Friday, April 3, 2009

Tomorrow. Not Today.

Presstime convened a panel of 10 leaders in examining the prospects of the newspaper business and asked them: How would you reinvent the print newspaper? This is truly a blue-ribbon panel: Mario Garcia, Ken Doctor, Charlotte Hall, Juan Antonio Giner, Alan Jacobson, Tim McGuire, Alan Mutter, Ken Paulson, Howard Weaver, Ted Leonsis.

It does leave out the "there's really no print future" types -- Mindy McAdams, Jeff Jarvis, etc. -- and yes, there's only one woman there; McAdams aside, that pretty much reflects the state of blogging about the future of the newspaper business, though it certainly does not reflect the present of the newspaper business. Sandy Rowe, anyone? Geneva Overholser? Is argumentative blogging simply the online version of guys sitting around the cracker barrel saying, "Now what I think is" -- or of "Pardon the Interruption" -- while the women are less interested in beating their chests? He asked, being a he.

Although the returns are not in from the Detroit Experiment, the advance reviews were not particularly good. Mutter: "Publishers should make every effort to sustain the continuity of their publication cycles, because disruptions will anger and disorient loyal readers and send a not-so-subliminal message to advertisers that it really isn’t important to be in the newspaper on a regular basis." McGuire: "Printing some days may be a viable answer, but it’s happening for all the wrong reasons. More newspapers ought to be asking where are the holes in my media market, and how can I fill them? And they should be asking if we make certain moves in this market like publishing three times a week, what are the counter moves I can expect? I am going to be stunned if a competitor does not put a Sunday-Monday sports product into Detroit." Doctor: "Dropping days altogether saves significant costs in the short run but accelerates the transition to digital—and we know there’s far less money in digital publishing at this point.... Cutting back the core product doesn’t strengthen it. It may be a necessary evil, but pitching a less-is-more approach to readers won’t fool them."

But then, asked to look at the nearly immediate future, the response seems to be contradictory. Garcia: "In some communities, the core printed product will not be around in two, five or 10 years." Jacobson: "In less than a year, there will be very few seven-day-a-week newspapers. ... In less than 10 years, no newspapers will be printed."

OK, Garcia and Jacobson are not Mutter, McGuire and Doctor. (Doctor, for his part, does envision a daily print product of the future. And it should be noted that Garcia Media and Jacobson's Brass Tacks Design are now heavily promoting their Web consulting work. They, of course, are not the only two on this panel who make a good part of their living from consulting, but they probably are aware that this is not the year to sell consultant-led print redesigns.) But if Garcia and Jacobson are right, why would it matter what happened in Detroit? It would be what is going to happen everywhere. It just happened there first. It'll happen in your town tomorrow.

The future looks wonderful when it's the future. When the future actually arrives, suddenly it looks a lot more uncertain. Maybe it's premature. Maybe we're not ready for it. Hold up, all the other balls haven't fallen into place yet. The future will be great if it all goes according to plan. I can't of course say why the reporter chose to lead the closings with Garcia's comments instead of with someone saying that there will be print newspapers, but different; except that, as with any story, no one wants to be writing the story that isn't edgy enough or anticipating what might happen or looks like you favor the status quo. She did give the last word to Hall: "It would be foolish to try to predict even two years out in our business." (Sit down for now, Mr. Jacobson. No, wait, let's go Round the Horn! 'Cause what I think is... Pass the crackers.)

Newspapers have trouble defending themselves in their news columns because reporters and editors still think it's not objective to speak positively about themselves -- that you become a homer by doing so. By talking a lot about how bad things are -- admittedly, they are bad -- you show that you are not a shill for the publisher and that you can be trusted to write honestly about anything because you have no illusions about yourself. But there are many occasions when a newspaper cannot write objectively about itself without undermining its readers' trust in it and its ongoing business. We need to get past the idea that this is some sort of act of selfless heroism, the ultimate test of objectivity -- writing a story that would radically hurt your employer and saying your employer should print it. Why in heaven's name would it? You only do this if you have an untouchable revenue stream. Oh, wait, we did. In the 1980s.

Doing a story that says "the paper was racist in the 1960s," of course, can be both objective and good for the paper. But let other media do the "newspapers are dying" stories for a while. They will. Maybe we can do "television is dying" stories to fill the void. We don't have to do "Sam Zell today announced a breathtakingly adventurous plan..." either. We can soberly report the facts, but not pile on.

At any rate, give this Presstime article a look. It's not a really upbeat story -- at the start of 2009, who would believe it if it was -- but it is part of the continuing effort of "Let's make print work in a way that is good for readers and good for the newspaper" as opposed to just saying "Print is stupid" and betting the whole farm on Web faith.

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