Wednesday, July 15, 2009

And Then Came A Time

... when I realized that I wasn't posting, and that I really didn't miss it.

But that left a loose end, and I couldn't figure out how to tie it up, until the last week. So to return:

The professionalization of journalism in the 1970s meant that, over time, being editor of a newspaper became a little less like being responsible for all the non-advertising content, and more like being an uber-city editor. I recall back when I was young and ideological, objecting to why we published "sewing patterns" syndicated features. We could be running news there! I was told that even though they brought in, oh, $40 a month, that that was revenue credited to the news department and kept it from being a total cost center.

The editor who made that determination knew every comic in his newspaper, every syndicated column, every part of the package. I would guess that many top editors today don't even know what comics and columns their papers publish (except as "how can we get this off the budget"), nor do they read them. As professional journalists, their role is to push investigations and local coverage. Anything else -- such as "does anyone actually read the replacement for Ann Landers" -- is not what they got into journalism to do. In the old days, part of training for becoming the top editor was learning how to select what your staff didn't produce. Being editor of the newspaper was not just about journalism. It was about producing a newspaper.

But a newspaper, as any longtime readers of this blog will remember, is a department store. People came into the newspaper store for lots of reasons -- to read news, to read comics, to read ads, to look for jobs or houses. The same with the department store, but as more competitors rose up it had to figure out what areas it simply couldn't compete in profitably (white goods) and make choices. Some department stores made bad choices, basing their businesses on having more upscale customers than the market actually had; others simply did business as always until there wasn't enough business left. But at one time it was unimaginable that a city would not have at least one locally-based department store.

Many of them did badly, but their aim was still to serve the customer. Journalists' aim was to serve society, and it wasn't their business to make society buy their content. In fact, it became kind of against the point. Those of us who worked in the business in the early 1980s will remember that it was a time when newspaper editors were stuck on the point, "Why don't they love us?" We had brought down Nixon! We had exposed the hard truth about their communities! They did not appreciate us. We would keep doing what we did, until they learned to.

Even at that point, when the business model seemed unassailable, journalists had fallen into their position of, "If the public doesn't like what you're doing, get a different public." The wall between church and state had liberated newsrooms from having to write puff pieces about major advertisers and keep their children's DUIs out of the paper. The professionalization of journalism meant that space devoted to things such as police blotters, marriages and divorces, club notes and small-town newsletters would be instead used for actual journalism written by trained journalists. It didn't matter that those items were what some people bought the paper for. (Some readers actually read progress editions.) We would educate those readers to appreciate what they should want. It was like the impressionists vs. the academy.

So there was no need to ask if this was what readers wanted. It was what we were going to do to make a better society. (We brought down Nixon!) Did a doctor ask his patients what they wanted? He tried to cure them. The prospect that a reader would plunk down the price of a newspaper to do the crossword, but wouldn't pay one red cent for journalism, either didn't enter people's minds, or if it did -- well, those people were the wrong public. We're all the New York Times on this bus.

European newspaper people, looking at the problems in America, often say: It's because you don't know how to compete. But American journalists are very competitive. They knew very well how to compete -- with other newspaper journalists. They knew how to get the scoop first. As nearly every city found itself with one newspaper, they learned to compete increasingly through entering contests. But competing for the reader's time by putting out a product the average reader wanted to buy -- this was harder. (Many, many readers, of course, wanted -- still want -- the newspaper product.) Then came the online revolution, and newspapers were told that it was all about "content" -- which they interpreted as being "do what you're doing and someone will pay for it" -- and here we are. OK, but so what?

The problem is that where we are is incoherent regardless of whether it's print or online or cellular or whatever. Department stores became incoherent in the late 1980s when no one could figure out what they really were about (selection? price? service?). Trying to adapt to a new world, newspapers cannot figure out what they are. Steve Yelvington -- who may not know what copy editors do in the 2000s, but is a strong and clear-eyed analyst of newspapers' problems and opportunities -- made the point that hit home with me:

"Journalism has never had a business model of its own. It's always been a tool in the execution of some other agenda. This was true in the era of the partisan press, and it's true in the era of the commercial press. Newspapers are in the business of helping other businesses sell goods/services. Journalism is useful in that business, but it's not essential."

More to come.