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.

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