Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Sic Semper

The problem with blogging is that it becomes permanent. You think, will I be disappointing my one consistent reader? Will I cease to exist? If I do not have a voice in the electronic conversation, do I even matter anymore?

It ends up not being a matter of whether anyone pays attention or whether you have anything to say. You end up scared that without it you will simply be -- well, nobody.

Isn't this the genius of social networking? You exist for others to see you. Because I did not know if anyone was paying attention, I figured people were paying attention. Occasionally a reader engaged in conversation, but mostly it was: Here's what I think. I did not need an excuse. I could simply tell anyone what I thought, because I wanted to. There was no need for a nut graf.

I thought I knew a good bit about the history of newspapers, and the history of the department-store business, and it might be entertaining to write about how they were joined at the hip. And I thought that a lot being said about the Web was like tracts for the Harmony Society in the 1800s; through this, we will free humanity from shackles and change its nature. And I thought that people who believed in the Web were more apt to write on the Web than print people were. And I felt that Americans, who pay little attention to the rest of the world, would be unaware of what print newspapers were doing to succeed in other countries. And I just found Jeff Jarvis annoying.

And I thought that maybe I could give someone else's voice a little more strength, and at least the argument could be more balanced, and possibly more courteous. I read the blogs of many online journalism prophets and wondered how they kept from exploding from their own disdain for the larger fraction of humanity that didn't get it. And so I wrote, as a person who loves print newspapers, who wanted them to have a future. No matter what you think, on the Web there's someone like you. You need never feel alone. And feeling alone is feeling disempowered. There were others. So I hoped, and I wrote.

And then, like many a blogger before me, I am sure, I fell in love with my own thoughts. I came pretty near exploding myself. I stopped thinking about clever comparisons with department stores and started thinking about how everyone else had made mistakes. But I was on a roll. I had lunch with Juan Antonio Giner. Jay Rosen trashed me. Jay Rosen took the freaking time to trash ME? Life was good.

And then came the economic collapse of 2008, and it suddenly no longer mattered what the future might have been or what had happened in the past. The present was here like the water at Johnstown, and it was sweeping away anything that it encountered that was not built like the Methodist Church, which withstood the great flood. And all you could do was figure out how you would survive in the world it left behind.

Ward Bushee of the San Francisco Chronicle gave a long and educational interview with KQED in which he said, the ad money is not there on the Internet and it is no longer there in print and some of the answer has to be to charge the readers more of what it actually costs, not to deliver the newspaper, but to produce the news -- both in print and online. He is hopeful for print newspapers, saying the demographic in San Francisco is suited for what they offer. Peter Osnos at the Century Foundation is among those who don't see that future, but his view of providing news lines up with Bushee's in many ways: "Reestablish the principle that news has to be paid for by someone: the consumer, the advertiser, or the distributor." And so the era of everything-free online is probably going to come to a close.

But the news from Detroit and the Gannassacre indicate to me: The towel is being thrown in on print, that malnourished cow now on its way to the stockyard. Life magazine had millions of readers when it closed in 1976 (CORRECTION: 1972, thanks). Many department stores had thousands of loyal shoppers when they closed. The cost of producing and maintaining the product exceeds what people are willing to pay for it. That is clearly the point of the Detroit cuts. So you butcher it.

At the same time, despite the opprobrium heaped on them, most leaders in the newspaper business have been loyal until now to their print products. Even Gannett. They may have been incompetent, they may have ignored what their customers wanted, or been huge disappointments to their staffs, but few were actually malign, out to purposefully destroy what they had been given. (Let us not speak ill of the dead, the recently departed Journal Register chairman.) Some have indeed damaged their businesses for the long term to maintain that wonderful product we call the newspaper. They tried poorly, but they did try. And given a few more years of graceful decline they might have figured out how to give it a real future. The financial collapse has taken that away. Now is panic. Now is the realization that the customers who love your product don't love it enough to pay the actual cost of producing it, and no one seems interested in underwriting it anymore. Well, screw them, then.

One thing blogging teaches you, alas, is how little you know. Newspapers and department stores, up until the 1960s, did well because many of their customers believed that institutions knew more than individuals did. Department stores didn't stop being "the first with the best" overnight; but the categories of things to be first in kept multiplying beyond every boundary, until no one could claim that title; and once the department store was no better than Old Navy, why put up with its hassles?

Newspapers and department stores have conventions they can't overcome; the newspaper, by its nature, has to make everything a story, but a "news story" worked when there was a start and an end to the news, and it has to have certain phrases ("although statistics are hard to come by, it seems clear that more and more...") to justify itself and its placement, as opposed to simply: I wanted to write about this. The Daily Beast has no such requirement. It does not speak for what it sees as the interest of its community; it creates its own community. And both it and the department store bundle together lots of items; a useful strategy when things are hard to get, a financial drag when things are overabundant.

It was when the sportswriters, after Buzz Bissinger attacked bloggers, responded by saying that unlike bloggers they had access to the coaches and athletes and could ask them questions, and many sports fans responded: "Who cares? I don't care what the coaches and athletes think. I care what other fans think of them" -- that it really struck me that the journalistic problem (as opposed to the ad problem) is that a newspaper is an institution in an individual age. A newspaper spoke to and quoted and explained the voices of authority, it was a voice of authority itself, trying to set rules under which authority could legitimately operate; and we live in a world where authority is always understood to be simply covering its own ass, the same as all the rest of us. Yes, there is still authority, but I will pick my own.

Authority is the programming directors of the networks; perhaps the 21st century role will be whoever decides what is promoted on Hulu. Between them lies the chaos of YouTube. Newspapers have no idea how to write about what appears on YouTube because there is no one person to talk to, no Fred Silverman or Grant Tinker. There is no strategy such as Appointment Television. It all just is. So newspapers write one more time about the network news shows, which they understand. They have spokesmen. Newspapers don't know how to write about Achmed the Dead Terrorist, because he isn't introduced on a press junket. Is he significant? Is he puerile? He just is. But there is no thesis and antithesis to report, so there is no story, and the world newspapers cover becomes increasingly detached from the worlds people live in. Fifty years ago, the world newspapers covered was the world most people lived in. There were fewer worlds. Gene Roberts famously said newspapers should cover stories that ooze out instead of being announced; but that was before everyone could ooze.

This blog has kept me up nights; it has made me obsessive; it has led me to neglect other responsibilities. I truly love few things in life: My wife, our son, my mother, my in-laws and their family; modern architecture of the 1890s through 1930s; the lore of department stores; the memories of time with people who were my friends and lovers when I was young; and print newspapers. After my wife, son and mother, newspapers take pride of place.

I consider myself a good journalist, but I love working in the newspaper business. What I wanted to do in life was to put together newspapers. I care about the placement of folio lines and lift markers. I love the nuance of a headline that conveys in four words the subtlety of a 20-inch story. I have always drooled over newspapers that did the typography of the masthead with panache and held in contempt those that clearly had just kicked something out. Let others tell stories; I would start the presses. When I held that product in my hands, whether it was the New York Times or the wonderfully named Cadillac Evening News when it was a morning newspaper, I felt: Here is what I know. Here is what I understand. Here is what I can make better. This is a weird, wonderful world, and it is what I do. Boy, am I lucky.

But I have become a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. It is time to be quieter, to write about department store history -- which I actually have original research on. To write about copy editing, probably. But to raise a voice to say that the print newspaper is not simply paper on which to publish stories, but is a product that carries its own meaning, that creates and binds a community, that gives it a history and a direction, that says that the real world is bigger than the worlds we build for ourselves? Given time and money, we could find a future for it. But time is not on its side when there is no revenue.

I have been looking at a copy of the 1976 Editor & Publisher Market Guide. It is the newspaper world that I entered nearly 35 years ago. "An Offset Newspaper With Over 25,000 Circulation!" That was in Olean, N.Y. "The Money Tree: Looking for choice pickings? Look no further than Bristol. ... Make your sale in Bristol with The Bristol Press." That in Connecticut, at a paper that will probably close next month. "Hawaii Has Many Faces... And One Advertising Buy Reaches Them All." The former Honolulu JOA. It was a great world that I was fortunate to be part of, and it is ending too soon for me. But I expect people said the same thing about vaudeville.


Steve Collins said...

A thoroughly fascinating column. Thank you.
But you should know that even though The Bristol Press rated a pre-obit in the New York Times, I think we're going to survive. For now at least.

Anonymous said...

You should follow your heart, David, but please know that this post and your many others have meant far more than a mere "sounding brass or tinkling cymbal."

Wayne Countryman said...

[Sorry, David. Didn't mean to leave out my name on that last comment. I'll read your take on department stores as well as copy editing.]

Anonymous said...

David, this is one of the most heart-wrenching things I've read in weeks. Wow.

I hope we will overcome as newspapers. There are many good people, yourself included, who help the business survive.

Your writing matters. Your thoughts matter, especially about newspapers. Please don’t stop sharing them.

Now is not the time for quiet. A thousand little sounds make a roar, or a primal scream. We could use that.


Anonymous said...

Small nitpick from a copy editor (non-newspaper, although I did attend ACES in 2001 and 2002), frequent customer of the defunct Hess's and Two Guys chains, and constant reader of your blog for many months: Life magazine's last issue in its original incarnation wasn't 1976, it was the end of 1972 (we have it around here somewhere; "Events of 1972" is the cover copy).

Davisull said...

Gottacook: Thanks, I was going to wrire that and then three days ago I read something that said "When Life magazine closed in 1976." I will fix it.

JP said...


As a lifelong newspaper fan (and someone who just left a newspaper job to go work in online media), I was deeply touched by your post. I love newspapers -- I am hoping against hope that there is some way, some way, they can survive.
-- Jennifer Peebles
Houston, TX