Wednesday, August 12, 2009


In an earlier post I said that newspapers, like department stores, had become incoherent.

Looking at ads from department stores from the 1930s through the 1960s, their message was pretty clear: Here's what we sell, here's when we're open. Most department stores competed on price; a few competed on class, but not as many as you'd think; almost all competed on breadth. Discounters' steady growth put department stores' message in flux. They couldn't compete head to head on price because they had higher fixed costs; increasingly, they couldn't compete on breadth.

I found one ad from a small-town store in the 1930s that sold tires right out of the men's wear department. But the stores had to move upscale to fight the discounters; the middle-income store went after a more upper-middle market. The bargain basement stuff increasingly got in the way. Kmart didn't have that image problem.

Department stores traditionally had little sales (this just in, read the paper for the price!) and big sales (End of Month, January White Sale, etc.) to move out merchandise too long in the tooth. Now they had to have coupons, weekly markdowns, etc., to try to compete with the discounters and big box stores. So no one knew what their price was. Unless you walked in during a big sale with a coupon, you felt like you were paying too much. Call in William Shatner! You might actually pay more at Walmart, but you didn't feel like you were an idiot, because Walmart's price stayed the same. The department store was playing you.

So the department store's message became: Come here and buy stuff, some of which is better quality but some is not, and pay more, unless you get here on the right time or do lots of homework, and you still have to go to another store to get stuff we don't carry anymore. Gee. Macy's and Penney's sell "shopping environment" -- nicer store than a discounter, more fashionable clothes -- but even some lines I thought would never fall from department stores, such as bridal registries, increasingly are going to places like Bed, Bath & Beyond. The bride doesn't shop at Macy's, her friends don't shop at Macy's, they bought all their dorm stuff at Bed, Bath & Beyond, and you no longer have to impress the bride's mother by having the stuff in a box that says The Killian Co. or Meier & Frank.

Some examples of newspaper incoherence:

One of my three dailies at home has in the last year made great strides in packaging and presentation -- color nearly everywhere, lots of brief wire stories instead of just running evergreens at length to close a page. The paper has a fraction of its old staff, yet in some ways is more readable. But it shares content with two papers that serve a neighboring county in another state (one that's not that easy to get to from here, being across a major river and having an ancient highway system). For an inside-the-paper news story, that's not a big problem. But the food section week after week is about people and events in that county and not in ours. Why? Only one food writer, and a common food cover for all three papers. Since recipes are available everywhere now, all a local paper can sell in food is local cooks and food events --which should be quite salable. I know it's the best they can do under the circumstances, but it makes the local mission of the paper incoherent (we're about your county HERE, but their county THERE, and you figure out why).

The New York Times runs its famous obit of Walter Cronkite with, depending on what you count as an error, seven to nine factual errors. Anyone in the newspaper business knows that sometimes stuff like this happens. The Times, which wants to be seen as the gold standard of journalism in the world, ends up trying to explain the thing with and on top of a garbled mess of statements about how the reporter is a really terrific reporter but on the other hand she's not always good at facts and so we had to assign a copy editor to fact-check her but then because the copy editor was fact-checking her she didn't have as many errors so we took off the copy editor who fact-checked her because there wasn't a problem anymore and now we'll probably have to put one back and this was an internal problem of passing off the story among editors but we are still the gold standard of journalism in the world and you should trust us because we have now told you all the ways our system broke down and are transparent. This may be the best they can do, but it is incoherent to the reader who can't understand how the gold standard of journalism would put the assassination of Dr. King on the wrong day. (Why didn't they just say, when Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, and forget the date? The more minute the historical facts you have, the more they can be wrong.)

The Detroit home-delivery plan is incoherent (we'll publish the paper, but somedays we'll get it to you and some we won't, and it's our choice). In my former home of Flint, they simply made the paper a three-day-a-week operation. That at least sounds coherent, and so when I got a copy of the revamped paper I expected it to have been rethought. But the paper still has (or at least had as of a month and a half ago) a nation-world section and the previous night's baseball standings, just as if it came out every day. It was the same old Flint Journal as before, only three days a week. If it's not a daily paper, it's not a daily paper. This is incoherence.

The consumer does not have the time or money to waste on incoherent businesses. Newspapers still think the reader should understand that we have problems and thus accept our product on our terms. What is amazing is how many readers still do.


Scoats said...

Regarding Flint, that's an example bad management. Which is a major problem with most newspapers today. The management isn't up to task. That's historically true of most declining businesses. The entrenched management that presided over the decline prevents more innovative potential managers to go elsewhere. Honestly if you worked for a company that dumb, wouldn't you go elsewhere if you had the drive and desire for better?

Barry said...

We have a paper in SW Florida that used to publish three days a week; now it publishes two, but the date is "Wednesday-Friday Edition," and "Saturday-Sunday Edition." And the flag carries the brag "best weekly 6 years in a row."

rknil said...

Scoats has some good ideas, even if they are written poorly.

Also, he sounds like one of the millennials with an entitlement mentality but not much experience and not too many skills to go with the sense of entitlement.

But he has a point: Newspaper management, such as John McIntyre, Howie Owens, and Pam Robinson, has failed miserably.