Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Monitor, GE, and other analogies

As promised! I love analogies, though my former colleague Frank Wilson often told me they were the weakest form of argument. Jesus, of course, also loved analogies. I can just see Frank now. "Forgive me, Master, but your comparison of heaven to a mustard seed? It doesn't hold up." But are there stories of other transformations out there that might offer clear guidance to the poor, beleaguered newspaper business?

Within the field, the presumed transformation of the Christian Science Monitor to an online news service with a weekly newspaper -- no one knows whether this will happen, but knowledge is less interesting than speculation, as most conversations about sports show -- seems to offer an in-the-trade analogy. Why not just do what they presumably will do? But the Monitor is very different from your traditional newspaper company. First, of course, it is not a newspaper company. It is an outreach of a church, and while the church has said it no longer wants the newspaper to be a financial loser, it is not looking for a profit center either. (The Wikipedia entry on the Monitor, with all the usual Wiki caveats, is here and does seem to address most of the major issues.) Were the Monitor simply a business, it would have closed long ago. It still exists because Mary Baker Eddy said it was to exist. Journalists can praise Mrs. Eddy's decision, but it isn't a business model.

Second, the Monitor doesn't own presses or delivery trucks. It doesn't deliver Best Buy inserts. It arrives in the mail. Well, so does the West Plains Quill in Missouri, but the Monitor also doesn't have a local circulation area. Neither, of course, do the Wall Street Journal or USA Today. But the Monitor also doesn't have much advertising and it has a national circulation around, what, 60,000. The Monitor is unlike anything else in the daily newspaper field, which is why it is hard to use it as a model for anything else in the daily newspaper field.

Dropping the daily print paper may be the only move left for the Monitor, and in 2008 might be the only move left even if they had not thrown millions away on Monitor Radio and had stayed with Kay Fanning's efforts in the 1980s to again make the newspaper a national institution. But the Monitor's owners have made more bad business decisions than any other newspaper short of the Brooklyn Eagle ("Long Island outside the city will never amount to much"), so no one can be sure. And while I do not want to wade into the morass of hopes, fantasies and conflicts that constitute the membership statistics of nearly any church, it is hard to find anyone outside the Church of Christ, Scientist who believes that the Church of Christ, Scientist is a growing denomination in the United States. Some put its membership as low as 100,000, which makes a circulation of 60,000 for the print newspaper pretty impressive. But this also makes the Monitor unique. We move on.

General Electric no longer makes toaster ovens or televisions and apparently is planning to get out of its last consumer-goods operation, major appliances. Does this moving out of old businesses provide a model? GE is getting out of low-profit, highly competitive businesses and concentrating on, as its Web site puts it, "jet engines to power generation, financial services to water processing, and medical images to media content." (NBC.) They're not saying the key to success is to concentrate on a business with no effective bar to competition and where you make five cents for every dollar you made in the previous business. But that's a business decision and not a journalistic one.

At any rate, GE did not turn the light-bulb business into the jet engine business. It started some divisions and bought others and sold off others, such as when it sold small appliances to Black & Decker. (Let's not even get into the tortured history of television-set branding.) GE was at one time one of the largest computer companies. GE, a giant in the locomotive business. GE was and is a massive conglomerate that in the 1960s looked to viewers of "College Bowl" like a light-bulb and toaster-oven company. Had GE been involved in the newspaper business, it would have sold off its newspapers by now; but the newspapers would have been sold off, not made into something else. GE transforms itself, but its units do what they did under new owners. So GE's move out of refrigerators does not look like an analogy.

Mass transit once was vital to newspapers and department stores. (For European free sheets, mass transit still is.) Trolleys brought the customers to a centralized shopping area whose merchants needed the newspaper to draw them in. The newspapers used the trolleys and interurbans to get their papers to outlying distributors. Streetcars had their main day from the late 1880s to the early 1920s. But many a streetcar line ran in the red. Transit operators made their real money off real estate development and amusement parks along their lines, and in smaller towns they barely made any money at all.

So mass transit was already in trouble by the 1920s, but it was given new life by the Depression and was saved by war rationing, so companies bought PCC cars or converted to buses. But it was back in trouble by the 1950s and was basically done as a business by the late 1960s, when it became a governmental responsibility. Now it is having a new vogue. We could have a nice libertarian vs. social responsibility debate about whether light rail is smart development or government coercion on property development, but that's not the point here (so let's not).

The mass transit analogy has some uses for people who want a PBS-like structure for journalism. It's a social good and therefore it shouldn't be simply a profitmaking business. The histories are very different, though. The justification for saving mass transit as a social good was to provide transportation to those who had no alternative -- the poor, the disabled, the young, the old. (The bickering over L.A. mass transit -- is it subways for the middle-class or buses for the poor -- shows this question remains active.) But news, in some form, is offered free everywhere you go. The cost for the poor or otherwise disadvantaged is for broadband access, not news. So we move on.

So that leaves us with that old standby, the buggy-whip business, to come.

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