Wednesday, August 5, 2009

It's the Summer

As noted previously -- I haven't missed doing this. Perhaps I have said everything I had to say on the point. Or perhaps everyone has said everything they had to say, and now, in the manner of sports coverage, we're down to memes and themes, repeated annually.

Steve Yelvington -- who, as noted here previously, makes a lot of sense except when talking about copy editors (or perhaps I'm just too parochial) -- said a number of things this year that have really made me think. One was that journalism, while nice for newspapers, is not essential -- they are in the business of selling solutions to other businesses through advertising. So much of the high-minded discussion of journalism in an era of weaker newspapers has been from journalists, who look at newspapers as if they should be -- well, foundations that exist to publish journalism, which is why doing journalism for a nonprofit foundation looks pretty good to them. (And then they don't understand people who talk about, We're not making any money!) In a lot of ways, a foundation is what we had in metro newspapers in the 1980s and early 1990s. Journalists these days are not newspaper(wo)men as of yore, who wrote a puff piece on the new addition to H. Gordon & Sons in Gary if they were assigned to, and then did a completely factual report on city hall corrpution. For a brief time, newspapers just happened to provide a well-paying home for the sort of journalism that high-church journalists want to do now.

This was less the case 40 years ago, and I've been spending a lot of time looking at newspapers from that era -- the only era when everyone read newspapers, if you look at circulation figures -- to see what it is that newspaper(wo)men did then. I'll be posting some looks at that in days ahead.

But Yelvington also said something that made it clear where things such as Mark Potts' famous sneer at "printies" come from:

"Digital people generally lose power struggles with print people."

How many of the death-to-print bloggers took up their cudgels after one too many bureaucratic losses, in which they, who had seen the glorious future, who had shown the company how to be part of the New Jerusalem, found themselves losing out to some pissant production director who wanted the investment for iron, or an editor who wanted to save the exclusive for print, or an advertising director who thought he could stick his finger in the dike and stop the classifieds from escaping? So there's bitterness there, and a sense (which Yelvington does not have) of, screw all you stupid, backward, print-oriented folks. Stop your freaking presses. I saw the future, I showed you the future, and you did not fund it. Now you will pay. (Even though print still pays 90 percent of the bills.)

Overpainting, but: Journalists, as noted before, are shy egomaniacs. Tech people are incomprehensible egomaniacs. Techy journalists are...

But also note that Yelvington does make a difference between "digital people" and "print people." It's not simply the difference between "old-fashioned people" and "modern people" who are all "journalist people." There are digital people in journalism just the same as there are radio people and TV people and magazine people and newspaper people, just the same as there are investigative reporters and graphic artists and photographers and copy editors and producers. And chances are, after the dust settles, there still will be, even if the newspapers are delivered to a printer in your house or are read on a Kindle with links, and you watch TV programs on your computer screen. Or even if newspapers are delivered by being thrown from cars and people watch TV on televisions.

The idea that all of us were simply meant to evolve from a retrograde print level to a higher digital level is -- a techy conceit, which kicked the confidence out of print people by the commingling of "Web page" with "Internet" when the Internet is really just an incredibly good delivery system and a Web page is just something it can deliver, and is probably an intermediate form. It is just my belief, but new technology usually creates more specialization, not less; and at some future point the idea that one reporter can do a print story and a video story and a blog and a tweet, all of which can be handled by the same editor, will probably be broken apart in some manner. The quality will be insufficient in all media. But that will require news providers to accept that each will occupy a smaller place in the cosmos, and newspapers still don't want to accept that, still want to be the Universal Source.

I did want to close with a shout-out to Yelvington for this post on real estate advertising, which has been all but written off by many analysts, Alan Mutter included. The gist:

"There are two things you can do with advertising. You can create demand. And you can channel demand to a preferred resolution. Some advertising may do both, but they're really different functions.

"Printed newspaper classifieds perform both of those functions. You're flipping through the paper, you idly glance through the classifieds, and the next thing you know, you're daydreaming about a "Beautiful home situated on Lake Thurmond w/ dock!" or a 1997 Harley Davidson Softail Classic, less than 14kmi, $10,000." You had no idea that you wanted one, but here you are.

"But for years the place where newspaper classifieds really performed beyond all competitors was in the second function: channeling demand to a resolution. You're already looking for a house: Here's what I have to offer this week. You're already looking for a car: Here's what's on my lot.

"And this is where print classifieds are really getting clobbered. Forget all the whining about Craigslist; it's a convenient target, but not very important. What hurts print is that it's lost its primacy in channeling existing demand by providing data to the seeker.

"This doesn't mean newspaper companies are locked out of the action. Far from it; they're very well positioned to channel online demand through behavioral targeting of advertising that helps connect seekers to the treasure they seek. And both print and Internet advertising can work in that other dimension of advertising, creating demand. I did not know that property up at the lake is selling today for less than half what it was going for before the economy tanked. Probably a good long-term investment, certainly smarter than a Harley. Priced at $70K, a lakefront lot is out of my reach, but not out of reach of others. Demand gets created, maybe a lot gets sold, and somebody gets a 7% commission.

"This dimension of creating demand is one that deserves more attention that it gets. Google can't do it. Yellow Pages can't do it. There's plenty of competition. But it's not something you can lose to a smarter algorithm."

Yep, here's a "digital person" saying, "here's where print comes in" -- stop trying to lure back the liner ads for houses (3 BR 2 BA gd schls, riv vu, $138,500, contact...) because they are gone because the Internet can do that better -- but sell in print how to make the reader think he really wants a new house, with something like a river view, in a better neighborhood, because the Internet can't do that very well at all.

So listen to people such as him, instead of those whose answer is always, "Print is dead." The fact that print will not be what it was does not mean it is dead. The fact that you want print to be dead does not make you a prophet of the future.


Gerri Berendzen said...

RE: Yelvington's comment about newspaper really just being an ad delivery services. Then why have so many shoppers failed (at least in my part of the country)? Print readers are still more apt to pick up a product that offers something beyond ads.

Anonymous said...

If newspaper can't make money, and online journalism can't make: Who will pay people to report the news? As yet, I haven't seen a business model that will substantiate either. What are we going to have a world without news?

Danny L. McDaniel
Lafayette, Indiana

rknil said...

Steve Yelvington is just another Howie Owens -- lots of blather, very little substance. Rinse and repeat.

Danny: Your city's newspaper was one of the many that sacrificed news and credibility to the golden design idol. It gave away knowledge for the pursuit of something shiny. Not much reason for readers to stay once that happens.