Friday, July 11, 2008

Buggy Whips, With a Superior Segue

The Superior Daily Telegram has announced that it will move to twice-weekly print publication and transfer its main operation to online. A trend was seen. Stories did note that the Telegram and the Duluth News Tribune are both owned by Forum Communications. The AP story noted that Superior, Wis., is five miles from Duluth, Minn. The E&P story notes that Telegram subscribers already receive the Sunday News Tribune as part of their subscription. Neither the AP nor E&P noted that stories from the Superior Telegram already appear in the News Tribune -- and certainly will continue to do so, if not even more often now that there is no daily Telegram circulation to support.

Neither story noted either that the economy of Duluth-Superior has not been gangbusters for decades. (My mother-in-law grew up in Duluth and I've been there. Pretty town, nice tourism business, but the area never recovered from the loss of U.S. Steel and the entire Great Lakes shipping business is a shadow of what it was.) The cities saw themselves as rivals for a century. Now they are partners in a somewhat distressed area. So it is not as if people in Superior who want one are going to be left without a local daily print newspaper. Indeed, the Twin Ports may get a slightly better daily paper than they have now. This may be part of an online trend, but it would have made as much sense in 1995 when it was not. (Similarly, had we had the JOA in Madison, $4-a-gallon gas and no Internet, we might have had a combined Wisconsin State Journal-Capital Times daily print product at this point to reduce trucking costs, in the Las Vegas manner. The Internet allows you to claim that a failing paper is actually a sign of the future.)

So, to analogies and buggy whips. People often say that newspapers need to realize that they are in the "buggy whip business" -- i.e., it's dead, so get out. The buggy whip business example is a famous economics example. Its main point is that had protections been put in place to preserve the buggy-whip business from the competition caused by automobiles, the rules might have stifled the nascent automotive business, which proved to be immeasurably more important to the U.S. economy -- thus it is a bad thing to protect existing businesses from economic change even if those businesses are wrecked as a result. Presumably the change in the long term will be better, and if the hurricane is coming you can't stop it anyway.

When I lived in Flint, Mich., the example was even more specific; it was the "buggy-whip socket business." Flint was the center of the buggy business in the 1890s, called the Vehicle City because more buggies and accompanying products were made there than anywhere else, and there was a company that made buggy-whip sockets -- places to put the whip when you were not using it on the horse. The wonderfully named Flint Specialty Co. was making up to one million whip sockets a year around 1900, according to my former colleague Larry Gustin in his book "Billy Durant: Creator of General Motors."

And, yes, the buggy-whip-socket business did go away. But the buggy business did not go away; the horse was replaced by the engine and the rest of the buggy became the "horseless carriage." (Indeed, the buggy whip business was a part of the whip business, which did not go away either.) Many of the people who ran parts of the buggy business, such as Billy Durant and J. Dallas Dort and Charlie Nash, moved into the automobile business. They continued to make vehicles, just ones with engines. Flint remained for decades the Vehicle City and only went into its sad decline when half of GM's market share was taken. GM still builds horseless carriages.

Eventually the buggy business, except for specialty trades such as the Amish, did transmute itself into the auto business -- some companies changed over, some went out of business, some went into business, some people owned buggy factories and car factories and kept both churning along, and eventually the auto business went from being a small craft business with many producers to a giant factory business with an oligopoly. (The buggy business was already going through the same sort of consolidation. At the turn of the century, Flint's three buggy companies were making 150,000 vehicles a year. The tentative nature of the early auto business meant someone could produce 20 cars a year and call himself an auto manufacturer.)

An analogy for our news businesses transmuting to online? Seemingly so. But the revolutionary change was the internal combustion engine, while the rest of the physical product -- in which you sat down and it got you from where you were to where you were going, on four wheels, with space for cargo and gloves -- remained the same. "Contrary to popular perception, it was... the low-cost horse-drawn vehicle that introduced Americans to personal transportation," wrote Ed Duggan in the Journal of American History. The car had the advantages of speed, greater distance for the fuel, and not needing to stable a horse; but it is still a carriage. A really-souped-up buggy.

Now, the poor Flint Specialty Co. probably faded away, but for all I know its owners started producing steering wheels or -- close to the equivalent of buggy-whip sockets -- accelerator and clutch pedals. (In the early auto business, there was a separate company for nearly every part of the car. Those who remember "Body by Fisher" remember a vestige of that era. Ford was the originator of vertical integration in the car business, but it took a couple of decades to complete that process.) So there are analogies here, but there are just as easily analogies to hot type vs. cold type, or broadsheets vs. tabloids. The auto business still creates a physical product doing what it was doing before it had an engine. This is not the same as eliminating the physical product. The glove doesn't quite fit, so we must not convict.

When people say, "Oh, you're just the buggy-whip business," ask yourself: Is the newspaper a buggy whip, or is it the buggy? Most of us use a buggy every day. The buggy needed to be adapted to a revolutionary change -- the internal-combustion engine -- but it was not thrown away. I suppose you could have mandated that cars be sold with a buggy whip, just in case. The newspaper equivalent of a buggy whip might be -- oh, comprehensive print stock tables. It's an accessory, not the thing itself.

But are newspapers photographic film? Another analogy next week.

1 comment:

Doug said...

Not sure I totally understand your point here. If anything,what I'm hearing is that the "newspaper" will have to change and become -- egads -- not a newspaper.

Your analogy might be apt were we to put "the newspaper" online as some have done (think of the Olive reader) and some may do in the future (a futuristic Kindle?).

The but real point is that the "paper" part of the newspaper is pretty much withering away. It may never completely disappear, but ...

Where I see you struggling is where many have -- confusing "newspaper" for "newsroom." What I hear you ultimately saying is how do we preserve the newsroom that once serviced the newspaper with this comprehensive report and keep it alive into the digital age. And that's fine, but it presumes a premise that may not be true -- that a large, full-service newsroom is the best way to deliver journalism.

To follow on your analogy and why I think it is imperfect -- we no longer are talking about just retooling the body so that it can accept an engine instead of being pulled by a horse. The digital age is seriously posing the question of whether the current "body" is even needed at all.

In other words, there are serious arguments to be pondered of whether even the newsroom, as we conceive of it, is the best and most efficient way to do the job. So the "buggy whip makers" might be able to produce steering wheels, but what we really need are rugs, which is outside the competency of the way their business is organized.

To put it another way, we might not need a horseless carriage, but a flying carpet.