Wednesday, December 16, 2009

After You, My Dear Alphonse

Ehren Meditz, one of the devoted band who will not let copy editing die, sends me this report on "Employment Projections, 2008-18," from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

According to it, the largest decline in employment over this period -- which, of course, we are two years into -- will come in: No, not that. In department store employment, which is estimated to fall by 159,000 jobs to a total of 1,398,000, or a loss of 10.2 percent.

The third highest percentage hit, however, is to come from newspaper publishing, which is estimated to lose 24.8 percent of its jobs over the period, falling to 245,000 jobs from 326,000. (What's worse? "Cut and sew apparel manufacturing" and "semiconductor and other electronic component manufacturing.")

In 1996, newspaper industry employment was 442,000 -- meaning that the estimate is for the loss of nearly half the jobs over a 22-year period. In 2005, however, we were down to 370,000 jobs. How many people have lost their jobs in 2009? Depending on where you were during the year, somewhere between 8,000 and 15,000.

Let's say it's the worse figure. That means a loss of, what, 66,000 jobs over the next eight years. Or, about 8,000 per year. In other words, every year for the next eight years would be basically like this year.

This sort of stuff is beyond me, but -- every year for the next eight years like this one?

Thank heavens, E&P is still with us, at least through December. It reacts by quoting analyst John Morton:

"I suspect what has happened in recent years has a big influence on how they predict the future. I don't know how they base those predictions. It is an unknown. A lot of it is going to depend on how the newspaper industry comes out of the recession and how successful they are in translating their business onto the Internet. One thing that would be supportive of newspaper employment is that 70% of daily newspapers have circulation under 50,000. Those kinds of newspapers have suffered far less than big city papers have. Going forward, they will suffer less."

And Poynter's Rick Edmonds:

"That is consistent with what has been happening the past three years. But I don't think the next three years will be as bad."

So what's the truth. Is it the labor statistic? Is it, well, maybe this:

"What are publishers' expectations for 2010? Not as bad as one would think according to an outlook report from Kubas Consultants that polled 500 newspapers executives in November to get their thoughts on future advertising and strategic initiatives.

"Ed Strapagiel, executive vice president of Kubas and author of the report, ventures that 2010 might be the year of the bottom. Don't expect newspapers to be turning in major positive ad growth results, though. From quarter to quarter things are anticipated to improve or 'decline less quickly.'

"'Newspaper executives and managers are significantly less pessimistic than a year ago,' Strapagiel wrote.

One of the more surprising finds to come out of the survey is that many respondents said they don't expect to outsource ad sales or printing next year. Nor do they anticipate upgrading the presses or cutting frequency.

Remarkably, one in four respondents said they plan to start a specialty, niche or lifestyle product. That said publishers intend on tightening operating budgets next year.

'Things won't get much better, but they won't get much worse either,' Strapagiel wrote. 'If the same trend continues, we could see positive growth in 2011.'"

would indicate that publishers see a year of somewhat consolidating where they are now, and looking for areas to make additional money while maintaining their current operations. In other words, fighting back.

It will be hard to do that if one has to cut 8,000 jobs from the industry. Moving semiconductor manufacturing overseas is probably much more predictable than the volatile information business.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects from current trends. As this blog has said from day one, current trends never continue indefinitely.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


Anyone who has read this blog during the nearly two years of its existence knows that one of its recurring themes has been: Many of the digiterati are utopians, and utopianism is not an answer for journalism.

The greatly admirable Earl Wilkison comes to this conclusion in his Nov. 25 post. And goes further, saying what I have thought but never quite said: "They" want "us" to fail. "Us" being "the news industry," even if you're old-fashioned like me and call it "the newspaper industry." (A lot of people, younger ones included, say that musical artists still release records.)

Earl writes:
"I no longer believe in the Digital Utopiasts who spread good cheer and always have a map about the new order of information architecture in their coat pocket.

"I think they serve a good purpose – stirring the pot, a parameter in the debate. Yet scratching below the surface of their Taliban-like rhetoric and passion, the straw man collapses when confronted with the real world of business plans.

"The Digital Utopiasts want the Bottom-Line Guys to fail so a new order can be imposed on how people consume information.

"The issue, for me, is that INMA members are employed by the Bottom-Line Guys....

"The Digital Utopiasts, while serving a useful purpose, essentially fuse a digital mindset with a journalism mindset. The journalism community is sometimes fine with the idea of newspapers failing because they assume their talents will be utilised by whatever new order replaces it. The Digital Utopiasts have a certainty about the future of media that, upon further review, is just a good guess and an intriguing alternative to today's information architecture – but nowhere near a business plan.

"They argue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness ... and profits be damned. They're for democracy. They argue that all eyeballs are created equally. They argue that bigger is better, and the advertising will eventually catch up to this.

"Let's dispense with the myth that the Digital Utopiasts want to help the Bottom-Line Guys figure out the digital future."

I'm putting words in Earl's mouth here, but what he is saying of the Jeff Jarvises etc. is what I have felt: They do not want to see Gannett, Hearst, the Baton Rouge Advocate, whoever make the "transition" to the new digital world. Lots of them want Gannett to fail. (This is not true of the Ken Doctors, but is true of some former digital executives at newspaper companies who found themselves losers in the boardroom.) They want the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News to fail. They probably don't want the New York Times to fail, but they will talk down the newspaper business to anyone they can, saying they are the inevitable future, because at heart they believe that the Internet is God's own gift to finally remove the hands of publishers, copy editors, press deadlines, advertisers, press agents, promotion directors, news releases, cut to fit the hole, etc. from 'journalism' and create a truer journalism of: There's me and there's you. I pick up my lance, I get on my horse, I ride into battle, and I tell you the tale. You listen, we talk, we tell others. Somehow, advertisers will eventually say, oh yeah, we want to be part of that.

From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs. But somehow, that just never works out. And, of course, they're not all Digiterati. They have an amen corner of journalists who ran afoul of some editor or had a column killed or didn't get the beat they wanted and who dream of a true journalism in which only talent -- their talent, most assuredly -- will count.

But just as newspapers need to realize that online is not simply "print the newspaper without presses" but its own medium with its own requirements -- and, honestly, decide which of the myriad information businesses available today they want to be in, instead of thinking they have to be in all of them -- newspaper companies, news companies, whatever, need to realize that Digiterati, Online Utopians, what have you, are not in their business. They don't want to save our businesses. They don't even like our businesses. Hell, they don't even like businesses.

As Dow Jones CEO Les Hinton put it this week:

"We were promised that eyeballs meant advertising, clicks meant cash. Free costs too much. News is a business and we should not be afraid to say it."

Well, I could say I wasn't afraid to say it this spring. But I'm just glad people who are actually influential are now saying it.

Bec and Call

There's something here I can't quite put my finger on, in this story by Michael Callahan in Philadelphia magazine about the perceived decline of Le Bec-Fin, for so many years Philadelphia's signature restaurant, and the confusion that its longtime eminence, Georges Perrier, finds himself in as a result.

I arrived in Philadelphia after the "Restaurant Renaissance," the sudden outburst of restaurants -- from haute cuisine to hip cafeterias like the Commissary -- in the 1970s that in some way said that despite Mayor Frank Rizzo, despite the collapse of the workshop economy, despite the Third World aspects of the place (the built-in inefficiency, the bureaucracies, the corruption), the city was not the dour place of organization men, sheltered housewives, high society and Joe Sixpacks that it had seen itself as. One could be hip in Philadelphia, which one could never be before.

The growth of The Inquirer and the eventual downfall of the Bulletin was part of that. The Bulletin was Old Philadelphia -- stable, predictable, Brooks Brothers for the rulers, Sears for the ruled. The Inquirer roared onto the scene in the same manner as Le Bec-Fin or Frog or the Garden -- saying, in essence, Yes We Can. It was in part saying that we were as sophisticated as New York, as important, even while looking over our shoulder and wincing every time New York said, no you're not. But it was also saying that we were ready to stand up to the disapproval of our "betters." Le Bec-Fin was the "we can compete with any city" restaurant; Steve Poses' restaurants were saying that it wasn't inferior to just do what we liked. One dressed to the nines for Bec-Fin, as other restaurants became increasingly informal.

I went to Bec-Fin once, with my wife. I didn't enjoy it very much. It wasn't just wearing a suit for dinner, though I don't like to bother. And the staff was, as advertised, friendly and cooperative, not full of itself. The food, the presentation, were, of course, excellent; and although Perrier is notoriously cranky, he has always wanted people to enjoy being at his restaurant. There was nothing wrong with Le Bec-Fin. It's just that I didn't want to belong to that group, and thanks to the multiplicity of restaurants with food and experiences not on Bec-Fin's level but Good Enough, I didn't have to. I didn't have to prove I could fit in at a place like Bec-Fin to prove that I was knowledgable or sophisticated. I didn't need to feel I had merited Georges Perrier's seal of approval, because it wasn't that the only other option was Howard Johnson's. I knew in my heart that I wasn't sophisticated in that old-school way, but I also said: And it doesn't matter. It's not either Brooks Brothers or Sears.

In looking at department store ads before Christmas from the 1950s, I'm struck by how many said something like "They'll appreciate your gift more when they open that Ayres (or Shillito's or Emporium or Frederick & Nelson) box." Part of the gift was showing that you 1) cared enough and 2) were couth enough to understand that buying a gift at Foley's meant something beyond the gift itself. Why? Well, there really wasn't that much variety. Men wore white shirts to work every day. Women wore gloves and hats. There was a uniform for every occasion.

The department-store box showed that you had bought quality -- possibly even paid a bit more -- for a sweater vest that didn't look that much different than the sweater vest you could have bought at Nat's Cut-Rate Men's Wear. You understood the rules. Newspapers were part of the way in which society said, every day, here's what's important, decide to what degree you are going to fit in. You can decide not to go to Le Bec-Fin, but if you do you will belong to the class of people who don't go to Le Bec-Fin, and there are really only two classes of people.

Georges Perrier's temple of gastronomy is suffering not because he has refused to change -- given the sort of chef he is, he's jumped through hoop after hoop this last decade. It's because no one needs to go to Le Bec-Fin to feel sophisticated anymore. In food, "good enough" is now as good or better than "excellent" used to be, and thus, if I think I am sophisticated, wherever my friends and I go shows our sophistication. We don't have to be "discerning," because "discerning" no longer means "figure out what people better than you say is good, and learn to like it." And thus, the death of "Gourmet."

A department store box no longer communicates that the gift-giver cares, because there's huge variety and nearly everything is of the same quality -- not as good as "excellent" used to be, but good enough that "excellent" no longer matters. And one no longer has to read a newspaper to feel informed -- even if the newspaper is no worse than it was 10 years ago, even if it is an excellent newspaper, "good enough" is sufficient because knowing what's in the newspaper is no longer a civic expectation. You no longer need to show you understand the rules; you find the group whose rules understand you. Or you create one.

"Trade-Off," a new book by Kevin Maney, a longtime USA Today journalist, gets at this from a related angle. He redefines the "you have to be Wal-Mart or Target, but Kmart is nobody" argument as: It's the balance between "fidelity" and "convenience." "Convenience" is the mass-market stuff you don't really care about but need to have. "Fidelity" is what you love. You'll pay a premium for fidelity and suffer as little inconvenience as possible for the rest. Thus, the cost of a newspaper, the getting it from the street in the cold, the ink on your hands, most important having to concentrate on it instead of multitasking are massive inconveniences -- unless you love the newspaper. The problem for newspapers is, not enough people love the newspaper.

What Maney's book doesn't bring out is that it used to be common to have mass-market fidelity. People used to love department stores because one got one's sense of self from doing what seemingly knowledgable people did, which was to buy at department stores. I think it's this sense of wanting mass-market fidelity back that animates many social conservatives -- "I want broadcast TV to reflect my values because I want to fit in with broadcast TV, I don't want to have to care about what's on HBO or AMC, I want there to be a mainstream and I want to be part of it" -- but that's just a silly personal opinion.