Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Why Newspapers Need to Charge, Part II

Yesterday's post also was written before I read the American Journalism Review article "A Costly Mistake?" about the Associated Press' decision to sell its content to Web sites, even though the AP is owned by newspapers. It shows how for reasons that seemed right at the time, and some of which probably seem right still, the AP "has been strengthened by customers from outside the newspaper circle. But those new customers have helped foster a competitive climate that has weakened the health of newspapers, which threaten the newsgathering ecosystem that the AP brought into being 163 years ago."

Tom Curley, the AP president, now says: "It was a dumb idea to think that you could pay the rent on the Internet with advertising alone. Free is not a business model. The Internet means unlimited [ad] inventory, competition and a chaotic branding experience. It's a disaster for most companies."

Curley also notes: "If I had tried to suggest this a couple years ago, I'd be hollered out of the room."

Such was the sway of Internet triumphalism, and there are doubtless those who would read this article and say, Good! Death to the AP! Why do we need the AP when the world is full of tweets? Why do we need reporters when everyone can contribute something to the conversation? Corporate journalism should die anyway. The only real journalism is the voice of the people.

Why do we need electricians when anyone with the equivalent of "Electrical Wiring for Dummies" and the ability to tweet, "Hey, I'm about to connect this wire (see picture I just took) to the circuit breaker box, am I doing the right thing?" can find advice, counsel and probably someone who will say, "You moron, you're about to blow up your house." But still, I think we need electricians.

That said, newspapers, I hope, also have learned this lesson that AJR points out, which department stores, in their own hubris, also did not heed:

"Why buy a copy of the New York Times, or bother going to its Web site, when the AP's versions of the same national and international events are available just about everywhere? Who needs the Washington Post's take on politics when the AP's generally comprehensive and thorough reporting suffices?"

Which means, in essence, who needs the Washington Post's take on politics even if there was no Internet?

One of the mistakes department stores made when they lost their own hold on exclusivity and thus on pricing -- as clothing became so cheap to manufacture overseas that any store could offer a competitive selection at a low price, and as the agreements that had kept major brands out of discount stores were ruled illegal -- was to say, well, we are the department store. People have done business with us for years, and they will appreciate our neat, ordered and upscale atmosphere, not having to throw stuff into a shopping cart, being able to talk to a salesperson, the wide selection we offer, bonuses such as gift wrapping and boxes (with our name on them!), and our generous return policies.

And some people did. Others appreciated throwing stuff into a shopping cart, not having to wait for a salesperson, and were glad to do their own wrapping (with cheap boxes), etc. And the "we've been here since 1827" argument impressed few (that's nice, but I'm here today). Whereupon the department stores' business continued to suffer, so they offered fewer salespeople, cheap boxes, poor gift wrapping, etc., etc., as well as cutting back on what they sold, while continuing to go into each new mall because if they didn't, the other department store would be there by itself.

Some of this they either got away with or it didn't matter (no one wanted to buy outdoor TV antennas at department stores) but when you talked to people in the 1980s and 1990s about why they no longer went to department stores, there was one large issue -- undertrained salespeople and not enough of them -- so you had to wander through the store looking for a register that was open (in the 1960s, every department always had an open register) and be willing to be told (before computerization), "I can't take that merchandise, you have to go to him over there..." and then stand in line 10 minutes while a hapless clerk who had started yesterday was asked to exchange three shirts and a belt for two pair of pants and a swimsuit, because the department store had already eliminated its separate exchange desk as well. The department store could have gotten away with a lot, but not by making the customer experience the weak point as it tried to manage its real estate portfolio and credit lines and elevator repairs.

Newspapers also misjudged the number of people who thought that some of the bells and whistles of newspapers offered a major competitive advantage. The chore of reading news on the Web -- the fonts, the wide width, the scrolling -- yes, you can adjust some of this on your computer, but Drudge, for example, has the graphic design of a mid-1990s high school project. Few except the most avid Web users will deny that newspapers are easier to read than Web pages, and newspapers spend huge amounts of money on design, font selection, dot screens and the like, and yet it appears that many people will read anything they are interested in no matter how badly it is presented, as long as it's free.

If you talk to most good reporters, their objective is "to not do the AP story" -- to not simply tell what happened, but to add the poignancy, creative writing, and other coloratura that will distinguish the story and make it theirs. They do so largely to please themselves, but they also believe this will make the experience better for the readers. On such efforts was the old advertising motto of the Los Angeles Times -- "a special kind of journalism" -- founded. Again, the Internet era has not shown that such things don't matter at all. It has shown us that such things matter less, and to a smaller group of readers, than we perhaps thought, because the reader is not us.

The AP has brightened up its writing, but clearly a story saying "Flooding devastated North Dakota yesterday, forcing hundreds from their homes and..." is just fine with a large number of readers. The Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times and Dallas Morning News national bureau stories of the 1990s, gathered at great expense and exclusive to them and their wire clients, and beginning with something like "Jethro Bodine looked sadly at the field behind his house. It should be brimming with wheat, he said, just days away from harvest, as it has been for him and his father and grandfather on these 2,000 acres a few miles from Jamestown, decade after decade. Instead, he said, 'It's all flooded. Ruined. Probably ruined me, too'" were very well done, and some readers loved them; but many others would have been just as happy with "Flooding devastated..."

But large newspapers convinced themselves that this was their competitive advantage. It was, in luring top reporters, winning awards, getting recognition within the journalism community; it just wasn't quite as important as we thought to the general readership, which kept telling us, "I don't have time to read the paper," which we ignored. The readers didn't have 10 minutes to wait in line at Wanamakers, either.

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