Tuesday, November 25, 2008

And What THEY Said

Alan Jacobson certainly does not hide his candle under a shade, and one might argue with some of his specific approaches. But he's right, and right, and just generally right. And yes, Sam Zell -- though it's clear from his use of the word "copywriter" that he still doesn't really understand how newsrooms work -- is largely right as well.

1. The era of what Alan Mutter called the longest-running free trial offer in American history -- the newspaper Web site as we know it -- has to end. As Bob Garfield was quoted earlier as saying, it's never going to pay off with an effective business model. Never, never, never. Newspaper valuations, still robust in mid-2006 even after years of competition from free classifieds, went to the floor when investors figured that out. It isn't really anyone's fault that newspaper leaders didn't immediately see it. In 2000 it seemed like it would work. In 2000 newspapers seemed invulnerable and the Internet was in many ways experimental. Whatever we did would work, because we were newspapers. Radio in 1922 was an experiment and in 1932 was a huge business in which a lot of the early attempts had not worked. Things change. As MediaWeek reported this week (I just spent five minutes trying to find the link and failed), banner ads online are about to expire from lack of interest in a bad economy -- essentially, everyone's figuring out that no one clicks on them. People use social networking sites like crazy, but advertising doesn't work on them. It's time to give up on the particular hope that any Internet ad model that we are now using will support journalism.

2. When we did not have to work hard for revenue, we could put the interest of the Paper and the People above commercial interests and the desires of individuals. It was a great time. I loved it. It is gone. Journalists have to accept that the point of our thinking about "how do we raise revenue" is not just to put money in Sam Zell's pocket. If it works, money will go in Zell's pocket, but the goal is to allow us to do our jobs. As I read somewhere yesterday -- I can't find it to make the link, this is not my day -- we are no longer working for the Church of Truth, but a business. There is nothing wrong with working for a journalistic business, it beats lots of other ways to make a living, but it is not the same as working for the Church of Truth, which was not a business. It is our misfortune, but there it is.

3. Zell's much criticized point that Pulitzers don't sell newspapers -- it needs to be noted that he is saying "today." In the past winning the Pulitzer Prize did sell newspapers -- not for an individual story, but for the idea that your newspaper was better when compared with another newspaper. Pulitzer Prizes helped the Inquirer beat the Philadelphia Bulletin. They helped if you were the Pottstown Mercury and wanted to make your paper seem better than it really was. They don't work when your competition is not other newspapers. They don't work when quality is not the deciding point between two otherwise nearly identical products.

I think the hardest change one can make isn't saying that you were wrong -- it's saying that what was right once is wrong now. Anyone can own up to a mistake. But doing what was right and then having it become wrong means there are no fixed lodestars. In a business that is totally built upon individual reputations in the pursuit of truth, it means you have to say that "what I said was right two years ago is no longer right" -- and if so, what is truth and why did I work so hard -- and so let's just not go there, because someone will accuse me of apostasy, which undercuts my reputation, which means the end product of everything I did is devalued. And the Internet allows anyone to undercut anyone's reputation in an instant. But go there we must. And yes, people who believe that journalism should not be a business activity will have to seek different answers from people who see little other option. Success to them; success to us.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Competition vs. Migration

Cuts at the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot -- perhaps America's best-designed newspaper, and led by Denis Finley, a terrific editor and terrific person -- well, it's happening everywhere, of course. My former Inquirer copy desk colleague Phil Walzer had to do the story. But bless Phil, he used the right word:

"Already struggling with Internet competition, newspapers nationwide have suffered further declines in advertising and circulation with the shriveling economy this year."

Yes, Internet "competition." It's not that standard newspaper phrase, "migration to the Internet." That was nice to use when newspapers believed that we and the readers were simply moving from one savanna to another and that our only problem was how to manage the, as it is always known, "transition." Papers had to say this because they believed they were going to clean up there just as they had always cleaned up in print. Some probably still do. Implicit was the belief that newspapers would BE news and information (and even classifieds!) on the Internet just as they had been in print. Animals migrate, and at a new place resume their accustomed habits. It is simply hoisting our flag at a different water hole.

But as Bob Garfield of Advertising Age noted:

"The model is not there. It's never going to come, ever. Yes, there's an increasing demand for news and information, but newspapers have never been in the news and information business. They don't sell news and information. They sell audience to advertisers. And now that news and information is given away on the web, it's over. It's not going to happen, probably ever."

All these wonderful sites on the Internet are not just part of a cornucopia of riches that newspapers -- and, Garfield's point, the journalists they employ and the journalism they do -- are going to "migrate" to, like animals finding better trees to eat. That doesn't mean that newspaper companies can't make use of the Internet. It means they are not going to find a business model there that will allow them to continue to be newspapers. If you believe that newspapers perform an essential function in convening, reflecting and fighting on behalf of communities, and that part of that comes from their mass, from their ability to say "we speak for the community" and not just "I speak for myself and a few other interested people," this does not look like a rebirth of journalism except that, just as with this blog, we finally get to tell everyone what we really think.

You can't beat the Internet at its own game, even though publishers thought they could. "The model is not there. It's never going to come, ever." Readers do not migrate to the Internet and, once there, retain the same habits -- which is what happens in migration. So, fellow copy editors and others, let's lose that term. Precision in language. Even if you think the presses should be turned off tomorrow, the Internet still provides more competition for newspapers, in terms of readership and advertising, not the successful destination of a peaceable migration. Let's call it what it is and not deceive ourselves by saying what it is not. Perhaps that will help answer the question, "If we can no longer assemble a salable audience simply by providing news and information, and if clearly we cannot do such online, what can we do to finance the sort of journalism we want to do?"

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Department Store Building of the Week, Vol. 20

The building for Hess's, which was not only Allentown's iconic store but one of the few small-city stores to have been written about nationally, was torn down a decade ago, but the buildings that housed two other stores remain, both in the 600 block of West Hamilton Street. This one at 626 W. Hamilton housed H. Leh & Co., although it looks nothing like it did as Leh's. Parts of it now house county offices. Henry Leh was an Allentown native who in 1850, at age 20, established his business, which grew to include brother-in-law Horatio Koch and then myriad members of the Leh and Koch families over the years.

When Leh's closed in the 1990s it was called the oldest department store in the country owned by the original family. At least into the 1970s it was not organized as a corporation but as a family partnership -- no president, no treasurer, just the family partners. This gave the Lehs and Kochs a good bit of money and they tended to be Lawrenceville-Princeton types, with large houses on Lehigh Parkway, but they were very devoted to the family business, keeping it going long after other families had given up. Not sticks-in-the-mud, they had a suburban location at Whitehall Mall and I believe had another branch as well, and as this picture shows Leh's was quite a large store downtown.

Hess Bros., Leh's main rival, gained renown in the 1940s and 1950s under the leadership of Max Hess Jr., who saw how close Allentown was to Philadelphia and New York and decided that he needed to have a high profile to compete. He had models ride the trains to New York and took out ads in Vogue -- the sort of thing that small-city department stores just didn't do. Always a showman, he brought the Christmas story of Pip the Mouse to Allentown. Here's a view at what Hess's building at Ninth and Hamilton looked like.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Last week I spoke to Doug Ward's advanced editing class at the University of Kansas. I did not acquit myself particularly well. I pride myself on being a good classroom presenter, but in this case I was stumbling. In part this is because of the uncertainty of times in general -- there is little newspapers can do when GM teeters on the edge of collapse -- but also because I have started to feel as if the time for my generation to lecture younger journalists is passing quickly.

If you look at the photos of so many people arguing about the future of newspapers -- the Jeff Jarvises and Ken Doctors of the world -- they look like me, even though I don't have a photo with this blog. They're white guys in their late 40s or 50s. They got into the traditional newspaper or magazine business, and personal computers came along and they were early adopters, and they saw an online future and got disgusted at the industry's glacial pace of change, and now they just want newspapers to get out of the way so that the New Jerusalem can appear on Earth. Think what a world in which print newspapers were again thriving would mean to those who have for years predicted their downfall. What it would mean primarily is that they were wrong. At the moment the argument is obviously in their favor, but they are not impartial judges. Many of them run blogs to promote their own businesses as guides to the glorious online future. This does not invalidate their counsel or advice; it just means they have a bet on a horse.

Younger journalists are not so down on newspapers. They like printed papers. They also like online journalism. They don't see the one replacing the other. They don't have to. They grew up with both. There was no need for them to be visionary prophets of an online future surrounded by money-grubbing philistines and stick-in-the-mud printies. It's simply their present. At the University Daily Kansan, their view is -- if we can get the paper into students' hands, make them acquainted with it, they will read it.

Because of that, they are much more realistic about the online world and journalism. I asked the class how many of its members used Twitter. Two hands out of about 18 went up. I asked, OK, how many of you REALLY use Twitter, not just have a Twitter account. One hand went up; the second sort of wavered. Yet there are many who will say that Twitter is the journalism of the future, with the implication that everyone uses it or will. The future, in terms of college students at one large journalism school, is not encompassed by Twitter. (I also have a Twitter account.)

So I feel that younger people, just as some voted for Obama not so much because he was a liberal Democrat as that he promised to do away with the interminable and irresolvable and increasingly irrelevant arguments of boomers -- those younger people are the ones we should be looking for to revive newspapers. They know what works with young people, because they are young people. Their complaints about newspapers are the same as younger people's complaints about newspapers were 10 years ago, before universal broadband -- newspapers don't speak to the concerns of younger people, they don't present things in an approachable manner, they are still designed as if it were the 1980s. Their complaint is not, "It's on paper." Because they have grown up with epochal change being their reality, the change did not sunder them from a world they knew, and thus they do not feel the need for jeremiads.

I'm not sure I would send a 26-year-old to a major newspaper's business operating committee, where snakes abound, but I've gotten to the point where I trust their instincts more than I trust my own generation's, because we still look at online in part as if it were Klaatu coming to shake the stood-still Earth instead of simply a tool you use with the same nonchalance with which you would use an oven. There's a Best Buy ad I saw this weekend in which a clearly 20ish clerk is saying how she helped an older man keep in touch with his grandchildren in Africa through Web cams and Skype. The older man appears to have been ignorant of Web cams, and again I can hear Sam Jaffe in the original "Day the Earth Stood Still" saying to Michael Rennie, "Such power exists?" (I wonder what will happen in the remake, where, from the trailers, Gort clearly makes the point more graphically.)

Yet Web cams have the same issue their predecessors had when presented at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair -- except for special occasions, such as calling the Central African Republic to see how your grandchildren have grown, why bother? Ninety percent of phone calls will never use Web cams, and that's probably a low estimate. The Best Buy clerk accepts the Web cam as a small part of reality, a useful tool in specific situations. To the grandfather, it is magic come down from heaven that has revolutionized the world. (The children's parents in the commercial are missionaries; Obama may have won, but Web cams to have Americans see actual African grandchildren are still too futuristic, apparently.) When she is older, the Best Buy clerk will simply expect to be able to see her own grandchildren by some sort of video if they are growing up anywhere in the world. The grandfather never expected this, and so his world has undergone revolution. But revolution offers a poor template for the stability that always seeks to follow it. The children of the revolution have a much better chance of finding the new normal because they do not have to defend their position as revolutionaries.

The KU class had a pretty good idea why students pick up the University Daily Kansan -- stories about them and people they know, plus Sudoku and the crossword. I terribly bobbled one student's question about: If I thought people just picked up the paper for Sudoku, why does it matter how things are written? I will try to answer her more concretely. People buy the paper (in the university sense, pick it up) for many reasons, not just journalism. Many of them buy it daily primarily for puzzles or comics or advertising. Most of those who do at least look at the headlines and ledes of many of the stories. Thus the stories need to be written and presented in such a way that they add to the positive effect of the decision to pick up the paper, so that it is reinforced.

A paper with Sudoku and discursive, pointless, self-indulgent stories will still draw the Sudoku fan, but a paper with Sudoku and effective, well-presented stories will add to the reader's pleasure and cement the view that a newspaper is something to be enjoyed in total. Too many journalists think the reader's pleasure is irrelevant, that the reader picks up the newspaper either to be instructed or to sit in awe of the literary talent being presented in it. In short, too many journalists are too full of themselves to succeed in the 21st century, when a newspaper needs to focus on what its readers want, since the readers' choices of what to do with their time seem limitless. That is the challenge for young journalists of the 21st century, who I hope will save us all. Doug's class seemed ready to rise to that challenge.

Monday, November 17, 2008


We'll get to Voice of San Diego when I'm home for more than a couple of days. For now, just a brief mention of a publication I look at whenever things seem hopeless. Newspapers & Technology is celebrating its 20th anniversary, and reading it reminds one that for all the theological and ideological comments on journalism, Hal Holbrook's rule still goes: Follow the money. In this case, follow the money spent on presses, prepress systems, mailroom equipment and the like.

This world has slowed down in the last couple of years, but has not come to a stop. Newspapers are still buying print production equipment (OK, if anyone would like to cue Mark Potts to say, "The fools!", go ahead). Newspaper press suppliers see their future in digital presses that can re-create the Neighbors section at far less cost. They see newspaper management as -- dare we say it -- stuck in the past by not trying to figure out what individual customers want. They are fitting out papers for 42-inch webs but are adding towers for color and investigating how to change 21-inch presses to 17- or 14-inch cutoffs, which would still allow sectionalization. They are saying the day of the straight-run press that could print 96-page newspapers all at once is over and that what is needed is more products, fewer pages, smaller circulations and higher quality.

Advertisers have said for years that they want smaller, more targeted circulations. Print equipment vendors are saying that the future is smaller, more targeted circulations. In other words, putting out papers with smaller, more targeted circulations with better quality content, and thus more attractive to advertisers, would be a strategy for success -- except in the minds of journalists, who would continue to trash the newspaper business over the falling circulations that everyone except journalists seems to want.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Ding, Ding, Ding Went the Bell

Yeah, another weird interest other than department stores. Mass transit, especially light rail.

When I read about mass transit's pretty good Election Day -- give it up in Kansas City, but things looked OK in Seattle, Honolulu and elsewhere -- I started looking for Jon Talton's take on it and Yglesias', because I believe that light rail specifically and upgraded transit in general are necessary for the health of America's cities and our global competitiveness, as do they. And thus, as noted in previous posts about the election, another area where, when I want my team to win, I don't want to read about it straight, no chaser.

And I certainly do not really want to read about it as reported by a foe of light rail such as Wendell Cox. Heck, I don't even really want to read a balanced story in which Wendell Cox is quoted as an "On the other hand" to the American Public Transportation Association.

It just makes me mad. At the same time, it was Cox who first showed me his posts from driving around European cities as they really are, and not just the central areas that Americans generally see, that suburban sprawl is not just an American disease. (Anyone been to the new giant malls on the bypass around Rome lately? Driven 15 miles northwest of Madrid and still been in suburban Madrid and stopped at a McDonald's drive-through for a Coke, and said, gee, I thought Europe was different?)

If you really want transit as a viable option, you have to acknowledge much of what Cox points out -- that the more money people have, the more apt large numbers of them are to buy single-family detached or double houses and use cars to get around to malls and highway stores. This is not just some weirdness of the United States; we just went there first because we had wide-open spaces, low cost of land, a domestic gasoline industry, a larger middle class, a government determined to make people homeowners out of fear of Bolshevism, and no need to rebuild our cities after the destruction of two wars. We decided to destroy them on our own.

But for all the abuse heaped on Los Angeles' visionaries in the 1930s and 1940s for rejecting mass transit in favor of auto-oriented development, was this not prefigured in the works of Frank Lloyd Wright? Le Corbusier and CIAM? Soria's linear city for Madrid? It seemed like a logical idea at the time, and was not simply General Motors killing the Red Cars, whether it did or not. (The genesis for this post is having seen Clint Eastwood's "Changeling," in which a very petite streetcar masquerades as a Pacific Electric interurban to Pasadena.) Los Angeles thought that being totally car-dependent would make it the city of the future; just as heavy investment in public transit now seems like a good bet in the L.A. region to its voters, having seen what unbridled growth with a car-dependent system means in 2008.

But Cox wants light rail to fail because he believes that low-density housing and auto usage for everyone is the answer. Well, fine, but I don't agree; if we all get everything, in the end none of us will be able to get anything; or, as I see Cox's view, if you win you get what you want, and if you lose, well, you lost, not my problem. And the views of mass-transit advocates -- most of them, I hope -- have progressed since the 1960s, when there was a "the world should be Manhattan or Paris" view coupled with that of people living in places such as Manhattan who didn't use cars and didn't like them and therefore thought the world would be better if no one used them. Well, fine, but America is not Manhattan any more than France is Paris. All the well-to-do Parisians may very well live in the city, but lots of rich Lyonnais appear to live in very California-like suburban houses with swimming pools and garages. That ship has sailed. Mass transit is a supplement for the car, for what mass transit can do better. Sort of like newspapers in the Internet world.

But whatever form of publication they take, one of the major problems for newspapers in the 21st century is that by nature they are neither too warm nor too cold, so, as the Bible says, people spew them out of their mouths. Newspapers try very hard to be fair, and generally succeed; yet they look at things through prisms. When the River Line light rail was proposed to run between Camden and Trenton, The Inquirer gave it fair coverage, but you could tell its prism was that light rail and mass transit are good things; it reflects the view of transit-dependent Philadelphia as well as the puritan-liberalism that too many cars are just bad for us -- self-indulgent wastes of energy and gas.

The Burlington County Times also gave it fair coverage, but its prism was that since the line was connecting two cities outside the county, how was it going to help the county; and thus it paid more attention to people in Palmyra and Riverton who didn't like the horns and feared that criminals were going to commute by rail from Camden. (The image I've always loved -- home robbers standing at the light rail station with four TV sets; the officer walks up and says, what are these? Oh, we bought them at Best Buy and carried them here. )

The Inquirer took the regional view, as a regional newspaper; the BCT the local. The Inquirer stories struck me as more positive to light rail. Yet neither paper's work was unbalanced. If you really wanted or really hated light rail, though, you probably were not happy with the coverage. Used to be you were stuck with that. Now, pro- and anti-rail groups can start their own sites and link to pro- and anti-rail stories around the world, and if light rail is your issue instead of reading the local newspaper you can spend part of your day reading My Personal Light Rail Digest Today. Newspapers see their advantage in the 21st century as providing "perspective"; but I am wondering if this is a losing game. I can get all the perspective that agrees with me I want on any issue that I choose; and if I don't care that much, do I want perspective? Maybe what I want is just to find out what's going on.

And that will bring us to Voice of San Diego -- but not for a while. A lot of traveling ahead in the next couple of weeks.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Department Store Building of the Week, Vol. 19

Completing our tour of old department stores in New Jersey is this unpreposessing lump on Landis Avenue in Vineland. Cumberland County was nothing but small glass towns and villages, with three medium-size cities, the smallest of which -- Millville -- held what seemed to be the only real department store in the area, Fink's.

In the early 1930s Isadore C. Schwarzman opened his dry goods store at Eighth Street and Landis, but it was not until he moved to 618 Landis Ave. and then brought his sons and sons-in-law into the new firm of I.C. Schwarzman Inc. in the 1950s that his business really became a department store. (This was at the same time that the square-mile city of Vineland combined with the surrounding Landis Township to become the largest city in area in New Jersey. It was a great time for Vineland, which had been a somewhat depressed farm community mainly known for the tomatoes in Campbell's Soup.) Schwarzman's thus never occupied a grand building in the classic department store sense; it was one floor and basement. But it served its community's needs until the malls came along.

The Rovners had similarly expanded their dry goods store in Bridgeton, Vineland's rival, although Vineland clearly was becoming the hub of the area, to the older Bridgeton's chagrin. But Southern New Jersey remained an area of few large cities and lots of farms and small towns, the Garden State of lore. The only substantial downtowns in the lower 5/8 of the state were on the Shore -- Asbury Park and Atlantic City -- or the Delaware River -- Trenton and Camden. It was not until post-World War II suburbanization that the interior areas changed. Of course, we're talking about an area of 40 miles across, but still, the popular conception of New Jersey as played out in the titles to "The Sopranos" is only half of the story. (As of this year, I have lived in New Jersey longer than I lived in Indiana -- so I guess I can call it my state, and it doesn't look like the Pulaski Skyway.) And the sort of urbanization processes that took place in much of the country in the late 1800s and early 1900s came very late to parts of the Garden State, which is why it had so much land for suburban growth in the first place.

We'll next move to surviving department store buildings in Pennsylvania.

Friday, November 7, 2008

They May Really Just Not Like Us, Part II

The various facets of the "rebirth of journalism" idea that Newspaper Death Watch so exults didn't really hit me until the election. I had wondered what happened to Kevin Drum, who used to do "Political Animal" for Washington Monthly's Web site. He is now with Mother Jones, as I came across from a link from the new writers of "Political Animal." I haven't read Mother Jones for years, and in checking Drum's column I saw their tagline under the logo: Smart, fearless journalism. And I thought: I'd agree with it far more personally than I would with Fox, but this is in the same league as "Fair and Balanced." Yes, it's journalism. But it's not journalism the way newspapers have practiced it for the last 40 years. It's journalism in the service of a view of how the world should be. It's Zola writing "J'accuse," in L'Aurore, not a report from AFP saying "In an article in a Paris newspaper yesterday, the novelist Emile Zola accused the anti-Dreyfusards of..."

And for many journalists, that change is a relief and a blessing.

In the analog, print world, Mother Jones was a left-wing opinion magazine, Time was a weekly newsmagazine, and the Los Angeles Times was a daily newspaper. They all had different functions that were reflected in their form (size, frequency, etc.) Online, they are all Web sites. Thus the individual journalist, lance in hand, mounting his horse to point out the problems of the world as he sees them, on his personal Web site is the same as the massive infrastructure of the New York Times. He may not have the same credibility, or the number of hits, or whatever -- but he is in the end a Web site. So is the New York Times.

Thus, the rebirth of journalism is in part the rebirth of every journalist to be able to say on an equal basis with every other journalist, here is my view of what's important -- as the noteworthy Jon Talton in "Rogue Columnist" writes every day, down to his in-his-house style of always referring to McCain as "wealthy Republican John Sidney McCain III." (Jon covered Phoenix.) I can say this, and no one can stop me. Every person an editor and publisher. Free at last.

As someone who grew up admiring I.F. Stone and Harry Golden, as mentioned before, I admire Talton as well. Isn't this the whole point of the Zenger case, that journalism is not just the ability to say "Four people were killed yesterday..."? Yet the point of Izzy and Harry was that things like I.F. Stone's Weekly tried to tell the real truth by telling their side of the truth, but they knew that they were not the same as the mainstream media avant le nom. The media mainly just tried to say what went on, except when a publisher or editor slanted some particular story. Their main message was: Things happen. Some of them involving John McCain, and some involving four people killed in a traffic accident. I.F. Stone's message was: Bad things happen, and we can stop them. Both were journalism, but they were not the same thing.

A part of the editing process at newspapers is not about the subjunctive mode or capitalization. It is about trying to bring a sense of humility and perspective to the process, a sense that the newspaper is bigger than we are -- both the reader and the newspaper staff. The newspaper had a magisterialness that made it larger than Izzy Stone. In the online world, the newspaper is just as small as everything else. This diminishes it. No wonder people pay less attention to it.

On election night, other than actually doing my job, I spent the night alternating among Daily Kos, Eschaton, Talking Points Memo, and Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish. I did so even though I knew that working in a newsroom, I would know almost all of what they knew before they could post it. But I didn't really want on this election night to just read the objective reporting of facts. I didn't want to be glued to the Politics folder of the AP feed. I wanted to be told this time that we were going to win. I wanted to know how great this was (or be told we were right if we lost). I wanted to hear it from friends, even if I had no idea who they were. Virtual communities are like sports bars; you have no idea who is at the next table, but they're cheering for your team so they must be your friends.

The Thursday Camden Courier-Post had six pages of post election coverage. Not all of it was favorable to Barack Obama. Much pointed out the intractable economic problems he faces and the prospect he will fail. I was happy to read it because I wasn't anxious anymore that we would win. I did not need Drum or Atrios to put it into a friendly perspective. I was ready for an objective, nonpartisan, newspaper-style look at the challenges ahead. I will be spending a lot less time with Kos in the weeks ahead.

The Committee of Concerned Journalists always notes that journalism is information subject to a process of verification. That is not the same as telling the truth. It is just saying that there are a lot of people saying a lot of truths and we should report them all. There are times when people want to read lots of truths, and times when they want to read their own truth. Newspapers really can't do much about the latter. The Internet is a superior medium for that, and for journalists who want to report the truth as they know it.

Newspapers are about much more than journalism, which means that journalism is not all that newspapers are about -- which means that some journalists may have less use for newspapers than readers do. Some journalists have claimed that newspapers have no purpose without journalism. That should be asked of the reader, not the journalist, who does not need the newspaper to do journalism but has long appreciated its steady paycheck. The publisher should ask: What are the readers interested in reading, and what can I make money doing? That is different from what the journalist asks himself or herself.

As Justin Williams of the Daily Telegraph noted, the effective cost of publishing anything is now zero; nearly anyone in the world can publish anything online at realistically no cost. It is ruinous for newspapers to believe they have a sustainable economic future from competing head to head in that world on its terms. If the New York Times is in the same business as Jon Talton, the New York Times cannot possibly compete on price. No matter how hard they try, newspapers cannot reduce their costs to near-zero without ceasing to be newspapers. To survive, the newspaper business has to be in a different business than simply the Internet journalism business.

Newspapers are not Internet companies or single operators. Barnes & Noble cannot win by competing head to head on price with Amazon. Barnes & Noble simply has higher costs and always will unless it tries to become a purely Internet company, and during the inevitably shaky transition to that, Amazon probably would destroy it because Amazon would be a better Internet company. The only way for Barnes & Noble to exist is to be what Amazon is not. The only way for newspapers to exist is to be what journalism on the Internet is not, as well as being journalism on the Internet when it suits their purposes.

Newspapers should not expect most journalists to solve this problem for them, because many journalists are overjoyed with the new order. But the owners of newspapers need to realize that you do not predict as inevitable a future you do not want, and that therefore all predictions of the future are suspect. If newspapers do not want the future seemingly laid out for them, they need to hear other voices than those calling for their demise. (For example, newspapers need to run ads showing people lined up to buy copies after Obama's win and the Phillies' championship -- and aim the ads at other advertisers, not readers.)

Newspapers need to acknowledge that some voices, no matter how well intentioned or loud, are not friends of the newspaper business even though they see themselves as friends of journalism. They see the newspaper as an impediment -- and very well might see a totally online newspaper, without physical presses but trying to maintain the same standards it has always had, as as much of an impediment to the rebirth of journalism as a printed one. It's unlikely that an Arizona Republic that had shut down its presses and operated totally online would enthusiastically let Talton say:

"The prohibition on enacting real-estate transfer taxes ("Save Our Homes") will further hamstring government's ability to pay for the public investments desperately needed by this broiling dystopia. It won't save anybody's house, but it will keep the Real Estate Industrial Complex from paying even a modest amount into the commons from which it reaps so much profit."

But there have always been many journalists who have seen the institutions of journalism as the foe of the true journalist.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

They May Really Just Not Like Us

Last week's post was occasioned by Marc Andreessen's claim in Portfolio that newspapers should just shut down the presses because Wall Street had decided that they were doomed and had so indicated by killing their stock prices. (Wall Street, of course, has also killed the stock prices of other businesses and industries over the years, some of which survive.) Alan Mutter notes here why a newspaper without a print component is at least at present an even weaker business that one with, and as Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg noted, the problem with Andreesen's argument is simply that newspaper companies are not Internet companies. They don't think like Internet companies and they don't act like them. (He did not make this argument approvingly.)

This weakness often given as part of the reason they are doing so badly, but to me part of the reason they are doing so badly is that they think they should be Internet companies when they aren't. That doesn't mean they shouldn't do a lot of stuff on the Internet; but Google is an Internet company and the New York Times is not. Amazon is an Internet company and Barnes & Noble isn't. Trying to be what you are not usually indicates a lack of confidence in what you are, which has been endemic to newspapers since Walter Cronkite moved to a half-hour Monday through Friday. Newspapers in their romantic little hearts want to be competing with other newspapers to scream "Extra!"

But since I encountered the site Newspaper Death Watch with its motto of "Chronicling the Decline of Newspapers and the Rebirth of Journalism," I have realized that much of what newspapers face is an attack from many current or former journalists who really don't like newspapers anymore. They may have loved them growing up, they may have been pulled into the field because of them, they may keep a certain historical reverence for them. But they don't like them now, and it's not that they don't like just the corporate mismanagement.

They think journalism can be done better without newspapers -- the printed ones, to be sure, and in many cases without anything resembling newspapers as we know them. That's not the same as forecasting their decline. They actively want them to go away. They want to work for Internet companies, or they want newspapers to be transformed into Internet companies, or they want to make themselves into Internet companies. Not just because it's the wave of the future and all that, but because the Internet seems to free journalism from some of the restraints print reporters have always scuffed against. And because they do have their residual affection and respect for print newspapers and because they don't see a financially interesting business model rapidly appearing to replace them, they berate newspapers for not being what they are not, which is, simply journalism.

Journalism without print isn't dependent on press deadlines, so you can file a story when it's happening or when you want. You don't need to provide A matter or write four grafs of background that could be cut for space. Instead of spending five minutes trying to summarize someone's argument in one graf, you can say "As so and so said here..." and do a link. It doesn't seem to be as dependent on mass audiences. Because of that, it doesn't have to have the same "But others say" reflexivity, the same need to "balance" the story. It isn't dependent upon finding a centerpiece to anchor the page, meaning that you will have to cover something you don't want to just because it has art. It doesn't have that lag between when something happens and when the paper arrives, meaning that you never have to worry about your story having been upstaged by events. Your story never has to be held for space. You can write a story that seems incredibly significant but that you know will only interest 1,000 people. You can get applause (or boos) right away. And instead of having to think about something new to write about, you can write in response to what someone else said.

This is not to say that these things are bad or that all online journalism proponents support them all. But they are not necessarily good in and of themselves either, unless you want them.

Online journalism offers the dream that "I can finally tell the truth" without the mediation process involved in putting together a group effort aimed at a large audience. It is the dream of every high school journalist who wanted to take over the school paper and say what he and 10 of his friends knew was really going on, instead of the administration saying what they could publish. It's falling back on the view that censorship is not the heavy hand of official oppression but "any time anyone stops me from saying what I want to." I wrote it, so your refusal to publish it is censorship. What do you mean it sucks? Well, not any more.

Election night brought this home to me. More tomorrow. (There may be no length limitations online, but still, the reader's attention must be lagging here.)