Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Chisholm Trail

Looking Sam Zell in the eye, the redoubtable Jim Chisholm in Newspapers & Technology decided not to go with the received wisdom:

"So, Sam Zell plans to trim 500 pages of content each week across his group of Tribune newspapers. Zell... and Randy Michaels ... have concluded that less is better, and not just because it is cheaper. ... Well, they're right on both counts."

I now lower my head for 20 seconds to miss the rotten vegetables being thrown.... OK, back to Jim:

"Newspapers produce far more content than readers have time to read. Why do we insist on delivering two to four hours of reading material to an audience with a window of 20 minutes... Which would you rather have? Sixteen pages of great content you read from end to end? Or 60 pages that you begin to feel you don't have time for."

Readers have told us for years, "I don't have time to read it and it just sits in the corner unread until I recycle it." Well, we respond, it's important stuff and you should make time for it. Find what you want to read and throw away the rest. That probably has a good deal to do with our current advertising problem -- "that's right, most of our readers will throw away your ad" -- but we press on with Chisholm:

"Journalism ... may be vital to social freedom, democracy and so on, but in its current manifestation it is failing. And this failure, I believe, is internally cultural as much as it is externally demand driven. In any other industry, if sales start to fall it's generally regarded as evidence that something is wrong with the business. In our industry, it's the customers' fault."

Well, they don't appreciate what we're giving them. If they were just more like us, they'd want it. And if they would just read it, they would become more like us, and thus they would want more of it. So the brickbats are coming pretty fast at Chisholm. But as he notes:

"By focusing on quality rather than quantity, it ups the perception and value of a newspaper."

The brickbat throwers sit for a moment. Can't disagree with that. Might even bring in some ads, if the product were perceived as of higher quality and value. But then Chisholm touches the third rail.

"A few years ago, I wrote a report for the World Association of Newspapers called 'Editorial Management.' It was a fairly straightforward analysis of how newspapers can measure the quantity, quality, efficiency and effectiveness of what they produce.... Friends told me I was insane. WAN's director received letters that said that what I was doing was wrong and dangerous. I was -- how do I put it -- verbally abused on three occasions by people who said journalists could not be measured. ... The level of aggression against what I was saying was extraordinary. It summed up everything to do with why our industry is in the mess it is."

Sort of like the reaction Tribune's Randy Michaels got when he proposed evaluating the productivity of the news staff. He admittedly proposed this in an unsophisticated manner -- appearing to just wish to divide column inches per reporter without any sort of quality or time-spent rating -- that harked back to the 1970s. But -- zzzzzppp! -- he touched the third rail, and whatever good will the Zellots had left at that point went up in smoke, as Rem Rieder's column notes:

"It assumes that newspapers are like factories in which everyone is doing the same thing. It ignores the fact that important journalism – investigative reporting, enterprise pieces, projects, in-depth profiles – takes time. A lot more time than quick-hit stories from press conferences and press releases. ... There's nothing wrong with quick-hit pieces. But failing to distinguish between them and more time-consuming, yet essential, reporting is silly."

Rieder, an excellent editor and press critic, did say it this way: "Evaluating the productivity of reporters this way is astonishingly dumb." Rieder is too smart to say that evaluating the productivity of reporters at all is wrong. Chisholm seems to have heard from others who believe that it is. The new Chicago Tribune editor, Gerould Kern, has said that Michaels was not simply counting bylines and was taking into account what types of stories they were. But the message to Tribune was clear: You cannot quantify what we do. You cannot evaluate what we do. "Not to say that they are dummies, but this is a complex business and I don't think they understand that," one reporter said. "Look, I wouldn't walk into Northwestern [Memorial Hospital] and tell the brain surgeon how to do his job." And even if you can develop a sophisticated tool to do it, you should not do it, because quantification will inevitably lead to a conflict with quality. Don't open that door, McGee!

The room was turning against Zell anyway, with Lee Abrams' rock-and-roll memos saying he didn't know there were actually newspaper reporters overseas, but Michaels' comment clinched it. (Whatever can be said for these guys' ideas, they are singularly inept at presenting them. But they can learn. Abrams, for example, is learning to write without capitalizing every third word.) And then there's Zell's 50-50 club. A good Cincinnati reference if you know it. On to the next post.

No comments: