that that portion of their audience that began, or wished it began, its day with the New York Times (except for the local audience in New York, which is still considerable) is never coming back to print. If you care that much about the news, you'll get RSS feeds of the Times and the Post and the L.A. Times and CNN and Time and on and on, or you'll spend the day going from one Web site to another.

Which segues in an odd way to this interview with personal finance columnist Scott Burns, who took the buyout in 2006 from the Dallas Morning News. Scott writes about how when he was business editor at the Baltimore News-American, he concluded that newsprint was a terrible way to present stock information. He wrote a code to allow this information to be gotten online.

Scott says this happened in the early 1980s; the News-American closed in 1986, so it was certainly early to mid-. In 1984 was the famous Apple Super Bowl ad. In 1986 there was no World Wide Web. There were barely graphic interfaces. Newspapers used Atex or SII or Hendrix. At home we used a second-generation IBM PC that still had an A drive and had to be booted up through disks. (Yes, we had a PC at our home in 1985. My father had one in 1979; you entered the data using dials. I really am not a technology Luddite.)

Scott was way ahead of the curve, and people who are lead progress. Scott's problem was that in the early 1980s, for the typical person, newsprint was still a wonderful way to give stock prices. It just wasn't for him. The typical person still saw computers as mystical behemoths that were going to take over the world ("Lead us, Landru!"). But for Scott print was already yesterday's outmoded technology.

But most of your media junkies and early technology adopters are not people who read the ads in the newspaper anyway. Some of them never read the B section or Features. (The same thing is true for absolute sports junkies.)

Print newspapers still have a pretty good market among the rest of the population. We can find a way to profitably serve them -- if we want to. But they are not us. And yes, it would be more fun if the audience was composed of people like us.

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