Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Hot Box

"The engine that drove [serialized TV] was you had to be in front of the TV [when it aired]. Now you can watch it when you want, where you want, how you want to watch it, and almost all of those ways are superior to watching it on air. So [watching it] on air is relegated to the saps and the dipshits who can't figure out how to watch it in a superior way." -- Tim Kring, creator of "Heroes"

Stop me if I've told this tale before, but I don't think I have. (Hey, it's the Web! You can't stop me!)

Years ago, in the early stages of newspapers' redesigning, I worked for a chain of eight midsize newspapers in the Midwest. Some of them looked as if it were still World War II, but in the early 1970s one of them had radically redesigned and managed to lose 10 percent of its subscribers in one week, or some figure like that. So they were going about it more cautiously.

So they had hired a designer to redo all the papers. (His name was Ralph "Chic" Bain. I have no idea what happened to him, although LinkedIn might place him in Austin.) We were Chic's third or fourth paper in a row and he had used all of his easy-to-gin-up ideas in other cities.

For our paper, he unveiled "the hot box." This was an attempt to get away from the tyranny of the three-across teaser box that then dominated newspaper design. Instead, we would have a line of type -- the equivalent of the Times Square zipper, but not moving -- at the top of the page, and then a box with a big image -- 2x2.5, about -- at the right margin, next to the flag. As with all designers, Chic selected a striking illustration for his prototype. He presented it to the top editors, and they approved it.

I was skeptical not of the artistic merits of the idea, but of our ability to come up with a striking illustration 365 days a year. I was scared that within a week this would end up being another grainy wirephoto of Jimmy Carter (we had old presses and almost no color). I had a conversation with Chic that brought that up, and it went sort of like this, in my memory:

Chic: Yeah, that'll be a problem.
Me: If you knew it was a problem, why did you include it? Now we have to do it.
He: It was a new idea. I didn't want to just do here what I did at X and Y.
Me: So you did it because you were bored?
He: No, I really wanted to see what it looked like and whether it could work. I wanted to try something new. But I figured someone here would say, we can't pull that off every day, and then I'd go back to something that looks more like the other papers. I didn't expect that they'd go along with it.

I later had a conversation with one of the editors who approved the "hot box." He said he had no idea what they were going to fill it with either. I asked why, then, they had not challenged Chic on the concept? His answer basically was, he's an artist and we're ink-stained wretches. He's got stylish clothes and we wear Farah slacks with magic waistbands. We didn't want to him to think we didn't get it. Even though we didn't get it.

In other words, we're not saps or dipshits.

Journalists, for all their skepticism and cynicism about the world known to them, can become totally credulous when confronted with news of a purported scientific, technological, artistic or educational advance. Partly, they want to report the news fairly and not kibosh something aborning. But they also fear that at heart they are simply ink-stained wretches and that this person is laughing in his heart at their stupidity. ("Before I ask you my next question, sir, I see you have the painting of a melting watch. I've always liked Miro, too.") Newspaper folk can fear not being cool enough.

Part of newspapers' incoherence in reacting to the post-Web world comes from this sense of "if everyone is telling us we're outmoded, we're stupid if we don't agree that we're outmoded." Of course, everyone is not everyone, but that makes the people who say "we like you" into simply more stupid people. And if you were to say, "Hey, we don't think print is completely outmoded?" You will be dismissed as "This backwards idiot just doesn't get it. He probably still uses rabbit ears!" Better to say, "Yes, this is the only future." (This is why people involved in placing mass-marketing advertising for firms like Best Buy and companies like Publishers Circulation Fulfillment can say, "We don't think print is completely outmoded." There is less pressure to be hip.)

This is a total conceit and impractical, but play along: If daily newspaper journalists were told that there was a way to financial success -- publishing, in print and online, a product that would have X penetration and X advertising and be able to pay X paychecks for the next 20 years, and would accurately report the news and offer community leadership -- but that this product would find success by being aimed at the generalist lay reader and would appear backward to trendy and sophisticated consumers of media and arts, would spur blog talk about how idiotic it was, how many journalists would want to join up?

In other words, were you proud that your kids watched "Sesame Street" and ashamed that they watched "Barney," even though you're the only one who got the inside jokes on "Sesame Street"? (Yeah, when I was a kid, my dad had to explain the Kirwood Derby to me.)

Of course, such a product is most of America's community daily and weekly newspapers, which may be in part why they are having fewer problems than the metros that everyone talks about.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

First Floor, Not Everything

My pal Ehren Meditz alerted me to this article in the Dallas Morning News about the plight and apparent death spiral of ne-- no, not newspapers, but department stores. The disgruntled department store shopper sounds like the disgruntled newspaper non-user -- now that the universe of what I can buy is, basically, the universe, the department store simply can't have enough, or at the right price, or in the front of the store, or what I saw on the Oscars in stock five days later, or, or -- check out in particular the "department store paradoxes" at the bottom of the story.

When I was a child, and my mother would take me shopping at Ayres, Block's and Wasson's -- I wonder why we were grammatically incorrect and never called it Ayreses' -- occasionally they would not have something in my size. No problem; we just looked for the same thing, or nearly the same thing, at one of the other stores. The same thing for my mother and grandmother. Ayres might not have the right size purple housedress, but Block's would have it (it might be the same line, if not it would be close enough).

The stores had a wide enough selection that you didn't feel that you were missing anything. Indianapolis was not a city of specialty stores. For women's clothing downtown, there were a couple of mass-appeal shops -- Morrison's and Three Sisters -- that my mother avoided, plus Peck & Peck and a store my mother did like called Schamberg's. There were some neighborhood stores -- Peacock's was ours, run by a relative of the Ayres family -- and the occasional children's wear store like Tot 'n' Teen, but for women's and children's wear, furniture, appliances, carpets, china, etc., if you shopped the three big stores, you had pretty much seen what was on offer. (Men had a couple more choices -- Strauss, which was almost a department store, and Harry Levinson, which had been a hat store.) Just like back then, the newspaper -- newspapers at that time -- gave you 90 percent of what you could have found out about that day's happenings anywhere else.

When Glendale, our first big shopping center on the Northside, opened, there were some new shops -- Kay Bradfield for women and Roderick St. John's for men -- but the same pattern held -- there was Ayres, there was Block's, there was Morrison's, there was Strauss, and Harry Levinson. It wasn't until the mall put a roof overhead -- making the whole mall into a department store of stores -- and stores such as the Gap and the Limited opened that it became more apparent that some mall stores, and later big box stores, were selling lines and styles you couldn't even find in a department store. If you search for shopping malls in Europe, you find that malls can even be called department stores there -- because they don't have the traditional anchor store.

And once this all happened, the fact that they didn't have that shirt in medium suddenly loomed larger -- why bother with the department store at all? It might be overpriced or not have your size or not have the style you wanted. Chances are that it would only be lacking in one of those areas. Chances are the boutiques would be equally lacking. But the boutiques you could just run in and out of and drift back into the mall, which was never out of view. The disappointment was not as great, because the commitment of time and energy was less. (Think of the people who stand in the middle of a department store and have no idea where to go to get back into the mall.) Sort of like the average amount of time a reader spends with news online as opposed to the printed newspaper.

Department stores such as Bloomingdale's did try to answer this question with: So what sort of merchandise are people willing to spend time looking through? And thus came the era of in-store boutiques, which worked for Bloomingdale's but didn't work for mid-range stores like Hudson's and Halle's because half of their customers essentially said -- we're not willing to spend any time at all. We either want to flit about, or we just want the lowest price possible at Walmart.

So I agree with Gordon Crovitz of the Wall Street Journal that newspapers were dumb to not ask themselves "What content will people pay for" as opposed to "How can we get people to pay for the content we want to produce." As he notes, Stewart Brand said both that information wants to be free and information wants to be expensive; one wonders what the last 10 years would have been like had he changed the order in which he said that.

Newspapers' biggest mistake with online was not, in the end, the longest free introductory offer in history; it was thinking that online simply equaled existing newspaper minus printing press, just as department stores thought mall equaled downtown minus streets and poor people.

But I am not sure how the Journal example solves the problem for the Oregonian or the World-Herald or the Commercial Appeal. The level of scale they have to operate at to be the Oregonian or the World-Herald -- can they ever come up with enough content to place with a price tag to support themselves?

Which brings us back to Christine Urban, who reminds us (at the end of this piece): "I think we have so convinced ourselves it's OK that print goes away. ... There are hundreds of thousands of people in markets that do not get their news from the Internet and, thank you very much, don't want to get it from the Internet." Why do we treat those people like idiots? Because to an Internet enthusiast, how could anyone be so stupid as to not want to get news from the Internet? And that leads us to memories of the hot box, to come.


Two addenda. First, thanks to Alan Mutter for this post on, you know, Jeff Jarvis. I don't remember communist theory, but there were all these intermediate steps on the road to Pure Communism, and somehow, we never got there, and the length of time it would take to get there just kept getting more open-ended because, just as with Millerites' date for the end of the world, the truth is not out there. The Internet revolution has allowed endless refrains of "Imagine all the people, sharing all the world ..." Yes, I'd like that too, but as Jeff says: "Dog's gotta eat."

Finally, while I do try not to comment on events at my own employer -- yes, bankruptcy court is a heavy weight hanging over us. But so was the end of Knight Ridder and so is the possible death sentence for the Chron and so is the situation at GM and Chrysler and God knows what else. So that weight is hanging over everyone these days as the country deals with the fact that 30 percent of the money that existed three years ago is simply gone. So I won't be drawing attention to it, unless I suddenly find myself with an immense amount of time to write blog entries.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Wonderful Meaning of Me

A few years back, Mickey Kaus wrote a column arguing for the elimination of copy editors at the Los Angeles Times. Kaus mentioned a friend of his and opined that that reporter could write a story on his cell phone and simply download it into the paper with no need of any editor's intervention, the reporter was so excellent and the copy was so flawless.

I would link to Kaus' file, but a link is provided here by, Jack Shafer, who was opining last year about the cutbacks in copy editing at the Washington Post. He said that one of daily journalism's dirty little secrets was that many reporters really could not write well, and that was the reason all these layers of editors were needed -- but that good hiring and an increasing level of literary fluency among reporter candidates could eliminate this problem of "meddlesome editing."

Comes now Roy Greenslade, online guru of the UK, to argue for the elimination of copy editors -- subeditors, as they are known in the Commonwealth world. His salient points:

"He even suggested journalists - who are now 'highly educated' - could sub-edit their own stories after writing them.

"'I write my blog every day, I don't need a sub to get in the way,' said the former Daily Mirror editor turned Guardian blogger.

"'I produce copy that goes straight on screen - why can't anyone else do that? You can eliminate a whole structure.

"'It's not perfect, not how I would want it to be - but the thing is, commercially, we have to do it.'"

Greenslade said some "creative" sub-editors - such as The Sun's headline writers - were indispensable. But others, he argued, could be outsourced.

"'There is value in local knowledge, but what we are doing is putting value in people's writing.

"'We're now producing highly educated, well-trained journalists, who of course don't need to have their work changed.

"'They can do it, they can have the local knowledge. There's no reason why we need that large group of sub-editors.'"

He also goes on at length about how design can be totally "templated" and all the designers laid off as well.

Oh, gee, where to begin? This is why an edited news product -- call it, archaically, a "newspaper" -- such as The Guardian differs from Roy Greenslade's blog. This is why "Chicago" or "Rent" is not the same as "A monologue by Spalding Gray." This is where a product at all -- in print or online -- differs from, oh, "That's the Press, Baby."

Roy Greenslade or Mickey Kaus may be able to turn out copy that, while "not perfect," at least meets their own expectations. They may even believe like Shafer that while newspapers are filled with dullards and knaves, that increasing sophistication will render those knaves unhirable. (Forget that many reporters are not that great with a verb but are terrific at cultivating sources, or are simply willing to work the night police beat when no one else is.)

But consider this line:

They can have the local knowledge -- "'There is value in local knowledge, but what we are doing is putting value in people's writing.'"

Meaning: It's nice if you know how to spell someone's name or where something is located or what happened in 1978, it's nice to have photo captions, it's nice to produce a newspaper that gives people in Quincy or Manitowoc or Boise a sense of where they are, but all that really matters is: I'm A Great Writer and Don't Mess With My Copy!

Anyone who has worked for a newspaper has known the sports columnist or op-ed writer or occasional star reporter who has demanded: Don't change even a comma in my story without checking with me. Most of us have worked for newspapers where at least one person has managed to bully top editors into going along with this.

In the past, though, these egos were held in check by the fact that the newspaper still had to come out, still had a stylebook, still had length requirements, and still had copy editors who would change things if they were wrong and later bear the wrath of the aggrieved writer or the section editor who had been yelled at by the aggrieved writer.

Now, they can simply post on the blog how good they are and offer themselves as the future instead of simply being raging egotists. "'Of course' they don't need to have their work changed. Mine doesn't need to be changed. And I don't want mine changed." And it's not about where I work or who I write for or anything other than -- it's about me.

Which is the exact opposite of what newspapers are supposed to be about. But there will be publishers and editors who believe this pap in a time of no money.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Department Store Building of the Week, Vol. 25

A post on Butler mentioned the history of the Troutman Co.; for anyone who grew up in western Pennsylvania, this is the main store of the Troutman's they would have known, at 202 S. Main St. in Greensburg.

Two things of note. One, Greensburg never got above 20,000 population, so this is a very large store for a town of that size (it's the five-story building on the corner, the two-or-three story addition behind it, and the five-story yellow-brick windowless structure leading off to the right behind the red-brick buildings). Greensburg was the shopping center for a large region east of Pittsburgh -- Jeannette, Irwin, Ligonier, a bunch of resort and coal towns -- and it had a similarly oversize newspaper, the Tribune-Review, progenitor of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. But even so, this was a large department store for a city of 20,000 people; a store of this size typically would be located in a city of 50,000 to 100,000.

Second, note how much of the store is the later addition, and the style of those buildings shows them to have been added long after the original, classic store was built in 1923; the building to the south on Main Street clearly is post-World War II vintage, the part toward the back, known as the "Troutman Annex," was built in the 1960s. Obviously business needs demanded it; yet a decade later, malls had taken over and downtown department stores were trying to desperately cut back space. I'm thinking of an analogy to the massive printing and inserting facilities newspapers built in the 1990s and early 2000s, plants that look like white elephants today for many publications.

Many downtown department stores such as Troutman's built expansion wings into the 1960s -- one was even built in downtown Gary, Ind., a concept ("downtown Gary") that barely existed in the 1970s, for H. Gordon & Sons, which also had ceased to exist. Business was expanding, but just as important, the amount of merchandise was rapidly expanding as a result of postwar prosperity, cheaper imports and new production methods; instead of having a counter with 10 wallet styles, one now had to have a hundred.

The department stores tried to keep up, but as noted earlier, specialty retailers in appliances and young people's clothing started to chip away, leaving the department stores with a still-substantial clientele but not one that was large enough to cover their fixed costs; as they cut back, they gave people less and less reason to come in. Add to that the lack of free parking and lessened use of buses, the customer's increasing unwillingness to search out a department on the fifth floor when a similar store could be driven to, and in many places an increased fear of crime, and the store expansion that had been a sure bet a decade earlier now was just dead weight. It's not a revolutionary change that gets you; it's two or three together that mean that any response you make to one simply hurts you in another area. (Downtown department stores still exist in New York, Boston, Philadelphia -- albeit much lessened -- because people still live downtown there and, more important, take mass transit, meaning that their first concern when going shopping is not where to put the car.)

Similarly, those mammoth newspaper production plants were absolutely needed to handle the volume of business in the 1990s; but once that is your production process, and the volume of business is not there, you're just paying for dead space, like the upper floors of department stores that were no longer used for selling but still had to be heated, maintained, guarded against fire.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Real Problem Isn't Paper

Over at "Reflections of a Newsosaur," Alan Mutter has been at the center of a large discussion because of his ongoing series showing that 1) newspapers can't afford to go digital-only, 2) newspapers nevertheless have failed to react to market changes over the last decades, and 3) he believes that the only solution is to start charging per article online.

In saying this, of course, he is being shot at with the usual ammunition. But the comments show that the real discussion is not in the end about whether there is a printed product called a newspaper -- or even a nonprinted product called a newspaper. What we are discussing is whether journalism as we have known it for 100 years -- the presentation of news by professional journalists, working for or with organizations whose avowed purpose (though they fall short) is to accurately, fairly and disinterestedly report on significant human activities, and done in a redacted manner that tries to at some point separate the wheat from the chaff and present the reader with the significance of it all -- is even what heavy Web users are looking for, and whether our journalistic organizations are simply holding a losing hand in trying to play their game there.

Consider these comments:

"The only way newspapers can successfully charge for content is by creating unique and valuable information."And here is the the stumbling block. Journalism doesn't give anyone the capacity to create unique information. You either stumble onto it or arrive at it in the course of your endeavors.

"Hence the situation that a biochemist with a degree in business communications is going to write a better article on a new pain reliever, and describe it in his blog which will be picked up by aggregators long before a journalist can bring himself up to speed as far as understanding the subject well enough to write about it.

"You aren't gatekeepers anymore. people don't even want a gate."

Well, leave aside for now the question of how many biochemists have degrees in business communications... You stumble onto it or arrive at it. A reporter or editor does not find it for you and point it out. This somewhat negates the entire purpose of a newsroom.


"Giving away their VALUABLE content for free ? Until last year, I subscribed to the WSJ, the best newspaper I ever read or hope to read. But many days I never opened it because I was saturated from reading the web before the Journal arrived at 11:30 in the mail. As good as I still think the journal is, I'd spent all the reading time I had in the early morning before I started working. The valuable content was the same but it wasn't as valuable as my time. Might as well offer me another meal right after lunch. ...

"..I choose the articles I read based on the headline or titles I see at news compendiums such as Lucianne, or Real Clear politics. When the article is behind a firewall, even requiring something as simple as a login, I hit 'back' and go elsewhere. The web is a giant smorgy and I don't have the patience or the time to read everything I even want to read, much less something that irks me to get to. I won't jump through any hoops and I know I'm not alone in this. The web is a glut of good articles and I'll try another I haven't read yet. This mitigates against the value of what you are trying to sell. There are more good articles than I'll ever find the time to read and I know that. Your 'valuable' articles arn't worth the hassle of signing up for, or paying for, not even a mill or a mite."

One realizes, of course, that this person is saying: There is so much to read, that I don't really care if it is by a team of five reporters at the Journal backed up by a string of editors, or if it is one person's opinion made up of whole cloth. I just want to read something interesting. The difference between a good article and a not-good article is whether I want to read it, not the qualifications and effort that produced it.

And finally:

"The fundamental idea behind the paid content model is flawed, in part because the last great hurdle that newspaper folks can't get beyond is that the 'article' model is a relic of the old business model. That's not to suggest it doesn't have value, but ... when you think about it ... the article is not a very good way to organize information on the web. An article's shelf-life is tiny, they're usually long and difficult to scan and, nine times out of ten, you have no idea if the information contained is researched and reliable on a longer scale.

"Yet we publish article after article after article ... why? Because that's the business model we know.

"Ever try to gather information about a city council by trawling a newspaper site? I have and God have mercy on your soul if you ever try. The information is thin, scattered about, and ... at most sites ... any article older than a couple weeks (car accident or mayoral profile) has been spirited away behind another fence somewhere. ...

"Newspapers piss away more information in a 24-hour news cycle than most web sites post in a calendar year. Why? Because they won't invest in codifying it into a useful, searchable form. Instead, they repurpose 'stories' that will be worthless within a day and gone -- whether relevant or not -- within two weeks, anyway. It's an absolute waste of an overwhelmingly dominant position in most markets....

"What would I do? What most (non newspaper) sites do. Offer a base free product and monetize the crap out of just about everything else. The Wall Street Journal enjoyed some success at paid subscriptions because it offers deep, online profiles of companies ... profiles that are (or at least, were) worthwhile to investors.

"Where's the depth newspapers have developed that people might pay for? ... Do you think there might be a market for a t-shirt featuring the sports page from dad's state championship. Maybe a mug with grandma and grandpa's wedding announcement?

"Why isn't the business staff at major papers cranking out e-books detailing the market status of different sectors, ready to be downloaded at $5 a pop? Why haven't the entertainment staffs doing e-book biographies of local musicians ... or actors ... or whatever? Podcasts of interviews with local heroes and stars available for "upgraded" members?

"Not easy ... it'll take a huge investment (cash, not just stretching out already beleaguered staffers' time a little bit more) and patience, but a model could be built that ... along with targeted advertising and niche sites (general interest is dead, folks) should be able to sustain a nice operation, indefinitely.Will it be the same? No .... but is that such a bad thing, really?"


Television news wandered around for two decades before it realized that people weren't looking to have a newspaper-structured story read to them, with visuals in the way that photos illustrate a newspaper story. They were looking for visual information with narration.

Newspapers have not yet come to terms with their fundamental problem on the Internet: Publishing on the Internet is not the same as replacing film with digital storage in a camera. Take the film away and you have allowed the user to take 320 pictures at the wedding instead of 24 -- but they are still pictures. The picture is the product.

Newspapers thought that the Internet was going to be simply an endless roll of newsprint without ink and trucking costs, but they would still have their product. It's not. It's a completely different product for the end user than a newspaper; one might say it is a completely different environment than the one of the physical reality in which newspapers exist. As such, what newsrooms are set up to do -- have a staff to write, edit and present news stories -- is not what the heavy user of the Web is looking for.

If they don't value what newspapers do, why would they pay for it, in print or on the Web? They didn't abandon newspapers because they were printed. They abandoned newspapers because they are no longer interested in what we have known as news -- a mediated news product, a snapshot in time.

I don't think that newspapers could ever create a working business model off trying to satisfy such customers, but if they tried to, they would have to in essense shut down their current operations, probably fire most of their remaining people (not for economic reasons but because what they do and are trained to do is to cover the news and create stories), bring on people with a completely different orientation, market themselves as an entirely different organization -- which, let's be honest, they are not going to do, any more than General Motors or Macy's or Pfizer is going to do.

Thus the future of newspapers depends upon identifying and serving those people who want the service that a newspaper and its newsroom and advertising can provide, and forgetting about trying to satisfy the people who are quite glad to take the odd scrap that falls off the table free but who do not have enough interest in the newspaper, its newsroom, its advertising and its purpose -- to convene a physical community, to present a public agenda, to serve as a spotlight and a conscience -- to ever pay one bloody cent for what it does. Those people will try to convince you that they, and only they, are the future; but why should that be so any more than that traditional newspaper readers would be the future? They just have the megaphone of the Web, and apparently a lot of time.

If you mainly exist in the endless, nontemporal world of the Internet, you simply will not have any use for a newspaper, glued as it is to location and time. You might be interested in an occasional news story, but not to where you would actually pay anyone to write it (or read advertising that paid the bills), because you might be just as interested in an Australian ophthalmologist's four paragraphs on the single tax. Trying to save daily journalism by appealing to them is like trying to save the sugar business by appealing to diabetics.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Orphan Quotes and Orphan Days

Lately I've been tough on orphan quotes -- of the "The mayor said he was 'pleased' with the council's action." I can see where a reporter might want to not mischaracterize a source by making a word a different indirect quote, but if the word is simply generic English, why are the quotes necessary? So I've been taking them out if they read exactly the same without quote marks. Of course, if the mayor says he was "exultant," I'd probably leave it in.

I'm also leery of them because they can be used in the Louis Renault, raised-eyebrow sense: "The councilman said he had 'misplaced' the documents." The councilman probably said something like, "It appears I have misplaced the documents," but the sentence comes across as "Lying through his teeth, the councilman said he had 'misplaced' the documents." We have no idea if he burned them or if two days later he will find them underneath his winter coat that he threw on his couch instead of hanging up. So I feel that a copy editor, on guard, should simply have him saying he misplaced the documents; or the reporter should have used the entire direct quote. Otherwise it looks like a cheap shot. But perceived cheap shots and overabundant adjectives are two of the greatest divides between reporters and copy editors.

Still, what would you do with these three sentences:

"The mayor said the council's decision was 'correct.'"
"The mayor said the council's decision was 'singular.'"
"The mayor said the council's decision was 'preposterous.'"

Leave the quote marks? Take them out?


Much ado about two cutbacks in publication days, but this is still low-hanging fruit. The Rexburg Standard Journal in Idaho cut back to three days a week from five; but it was only four years ago it went to five days from three. Even when times were good, a newspaper now and then would decide its readers and advertisers demanded it every day, only to find out a few years later that they really didn't. And the three Calkins papers in the Philadelphia suburbs canceled their Saturday editions -- which they only introduced five years ago, I believe to satisfy the demands of insert advertisers who wanted the inserts in the home on Saturday. I guess there are not enough at the moment to pay the cost of producting a paper as basically an insert wrapper. These are no different than Famous Footwear opening a store and finding out after three years that it was never going to show a profit. Sometimes you guess wrong. These are not indicators of the death spiral, although they will be presented as such.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Department Store Building of the Week, Vol. 24

As noted in a previous post on Bethlehem, Orr's Department Store was the other main downtown department store in Easton, Pa. As the photo shows, Orr's -- the front of the store is the red-brick building in the center, 306 Northampton St. -- meandered through a number of buildings (the two buildings behind it and slightly to the right). I always liked stores that clearly had been cobbled together. Shopping on the upper floors H.& S. Pogue Co. in Cincinnati involved circuituous paths and the occasional step or ramp where the buildings did not line up well. I am sure Pogue's saw this as a negative, but it was certainly unique. I remember that when one went into Orr's, it seemed incredibly small, because of the narrowness of the original store and the small space in front of the elevators (it was, what, maybe 10 feet wide at that point?). Gilmore Bros. in Kalamazoo was similar in having a small street frontage that expanded as you went further back.

Orr's was started by Matthew Orr and passed into the hands of his widow, who sold it to the Bixler family, which continued to operate it into the late 20th century. Orr's also had a shopping-center store across the river from Easton in Phillipsburg, N.J., but the main store never moved from its original site. I know there was an entrance off Center Square (seen at the left of the photo) as well, but that seems to have been taken down in redevelopment.

Here's a postcard view of Northampton Street in its heyday. All you can see of Orr's, of course, is the sign. In those days Easton was the shopping center not only for the Slate Belt towns around Bangor, Pa., but also for small towns in rural Hunterdon and Warren counties in New Jersey. It is best known today for two products -- the boxer Larry Holmes and Crayola. The Route 22 expressway made all three of the Lehigh Valley towns (Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton) into one connected metro area, and so it is seen by many today as sort of an appendage to Allentown, although Easton has tried to establish itself as the western edge of metropolitan New York from time to time.