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.

Monday, April 19, 2010

ACES: What a Show

Last week was the American Copy Editors Society's annual conference, held in Philadelphia; as a board member and head of the host committee, I had an exciting week, although not as exhausting as many seemed to indicate. Copy editors pride themselves on quiet competence, and the ACES conference, with its multiple training sessions, lunch breakouts, opening and closing sessions, banquets, blogs, etc., is a complex work of machinery that has been well-oiled over the years.

Chris Wienandt, the outgoing ACES president, and Deirdre Edgar, the outgoing vice president for conferences, split the duties of programming the event and once again provided a full slate of interesting topics by authoritative and engaging presenters. Daniel Hunt provided access to more media than I really know exist. He and Gerri Berendzen led the way again in conference blogging. And they are just among the main builders of the framework on which more than 330 people came to listen, learn, talk and advance the cause, skills and roles of copy editors.

There was enough discussion of "building one's personal brand" -- a concept that I hate, copy editing is supposed to serve the reader and not the copy editor's ego -- that I have to link to the program on WHYY's "Radio Times" in which new ACES president Teresa Schmedding and copy editing uber-goddess Merrill Perlman expounded on what the cuts in editing mean to the reader/citizen. Oh, yeah, I was there too -- there's my branding for you!

What a past, what a cast, what a show, what a way to go. Join us in Phoenix in 2011.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Reader Elite

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when Bloomingdale's became the hottest store around, some department stores in the Omahas and Indianapolises of the world tried to save themselves from the increasing competition of discounters on one hand and boutiques on the other -- remember when "boutique" was a new, cool word? -- by going similarly upscale, becoming stores full of designer sections and the like. Most of them failed, because you have to have a sufficient number of rich, style-conscious people in your market to support such a store. They made their middle-income consumers feel dowdy and unwelcome while not drawing in enough of their target audience, which probably was not sufficient in the first place to support an institution the size of a department store.

Partly this was geographic and partly they were ahead of their time. There is a Nordstrom/Neiman/Bloomingdale cadre in most metropolitan areas now, of people who either moved there or of people who grew up wanting that sensibility. But you couldn't just impose that sensibility on the people who were already there in the 1970s and 1980s. It was putting on airs, to them.

It's not exactly the same thing, but it reminds me again of my colleague, a great reporter and editor, who said back in the glory days that he wished we had only 50,000 subscribers -- the right 50,000 -- instead of 500,000, because then we could just write and edit the paper for people who were interested in capital-J journalism, and stop having to publish the third race at Liberty Bell Park and school lunch menus. Of course, he knew this would be ruinous to our pay. But he (and I) were from the generation of journalists who were not trained to "publish a newspaper" in the old sense of sending "In the Service" and blow-by-blow City Council accounts down to the composing room. We wanted to produce informed stories for informed people to make informed change, and the fact that most people had far less interest in such matters that we did was just something that history would take care of. Eventually we would get the audience we deserved.

My esteemed compatriot and mentor Doug Fisher, at Common Sense Journalism, notes a couple of articles, one about journalism education and one about the Christian Science Monitor, that speak to this point.

As Doug notes, the Monitor always went for an elite audience. But most newspapers told the same news to the masses. That role may not be economically possible now, much less whether anyone actually wants it. But is news for elites the way journalism really wants to go? Often it seems like that is the dream or goal -- that freed from the responsibility to produce newspapers for the masses, a great flowering of journalism will occur, to be lapped up by a small but influential and educated audience. Out with the Robesonian and Pajeronian, in with the Davosian.

My former colleague later admitted chagrin when reminded of his statement. The point of almost every newspaper was to speak to the community, not just to the opinion leaders. The New York Times is Bloomingdale's. What happens if the Denver Post or Oklahoman -- in whatever medium -- decides its role is simply to be the New York Times of Colorado or Oklahoma, to give "important news" to people who appreciate it and will understand how to act on it? Will the Volkischer Beobachters of our day then have an even wider field to till? If so, will journalists have failed society even while speaking to an audience that "gets it" -- that visits journalism's new boutiques in which the Wal-Mart masses never intrude?

There is something to be said for the middlebrow, because that is where the middle class can exist without feeling outclassed or underclass.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Curioser and Curioser

Martin Langeveld at Nieman Lab revisits his study of a year ago, of time spent with print newspapers as opposed to online, and finds that other than a decline in the number of people using print newspapers, things are basically as they were -- the people who use print newspapers still spend as much time with them, people do not use newspapers online to any great degree, and people get news online from non-newspaper sites increasingly. This matches with circulation declines and research showing slipping use of newspapers online, so Langeveld's point seems correct even if someone wants to go after his statistical method, which apparently, from his comments, many have done.

What I found most interesting was that Langeveld felt he had to include this:

"I began with the readership counts derived as above, and assumed average time spent with printed newspapers to be 25 minutes on weekdays and 35 minutes on Sundays. Now, this assumption got considerable comment flak last year, and no doubt will have its doubters this year. For those who say 'I don’t know anybody who reads a newspaper at all, so how can the average be 25 minutes?' let me say that more than 40 million newspapers are still sold every day and someone is reading them, whether you know them or not."

Which could lead to more meditations on how the webbed world is leading us all further into the sort of siloing of ourselves, as shown by the divide in Wilmington, N.C., over a planned cement plant as reported in the Journal. By golly, people who moved to Wilmington because it has cute neighborhoods and an arts community and you can surf at the beach a few miles away don't want those cement-plant jobs near them. They envision themselves being in Austin-by-the-Atlantic. But Wilmington, which spent decades as a declining seaport -- it once was the largest city in North Carolina -- still has a large group of people who look at factory jobs as a good thing. I guess the feeling is that all those people should move to Hickory or Lumberton or somewhere that software entrepreneurs don't want to live, where they can also read newspapers among their own kind, and leave Wilmington to those who "get" the new Wilmington.

But I digress. Langeveld closes with this:

"Meanwhile at newspapers, much effort and much dialogue continues to focus on getting readers to pay for content and battling aggregators — energy that might better be spent figuring out how not to lose the sizable remaining audience for newspaper content, not by 'protecting print' but by keeping the current print readers in the fold as they, too, gradually migrate to reading news online."

Had Martin said "keeping the current readers in the fold until they are supplanted by those reading news online" -- i.e., until people like me die -- I might disagree, and say there will always be some audience for newspapers, but the trend lines are clearly there. But in the end, Langeveld assumes that nearly everyone living now will eventually come to his or her senses and get news online, because, well, that's just what people will do, it's just that some are slower than others.

The fact that there might be an audience that says, you know, this printed newspaper thing, I really like it -- and I want to stay with it -- as Martin points out, in his town in Vermont he lives among people who read newspapers faithfully, but he probably doesn't invite over to the house people who would admit that they will keep doing so. Just like the people who are my close friends, who tend to be people who read print newspapers, even though they use the Internet all the time. My silo is not your silo.

I am again reminded of the incredulity in our newsroom in the 1990s that only 3 pct. of the Philadelphia area read the New York Times in print. Why, everyone we all knew read the New York Times! And indeed, everyone we knew tended to be in that 3 pct. of people who read the New York Times and not in the other 97 percent, let alone anyone who wanted to work in a cement factory in Wilmington, N.C.

I should end here, but always go for the low-hanging fruit. In a blog post picked up and reprinted by Online Journalism Review, David LaFontaine -- whom I would say more about, except that the link to his "Technorati Profile" doesn't work -- decides to draw a link between GM and newspapers. As someone who draws links between department stores and newspapers, and who knows that GM has been a large newspaper advertiser -- and who used to live in Flint, GM's Depression City Central -- this was of major interest.

LaFontaine starts out promisingly with this bullet point:


And admittedly, GM's cars of the '80s and '90s left much to be desired. His comparison in the newspaper business is zone feature stories. I worked in Neighbors for years, and admittedly many stories left much to be desired from a capital-J journalism sense. But then we work our way to:


"Reporters that dared to try to make suggestions about long-term changes (like less coverage of O.J. Simpson, and more of things like the erosion of middle-class opportunities) were ignored. Newsrooms have always been 'simmering cesspools of cynicism,' but this morphed into outright nihilism and rage."

Really? But we press on:


"In the newspaper industry: the subprime mortgage/real-estate boom created a huge advertising windfall for newspapers. The Homes section of the LA Times was often larger than the rest of the newspaper combined. Thousands of pages of expensive classified ads, paid for by realtors who were so awash in free money that they didn't care what the cost was. Of course, the rest of the classified business was absolutely cratering at this time. When the real-estate market imploded, and advertisers abandoned newspapers, looking for more efficient ways to sell their products, newspapers were also left without a viable product to sell."

Really again? So the solution would have been to cover the erosion of middle-class opportunities, but without real-estate advertising there was no viable product ... OK, I'm not sure that's what he means, because I'm really not sure what he means. But what I do get from this is that he is outraged that the L.A. Times decided to take the revenue Realtors were shoveling over the transom instead of doing what was needed for change, which seems to be a mix of both missing Internet opportunities and covering O.J. Simpson, real estate, and Neighbors features instead of covering "news."

In other words, the Los Angeles Times acted like a business instead of like a high church of journalism. Hey, here are advertisers, they have money, they want this, readers want to buy it! We should tell them all, "No! Read our exhaustive coverage of middle-class workers' lives in Pacoima online instead!" We are back once again to the point of so much criticism from Recovering Journalists all over the Internet, which is: If newspapers would just stop making short-term business decisions and realize that their real job was to subsidize ace reporting -- particularly the sort of ace reporting I did until some hackneyed city editor, dollars-mad publisher, or whatever took me off my important beat and told me to write about a woman who collects sponges shaped like George W. Bush -- all their problems would have been solved! Because the readers are, and always will be, people like me. But business is a business.

And news, it seems, is not much of a business by itself. Robert Picard wrote last month:

"News has never been a commercially viable product."

He notes:

"The Mass Media Finance Model appeared in the late 19th and 20th century, made possible by the industrial revolution, urbanization, wage earning, and sale of finished goods. In this model news was provided for the masses at a small fee, but subsidized by advertising sales. Because most of the public was uninterested in day-to-day events and 'hard' news, the bulk of newspaper content was devoted to sports, entertainment, lifestyle, and features that increased the willingness of the public to spend pennies for the product.

"This mass media financing model remains the predominant model for financing news gathering and distribution, but its effectiveness is diminishing because the 'mass' audience is becoming a 'niche' audience in Western nations as those less interested in hard news continue abandoning newspapers for television, magazines, and the Internet. This is creating a great deal of uncertainty how society will subsidize and pay for journalism in the twenty-first century."

His solution is to replace the tons of cash from Realtors with tons of cash from selling tickets or books.

I suspect Dave LaFontaine would shake his head. But unlike GM, a lot of newspapers were giving their readers what they wanted at that time. That was why they had massive household penetration rates and tons of money. I suspect they were not giving LaFontaine what he wanted -- a news product aimed at news junkies and wonks -- even back when they had tons of money, let alone now. But then we're back to the 3 percent of Philadelphians who took the New York Times.

Whatever newspapers' future is -- in whatever medium it is -- appealing to news junkies will provide simply a small niche. Whether that niche can be monetized is still up for grabs. Meanwhile, keep watching the print publication schedule of Politico.