Monday, November 29, 2010

Department Store Building of the ... Book

One of the greatest (and most self-conscious) department stores ever, and still operating as a Macy's -- John Wanamaker Philadelphia, at 13th and Market Streets, in the center of this photo. I could tell you about it, but I'd rather you buy Michael J. Lisicky's second department-store book, "Wanamaker's -- Meet Me at the Eagle."

I had the pleasure of listening to Michael on Saturday at one of his Philadelphia appearances and he is as knowledgeable a person on department stores as you will find. His day job? He's a symphony musician. Part of the tale of his first book, on Hutzler Brothers Company in Baltimore, is how he got from point A to point B. Plus he is the designated "answer man" on Jan Whitaker's department store blog, which is linked to over at the left.

If you're interested in department store history, buy his books.

-- Just as an aside: It may be that Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is completely happy with WikiLeaks and its release of State Department memos. It may be that he's not. Just in terms of the name, though, it shows again what happens when you create a shiny new car and don't think of what happens when Mayhem jumps up and down above it yelling "Shaky, shaky." The fact that Ward Cunningham used a Hawaiian word for "fast" to create a software program allowing for easy universal updating of text is probably not going to mean much to John Q. Public, who could be perhaps not forgiven but possibly understood if he assumed that Wikipedia somehow was involved in a cabal to bring down world diplomacy and attack America's presumed interests. That doesn't make it more correct or more right than any other stereotyping. (Wonder what people would think today of the old Hollywood hotspot the Garden of Allah?) It is, though, why utopianism never succeeds, although it does have successes along the way while also causing damage. John Q. is not a utopian. John Q. is suspicious, not terribly well informed, and interested in self-preservation above all else.

I haven't forgiven Editor and Publisher for firing Mark Fitzgerald and his staff, but I will support its editorial in the December issue while acknowledging it shows the divide. When the Duncan McIntosh Co. bought E&P after its brief closure, it said it wanted a magazine devoted to the business side of newspapers as opposed to being another editorial review. Its editorial is consistent with that, attacking "self-absorbed 'experts' who most likely have never sold advertising in a depressed economy, negotiated contracts with labor unions, kept pace with evolving technology, or planned for fluctuating newsprint prices -- all the while meeting payroll..." But that is the journalistic dream of the Internet -- where journalism would exist without people worrying about selling advertising, negotiating contracts, etc. Where journalism would be a profession without the barnacles of the newspaper and magazine businesses. Where the individual journalism would never have to compromise because of press deadlines or length restrictions or presumed audience interest. Where we could have a world where nothing would ever be behind the curtain. Where the individual journalist would be as free as WikiLeaks to determine what was in the public good, and present it for the edification of the public.

Fine. But when that curtain comes down, watch out for John Q's reaction.

Monday, November 15, 2010

More About Strawbridge

As noted two posts ago, Philadelphia's Strawbridge & Clothier was one of America's most successful, innovative, and responsive department stores, and remained so under family ownership for more than 130 years. But eventually the cost of staying competitive in the field -- and in the discount field as well with its Clover division -- got too big, and the family sold out. (Beyond my expertise is how the cost of keeping up with vast national chains like Federated and May requires more capital than smaller companies could access based on their lesser cash flow.)

Like any mature business, Strawbridge faced challenges to its continuance every year. A couple are similar to the challenges newspapers have faced and are facing. Strawbridge's responses worked for a while, and while the company disappeared, many of its locations still are successful department stores under the Macy's name, so it's not that the business model of the store was bad, just the business model of the company.

As Alfred Lief notes in "Family Business," after World War II price competition increased, "resulting from improved production in many lines. Theoretically, lower levels were good for business because they were good for the public, ushering in better values; and from a financial standpoint it could mean lower capital requirements." This isn't quite the disruptive change of the Internet, but it touches on the same issue. Cheaper costs should be good for business because they allow you to lower your price and spend less on capital, so for a newspaper the need to not buy presses or paper should be good for it and its customers. "But too much of a good thing was always unhealthy." Get to a point where there's too much competition with too little capital investment needed, and established business founders. It can do nothing else. It can't make the past go away.

More important was that sales volume at the giant downtown store -- which had been expanded in the 1930s to handle its tremendous and growing business -- was now falling off. (Read: The massive pressrooms built during the height of classified and insert growth in the 1990s.) Disruptive change -- the postwar suburban push -- had made people less inclined to take a longer drive or train trip to go shopping. Yes, Strawbridge and Wanamakers might have better merchandise than was found at E.J. Korvette or Shoppers Fair -- but was it that much better to make the trip worthwhile, except for special occasions such as Christmas shopping or buying a party dress? Sort of like only buying a newspaper when your team wins the World Series. But while you can run a bridal shop on special occasions, you can't run a department store.

So Strawbridge went to the suburbs, opening stores throughout the Philadelphia area. This is somewhat the same as metro newspapers' response to suburbanization -- creating Neighbors sections. It was different in that Neighbors was more of a boutique than a branch. But the point was usually the same -- to try to follow one's customers' out to the suburbs and keep them from going to suburban rivals there.

Because department stores were department stores, those rivals were seen as -- other department stores. While department stores recognized that their customers increasingly were going to Kmart, they apparently thought it was only because a major department store wasn't close enough. Thus, when Strawbridge's was the motive force behind opening Cherry Hill Mall in 1962 as the prototype (Correction: Off by one -- see comments) for all of today's enclosed malls, the aim was to not re-create downtown Philadelphia with its (now down to) four department stores. As Lied writes, Strawbridge "proposed Bambergers of Newark as an acceptable neighbor... This development prompted Wanamakers and Gimbels to make a defensive move. They paired off the next year in a shopping center at Moorestown, New Jersey, about five miles east."

In the short run, this was fine, and Cherry Hill -- which eventually grew to include a Penney's as well -- was one of the marvels of the age and remains one of the East Coast's most important shopping destinations, with a Crate & Barrel, a Nordstrom, and a Container Store joining Macy's and Penney's. While it and similar stores in Springfield, King of Prussia, and elsewhere kept Strawbridge's going, they didn't address the discounter problem. This Strawbridge did, of course, with the Clover division, just as the Dayton Co. of Minneapolis did with Target. Eventually, of course, Dayton Hudson sold off its department stores and just kept Target. Would Strawbridge's have eventually just become Clover? Probably not, because it didn't have the resources to compete with national companies in either venue.

Strawbridge's recognized what was happening, as noted by these sentences bringing to mind the multiplatform moves (internal and external) of newspapers: "The future business of Strawbridge & Clothier would be carried on and directed in mutiple locations. In order to be able to run a multi-store operation, the organization would have to be restructured." In the short run, Strawbridge's did well. In the long run, though, its days were numbered.

What did Strawbridge's in was that it was competing with national chains (May Co., Federated, and Macy's at the end in department stores, Walmart and Target in discounters) that could outdo it when size and breadth were the issue, and competing with an incredible multiplicity of small stores that could outdo it in the personal service it once offered but could no longer afford because it was having to cut costs to compete with the national chains.

But could it have transformed itself into a surviving boutique organization? Doubtful. The "Strawbridge" name stood for a classy department store, just as the same of, say, the Omaha World-Herald stands for a newspaper. To make it stand for a small jewelry boutique -- doubtful. Loyalists would be miffed, and jewelry buyers would not care. They might still totally go to Jared.

So the problem for newspapers may be that in the end, there's not much you can do if your world falls apart. That's less hopeful than I usually try to be, but it wasn't bad management or resisting the customers that put an end to Strawbridge & Clothier. Strawbridge just didn't fit into the world anymore. That doesn't mean that there still aren't department stores, just as changes in communication don't mean that there won't be newspapers. But perhaps they will be print editions of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal for those who are willing to pay for them -- produced in ways that spread the overhead around nationally -- and a bunch of weeklies or local replacements as news boutiques, with the Internet as Walmart. The thing is that in the end, that doesn't matter that much for the consumer, who may even be happier with the arrangement. Whom it matters for, other than the people who lose their jobs, is those who remember how great it was to shop at a store like Strawbridge & Clothier, and feel a loss in their lives.

Friday, November 12, 2010


Great song by Coldplay, of course. But to the point -- some brief notes before getting back to Strawbridge's:

Best Buy plans to cut back its newspaper spend. If that money was going to online, it'd be one thing. But Best Buy, the ultimate mass retailer, is going to use it on something it considers more effective and mass. Our old friend television. Yes, this is replaying the late 1980s. Either Best Buy is total idiots, or they're saying something about the utility of the Long Tail Internet for true mass marketers.

Their problem? Metro newspapers no longer deliver their mass audience. (The Macons and Rockfords of the world still do in their markets.) Best Buy has been among the newspaper business' best customers and also among those who have said to newspapers, look, get it together. "We're seeing a shift back to traditional media. And TV still has a gigantic reach," said the head of the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association, who doubtless wants there to be a shift back to traditional media but says that the ROI on digital -- and remember how cheap digital ads are -- isn't showing up. That switch won't include newspapers as long as they appear to be a medium only read by people 75 and older, which will happen as long as newspapers say "We don't believe anyone under 75 will ever read our newspapers." If I were 25, I wouldn't want to read an old-folks medium even if I thought I might want to.

Only the newspaper business would find itself owning the Associated Press, as it does, and being told that the AP was losing money on serving newspapers and was going to remedy that eventually. Again, that's not on serving "print" newspapers. That's serving newspaper clients and their online sites. First-rate news, third-rate businesses.

And to get back to big-box stores, news from retailing on the front page of the New York Times: Not quite so big box stores, the Old Navy size, are downsizing and finding, perhaps to their surprise, that more people, not fewer, are coming into smaller stores. Now, this story has some weaknesses in the classic Times manner -- the lead promises more than is delivered, although by the end all the "we can't actually say this"es have all been said. The stores may be paying rent on the space they're not using, but that doesn't mean costs don't go down -- you're not having to have enough clerks to watch a larger room for theft and set up the displays, or straighten the merchandise, or put up signage. But it's in keeping with a problem department stores (and newspapers) have had for years: People have to be trained in how to use them efficiently.

A newspaper is a wonderful agglomeration of content even in the Internet age -- but you have to know how to use it (this is here, this is presented this way...) and be willing to spend the time using it exclusively. In department store terms, there's a wonderful selection of kitchen appliances when you want an iron, but you have to be willing to walk past perfumes and jewelry, take the escalator, turn around, and go past luggage. Then you have to find your way out, which is often harder.

In the Google era, your experience -- it's not the reality, there's a lot more starting and stopping and blind alleys than you realize, but you can always be doing something else at the same time -- seems to go from: I want appliances. Search for appliances. Find appliances. Having done so, walking into even an appliance store to look for an iron seems interminably long. I don't want no steenking gadgets. What I really want is: An iron store! I drive up to Iron World, walk in, and there are irons. No confusion. No need to ask the clerk, "Where are the irons," and have the clerk look at me with contempt as she says, "Behind you." I feel like I have not wasted my time, even if I spent 10 minutes more in Iron World than I would have in Appliance City.

As a person with Bloomingdale's notes, these are "stores that have been stripped of the distractions and temptations of unwanted merchandise." That sounds like the New Frugality, and it's certainly the New Inventory, but it also speaks of a change in shopper mentality -- if everything in the world is available online, why do I want to go to a store that has some of everything in the world when I am only there for a specific niche -- as with H&M and Zara, not even a specific product, but a specific gestalt? If I want everything in the world, I'll go online. But most of the time, I don't really want everything in the world. In that case, bricks and mortar works just fine. (Note to Long Tail enthusiasts: Yes, categories such as books suffer more than Iron World, because the number of irons is somewhat limited, whereas the number of books appears to be infinite. The number of blouses is infinite, but the number of blouses with H&M cred is not.)

As noted here before, it's not that the department store and newspaper failed to have enough content. They tried their darndest. It's that the amount of content available in the world rapidly exploded far beyond their ability to have a representative sample of Everything for Everyone. So you've got to figure out what your niche is -- who your customers are and can be, as opposed to who your customers used to be or who you wish they still were -- and then serve them to your profit, with your pipeline, and not worry so much about people who are never going to be your customers. And your pipeline can be Anything You Want It to Be.

And as Best Buy shows, your customers may not be living all their lives online at all. Newspapers, though, are still thinking that somehow they can create, online now, some product or combination of products that will still Grab Everyone in the Market. As Best Buy also shows, newspapers' problem is that that product was introduced after World War II and is ultimately responsible for their current fate far more than broadband access.

I'd just ask Best Buy, what can we do that works for you, and not worry so much if we can get the same product to work for Joe's Vinyl Record World that wants to reach 3,000 Long Tail vinyl fanatics. Let him be a customer of and never have anything to do with a newspaper. But that's not how newspapers think traditionally -- there's local money on the table! We must try to grab it all, because in the past we could! We will find The One Answer! (Alas, he's in Istanbul now.) If One Answer had worked, newspapers would not have started to decline once they were down to one title per market. (Wonder what would have happened to TV from the 1960s to 1980s if it had been reduced to one station per city, as advertisers might have seen as a efficient buy back then? Bless those government licenses. It goes in line with the theory that American religiosity stems not from the Puritan tradition but from the history of competition among churches, which was nonexistent in most nations.)

None of this looks good for newspapers whether they have printing presses or not. What's a printie to do? Talk about copy editing's obscure points, as at my entry here on the American Copy Editors Society's board notes.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Department Store Building of the ...

History gives us enough lessons of how you can do most things right and still disappear. Here in Philadelphia, we had such a department store, and it's not the one people who just know stores by reputation might think of.

Strawbridge & Clothier did not have the national panache of John Wanamaker for a number of reasons: 1) Wanamaker helped create the modern department store in terms of size and advertising, while also serving as postmaster; 2) the S&C main store didn't have the Eagle and the pipe organ and wasn't dedicated by a sitting president of the United States; 3) the Strawbridge main store was located at Eighth and Market Streets, where two of the city's mass-market department stores, Gimbels and Lits, also were; 4) Strawbridge throughout its life was a Quaker-run company, not prone to the Grand Gesture.

But as the history of Strawbridge (as recounted in "Family Business" by Alfred Lief, one of the essential histories of department stores) from the 1920s onward is one of constantly seeing the horizon and trying to reach it. Early moves such as the Clover Days sales and establishing a book department by buying the retail store of publisher J.B. Lippincott were just part of it.
Before the Depression, department stores may have operated in more than one downtown (such as Pomeroy's in Pennsylvania), but branch stores, outside of operations in resort hotels, were basically confined to some of the New York stores, Marshall Field's in Chicago, and Bullock's in Los Angeles. Strawbridge decided to join this group in 1929 by opening a store at Suburban Square, one of the first suburban shopping developments, on the Main Line. It followed up immediately with a store just north of Jenkintown, which -- like Bullock's Wilshire -- recognized that future customers would largely be arriving by car and provided, for the time, adequate parking.

After World War II, Strawbridge saw the downtown store's sales volume declining as 15 years of depression and war shifted into the suburban boom of modern houses for new families. It reacted aggressively, locating branches wherever it saw a combination of an established middle-class hub and new development nearby. After opening freestanding branches, it moved into South Jersey with the first truly "enclosed mall" shopping center, the prototype for a genre that has taken over the world. It saw the growth of discounters and established the Clover division. Recognizing the drain its massive downtown store was becoming, it worked with city officials to try to revitalize Market Street and made sure the store was attached to the new downtown mall. It continually tried to find the line between being a fashion store and a store for everyone.

And yet, after the company fought off a hostile takeover bid in 1986 and incurred a loss in 1995 after a failed bid to buy Wanamakers, the Strawbridge and Clothier families -- which still ran the business after 145 years -- decided it was in the best interest of the shareholders to get out, selling to May Company. The business was no longer profitable, and it was time to fold before the value of the goodwill started to evaporate. May Company kept the name Strawbridge's until the Great Macyization.

A second post will look at, as before, the parallels between the department store and newspaper businesses. Let one quote suffice for now. In 1941 business had been bad for years and the family was split about what to do. J. Clayton Strawbridge opposed the recapitalization plan presented by president Herbert Tily. In response, Frederick Strawbridge, son of cofounder Justus Strawbridge, said to Clayton, as Lief quotes:

"It is a very healthy thing to bring this out in the open, but rather presumptive for thee to tell older men about the goodwill of the business."

Thus sayeth the aged Quaker, his hand still on the tiller in a business that was ahead of nearly all of its rivals locally and nationally in recognizing changes in consumer behavior, but saying, await thy turn, what knowest thou? More to come soon.
In the picture above, the main Strawbridge store is both the large building and the smaller one to its left. Strawbridge downtown, which was completely rebuilt in the 1930s, may have been the last downtown department store built in the old style (with windows); or that might have been Loveman's in Birmingham or some store I've never seen, but those that followed or were contemporaneous, such as Cain-Sloan in Nashville or Herpolsheimer's in Grand Rapids, were clearly from the modern playbook. The little building to the left was part of the old Strawbridge store and was briefly the entire main store while the old building at Eighth and Market was torn down and replaced with what's seen above.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Gee, It's Been a Long Time

Last post was in late September. Gosh.

Been learning how to use Twitter. Not really succeeding.

Off researching department stores in Baltimore. Going to the ACES board meeting. Being ACES secretary, which takes more work than being just an ACES board member.

Then there was the little matter of the ownership handover at my paper. I survived. Not everyone did, alas, but the bloodletting was minimal, for which I am thankful. I was going to quote from an issue of Editor and Publisher, but then they fired Mark Fitzgerald and his staff so that seemed irrelevant. No link for you guys.

And, probably most important, my addiction to Google Street View. I'm so angry at them for the data collection snafu, because -- to be really preachy here -- seeing how and where people in other countries actually live, as opposed to the tourist-oriented districts everyone knows, has made me feel more that it is one world than anything in recent years.

But a month and a half? I've probably lost all my readers, and preachiness like the above will lose the rest. Well, we'll just keep on plugging.

Let's get grounded again with News & Tech's Chuck Moozakis:

"When it comes to contradictions in terms, the words 'logic' and 'online' rank right up there with the best of them. Too often, objective, critical reasoning is dulled by the lure of the online siren.... Online has its place, heaven knows.... But the Web is a dangerous place when it comes to sustainable business." He's talking about the Toronto Globe and Mail's decision, noted in this New York Times story, to put money into better paper and reproduction:

"For Globe (Sorry, I wrote "Glove" earlier -- ds) and Mail Publisher Philip Crawley... investing in online, while important, pales in comparison to pouring resources into the paper's most vital component: the print edition."

Part of the problem is not in our Stars, or Timeses, but in ourselves. Chuck quotes from another Times story, about the mess at Tribune Co.:

"But even in 2010, when a print product is viewed as a quaint artifact of a bygone age..."

By whom, exactly? Not saying that it isn't by many. But one of the largest groups saying that is -- people who get their living from the sale of advertising in print newspapers. Yes, it's us journalists.

Not by the 2 out of 3 who, according to this poll, prefer print over digital. The report on the study is flawed and it looks to indicate that "paper" media has a lot in this survey to do with "printing out things at the office." But still. And then there was another Harris poll, which while highlighting that most Americans think "traditional media as we know it will not exist in 10 years" -- which is vague enough to cover any possibility -- also noted that 76 percent of 18-34s said "There will always be a need for newspapers in print." Admittedly, maybe they won't buy them. When I was 20 I thought there would always be Al Martino records, even though I wouldn't touch them myself.

I have no idea what people write in any country except America about newspapers and their problems -- except for Roy Greenslade in England. It's accurate to point out the vast fall in circulation and profitability. But I do know that like Barack Obama, those of us who see a future in print often have problem getting the point across, perhaps for the same reason: We see a nuanced future involving many platforms, whereas saying "Print Is Dead" is definitive, easy to understand, and makes you feel good about seeing the truth and contemptuous of those who don't.

But I can't think out if the sort of throat-clearing lines such as David Carr's quoted above come from this or that.

This: One becomes a journalist in part to show that one's hip, knowledgeable, not some stick in the Sandusky or Sidney or St. Cloud mud; so if those who "see the future" say, "Print's a dinosaur just like an Oldsmobile," I gotta let people know that I'm hangin' with them and not with those old guys. (As a baby boomer who went through many years in the 1970s of being an arrogant young ass who thought anyone over 35 who didn't agree with me knew absolutely nothing, I'm amused by the postings of so many young techies who are clearly just another generation of arrogant young asses who think anyone over 35 who doesn't agree with them knows absolutely nothing. Example: The comments on this report on our new CEO's plans.)

That: One is genuflecting in the direction of the future but also saying, "But of course, in my heart, I wish it were another way." So, print is like a scenic Victorian ruin, and wistfully accepting its departure allows one to think oneself superior even while bowing before the more denigrated future.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Only Connect

New York University professor and news-future pundit Jay Rosen, as noted before, once said of something I had posted, in essence: WTF? You got it all wrong. And I had indeed gotten a good bit of it wrong. I always associated Jay with the early days of civic journalism, which seemed like sort of a Goo-Goo exercise, to bring people together in a theoretical agora and have them high-mindedly discuss civic problems and work toward agendas – the sort of poli-sci charette that the high minded, be they Barack Obama, Michael Dukakis, Adrian Fenty, think John Q. Citizen really wants.

So I would not have guessed that, when asked in an Economist interview to name news sources he believes are doing it right, he would have listed:

“'Advertising Age. Gawker. Wired. Voice of San Diego. The New Yorker. The Economist. (Disclosure: You're The Economist!) Rachel Maddow. Frontline. The New York Times. West Seattle Blog. Texas Tribune (Disclosure: I'm an advisor there). 'To the Point' with Warren Olney. The Atlantic. 'This American Life.' The Guardian. Jon Stewart.'”

Yeah, it's the liberal media. But the way in which Jon Stewart, Ira Glass, Rachel Maddow, etc. present news is not the classic, dispassionate, objective-view-of-the-world manner that in my mind, a typical Good Government type would crave.

Jay goes on:

“I think it does take a certain detachment from your own preferences and assumptions to be a good reporter. The difficulty is that neutrality has its limits. Taken too far, it undermines the very project in which a serious journalist is engaged. … The American press does not know what to do when neutrality, objectivity, balance and ‘report both sides’ reach their natural limits. And so journalists tend to deny that there are such limits. But with this denial they've violated the code of the truth-teller because these limits are real. See the problem?. ... When journalists get attacked from the left and the right, they take it as confirmation that they're doing something right, when they could be doing everything wrong.”

Which gets back to what has become a thesis of “TTPT” – that newspapers did not fall from favor because they are printed, but because they became boring to their readers – which, then added to the fact that print is relatively boring compared with online, became a death sentence. A point of civic journalism was that journalists had become detached from the communities they covered; it was an effort to reconnect journalists with the public, and less with Reliable Sources. But the point of a Reliable Source was not just that he was a source; it was that he understood the rules you were playing by and played by them as well. The public was less in love with those rules than we were.

OK, this seems really obvious, but it also concerns why newspapers have been unable to save themselves. It’s not just because someone has to press the red button on a Goss Metroliner every night. It's because their entire worldview has been based on preserving and enhancing a professional technique that vast number of their readers found offputting, like putting out a car without upholstered seats.

Other voices:
INMA’s Earl Wilkinson: Newspaper publishers overseas think "the U.S. newspaper brands don't stand for anything other than guardians of a professional journalism standard that — to consumers — feels distant, detached, and unemotional. In design, story selection, and locally written news as a percentage of pages printed, the American publishers have fumbled the print environment."

Russell Baker in the New York Review of Books reviewing “Morning Miracle: Inside the Washington Post" (nonsubscribers blocked): “The Internet was not ruining the paper, [newsroom executive Walter] Pincus argued…. Newspapers had lost audience through self-indulgence: they wrote stories for themselves instead of readers and produced blockbuster stories designed to win journalism prizes but destined to be unread by masses of people… Pincus was describing a divorce between reader and newspaper, and he thought American journalism’s passion for ‘objectivity’ deserved a lot of blame. It was ridiculous, ‘a lie,’ to believe that a journalist could not have an opinion. The illusion of ‘objectivity’ created reader detachment from a newspaper, and detachment leads to indifference and loss of another reader.”

Jon Stewart himself, in New York magazine: “’The thing that shocked me the most when I first met reporters was the people who would step aside and say, ‘Boy, I wish I could say what you’re saying.’ You have a show! You are a network anchor! Whaddya mean you can’t say it!.... It’s one reason I admire Fox. They’re great broadcasters. Everything is pointed, purposeful. You follow story lines, you fall in love with characters… The mistake [mainstream news outlets] make is that somehow facts are more important than feelings.”

UNC senior Christopher Sopher, quoted on Poynter’s website for his study of how to attract young people to news outlets: “’There's this sense that you're not getting the whole truth, or you're getting a varnished, polished, cold representation of what's going on, because it feels so impersonal.’ More than previous generations, Sopher found, young people seek a personal connection to their news providers. But that doesn't mean that consumers want biased reporting. Rather, he found, they're seeking a more conversational, explanatory tone. Reporters should leverage their extensive knowledge of their subjects to not only report the facts of ‘what just happened,’ Sopher said, but the context of ‘why it matters.’"

A wide swath of opinion, and one that needs to balanced with commercial considerations, as Marc Wilson in News & Tech quoted Advertising Age: “Advertisers trust newspapers to provide safe, sober environments for their brands and … marketers want newspapers’ authority to rub off on their ads.” Yet Ad Age and Stewart would doubtless agree that Fox News’ viewers see it as authoritative. And yet they care, passionately. Fox News tells them -- in my view incorrectly, but it tells them -- why the most obscure news story matters to them. And Fox News speaks to them as people who are just fine because they devoutly worship God and believe in the right to bear arms, as opposed to people who one can see objectively simply cling to shibboleths such as guns or religion while under stress, instead of coolly analyzing them.

Objectivity means in the end distancing yourself from everyone, because anything, even one's own feelings, can be analyzed. But most people don't do this about themselves and what they believe. There’s no doubt to me that Obama was factually correct in his famous statement about clinging to guns, religion and bias. But that's for a sociology paper, not a campaign - or a newspaper.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Press of Business As Seen From Abroad

Earl Wilkinson of the International Newsmedia Marketing Association has long been one of my personal antidotes to Newspaper Gloom and Doom. Part of this is that Earl takes a worldwide approach -- he sees what's happening in Colombia and China as well as America and England. More important is that Earl doesn't see the newspaper as being identical to the newsroom. The newspaper is a business that sells ads and distributes a product and serves customers and reports the news. The first two exist to support the last two, but the newspaper is not just an institution that reports the news and the heck with everything else.

The ever-esteemed Doug Fisher must have caught Earl's blog posting around the same time as I did, but he beat me to the post. So I'll link to Doug's ever-informative "Common Sense Journalism" and his excerpt, in which Earl says after a visit to Australia:

"The two trains of thought among publishers worldwide are that:
"*The United States is an early warning system of consumer and advertiser behavior.
"*Or, that the U.S. publishers have so under-invested in their print products that they have no root system when disruption hits. Thus, the U.S. story is avoidable in other parts of the world. ...
"What the Americans get wrong in print, I was told, is projecting a templated, soulless environment for the consumer who wants to slowly browse. In the past decade, this is an increasingly gaunt-looking print environment reflecting poorly on local media brands that haven't gotten a workout in decades. While quality print newspapers should be platforms for deep engagement, U.S. publishers have created tools to get readers in and out of their print pages in shorter and shorter time increments.
"Advertisers won't invest in such a platform, my friend said. They don't want to be associated with platforms devoid of sizzle."

I'll quote further:
"American publishers, [his friend] mused, have given up too quickly on print as a platform of lucrative engagement.
"Don't confuse migration of eyeballs to digital platforms with the death of the print platform. Don't abandon all efforts to transform print from our only platform of engagement to 'one of several platforms.' Just because print might have a smaller impact in the next five years doesn't mean it's a dead platform."

"Others at the conference had plenty more to say from what they've viewed from afar — volunteering to the American speaker their views of why their national newspaper industry is different from my country's experiences. For example, the U.S. newspaper brands don't stand for anything other than guardians of a professional journalism standard that — to consumers — feels distant, detached, and unemotional. In design, story selection, and locally written news as a percentage of pages printed, the American publishers have fumbled the print environment.
"Sobering. Probably goes too far. Yet interesting perspectives.
"By contrast, the conference featured three case studies of newspapers that are getting the print environment emotionally correct: “i” in Portugal, Toronto Star in Canada, and A Crítica in Brazil. The Portuguese newspaper redefines what a brand can be in print with a “daily magazine” design so stunning and different as to defy characterisation. The Toronto Star lives by a set of principles by its most famous owner with a clear “social conscience” viewpoint. And the Amazonian daily A Crítica personifies soulfulness and a reader-first campaign mentality."

Earl elaborates on this in the September Editor & Publisher, which is behind a paywall so I will further quote him:

"Advertisers aren't investing in newspapers because a print product doesn't work. In fact, the research suggests that print works beautifully because of the nature of the audience and medium. Instead, advertisers aren't investing because newspapers are losing the perceptual war in building, sustaining, and nurturing their audiences....

"A brand isn't like wine in a bottle that grows in value as it ages. We confuse age with value... A brand is the sum of all contacts over time.... The perception of a news brand gets shaped by product condition, billing, editorial position, rack location, the way a phone is answered. ... I sometimes wonder how a multibillion-dollar industry can function without knowing much about its customers."

(From the traditional newsroom perspective, of course, anything you knew about your customers would lead you to pander to their biases, so best not to know anything. We would produce what was best for them, and they would appreciate it. From the business-side perspective, we didn't have to know about our customers' problems. They had to know about ours, because not only was our business infinitely more complicated than theirs, where else were they going to go? Take it or leave it, pal. Hmm, we didn't expect they'd choose the latter...)

Earl's point in all this is that everything affects whether people care about your product -- what you cover, how it's delivered, whether the Sunday paper at the 7-Eleven has a torn front page and inserts falling onto the floor, whether the person you call in the newsroom does the usual newsroom thing and hangs up on you after belittling you for bothering him -- and the point he and his overseas friends make is:

Customers have to care about your product. If they don't, they'll just walk away.

And while Earl's feeling is that sometime before the year 2100, the economics of gasoline, ink, paper will spell the end of printed newspapers -- "The issue won't be whether people abandon print, it will be whether it's economically feasible to serve markets via print versus other alternatives" -- in the short run, print works.

He even notes "a counter-revolution against digital -- too much information, too much connectedness ... short-term, there's a backlash that we should take advantage of." Elsewhere in the issue, E&P quotes the "Digital Future Study" findings that for the second year in a row, the number of Internet users who said they would miss the print edition of their newspaper increased, and this year the number of people stopping subscriptions to get information online decreased.

As News & Tech columnist Doug Page wrote in the June issue (I couldn't locate a link in its archive):

"For the newspaper industry to remain viable, it needs to go back to basics, focusing on sales, service, and content of the printed edition and changing its attitude toward its old-fashioned paper product."

And for what to do next, we will turn to, out of character for TTPB, Jay Rosen.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Back to Work: Wide Open

That's the problem that no one in the news business has been able to crack. Economic models exist because you can control your business. If you can't control your business, you don't have one.

Way back in the early days of this blog, it strongly held that print was necessary as a pipeline into the reader's home. You controlled what went into and out of that pipeline. The glory of the Internet was, of course, to be that no one controlled what went in, and you controlled what you saw. Good for theory, bad for business.

But the Internet wasn't designed to be a business or a home for one. As Dan Kruger, CEO of iPhase 3 Corp., a software developer, was quoted as saying in News & Tech when asked why stories seem to be impossible to monetize:

"The design of the Web was for the unconstrained distribution of information. Every piece of Web software you use has that protocol on it. An ad is another piece of content -- stories and ads need distribution control and you cannot do that on the Web. ... The inherent design of the Web thwarts control of distribution, security, privacy or payment.

"If it was possible to get that control on the Web from all the time and attention the newspaper industry has spent trying to do so, the industry would have already achieved it."

We move on to Michael Hirschorn, founder of the TV production company Ish Entertainment, in the Atlantic, who says that the Internet as we know it is "the product of a very specific ideology. Despite its Department of Defense origins, the matrixized, hyper-linked Internet was both cause and effect of the libertarian ethos of Silicon Valley. The open-source mentality ... proved useful for the tech and Internet worlds. ...

"Ironically, only the 'old' entertainment and media industries, it seems, took open and free literally, striving to prove that they were fit for the digital era's freewheeling information/entertainment bazaar by making their most expensively produced products available for free on the Internet. As a result, they undermined in little more than a decade a value proposition they had spent more than a century building up."

Hirschorn's point is that "the era of browser dominance is coming to a close." Replacing it will be the app-based model, whether for phones or tablets: You want something, you pay for it. "For all the talk of an unencumbered sphere, of a unified planetary soul, the colonization and exploitation of the Web was a foregone conclusion. The only question now is who will own it." In other words: Utopia always fails. It's a business, son.

The utopianism that powered so much theorizing about the Internet -- Hirschorn quotes John Perry Barlow, an early proponent of digital freedom, as saying, "Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone" -- powered Surrealism and Dadaism, powered Communism, powered forms of religious ecstasy since time immemorial. But why did so many news industry leaders, not just editors but publishers, CFOs, etc., sober men and women, either fall for it or feel they had to genuflect toward it to the extent of putting their businesses and mission in mortal jeopardy?

Just some thoughts:
*The newspaper industry lost its mojo with TV news, spent decades trying to come up with a substitute for "we told you first," and thought it could find its way back.
*Newspaper people are always suckers for futurists, idealists, and anyone who makes one feel behind the times.
*Maybe these guys will be right. What do we know?
*It killed the record industry first. It must be inevitable.
*Our own kids not only don't read newspapers, but don't think we're very special for working for newspapers. We must be outmoded. Get with it.
*Maybe there really is a business model out there and we just haven't found it yet.
*Being part of "the conversation" is more important than how we make money being part of it.
*Hell, this business ain't that different from print, we're just selling adjacencies.
*Free classifieds will fail because an ad in the newspaper is worth more than an ad in a shopper. Context is everything.
*I don't understand what they're talking about, therefore they must be right.

All well and true. But I have to recall dimly what Arthur Sulzberger of the New York Times was quoted as saying a decade ago, which was something like: If I could get rid of the cost of printing, ink, trucks, drivers, bundlers, inserters, mailers, delivery fulfillment staff, etc., I'd get rid of 70 percent of my costs. (And if I could keep the same level of income...)

Certainly the Times was planning to use a lot of that to increase news coverage. But stopping the presses would have done the trick that eliminating linotypes and competing newspapers had also done: Create a period of increased quarterly earnings without much effort, and get the analysts and investors off the newspapers' back. It would have meant a few years of not managing every dime every week just to keep the stock price up.

And it would have worked, had someone noticed that the Internet was not designed to restrict the flow of information. But newspapers came early to the Internet game, and thought the model was going to be AOL -- which did restrict the flow. I can still remember our publisher saying in 2003, who knew the model was going to be search?

So the future: Newspapers will try to turn their efforts away from the Web and toward tablet and mobile apps, while at the same time denying that they are abandoning the Wild West of Browser City (because someone might yell at them for restraining information or being only concerned with money) and probably only doing so half-heartedly (because they still are wedded to getting millions of clicks, from the DNA of selling millions of papers), while still printing newspapers but doing them for senior citizens instead of trying to reinvent them, because everyone says you can't do anything but watch them die.

Everyone but newspaper executives nearly everyplace else in the world, it turns out. More to come next week.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

It's Been Summer...

Life was too nice to spend it posting. But things have been happening, so it's time to get back into gear.

First, though, a search for "That's the Press, Baby" on Google brings this link to a clip from the Bogart movie posted by a fan in Italy, with this as the famous last quote:

"È la stampa, bellezza. E tu non ci puoi fare un bel niente!"

Can't you just hear Bogey saying that!


Before going on to newspapers, a couple of comments on department stores. You may remember the snarky article the New York Times did on J.C. Penney Co. when it opened in Manhattan. Not only did the story seem to insult a goodly number of Americans, it may have missed the point on Penney's as well. Elizabeth Wellington, the fashion writer for my paper, notes that Penney's more fashion-oriented advertising is being backed up by actual trendy merchandise. (At least in women's wear. I've made a couple of passes through Penney's men's department and found it awash in polyester; also at both stores I have been in recently, the lighting and roof tiles seem unchanged since the malls opened. But you have to start somewhere, and just changing the color of "JCPenney" on the signs from white to red wasn't going to be enough.)


Finally there's a new-this-year site called the Department Store Museum. The blogger, whose name is given as "BAK," mentions that he was laid off recently. If so, he has used his time well, although I hope it becomes remunerative. The wonder of his site is that in addition to historic photos, he posts old logos, store directories, and branch locations. Thus, if you want to know what was on the fourth floor at E.W. Edwards & Son in Syracuse, you can find out it was housewares, wallpaper and paint, and fabrics. BAK started off with a bang and slowed down in July, and I hope he has gotten a job ... but what he's done is immensely helpful in tracking major department stores in the 1950s through 1970s, when they were branching out but also trying to maintain their large downtown presences.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Sometimes It's Clear

Part of my job is overseeing our corrections column. Normally I hear from the aggrieved, but today I got a call from a guy with a radio talk show who asked about a story we ran Saturday. Actually, he was asking about the story because we had run a really minor correction to it.

The story concerned a new trial ordered in a 1996 murder case in a prominent suburb. Our mistake concerned a current use of the historic building where the crime occurred -- we said there were many things there, including a restaurant, but there actually is no restaurant. One had been planned, but it never opened.

That mistake didn't draw people's attention. What did get them talking, the host said, was the order of a new trial. They hadn't seen the story Saturday, even though it was very prominently played. They knew a new trial had been ordered because it was mentioned in the clear, through the "A story Saturday about the ordering of a new trial..." throat-clearing manner of Clearing the Records. Then they were calling up the host saying, "Why was there a new trial?" (I don't think he had seen the story either, so he wondered if I could tell him what it was about.)

Well, beat me with a switch, but when a Clearing the Record item gets people's attention more than the actual A1 story, I'm left scratching my head. The headline was prominent and accurate, and mentioned the name of the previously-found-guilty party, as did the Clear. While the lead was in the third paragraph, it wasn't a story that one had to read past the jump to find out what was going on -- it was all laid out pretty quickly.

It was a summer Saturday, so maybe no one read the paper or checked the Web site. Of the three local papers I get at home, one doesn't even publish on Saturdays. So maybe the people who are saying "The world will get along just fine without newspapers" have a point. But clearly it was read in the corrections column during the week. So that's not it.

One answer I can come up with is that the Clears, like News in Brief items, are -- brief. Yes, people read them to see how we've screwed up again. But they're also bite-size -- we try to write tight corrections. Still, I don't think that's the main point.

Most days we publish Clears. We publish them every day in the same place -- on the fourth page of the A section. Thus, they're something predictable, like the weather, the comics, the sports agate.

I'm sure it looked differently at the time to an adult, but when I was a kid, newspapers had a wonderful predictability to them. Not just in the comics and the TV listings, but in the narratives. Every day there would be a story about whatever they were doing perfidiously in Moscow. Every day there would be a story about what the president did. (Alas, every day there would be a story out of Saigon as well.) On the world stage, there was a set cast of characters -- Charles de Gaulle, Willy Brandt, Kwame Nkrumah, spade-bearded Walter Ulbricht -- who appeared regularly. There would be reports of accidents and fires, much like the previous day's report of accidents and fires. There would be, in TV terms, the mini-series, like Bobby Baker. And then there would be the specials -- the Coliseum explosion, the Evansville Aces plane crash, let alone the Kennedy assassination -- that would rivet one's attention.

The newspaper, in that sense, was comforting at the same time it was provoking. There might be a report about Mongolia, but it would be presented as news of a far-away land of which we know nothing. The newspaper "habit" that was a fixture in American houses was in part seeing what was "new," but seeing it in the context of what wasn't -- which was most of what you read. You checked your team, your stock, your crossword, your funny pages, your police blotter, your Berlin Wall. For other amusement, you might check the society column or, for those who enjoyed it, the Personals ads. ("Tom. Come home. All is forgiven. Jane." Followed by: "I am not responsible for any debts incurred by persons other than myself. Tom Smith.")

Yes, people do that online, and yes, in many of the same ways. But before everyone had broadband, newspapers had already chucked many of the habit-forming aspects. Not in the comics, which are still with us, and not in the business and TV agate, which fell to the Web. But it can be hard to make an attachment to ongoing themes in the news. It's the downside of today's enterprise-and-insight-driven newspapers: We cover a story, try to do it thoroughly, offer enlightenment, and then, having done our job, move on to the next story.

People develop habits because the same thing satisfies their needs time and again. Newspapers, often run by ADD-afflicted personalities wanting to cover the world and looking for what they don't know, want to not do the same thing over and over. Thus, amid the onslaught of a world of unrelated chaos, people find out about a story through the corrections column, because it's there for them every day.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Ultimate Lightness of Revolution

This has nothing to do with copy editing or department stores. But...

I've always been sanguine about the fact that in the late 1960s and early 1970s I was among those who protested the war and thought that maybe there was more to Che than to, say, Everett Dirksen. I'm far from ready to forsake that and grab onto a neocon flag of repentance. But Richard Wolin's review of Pascal Bruckner's "The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism" in the Aug. 12 New Republic has made me wonder.

It can get tough going, and like too much of the New Republic it can read as if it had to have a ritual insertion of something pertaining to Israel in order to be published. Still, it makes one think about the different worldviews between the international-referencing class and the national-referencing class -- views that I think are as much behind the culture wars as the specifics of abortion, taxes, or bowing to the emperor.

Some excerpts:

"The process of decolonialization and the concomitant rise of multiculturalism have resulted in a surfeit of competing cultural claims. By degrees, the ideal of cultural excellence, which at one point seemed more or less self-evident, has ceded to an overextended and anthropological definition of culture: the idea of culture as the 'expression' of a way of life of a group, a tribe, a people."

Which even gets at the famous statement about rural Pennsylvanians clinging to their religion and guns amid the stress.

"The unintended consequence of this development has been a paralyzing incapacity to make significant cultural judgments and distinctions."

Which seems to cover so much of the culture war -- one out of many, virtuous and (at least in our own minds) superior, or one among many, with all having some good points or bad points, and it's bad form to say one is superior except by being superior enough to see that none are... ?

"France's historical badge of distinction had been the Great Revolution of 1789. This is the heritage that accounts for French 'exceptionalism': the obsession with insurrection as a vaunted and permanent feature of the national political imagination."

But is not the tea party...?

Quoting Bruckner: "We searched for a more intense and, therefore, more innocent version of ourselves in Angolan soldiers, Bengali Naxalites, and Bolivian guerrillas."

I'd never made a connection between intensity of feeling and authenticity before in that manner -- but if you think about it, it also partly explains the press' preoccupation with gaffes and gotchas (as revealing the 'real person' instead of just another facet) and the ongoing desire for a utopia that informs so much online theorizing. If we can simply throw off the Don Draper we have worn, we can again be who we think we really are, or at least who we dreamed we would be. Except that Don is also part of us...

Quoting Bruckner: "Wearing such outfits [looking like Cuban guerrillas, etc.] was an attempt to make mere loitering look like the Long March. (If I pretend to be the Other, his victories become my victories.)"

And not just for Che or Ho, of course. This has made me think of athletic-team jerseys in a different way. It's not just showing support; it's imagining oneself as a part of the team. (I don't wear jerseys, and when I was a student radical I wore dress shirts and polyester pants. Obviously a failure of my imagination.

Again quoting: "From existentialism to deconstructionism, all of modern thought can be reduced to a mechanical denunciation of the West, emphasizing the latter's hypocrisy, violence, and abomination. The whole world hates us, and we deserve it. That is what most Europeans think."

I have no idea what most Europeans actually think, but clearly much of the criticism from the right of the "you liberals hate America" variety seems to revolve around the idea in this sentence. We held ourselves to a higher standard; we failed to meet it; therefore we should be condemned; or, we held ourselves to a higher standard; we tried to meet it; therefore we should be praised and should praise ourselves. And neither side understands the basis of the other. This plays out every day in attacks on newspapers and other media.

"In reasonable quantities, of course, self-criticism and repentance are praiseworthy: necessary stages in working through a politically or morally compromised past. Yet when indulged to excess ... they turn into an unhealthy preoccupation with the past that shuts down the capacity to live fully and honestly and constructively in the present."

Yet demonization of others can yield the same outcome, and again we face the tea party.

Quoting: "Romantic fascination with exceptional beings -- with the insane, the criminal, the genius, the artist, the pervert -- stems from our fear of being lost in the flock, in the stereotype of the petit bourgeois man. 'I am different from the rest.' That is the motto of the man of the herd."

Well, somehow I doubt I will ever see "Mad Men" in the same light -- or the "Newsmakers" column.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Department Store Building of the ... Whatever

It's getting harder to find old department store buildings in smaller cities. I went looking for one in Norristown. I knew the old Block's had been torn down years ago, but the last time I was there the building of Friedman's New York Store was still standing. No more; it's now a garage.

So rather than doing obscure stores in smaller towns I'll move on to my own city of Philadelphia, although the history of large-city department stores is extensively documented. Shown above is the Lit Bros. store on Market Street between Seventh and Eighth Streets. From the street it impressed people as one continuous frontage, but it was always a number of cast-iron front buildings linked together and painted white. 25 years ago, a sign that dated back decades atop the building said "A Great Store in a Great City," which was Lits' motto. (That was also on the warehouse, which stood where part of Community College of Philadelphia now is.)

Lits also had the motto "Hats Trimmed Free of Charge," going back to its genesis. It was run by Jacob and Samuel Lit for years. Just before the Depression they sold it to City Stores, which put its management under that of the Goerke family, which owned stores in Newark and Elizabeth, N.J. During the Depression City Stores liquidated the Goerke stores; the one in Elizabeth was reopened under the ownership of the Goerke family. City Stores operated Lits outside of its other interests until 1951, when it was integrated into the operation.

Like many downscale stores, Lits went into suburban branches early; the Lits, Wasson's, Crowley's of the world didn't crave the exclusivity of the carriage-trade store. There were stores in Camden and Trenton, and in Northeast Philadelphia and Willow Grove. Lits also benefited when another City operation, N. Snellenberg & Co., was closed as a reaction to a strike; Lits picked up its branches, including Atlantic City.

But City Stores, part of the Bankers Security empire, began to fade before other chains of department stores did. Divisions such as R.H. White in Boston were pruned and then disappeared. Lits lasted into the late 1970s, and had opened modern mall stores such as at Echelon in South Jersey. But that did not save it, as the "fourth store down" in Philadelphia, after discounters took away much of its trade.

The building was threatened, but was saved by the then Mellon Bank for a regional headquarters. It also has had street-level retail.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Copy Editing: A Hub-bub from Gannett

Gannett Co. announced this week that it would over the next two years consolidate all its page design at five locations. Thus the Palm Springs Desert Sun, the Indianapolis Star, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, would no longer be laid out at their home newsrooms, but in Phoenix or Louisville or Asbury Park.

Charles Apple -- the newspaper design guru who has brought his widely read blog to the American Copy Editors Society site, and bless him for it -- has some thoughts here. Here's a link to Gannett's statement. Since, of course, the principle of blogging is that there are never enough thoughts, here are some more.


Legions of Gannett-haters, including many former and current Gannett employees, will laugh at this, but let's take their statement at face value first, as presented by VP/News Kate Marymount.

She says the goal of "the creation of News Design Centers that handle the design and production of newspapers" is "offering efficiencies but – just as importantly – sophisticated newspaper design." Certainly an impetus is to have one editorial system -- CCI -- in all of Gannett's newsrooms. Thus, a story written in Wausau can appear in Marion without having to be sent, picked up, recoded, published in print, published in mobile, whatever.

"Employees of the Design Centers will be trained in sophisticated newspaper design. And, most importantly, it allows our Information Centers to focus on – and protect -- the creation of unique local content."

Information Centers, of course, is what we used to call newsrooms. I think what this is saying is: If we take one Full-Time Equivalent out of Marshfield and make it a one-third FTE in Louisville, we have two-thirds of an FTE to do reporting in Marshfield. Also, if the job of the editor in Marshfield is simply to develop a local news budget rather than having to oversee and staff production, perhaps he or she will have more time to do that. (More on that later.)

"What work will remain locally? Creation of content and copy editing. To draw on the expertise and local knowledge at the local sites, copy editing will remain there. Copy that moves to the Design Centers is expected to be production-ready and include suggested headlines. ... We recognize that journalists everywhere handle multiple tasks every day, and that copy editors also paginate, create digital content, write SEO headlines, etc. We will work with each site to clarify what work is done locally and at Design Centers." Suddenly Gannett gets religion on copy editing? Hmm. But let's move on.

"The goal of this project is to elevate the quality of design at sites where the recession caused a loss of focus on design. And to sustain good design at sites that have been able to keep that a strong focus." OK, again, let's take them at their word, in part because the Gannett paper I read every day has suddenly undergone a design cleanup and its front page now looks like a thoughtful, well-designed entry point instead of a circus. (That's not a slam at my many friends there; it's what they were told to do, and now they're being told to do something better.) But let's also take them at their word because every editor cares about how his or her paper looks.

"Will all of our newspapers begin to look alike? No. Flatly, no. That is not the intent at all. The individuality of a newspaper is important. We will preserve that. ... Will our deadlines have to be earlier? No. The Design Centers will be staffed based on your current deadlines." Taking them at their word, this can't mean the aim is simply draconian cuts. The way to accomplish those is to make every newspaper look the same so that no story ever needs to be reformatted, as Tribune has largely done. And by assigning newspapers to hubs based on geography (and accompanying time zone) instead of, say, having Asbury Park lay out one West Coast paper for every East Coast paper, you're not going to have a designer do Morristown in the first half of his shift and Visalia in the second.

So taking them at their word, they want to:
1. Save some positions by not having to have a full-time layout person at every 14-page paper in the Midwest.
2. Have their papers look better by having designers who work together and under the direction of a design person, instead of somebody on his own in Iowa answering to an editor who doesn't know a thing about layout.
3. Have everyone on the same system.


OK, they want to cut payroll. Name a newspaper company that doesn't. Nothing about that makes Gannett stand out from the New York Times Co.

OK, they want to cut payroll on non-content-creation positions. Again, name a newspaper company that doesn't. That doesn't make Gannett a saint or a good employer. It just doesn't make them the devil either.

So what are some cynical observations?

1. Gannett has giant buildings in Louisville and Asbury Park (I've been in both) and Phoenix. I don't know about Nashville or Des Moines. I assume, since those buildings came from the Binghams and Lasses and Pulliams and Cowleses, that they own them and that there's probably not much they can do with them. So might as well fill them up. If continued downsizing means one can move out of an old-style newsroom building somewhere else and pay less for office space, as has happened with Singleton's Bay-area papers...

2. I don't know much about CCI, but I've been told that their layout system is not accessible from non-layout workstations (unlike the system my paper uses). I assume this means fewer licenses, and you don't need someone in Mountain Home who knows how to troubleshoot it.

3. If you've got a designer in Hattiesburg, you've got to have a backup. If your designers are all in Nashville, you just shift someone around. (As newsrooms shrink, though, this actually makes sense.)

4. The statement about "making the papers look alike" probably refers back to the attempt to make Florida Today exactly resemble USA Today, to see if people would buy it. They didn't. But designers working in a hub are going to copy from one another, and look for shortcuts to make their jobs easier, so the papers will come to resemble each other more over time. Plus, Gannett has never been shy about corporate design edicts -- remember the days when all the non-metros had to have a 7-column front page?

5. If you're trying to get your newsrooms to think more platform-agnostic, the existence in your newsroom of the group that's Getting the Paper Out ties the newsroom to Getting the Paper Out. It's your paper. If getting the paper out is someone else's job, you may spend more time putting things online or on mobile. The page-design function is no longer a newsroom hub. The editor doesn't wander over and say, "Whatcha doin?" The editor's job is the coverage, not obsessing over A1. It's divorcing the newsroom from the print paper, because otherwise tradition will dictate that that print paper will still be the Real Thing.

6. Assume the number of pages produced will inevitably shrink. It will still be a long time, if ever, before it shrinks to nothing. But perhaps you go down to five days or three. Or you keep going at seven days but you've only got two sections instead of four. If you've got 70 page-design desks, you've got to keep them staffed regardless. With hubs, you can spread the work around and shrink the staff gradually while still keeping people occupied.

So to me, the unspoken thing in this memo is: This is a plan to prepare for shrinking print production while not actually admitting it, and to get local newsrooms to focus less on "the next day's paper" and more on simply preparing things regardless of how they are presented.


The major surprise in this memo is the separating of the copy editing and design functions, at least for local copy. Recent bang-together moves such as Tribune, Scripps and Media General have all moved both functions to hubs. Gannett makes it very clear in this memo: Copy editing will remain in each newsroom.

Well, as a copy editor who has written about the need for copy editors to be seen as part of the local news-gathering and reporting force, I can't help but be happy. I know Gannett has changed its copy editor jobs in many places to include things such as video, so I don't know exactly what they feel the job is. But they clearly believe that a copy editor in Cherry Hill has to see the copy about Cherry Hill, that a copy desk in Louisville is not going to do the job right. As Apple says: "So at least the critical copy-editing functions will remain in the hands of folks who become familiar with local names and landmarks and customs. This is a smart move on Gannett’s part."

So bully for them, although without the design job I suspect that the one copy editor left in each newsroom may have his or her hands over-filled. The fact that copy editors are supposed to send "suggested heds" instead of actually filling in the head orders is a problem, because designers will be able to make ill-advised changes. (Apple notes this as well.) But a proofreading system could do away with that.

But this again shows to me that the endgame is the withering of print. Gannett has apparently decided that copy editing has a future in the digital world -- you still need that set of local eyes. So keep it in house. But newspaper design? Buggy whips. Move it out the door.

As someone who loves a good newspaper page, that makes me sad. On the other hand, as a copy editor, it's the same choice I'd make -- if I had to make the choice. Design is more exportable than text editing. (Graphics, such as maps and charts, are another thing entirely.) But I still don't know, for example, how stand-alone photo packages will be handled, or if the obscure wire story of interest only in a certain region will be picked up.

Note: I wrote this before seeing Steve Yelvington's and Brian White's comments on Apple's blog. Yelvington sees this as an overdue move to let print go further into its long fade to black and applauds it, while for me it's a sad thing that the newspaper business has come to this. That said, both of us drew the same conclusion. My friend Brian notes that local copy editing has stayed in Asheville and Greenville anyway while wire editing went to Louisville. Will wire editing all be in these hubs? Gannett's note is silent on that point. My own guess, a total guess? USA Today eventually will take over all wire content for the local papers.

Friday, June 25, 2010

It's Not the Paper. It's What's On It

A Nieman Lab post by Dan Froomkin said a reason newspapers are failing on the Web -- a debatable proposition, so let's phrase it as "the reason newspapers are not as dominant players in the post-online news ecosystem as they were in the system that preceded it" -- is that the product they're providing doesn't work online. Some quotes:

"We’re hiding much of our newsrooms' value behind a terribly anachronistic format: voiceless, incremental news stories that neither get much traffic nor make our sites compelling destinations. While the dispassionate, what-happened-yesterday, inverted-pyramid daily news story still has some marginal utility, it's mostly a throwback at this point — a relic of a daily product delivered on paper to a geographically limited community. (For instance, it’s the daily delivery cycle of our print product that led us to focus on yesterday’s news. And it's the focus on maximizing newspaper circulation that drove us to create the notion of 'objectivity' — thereby removing opinion and voice from news stories — for fear of alienating any segment of potential subscribers.)

"The Internet doesn't work on a daily schedule. But even more importantly, it abhors the absence of voice. There's a reason why opinion writing tends to dominate the most-read lists on our 'news' sites. Indeed, what we’ve seen is that Internet communities tend to form around voices — informed, passionate, authoritative voices in particular. (No one wants to read a bored blogger, I always say.)...

"One option might be to imitate cable TV, and engage in a furious volume of he-said/she-said reporting, voyeurism, contrarianism, gossip, triviality and gotcha journalism. But that would come at the cost of our souls. The right way to reinvent ourselves online would be to do precisely what journalists were put on this green earth to do: Seek the truth, hold the powerful accountable, expose the B.S., explain how things really work, introduce people to each other, and tell compelling stories. And we should do all those things passionately and courageously — not hiding who we are, but rather engaging in a very public expression of our journalistic values.

"Obviously, we do some of that already. But I would argue that even then, we do so in a much too understated way. We stifle some of our best stories with a wet blanket of pseudo-neutrality. We edit out tone. We banish anything smacking of activism. We don’t telegraph our own enthusiasm for what it is we're doing. We vaguely assume the readers will understand how valuable a service we’re providing for them — but evidently, many of them don’t."

For years, people have been saying that this hasn't worked in print either. The Internet merely opened the door for new competitors who could enter the market without learning to do things the way a newspaper demanded. But as noted here and elsewhere ad infinitum, people have been moving away from newspapers for years, in part because they often are filled with often-boring, often-incremental, often-insider-oriented stories.

They became filled with those stories not just because of a commercial imperative to reach the most people. In fact, newspapers were often more interesting when they were competing with others to reach the most people to fulfill a commercial imperative. When almost every newspaper realized it was the Only Game in Town and likely to remain so forever (as it seemed in the 1970s and 1980s) was when they most felt the pressure to be "objective" (a word I think Froomkin misuses here in terms of the way it was meant by the people who defined it in the mid-20th century, but nevermind). By that time they had already largely maximized circulation. At that point, yes, they certainly wanted to maintain their large circulations. But they also wanted to be seen as fair and impartial truth-tellers, not as activist, enthusiastic, passionate voices. (Eugene Pulliam and William Loeb were activist, enthusiastic, and passionate.)

The debate we have been having is not a debate over whether newspapers will be printed. That's a debate, but the debate is over what I'll call for now "freewheeling journalism" vs. "institutionalized journalism." (Those are sucky labels.) When the Arizona Republic devoted its front page to an editorial on the controversial "ask their status" law, it had to be aware as well that someone could now say, "Your reporters cannot possibly be seen as neutral on this because you as an institution have already taken a stand." But it was certainly an opinion. We could argue church/state about the editorial page's role, except that this was the front page.

When the Republic was owned by Eugene Pulliam, who was known for front-page editorials, it would have been clear that it was the view of Eugene Pulliam. Newspapers spoke for the powerful people who owned them. Was the Republic's view the view of Gannett Co.? Was it the view of the local publisher? The editorial board? In the end it was the view of an institution called the Arizona Republic. But the reporters work for that institution.

Print and trucks and distribution cycles create their own problems, but journalists are engaged in a debate over what constitutes "journalism." Is it saying what happened, or saying what should happen? Is it being a neutral observer who stands back, or an engaged participant who calls it like he sees it? Is it speaking to a general audience, or speaking from a specific standpoint to those who get the point? It's not that Froomkin is wrong. It's that Froomkin's journalism does not fit into a mass-market journalistic organization -- regardless of how whether it's printed or broadcast or posted. And the debate continues to be -- is this better?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Old Department Store Building of the (Week), New Series Vol. 2

New Castle, Pa., is one of those places that clearly was once a Big Deal and has become less of one as industry has moved elsewhere. The main floor of the New Castle News building, for example, reflects not only the onetime grandeur of the newspaper business but the economic prowess of New Castle. If you're ever there, walk in and check it out.

Before the depression, New Castle had many department stores -- Brown & Hamilton, Clendenin's, Stritmater Bros., and the entertainingly named J.N. Euwer's Sons' Sons. None of these made it out of the Depression. John Stillman, creator of the Interstate Department Stores chain of lower-end department stores from central Pennsylvania into Indiana and Michigan, had his first department store in New Castle before relocating to Fort Wayne. After the Depression, the Strouss-Hirshberg Co. of Youngstown, Ohio, moved into an old furniture store for a department-store branch, and New Castle also was home to the Fisher Bros. Dry Goods chain, a low-end operation that had many stores in western Pennsylvania from the 1940s through the 1970s.

But the longest-lived department store in downtown New Castle was the New Castle Dry Goods Co., at 253 E. Washington St., which was operated by the Boston Store in Erie. What made the survival of what was known as the New Castle Store even more interesting was that it was by itself across a river from the main part of downtown. The store grew out of R.S. McCulloch & Co. and took its place in the mid-1910s. When the Boston Store became part of the Allied Stores operations, the New Castle store eventually was made part of Allied's Troutman division based in Greensburg.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Why Robert Knilands Is Partly Right

Robert Knilands -- variously known as Rknil, Wenalway, and as a bete-noire and pain in the ass to the point where he has been banned from a number of discussion boards -- is too quick with ad hominem condemnations.

He hijacks various topics and keeps beating them against the wall with what clearly are posted rants.

He gets unduly personal and bitter. He not only holds people's work in contempt, which is churlish but fair, he holds them personally in contempt because of their work when he does not know them at all.

He continually presents the American Copy Editors Society for attack because it is not what he thinks it should be -- a phalanx to somehow force news organizations to change their ways -- instead of what it is -- a training and support organization that was not created to hold a cudgel to bosses' heads.

He comes across as an angry man whose idea of debate is, "Let me tell you how stupid you are, except you're too stupid to even realize it."

And yet.

Knilands' main point -- that when copy editors also became page designers, the craft of copy editing was pushed to the side -- is partly hyperbole, because at most papers copy editors were always page designers of a sort. Most small papers had people who edited copy and drew page dummies for the composing room. Occasionally you laid out a photo package or the like. It was part of the job. Only at the larger papers -- which from my knowledge Knilands never worked at -- were there ranks of copy editors who just edited copy. And only as graphics capabilities improved in the 1980s did some of these desk jockeys become designers instead of simply news editors or copy editors.

And yet.

My esteemed former colleague Charles Knittle, now in charge of copy editing for national and foreign copy at the New York Times, addressed the salient point at the ACES conference in Philadelphia, as noted on Doug Fisher's "Common Sense Journalism":

"•Knittle: Copy editors were unnecessarily smug when pagination rolled into newsrooms in the 1990s. Hundreds of printers and backshop makeup people were laid off. A few copy editors were hired. But what the editors actually were learning was a "machine skill," the same kind of skill those printers and makeup people had, the same kind of skill that is easily displaced."

And copy editors now indeed are being laid off (or, in foreign countries, their jobs are being outsourced) as publishers -- and yes, editors -- increasingly decide that they are "production" workers, the same as linotypists, stereotypers and the like used to be. They are no longer seen as actual editors, but as people who move something into the realm of publication the way the person running the Ludlow set the End of the World giant headlines. They are viewed -- wrongly, of course -- as mechanics who do not produce anything. Knilands might say, and such is justice, and he would have a point.

Yes, we did believe that by taking design and production into our own hands, we were becoming essential. And yes, we have found that when the monetary chips are down -- as they have now been for years -- some publishers and editors will say that a poorly edited story with a mediocre headline and an incomprehensible caption and a graphic that does not match the story is clearly sub-par but at least is something, whereas copy editors do not create and designers draw pretty pages that are irrelevant on the Internet.

So the main point of Knilands' criticism -- that copy editors ceased to be editors and became illustrators, doing work that can be outsourced or junked, while not concentrating on their real task, which is editing -- is one deserving fair consideration.

Yet -- how would he have had us act otherwise? Say "No, we're not going to do that?" The unemployment door awaited. It wasn't a vast conspiracy. Although the essential desire was to save money, most of the people proposing this also believed it would mean that the newsroom would now be in final control of all pages and that this was a Good Thing. Most of us wanted to be part of that. God knows I believe in copy editing, yet I also saw this as a Good Thing.

What's amazing is not that Robert Knilands has a valid point (although Charles Apple, Howard Owens, and others might think so). It's that whether the work is being outsourced to Corpus Christi or Lynchburg or wherever, editors who once proudly said "the newsroom will be in final control" now seem to just roll over and nod when that work passes from the control of their newsroom. (Yes, I know they can see the pages instantly on their computers. Yes, I know they can text or call. It's not the same as walking over to someone's desk in the newsroom.)

Is this simply a reflection of financial times? Or does it reflect that the editors of (now) 20 years ago, who welcomed pagination and design into their newsrooms, had come of age in the era of composing-room control, whereas fewer of today's editors experienced that and thus say, so what's the big deal? Or is it simply that the standards of the Web -- immediacy and convenience (combined with easy disposability) trump all, and the reader's expectation of quality is thus far lower -- are either inevitable, or are actually the same standards held by a number of publishers and editors?

Personally, I wish that Robert Knilands didn't act like such a jerk. Perhaps his points would have been taken more seriously. On the other hand, he might note, he got attention, and perhaps would not have had he been more civil. So, again perhaps, Knilands simply stands as a representative of the Internet media age, one that cannot fully meld its longings for the standards of old with its desire to be included in the new, and thus, as did Obi-wan, wishes this were a more civilized age as it tries to deal with the empire instead of the republic, and often ends up light-sabering its own foot as a result.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Return to: Old Department Store Building of the (Week)

When times got overwhelming last year I stopped doing looks at old department stores -- stopping, I believe, in Lancaster, Pa., with Watt & Shand. In recent weeks I've encountered people who were fans of that feature, so I'm going to bring it back. I wanted to do so with Lebanon, Pa., home of what I believe is the first Bon-Ton store in Pennsylvania -- and one that had nothing to do with the long-lived chain still operating out of York, Pa. -- but alas, both it and the competing Haak Bros. appear to have been torn down.

So here's a look at Fifth Avenue in McKeesport, Pa. To the immediate left of what clearly was a big store, occuping about five buildings, is a much littler red-brick store. (Yes, the really little one.) This store, at 519 Fifth, was Helmstadter Bros., the last surviving locally owned downtown department store in this city best known for steel tubing. Helmstadter's was in a larger store two blocks west of this until the late Depression years.

McKeesport had a very strung-out downtown. It was four blocks west from here to what was its largest store, the Famous Store, and the main hotel was even farther west of that. The Famous Store was owned by a group of Pittsburgh merchants named Weil, Goldsmith, and Katz. When they retired, they sold it to a local discount chain called Misco, under whose operation it quickly closed. The much smaller Helmstadter's kept going into a second generation of family ownership.

McKeesport is a very odd place in terms of its physical layout. The downtown was adjacent to the tube works, and then a good bit away, up a hill, was the library and some large churches -- it almost felt like a different city. Neighborhoods changed from blue-collar to managerial almost in mid-block. Also, it has a long street named Jenny Lind Avenue. It's hard to get a sense of McKeesport as a whole.

Notice now the larger store in the photo above. This was the main store of the G.C. Murphy Co., one of the largest dime-store chains. Murphy's, like Grant's, aimed to be one step above Woolworth's and Kresge's, but was probably still one step below Newberry's.

For me, growing up, going to the dime store meant Murphy's, as they had stores in downtown Indianapolis, in Broad Ripple and at Glendale Center. My grandmother would buy chicken parts for frying there. I remember the Double K nut stands as well, with their revolving trays and heat lights, and the birds and hamsters on sale. Other than chicken, AMF and Revell car model sets, and things like needles, I can't remember if we actually bought anything at Murphy's, but even though there were a Grant's, a Kresge's, and two Woolworth's downtown, along with a local chain called Danner's all around town, we only traded with Murphy's in the dime-store category. (We didn't have Kress, or Green's, but how much of the decline of downtowns was related to the vast amount of space vacated by dime stores as they moved to strip centers and then fell before discounters?)

Not that this matters to anyone else, but it was exciting for me to walk by this building and see that, even though vacant, it still bore signs saying it was the headquarters of the G.C. Murphy Co. I suddenly wanted fried chicken and cashews.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Away We Go Again

I try not to write on this blog about my own newspaper, because 1) the blog has nothing to do with the newspaper and 2) one can always say the wrong thing inadvertently. But this week's developments would make it hard to say nothing.

The last time we were sold, it was 2006, the newspaper industry was just starting its historic collapse, and everything seemed bright.

The first time there were layoffs, as wrenching as it was, it seemed like an adjustment to a new world. But it wasn't, really. It was just a retrenchment.

The second time there were layoffs, it was in part a reaction to the economic collapse. But it was much more an adjustment to a new world. Whatever happens now, it will be further down that line.

At ACES, Nieman Lab's Josh Benton, as noted on Doug Fisher's "Common Sense Journalism," tried to put what John McIntyre calls the War on Editing into an economic package:

When print was the only model, it saved the publisher money to have editors, because 1) the more sharply the story was edited, the more room there was for more content, including ads; 2) the more accurately the story was edited the first time, less money was spent in replates; 3) (and this is my point and not his) if you were selling a "product," a physical artifact, people want to be sure that, like any physical product, it is well-made before they invest money or time in it.

In an electronic world, it doesn't matter how long the story is or how loosely written, because space is infinite; the cost of making a correction is zero, since there are no plates involved; and if what you are selling is quick-hit brain candy, updates to be perused when you're bored with work or wondering what's going on, the quality of the product is secondary to the appeal of the information. It can have typos, it can have run-on words, because you've invested no money in it and you can click away from it in a second and it's gone, as opposed to the newspaper, which is still in your hands even as you yell at it. Heck, the user may not really care where the end page of the information comes from. If you got it through Yahoo News, does it matter if you click through to the Chicago Tribune or the Sleepy Eye Herald-Dispatch?

Thus, the only thing you should invest in is content creation, because absent a mass audience, the only thing you can possibly provide is, simply, MORE. Not better, although better can help, but just MORE, to try to get a bit of any and every niche.

Now, against that, one could note that bots archive the first version of the story, which then can't be fixed without mammoth effort; and that part of the reason advertising costs pennies on the Internet is the infinite inventory, including publishers creating page after page after page in order to get high page views, but then having to sell ads for nearly zero because of the vast number of pages they produce.

But the end argument is still the quality of the brand -- that if anything will give newspapers a secure place in the electronic world, it is the years and years of brand recognition that carries over. The Huffington Post also is building a brand. But newspapers still have a brand that exists independent of the Web world and thus carries a competitive double whammy.

And, if money was still flowing in, they probably would recognize this and recognize what good editing -- and good copy editing -- brings to their brand. Alas, it isn't. And so I fear another front may open in the war, even if many good people really don't want it to.