Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Third Floor, News

"Irony" is, like "hopefully," one of the most "misused" words in the language -- and largely for the same reason, that it easily fills a linguistic hole, having come to mean "isn't it interestingly peculiar and perhaps ordered by fate" rather that simply "isn't it the opposite of what I just said." Personally I feel that both of them have come to these meanings through the need for a secular word like "inshallah" -- God willing, even if he doesn't really will it. In any event, it is personally ironic in the new sense that my employer announced Monday that it would be moving from the building built for it in the 1920s to the building built for the department store Strawbridge & Clothier in the 1930s. I assume this means I will close out my journalistic career working in a department store, although whether that happens when I want it to or when circumstances occasion it is, well, inshallah.

We'll be on the third floor -- not just our newsroom, but one newsroom for both papers plus the website, and people from other departments there as well. The payoff for us and the city is apparently a desire to turn the current semi-dead zone on Market Street  between Sixth and 12th Streets -- there are lots of stores, but not the sort to appeal to conventioneers or 21st-century yuppies -- into a brightly lit and happening place. Inshallah. Part of that will be video screens displaying the news from Philly.com. Perhaps it will be called Inquirer Square, but it is more likely to be Philly.com Square if it comes to that.

According to BAK's Department Store Museum, a wonderful site for photos, logos and store directories, the third floor of Strawbridge & Clothier in an era many of us would remember was: Pickwick dresses and coats, misses' dresses and sportswear, Today's Woman, contemporary dresses and sportswear, New Editions, Trend Shop, Country Club sportswear, Devon Shop, Philadelphia Shop, furs, bridal salon, millinery, and Junior World. In other words, the province of middle, upper middle, and lower upper class women.  I guess I'd rather be there than in toys and hardware, which seems more like us but was on eight -- that's right, you went to the eighth floor of a department store to buy paint, and then carried it on the elevator or down seven escalators, past notions and jewelry and out to get on the subway or to your car in a nearby garage. Just unimaginable today, and just normal back then. I wonder if they sold ladders.

Certainly I will mourn leaving our building. I remember coming for my tryout in June 1983, taking a walk on Sunday, turning onto Broad Street, seeing the Ivory Tower of Truth, and thinking, wow, if I get hired here, I have made the big time. Most newspapers are diving out of their buildings as fast as they can, whether old ones as in Worcester or new ones as in Iowa City, because they were built with now-unneeded pressrooms and mailrooms to stuff thousands of copies of papers thick with now-lost classified advertising with now-nonexistent inserts, and had room for lots of classified ad takers to answer the phone taking those now-lost ads, and room for prepress operations to prepare ads that now come in as PDFs, and at lots of papers, alas, room for now-laid-off copy desks to prepare the next day's paper, city by city. You can stick most newspapers' local operations in a small corner of an office park now,  so it's at least nice that we still need 125,000 feet plus people working at the printing plant and at our South Jersey office.

It wasn't the Internet era that caused the New York Daily News to leave the beautiful building built for it on East 42nd Street, or the Cincinnati Enquirer to depart 617 Vine (which was kind of a dump at the end) for a downtown office building. With satellite printing plants, the space they had and the way it was configured was unworkable. In some ways we should have left 400 N. Broad years ago, after we moved the pressroom out to Upper Merion, but times were good enough (and our neighborhood was just marginal enough) that we could afford for years to have large parts of the building sit idle -- a waste of space, particularly before we spun off half the building to the school district. The Internet era has pulled the Atlanta Journal-Constitution out of downtown and the Bergen Record from its Hackensack office overlooking the Manhattan skyline. The Miami Herald will lose its beautiful view overlooking Biscayne Bay soon, and the Seattle Times will move a block away to an office building it already owns  The sale of these iconic buildings will allow the newspapers' owners to pay off some debt, which is a good thing, as they can't raise the money from nonexistent classified. As various churches try to tell us, a building is just a building and not really the church. But parishioners often have a hard time with that. If a building is beautiful or holds memories, while it may not be meaningful or affordable anymore to the organization that owns it, it may be priceless to those who gather there.

I've watched a TV pilot and a movie be filmed at 400 N. Broad. I had the composing room prepare a fake front page as my son's birth announcement. I remember how important I felt the first time I was invited to a meeting on the 12th floor, where the Knight Ridder board met when it was in town. I recall walking past the loading docks under the building and seeing a man who had been stabbed lying there. Those things will become just memories, and at least I also have memories of shopping at Strawbridge & Clothier, although not on the third floor. My mother recently said, it's not that things are changing, things always change, it's that everything now changes, and so fast. But perhaps that has always been part of getting older. So we will move to Eighth and Market, and we will try to keep ourselves going, one hopes with print still being a big part of that, inshallah. Last week when the Penn State board announced at 10:15 p.m. that Joe Paterno was fired, we had to make over story after story, headline after headline, in 75 minutes to reflect the news. It was working to put out a newspaper, and yes, even today, how sweet it is to do so.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Department Store Building of ... Washington, Pa.

Washington, Pa., was not a good place for department stores. Perhaps it was too close to Pittsburgh by first the West Penn Railways and then by car; but that didn't stop Troutman's in Greensburg, similarly close to the metropolis, from growing into a large regional chain. In comparing the histories of any regionally based businesses, such as newspapers or department stores, one sees -- particularly in the second-level markets -- chances taken or not taken, dominant figures arising in one location but absent in another, and sometimes just luck, such as being particularly hard-hit by the Depression.

Evansville, Ind., had, like most cities of 100,000 or so population, a number of department stores in the late 1920s. By 1940, Andres', Bacon's and Lahr's were all gone. A local operator, Leo Schear Co., bought the Lahr's building, and Interstate Department Stores established The Evansville Store there in the early 1950s, but there was a near-total break, one that didn't happen in Fort Wayne or South Bend or Peoria or Flint. Evansville was badly hurt by the Depression, heirs to stores died at the wrong time, a women's store, deJong's, was particularly dominant in the market -- but it was just one of those things.

For whatever reason, Washington had its problems. Perhaps it was the strung-along business district, going for blocks on Main and Chestnut Streets; perhaps it was some other factor. Downtown's one big department store, such as it was, was the Caldwell Store at 26 S. Main St, which is the three-story building to the right of the taller buff-colored building opposite the courthouse. Originally the A.B. Caldwell Co., it was owned for years by his widow and children, one of whom lived in Chicago and another in New York. In the late 1920s it fell into the hands of Sankey Metzler. By 1960 it was owned by the Wohls, neighborhood-store owners from Pittsburgh who also bought a store in New Kensington, Silverman's. The Wohls quickly faded from view and the Cox family from McKeesport bought it. But Cox's was not a department store, simply a clothing store, although the Coxes did try to keep what now was Cox's Caldwell Store going as it had been. Eventually Troutman's saw an opening and went into a mall along I-70 in the late 1960s, an early small-city mall for the region.

In researching department stores I try to confine myself to downtowns. Many cities had small outlying shopping areas from the late 1890s that had department stores. Generally, these stores either stayed small or moved downtown, so the study technique works most of the time. With cities such as Camden, N.J., where downtown was strung along for blocks, or Bridgeport, Conn., where Skydel's in East Bridgeport was one of the major stores, it helps to know that going in. Washington, Pa., had such an area on West Chestnut Street that I ruled out, and thus I didn't do much about the Vera Co., which began there and moved closer to Main Street on Chestnut in the 1910s. After the Crash the Vera Co. stopped being listed as a department store and I paid little attention, but from the ads in Life magazine and elsewhere in the 1950s that told "where to get" new products in cities -- filling a page with names of local stores -- it seems the Vera Co. was the dominant store in Washington and not Caldwell's. And no, it wasn't a first name of Vera, but a family name, much like Mechanic's in Manchester, N.H., was named for a family named Mechanic and was not the Mechanics' Store or such for millworkers.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Is This a Corner, and Is It Being Turned

There was long a saying: Newspapers are like elephants. It may take them forever to move in a meaningful way. When they finally do, get out of the way.

The fact that the Times paywall has actually been successful -- at least in the short run -- seems to have brought people's courage back.

So read this. It's long, it's sometimes difficult, and it takes forever to get through the anecdotal lede -- but read it. And then ask yourself: Is our "digital strategy" really the right thing?

There are so many highlights here. Among them:

"In the debate over journalism’s future, the [future-of-news] crowd [Jeff Jarvis, Clay Shirky, John Paton, Jay Rosen, etc.] has had the upper hand. The establishment is gloomy and old; the FON consensus is hopeful and young (or purports to represent youth). The establishment has no plan. The FON consensus says no plan is the plan. The establishment drones on about rules and standards; the FON thinkers talk about freedom and informality. FON says “cheap” and “free”; the establishment asks for your credit card number. FON talks about “networks,” “communities,” and “love”; the establishment mutters about “institutions,” like The New York Times or mental hospitals. ... The consensus believes that reporters and editors must enter into deep, if not constant, contact with readers via social media, especially Facebook and Twitter. The consensus favors “iterative” journalism—reporting on the fly, fixing mistakes along the way—versus traditional methods of story organization, fact-checking, and copyediting; it favors spontaneity and informality over formal style and narrative forms."

"FON’s practical prescriptions—what it calls engagement with readers—have in practice devolved into another excuse for news managers to ramp up productivity burdens, draining reporters of their most precious resource, the thing that makes them potent: time." "Seeing news as a commodity, and a near valueless one (Paton above says its value is“about zero”), is a fundamental conceptual error, and a revealing one. A commodity is the same in Anniston, Alabama, as it is in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Whatever local news is, it’s not that.

"As a consequence, fon thinkers have derided subscription pay walls as old-think by a generation that just doesn’t get it. Shirky and Jarvis, in particular, vocally dismissed The Wall Street Journal’s early successful pay wall (a then-heretical, now-vindicated decision made by Dow Jones’s then-CEO Peter Kann), then the Financial Times’s successful pay wall (financial news, somehow, is not a commodity; it’s magic), and other spot successes as anomalies. Nor did they hesitate to point to the collapse of TimesSelect, The New York Times’s early experiment in 2005.... But now look: the new Times paywall, a metered system allowing some free access, but charging for unlimited use, is working. After just four months, 224,000 users were paying for access to the paper’s website, far ahead of projections. As Advertising Age noted, combined with the 57,000 Kindle and Nook subscribers and the roughly 100,000 users whose digital access was sponsored by Ford’s Lincoln division, that meant the paper had monetized close to 400,000 online users. (Another roughly 765,000 print subscribers registered their accounts online.)"

"We can see now that the news-as-cheap-commodity argument was all along an ideological one couched in economic terms. The idea that “information wants to be free” (a partial quote of Stewart Brand, who well understood information’s value) was a catechism, a rallying cry, voiced by a certain segment of the digital vanguard. Subscription services, “walls,” don’t fit into a networked vision. It’s worth pointing out that the commodity idea gained traction only because of the generalized collapse of news-business advertising models, a collapse that had nothing to do with editorial models. This isn’t to say that the content was good or not good, only that the collapsing ad model had nothing to do with it. The problem with conceiving of news as a commodity is that it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If that is what you think of it, that is surely what it will become. It may be okay for academics to sell this thesis, but shame on journalism executives for buying it."

"Journalism needs its own institutions for the simple reason that it reports on institutions much larger than itself. It was The New York Times and Gretchen Morgenson, followed quickly by Bloomberg’s late Mark Pittman, who first pried loose the truth about the bailout of American International Group: namely, that it was all about Wall Street, led by Goldman Sachs. Those tooth-and-nail battles were far from fair fights—Goldman’s stock-market capitalization is about fifty (that’s “five-oh”) times that of the Times’s parent. Whether it be called The New York Times or the Digital Beagle, we must have organizations with talent, traditions, culture, bureaucrats, geniuses, monomaniacs, lawyers, health plans, marketing divisions, and ad salespeople—and they must have the clout to take on the likes of Goldman Sachs, the White House, and local political bosses." (And yes, TTPB was saying this back in 2009.)

"In the second decade of the twenty-first century—thanks in no small part to FON thinkers, including, sad to say, Rosen—journalism is now enslaved to a new system of production. Publishing is now possible all the time and in limitless amounts, forever and ever, amen. And, given the market system, and the way the world is, that which is possible has quickly become imperative. Suddenly, the “god” of the old twenty-four-hour news cycle looks like lovely Aphrodite compared to the remorseless Ares that is the web “production routine.” And this new enslavement—trust me here—hurts readers far more even than it does the reporters who must do the blogging, tweeting, podcasting, commenting, and word-cloud formation until all hours of the day and night. This is why, IMHO, journalism is great these days at incremental news, not so good at stepping back and grabbing hold of the narrative. In some circles, this is frowned upon.
"The cruel truth of the emerging networked news environment is that reporters are as disempowered as they have ever been, writing more often, under more pressure, with less autonomy, about more trivial things than under the previous monopolistic regime. Indeed, if one were looking for ways to undermine reporters in their work, FON ideas would be a good place to start:
• Remind them, as often as possible, that what they do is nothing special and is basically a commodity.
• Require them to spend a portion of their workday marketing and branding themselves and figuring out their business model.
• Require that they keep in touch with you via Twitter and FB constantly instead of reporting and writing.
• Prematurely bury/trash institutional news organizations.
• Promote a vague faith in volunteerism.
• Describe long-form writing as an affectation or even a form of oppression; that way no one will ever have time to lay out evidence gathered during extensive reporting. Great for crooks, too."

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Basements, Bars and Bad Days

So the end is here for Filene's Basement. Of course, like Borders, Filene's Basement has been lurching toward extinction for years. In the wake of the Campeau Collapse of two big department store firms, Filene's Basement -- the first basement store run as a separate unit by a department store, known for years as Filene's Automatic Bargain Basement -- was spun off as a separate company from Filene's, the Boston  store. The thought was that Filene's Basement had a national reputation for bargains and kookiness -- there were always tales of women stripping down to their undergarments in the middle of the store to try on bridal dresses -- that would make it a low-price leader. But Filene's Basement without Filene's never got past being marginal, stores opening and closing, strategies coming and going.

It goes down with its current owner, Syms, which for many years was a similar "automatic" store -- size tags were by color, for example -- that emphasized low price with limited service at a time when the department stores were doing away with their Subway Stores. Part of the problem seems to be that no one could replace Sy Syms, including his daughter. Part is blamed in this story on Bank of America. (Why not? No one likes them at the moment.) But it is also noted that Syms (and Filene's Basement) were prominent before off-price online sites, before Neiman's and Saks ran their own off-price stores, before places like Tanger outlet centers.

Schumpeterians might want to call it all "creative destruction," but sometimes destruction is just destruction. The term "creative destruction" strikes me as the flip side of the belief that "change is good" -- because change is progress. Sometimes change is just change. Something replaces what was there and we come to adapt to it and no matter what it is, some people will really like it, and so we say "it's progress." But sometimes, it's just different, neither better nor worse. If Nordstrom fights a Filene's Basement or Syms by opening  Nordstrom Rack, if people buy clothes online instead of phoning in an order (or mailing in a coupon) from a printed catalogue, you probably have some saving in costs, but really neither better or worse. It's just change and not particularly creative, except in a very limited sense of the term.

The town in which I live -- one of 22 "dry" towns in New Jersey -- will vote next week on whether to allow liquor in a question whose advocates state limits licenses to Moorestown Mall, which has fallen on hard times. The mall owner promises major renovations. As Michael Lisicky notes in "Gimbels Has It!," Moorestown Mall -- one of the country's earliest enclosed malls -- was always a second-tier mall, established because Strawbridge & Clothier would not allow any other Philadelphia department stores to join it at Cherry Hill Mall in the early 1960s, when the perception of South Jersey was changing to "affluent suburb" from "tomato fields." Lit Bros. was already in downtown Camden, so John Wanamaker and Gimbel Bros. went to Moorestown as their alternative to Cherry Hill. After the Great Macyization, both malls ended up with Macy's; Cherry Hill has Penney's and Nordstrom, Moorestown has Sears and Lord & Taylor, but Cherry Hill has clearly become "downtown South Jersey" and Moorestown seems to be sliding into dead-mall status.

Last night we listened to a conference call held by the mall's owner (which also owns Cherry Hill) on its effort to have liquor licenses allowed in Moorestown for the mall. Many people fear that somehow this will allow bars on our cute Main Street; others think part of Moorestown's perceived exclusivity comes from  a lack of liquor. Most of the people on the call spoke in support, but one asked, instead of getting, say, McCormick's & Schmick's, can't you bring in more department-store anchors? The owner essentially responded with, what department stores would those be? Any number of dead malls are a result of malls having been overbuilt because Smith & Son went into Mall A and Jones & Bro. went into Mall B. As department stores declined, one mall became the "new downtown" and the other faded, because both had the same national stores and the only reason both had been built was because Smith didn't want Jones in his mall. Throw in off-price, catalog, online and ... boom. Noncreative destruction.

The answer to "why fine dining?" is that fine dining can't be replicated on the Internet or sent to outlet centers in the middle of the Pine Barrens. Fine dining can't be downloaded or streamed. You have to go there to have it. Once you're there, maybe you'll buy something else. Even if you don't, you'll see the mall as an upscale experience rather than one step above Wal-Mart. Our restaurant critic wrote this week about how celebrity chefs have become our current stars. Certainly they come into our homes on TV the same as other stars, but the reason for their fame -- their food -- is not something that can be supplied On Demand, and thus we gain cachet from having been there or at least knowing about it. Fine dining is the opera of our times, hedonistic and fattening though it may be, because it can't be replicated on the Internet. Its exclusivity is less open to devaluation. When everything is everywhere, it has no particular value.

Which is part of the problem facing newspapers, which used to have some level of snob value because if you read them you knew more than the next guy who didn't read them. Now news is everywhere and at every time and knowing it gives you no advantage, so why pay for it? About which I can only point to the decision of my former employer Booth Newspapers to cut home delivery of four papers in Michigan to three big insert days and say: How sad. Who would have dreamed that economically bereft, blue-collar Michigan would become the test kitchen for moving all readers online? On the other hand, why not? If print newspapers are going to be, as a story about Minneapolis described them, a "premium product," and you have a state that seems unlikely to be able to afford premium products, what do you lose by dumping them? You're losing already. I remember the Grand Rapids Press when it was a daily giant in terms of number of pages -- like the Columbus Dispatch, it so dominated its region that you had to advertise in it. I see it at my brother-in-law's house and it looks like a small-town daily in terms of size. So why not force everyone to take the e-edition or just read it three times a week? If you lose half your readers as a result, you're probably making even more money. And like Syms, we seem to already have passed the era when people would moan about the loss. But creative destruction? Nah. Just destruction. Better? It might be. But it might not. In the end, though, we'll tell ourselves it is, because it makes life livable to think so.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Jarvis In, Jarvis Out

Those who have been longtime followers of this blog know that for whatever reason it early on became fixated on Jeff Jarvis. But there was always the question of,  OK, but he is Jeff Jarvis and you are TTPB. So you know naught and he knows much. Ergo, know thy place. (Just snipe.)

The New Republic has published a review of Jarvis' new book, "Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live," written by Evgeny Morozov, who admittedly is the author of "The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom." Clearly the battle lines are drawn.

To me, Morozov does a wonderful takedown of Jarvis' view that the link economy, the conversation, the very netness of the net, constitute a door into a new realm of human understanding and probable happiness. But the point is not that Morozov's views are close to mine in terms of Internet utopianism and the dark cloud it has left over businesses such as newspapers, which lost their mojo in the face of its orthodoxy of "the future," one, inevitable, inescapable, and undeniable.

The point is that this is a debate between clear points of view, without the one feeling it must cringe and apologize for its backwardness or obtuseness or whatever before daring to present its thus fatally weakened case. This review takes the position that Jarvis, Clay Shirky, Jay Rosen, Chris Anderson, etc. represent a point of view that has some validity, has many weaknesses, does not respond well to having its positions challenged, and wrongly sees itself as the avatar of The People when in fact it is largely interested in promoting some people (those who espouse it).

And yes, it may simply be coincidence that the rise of the belief in Internet utopianism followed in short order the final collapse (in most places except Nepal) of belief in communism as the expression of the will of the masses, as the rejection of the opiates of the people, as the embodiment of historically determined progress. Or it may not. But that impulse is part of human nature and has to go somewhere. As Morozov notes in asking why books like Jarvis' are so sought after by the bewildered public: "What better way to make sense of it all than to claim that the source of their perplexity is in fact a part of some inexorable historical process that has been unfolding for centuries?" Mr. Zuckerberg, there is a gentleman here, name of Marx, who wishes to talk to you.

Morozov quotes the novelist Chuck Klosterman as saying: "The degree to which anyone values the Internet is proportional to how valuable the Internet makes that person." This is true whether it is simply the Webmaster for a small organization or the prophet of what is proclaimed as an unavoidable revolution. The first is a person with a good job that cannot easily be filled; the second is, well, a prophet seeking followers. Morozov writes, "Internet intellectuals like to tell companies and governments what they like to hear -- including the kind of bad news that is really good news in disguise (you are in terrible shape, but if you only embrace the Internet, all your problems will be gone forever!)" 

In the newspaper business, unmanned by instant electronic communication -- Tony Ridder's nightmare of 1996, free online classified, having come to pass -- the prospect of a universal solution was too good to pass by. A decade later, newspapers still can't figure out what to do, as their problems continue. To which Jarvis would have an answer, and he would be partly right: You did not fully embrace the Internet. But even if they had, they would simply have had a different set of problems that they had even less experience in trying to solve. There is a difference between using a technology and surrendering in its seductive embrace.

Like anyone else, TTPB is happy to find someone with respectable credentials who upholds its position. And it regrets once telling a colleague that the Internet was "the future," as it is still fashionable in newspaper circles to say. The Internet is part of the future. There were people who hoped it would just go away, and they were pretty silly in the end. But the future is the future. The Internet does not necessarily determine or program the future, although those who see in it the New Jerusalem can tell us how they feel it inevitably must be done. We can follow that advice if we want; or we can evaluate it against other advice. Perhaps we are getting to a point where we will again see the Internet as one useful technology among many and not the long-awaited moment that makes straight of the way of the Lord, whatever Lord that is.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

At the Core

Have been on the road a lot -- last week in New Orleans for a board meeting. As in most large cities, the buildings that housed their department stores are still there, though with alternate uses. (Other than basket cases like Detroit, department store buildings tend to be reused in large cities -- it's the medium-size ones in which they are torn down because no one can think of any economic use for a big downtown building. The Zara chain not only has taken over part of Woodward & Lothrop in Washington, it now occupies the former Rinascente store on the Corso in Rome.)

The buildings of both Maison Blanche Co. and D.H. Holmes Co. in New Orleans are now hotels. It's a shame that no one will be able to experience again the quirky Holmes store, which went through interconnected buildings fronting on four streets, but good that it isn't just a large hole in the ground.

One then sees the many Target and Wal-Mart stores as well as the Macy's and Dillard's and again asks, why did these stores that dominated their markets for generations die? The answers, of course, are clear and found many places, sometimes here. But one is that they built capacity to handle a period when they were the dominant games in town, and then had trouble backing out of it when a new type of competitor -- the one-stop, single-floor suburban discounter -- became the "default" option. Newspapers have had the same problem, now spending money to shutter printing and inserting plants that in some cases they built only a decade earlier.

Most department stores faced another problem -- they wanted their customers to be, to some degree, everyone and anyone, and to that end they sold not only nearly every class of merchandise (basement stores! women's floors! the Tribout Room!) but nearly everything that was for sale except cars. Recently I was in Prince George's County, Md., which has a couple of Macy's that before the Great Macyization were branches of the Hecht Co. It was a time warp to go into these stores, which Macy's has not spent very much on -- the Marlow Heights store was like walking back into Block's Glendale in Indianapolis in the early 1960s. (Lovers of Googie architecture take note, it has an outdoor stairway with a canopy straight out of the Space Age.)  At the Prince George's Plaza store, a derelict auto center reminds that not just Sears, but local department stores did tuneups and sold tires -- sometimes at freestanding locations not in a shopping plaza parking lot. And you could still see where the garden center was, back when upscale suburban department stores also sold plants, fertilizer and mowers.

Omnia omnibus ubique -- all things for all people everywhere, as Harrods' has it. That idea created the great stores so many of us remember -- and here's a plug for Michael Lisicky's new book on Gimbel Bros., just out. When enough of all people turned away from buying all things, the weight of the department stores began to collapse them. The existence of Macy's, Sears, Penney's, Dillard's, Kohl's shows that the department store is not dead, but the department store that contained everything for everyone is long gone, and the department store that stood as a Pillar of the Community is gone as well. If Harrods truly followed its motto just in terms of the London market, it would be as dead as Simpson's of Piccadilly or Whiteley's of Bayswater. Harrods is all things for a few people -- the rich and the tourists.

Wal-Mart found out the danger of trying to appeal to everyone when, near the end of the most recent era of prosperity, it tried to draw in a more upscale shopper and found it had alienated its core users. Newspapers' institution of online paywalls to me means that at last they are realizing that they cannot be all things to all people anymore in the online world, where anyone can be everyone. They have to decide who their customers (and potential customers) are, which means realizing that 1) a lot of people will never be your customers and you shouldn't care and 2) you actually don't want as customers a lot of the people who visit your website, except to gather some low-hanging-fruit revenue until you can figure out if you can do away with it. Digital dimes will never replace print dollars, but with a defined, committed, enthusiastic customer base you can at least sell ads for digital dimes, as opposed to the digital pennies available to anyone with an open website.

Early in this blog I argued that the essential advantage of print was that it created a pipeline to the reader -- a separate distribution system apart from general dissemination -- and that we needed to exploit that. Still think so, but the apparent years of economic malaise ahead keep pressing in. Paywalls create another pipeline, and the tide seems to be turning in their favor. I remember a conversation with my managing editor back in 2002 or 2003, at which time the Times and the Post were playing chicken over a paywall. When one of them does it, she said, we will do it too. Neither did it, and the newspaper business went into years of decline while talking pointlessly about the conversation. Then the Times did it, and even though the Post did not, the newspaper business rule is that if the Times does it, it must be right. Your traffic doesn't fall off that much, and what you end up giving up is ad inventory you couldn't sell anyway. You get to know your customers and satisfy their needs instead of trying to walk down the street with a sandwich board surrounded by thousands of other people walking down the street with sandwich board. And you even see some resurgence in the print business, particularly on Sunday, from people who didn't really object to a print newspaper or paying you, but didn't want to feel like suckers for paying for something others got free.

The hardest part of this is realizing that you will never again be what you were, no matter how successful you may be. That's hard for people who have been successful to give up, particularly when they hear from longtime customers who really don't want you to change. I was talking with a colleague who came to the paper in boon times and remembered arriving at this giant operation and saying, "Wow, I have really made it." It was a wonderful time, a wonderful feeling, and no one else is likely to have it ever again. We sure don't have that sugar high anymore. But it doesn't mean you can't be successful both as a business and journalistically.

And one has to be willing to realize that long-established customers are going to hate what's happening and let you know, even though they can do nothing to make your situation better. Having heard from them in my job for years now, I realize that they'd be happy if Hecht's came back with its garden and tire centers even though they might never go there. They liked 1970 and would like to have it back. I'd like it too, but that won't get me a ride on the subway. You may have to continue to alienate some of these customers, which is really hard. There is little more pathetic than a reader in her late 80s who tells you that by dropping "Ziggy" you have taken the last bit of joy out of her life. (I do not exaggerate.) But if you continue to spend money on "Prince Valiant," which seems to now be jumping the shark by apparently having Flash Gordon appearing in a crater, just because a few people have read it for 60 years and no one else reads it, then you're the Hecht's garden store manager looking across the street at Home Depot and saying, "But they'll come back. I know they will." They're not coming back to a department store garden center after Home Depot. But they will do business with you for what you can do better. And never forget -- what we can do better than anyone else includes print.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Still Joined at the Hip

As has been pointed out, the original purpose of this blog was to draw parallels between the department store and newspaper businesses – a purpose that has been largely forgotten. Permit me then to quote at length from a wonderful book, “The American Department Store Transformed, 1920-1960,” by Richard Longstreth:

“The financial challenges identified by department store executives during the 1920s persisted over the next thirty years. … The percentage of revenues consumed by operating expenses…. continued to plague profit margins. … Even more ominous was the fact that department store sales formed an increasingly smaller percentage of retail sales overall. … Even in the best of times it was all the industry could do to hold its own.

“Equally daunting was the challenge from competitors. … What was seen as a potential problem in the 1920s became a very real one in the 1930s as the low-cost items that chains purveyed appealed increasingly to a consumer public with shrinking disposable income. Even more threatening was the fact that chains were expanding the scope of goods they sold, treading ever closer to the department store’s traditional base. …

“The persistence of economic challenges to the big stores led to mounting debate over the future of the industry. Considerable discussion was percolating by the eve of the war over whether the basic way that business was conducted should change. At the core of the debate lay the department store’s identity. Criticism of the status quo abounded….”

A writer for Women’s Wear Daily blamed the situation on “antiquated ... methods… The process had to be ‘streamlined’ so that the ‘merchandise is instantly accessible.’ … Increasingly, the great emporia were being admonished for employing ... methods that would surely bring about their demise…

“Service was upheld as the hallmark of the department store’s reputation. By abandoning this mode the great emporia would, in the words of one prominent retailer, surely lose much of their ‘character and prestige,’ becoming just another ‘low-cost distributor.’ …

Harvard professor Malcolm McNair in the 1950s “admonished the trade for failing to grasp changes in consumer habits brought about by supermarkets and other chain stores. The distinction between the kinds of merchandise these outlets sold, he intimated, was irrelevant. The lessons transcended such particulars…

"A flurry of critiques ensued, all now strident in delineating the department store’s intransigence. The great emporium was equated with the brontosaurus. …

In 1952, WWD noted that “‘many adults grew up with the idea that their department store was the center of life of their community. Contrast that … with those who have grown up in the last 15 years or so. … The department store is not highlighting the excitement of visiting their establishment.’ ….

"Furthermore, Albert M. Greenfield, chairman of the City Stores, emphasized that many of those who shopped were comparatively young. Wartime routines and the self-service structure of the supermarket had conditioned them to independence. Merchants underestimated the intelligence of their public, he charged.”

Substitute “newspaper” for “department store” and “Internet” for “supermarket” or “chains” and indeed, there is nothing new under the sun. Longstreth devotes the next 200 pages of his book to discussing what department stores did, and anyone who grew up in or near a city before the big stores began to shut down will find not only enlightenment here, but nostalgia. A different era for newspapers, of course, but what to do? Hint: It begins with determining who your customers are and what they want – which necessitates saying that everyone is not going to be your customer no matter how many offerings you have, a problem that all once-titanic businesses (railroads, department stores, newspapers, Microsoft) face and have trouble facing. Yes, more to come.

As an aside, I was amazed to learn that H.P. Wasson & Co., one of the three department stores in Indianapolis in my youth, was the first “windowless” department store in America. Part of my love for Moderne design came from seeing the unique Wasson’s building in the midst of the blocks of traditional buildings downtown; another source was the lettering used when the entrances to the William H. Block Co. were redesigned in the same era. From early parking garages to suburban branches and downtown redevelopment, it’s all here.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Out With the Old...

Wow, what a depressing week in the newspaper business again. Layoffs here, layoffs there, as Charles Apple notes. One of my former colleagues was laid off in Dallas for the second time there. Yeah, we laid him off, too.

At times like this I have to turn to my favorite upbeat source of news about traditional newspaper operations, News & Tech. As Chuck Moozakis writes:

"I understand that the Web and mobile audiences are important. But in order for newspapers to serve those audiences ... print is the engine that must be carefully nurtured and maintained."

He quotes a consultant, Sam Wagner, as saying, "We seem to want to leave the broadsheet here to die; in the States nobody wants to take the chance to really shake up their product and really try to redo it, whether it's content, size, or shape. Circulation is declining, page counts are declining, but people are afraid to change. To do nothing seems to be on a path to death to me ... What do they have to lose?"

And as Jim Chisholm -- boy, I want to meet this guy someday, I may have to go to France to do it -- says,"Don't believe everything you see in our own medium. ... Only about 8 percent of the industry's revenues are from digital. In the United States, that percentage is a bit higher, around 12 percent, but still nowhere near enough to sustain the business."

Of course, to this, digital fans would say -- not enough to sustain the business you have, but abandon that business and it is. In the old days, if I remember this figure right, you budgeted newsroom expenses as around 11 percent of your costs (since most of your money goes to paper, ink, plates, trucks, and carriers). As John Paton, whose newly ascendant Journal Register Co. just apparently engineered a back-door coup of Dean Singleton's Media News Group, said this week, online revenue by the end of the year will cover the cost of newsrooms. Chisholm's figure indicates that is correct. The issue then is, at what point do you say you also covered the cost of ad salespeople, business-side employees, and (if you're doing a paywall or replica edition) whatever you call your circulation department and your increasingly important promotions and community events departments, at which point you say, shut off the presses and let all those pressmen, drivers, and contracts with ink companies go. While Paton is careful to say that print will be around "indefinitely," any copy editor can tell you that word has two meanings.

U.S. newspaper companies say they are committed to whatever platform the customers (ad and reader) prefer, but it's clear many of them want to help consumers give up print, whereas in the rest of the world that pressure is not so strong. If you see it as inevitable, that's a good thing. But one of the mottos of this blog has been to challenge the idea, "If current trends continue..." What do you want the current trend to be? Who do you want your customers to be? If your definition of "local news" is "we have a few reporters to do the big stuff but most local news is Mrs. Smith putting her announcement of the book club on our site free," then heck yes you want to tell your print readers they're stupid and get out. The future then is, have volunteers do most of the work for you, and reap the profits.

Admittedly, News and Tech's advertising base is people selling print products. And its columnist Marc Wilson, reporting on a Borrell Associates survey, noted that a "panel of industry experts" -- this column was about Yellow Pages, so I don't know what industry this is -- 21 percent said "fewer than 100 daily newspapers in North America will exist in print form" within three to five years, and 63 percent in total said that would happen in 20 years or longer. It's hard to know what to do with that -- does that mean "exist in print form every day" or "exist  in any print form at all," and also hard to know if that the people answering knew that means 1,300 out of the 1,400 or so daily newspapers in the United States and Canada, taking the typical American position that Mexico is not part of North America -- but even admit N&T's upbeat attitude, the views of the Minneapolis publisher editor that in more than five years, the Star Tribune might be a Sunday print product with daily digital news -- well, it makes you wonder if Moozakis is, probably like me, just a person who still loves printed newspapers even as the country says, go fish.

A final word on layoffs. We journalists and our amen corner -- academics, goo-goo advocates, and dyed-in-the-wool readers -- tend to believe that cuts in editorial staffing will inevitably lead to less readership and thus less advertising. But advertisers have always used tons of media that don't involve editorial staffing, and readers complain about reading wire stories they've already seen on TV or the Web -- i.e., big stories -- not about wire stories that didn't make the top of Google News; they complain about a paucity of local news, but don't really care if the local news was written by the local antiques dealer. There's probably a relationship there between news and advertising, but if it were as strong as we think, news departments wouldn't have to deal with continual staffing cuts. People generally just want to read something they haven't read before.

ADDED NOTE: Thanks to Vince Tuss for correcting the title of the Minneapolis executive quoted.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Department Store Building of ... Uniontown

My relative Larry Stratton has been getting acclimated to his new home in southwestern Pennsylvania, and has even been taking the local paper from Washington, Pa. We'll get to Washington in a bit, but first here's a surviving store building in Uniontown, which for a coal-mining capital had two very sophisticated stores.

Most people probably remember this store at 22 E. Main St. just as Metzler's, but it was linked to a large regional operation. The genesis of the chain was the Wright-Metzler Co., which started in Connellsville with two Wright brothers and Sankey Metzler.  Metzler was a West Virginian who took over the Uniontown operation. After his death in 1939, his son William took over, and then it went into the hands of daughter Martha and her husband, Daniel MacDonald.

As noted here before, the Metzler stores were interconnected with stores Warren and Latrobe, as well as, briefly, Washington, Pa., all of which eventually went in other directions. What I haven't been able to track down is if there was any connection between the Metzlers and the Kaufmans, who owned Uniontown's other big store, N. Kaufman's Inc. Nathan Kaufman, a merchant from Brownsville, Pa., bought what had been Rosenbaum Bros. in Uniontown in the wake of the Depression. Day-to-day operations went into the hands of Bailey Greenwald in the late 1950s, although Kaufman's son William was still the owner. The interesting question is: When I was in Uniontown a few years ago, a house on the same street that Bailey Greenwald had lived in was owned by one Sankey Greenwald. The chance of "Sankey" being coincidental would seem minuscule. So did the Greenwald and Metzler families intermarry? Nothing exists online to show such a connection; indeed, many of the references to Sankey Metzler in Uniontown are to this blog. But if anyone reading this in Uniontown knows whether its two department store families finally became one, let me know.

NOTE: IT'S ONLY WEEKS AWAY: The release of Michael Lisicky's newest department store history, this one profiling Gimbel Bros. Start storing away your money now to buy it!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Department Store Building of ... Happy Valley

It's been far too long since I posted a department store building photo. This is one I know well -- the former Danks & Co. store in State College, Pa., address 148 S. Allen St.

Danks & Co. was based in Lewistown, about a half-hour south of State College. Lewistown was the shopping center for a large range of industrial small towns. Its iconic store was E.E. McMeen & Co., which became a branch of the Bon Ton chain from York, Pa., during its second expansion in the 1950s. Danks was founded by George Danks of Burnham, Pa., one of those towns, in 1924. It operated various branches, one of which opened in State College in 1942 in a moderne-designed building rare for a department store, let alone one in a small town.

Although Penn State made State College a reasonably sized city, college towns were rarely draws for regional business. To serve the students and the professors, they often had to have a different mix of merchandise than was wanted by the residents of surrounding towns and farms. Thus, the Danks store in State College was not large.

The Danks chain closed in 1995, including the Lewistown store -- which, along with the Bon Ton, had been rebuilt in suburban strip-mall style, though still downtown, in an urban renewal effort. To me, Danks in State College remains the building where I first had lunch at a Panera Bread location with Brad Thompson, who then taught at Penn State and now is at Linfield College in Oregon. The building's main use is to house the Penn State Theater Center. Now, that's adaptive reuse -- bread and circuses, so to speak.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Once in Love With Amy

The redoubtable Mario Garcia -- the collapse of American newspapers has led him to do most of his work overseas, more's the pity for us -- had, well, a THANG, as my former colleague Wendy Dowkings used to say, for Amy Winehouse. He makes no bones about it. Her death caused him to collect some front pages from Europe and South America reporting her death.

Looking at the pages -- and as a copy editor, reading the headlines to the extent I could -- may indicate why American newspapers have such a youth problem.

From Il Secolo XIX in Bologna: "Enormous talent and fragile soul: Winehouse may be the Lady Diana of Rock. Fans besieged the star's house crying." The emotion of the opera. But they're Italian. We move on.

From Bild in Germany: "We must grieve today about Amy Winehouse. The police found her dead in her London apartment. She was only 27." Perhaps German newspapers all speak in the first person plural. We move on.

From Las Ultimas Noticias in Santiago: "The sudden end to the solitary diva. Amy Winehouse died at her home at 27. Her mother: 'It was a matter of time.' She had been depressed for a month after breaking up with her last boyfriend." But this is a paper that plays soap-opera entertainment on the front every day. We move on...

From Clarin in Buenos Aires: "Amy Winehouse: An early goodbye. The renowned English singer was found dead in her London home. She was 27 and had a history of addictions." Seems pretty straightforward. But even here, a hint of sympathy.

From Correio in Santiago do Bahia, Brazil: "Amy at the end. Singer, 27, found dead in London." The same (and I'm not completely sure of that translation.)

From Correio Braziliense: "Curse of 27 silences the voice of the 21st century." Referring to the deaths of Cobain, Joplin, Hendrix, etc. -- and assuming its readers know what it means.

From El Tiempo in Bogota: "Amy Winehouse dies. She was found in her London home. The artist was famous for her excesses." Hmm, we must be getting closer to the United States.

Now, for three from the U.S. that Mario collected:

The New York Times: Amy Winehouse (1983-2011): British Retro Soul Singer With Troubled History.

Los Angeles Times: Amy Winehouse (1983-2011): Iconoclastic pop singer found dead. The five-time Grammy winner inspired a new generation of vocalists.

New York Post: They tried to make her go to rehab, she said No No No! Amy Winehouse dead at 27.

So in Europe we hear of her fragile soul, for which we must grieve. In South America we hear of the depressed solitary diva whom we bid an early goodbye, the voice of the 21st century famous for her excesses. Callas! Duncan! Nijinsky!

OK, these are just the papers Mario selected, as are those in the U.S. But the U.S. reader is calmly told of the death of an iconoclastic retro soul singer -- whatever that may mean -- who inspired a new generation -- whoever they are -- but whose troubled history including refusing rehab.

It's a random sample, but it seems to me that papers overseas -- and OK, Mario didn't include any from England -- assume their readers know who Amy was, embraced her or her music, and mourned her passing. Here in the U.S. (and, OK, somewhat in Colombia), we first must assume that our readers have no idea who she was -- which we try to remedy with somewhat vacuous terms -- and in some cases, make sure we understand she was not an avatar of traditional American values. (But hey, she won five Grammys! So she must have been somebody.)

There's an ocean of difference between "Fragile Soul" and "Troubled History," and it's not just one of Italian vs. English, and it doesn't mean we have to go there. (And until this weekend, I had never heard a note that Amy Winehouse sang.) But it does convey the attitude of detached Olympian judgment that people accuse American newspapers of having -- and that does not work in the 21st century, when emotional connection is all.

More to come on emotion.

UPDATE: Today (Tuesday) my paper had a sympathetic tribute, as did the Burlington paper. So perhaps it just had to get out of the hands of the newsside and over to the features desk. Does this mean arts writers elsewhere work on weekends?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Little Comic Relief

First off, to correct an error in the last post, Durango isn’t on the Front Range – obviously I know nothing about Colorado geography. Got it confused with Pueblo. Reminder: Copy edit your own blog!

The question was, can newspapers reach 18-to-30-year-olds? Here on the East Coast we have the Metro chain in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, survivors of the brief free-sheet spurt around the world before getting news on the Internet really took off.  (It also publishes in nine cities in Canada.) It tries to answer that question in the affirmative.

Our Metro runs only a few stories each day – typically the most important city government story, brief national and foreign entries, entertainment news, and very little sports. Although it is distributed around town, it is mostly associated with rail commuters (they tried it on buses, but it just led to cluttered buses). While serious stories are written seriously, much of the paper, including its entertainment coverage, is far more conversational than even the most conversational traditional newspaper. It does not try to break news to any extent, though I'm sure here and there it has gotten something first. Much is written in first person or as a Q and A. It runs stories on careers, education, and the like aimed at people coming up in the world, not people already there or planning for their children’s education. It has lots of advertising -- some days it makes my own paper look comparatively adless, though I'm sure the ad rates would barely support a pigeon.

Do young people read it? Sure. It’s free. It’s on the train. Do masses of young people read it? I have no idea. In Europe, however, where Metro is under different ownership, it has become, at least in one survey, the most-read free newspaper among the wealthy. I guess watching every euro counts.

Metro used to have a couple of comics, but no more -- interesting in view of the comics cutbacks at the Denver Post, including “Doonesbury,” which is as close to a sacred totem among journalists as any comic except “Pogo” has ever been. It turns out that few readers of the Post were initially discomfited by these cuts, which took out some low-hanging fruit ("Scary Gary"? "F-Minus"?) and some very costly comics while leaving the “Beetle Bailey”s of the world. (Perhaps resentment has grown since then.) The thinking seems to have been, the only people who read comics are the seniors, and all they want is the strips they’ve had their whole lives. Many of them have had “Doonesbury” for much of their lives, of course. But we’re talking, for that generation, of repeats of “Peanuts,” plus things like “The Family Circus,” “Hi and Lois,” and “Beetle” – most of which could be called repeats even if they are new. (Two of the most venerable strips, “Blondie” and “Nancy,” have been reimagined over the years and while not cutting-edge fare at least are not in an endless “Groundhog Day” loop.)

(Locally, the Philadelphia Daily News this week went to one tabloid page of comic strips, after going down to two a couple of years back from three... with some panels on a facing page.)

Add to this that the three largest papers in the U.S. for the last three decades do not run comics, and one starts to wonder whether the role of comics has been overblown for years by people who will howl if you give them a choice about taking away their daily visit with Sgt. Snorkel but who, if the comic was simply retired by its authors, would just say, Oh, well, guess I'll read something else. "Steve Canyon" had a huge readership, and then it disappeared and there was no more to be learned about Stalky Schweisenberger and almost no one canceled. When I was a kid papers didn’t have massive numbers of comics; big papers would have a page, small papers might run four. An editor might get into a financial fight with a syndicate and all of a sudden "Li'l Abner" no longer ran, and people might have been discomfited but they found something else. It was only when competing papers started going out of business that newspapers ended up with multiple pages of comics, fearing that someone who read an afternoon paper would only adjust his or her biorhythms enough to take a morning paper if it let him or her keep up with “Hagar the Horrible.”

Many older readers still see the comics as the equivalent of Jay’s monologue, a humorous or heartwarming fillip to the depressing state of the world. But it seems to be becoming clearer that trying to fill the pages with 30 comics is spending a lot of money to chase few people.

Young readers do not come to the paper through the colorful Sunday comics in the way they did when nearly everything except comics was black and white. (How would young readers relate to “Funky Winkerbean,” “Rhymes With Orange” or “The Piranha Club” anyway? There's this to say for “Garfield” -- even though it seems mainly an exercise in filling contracted space, at least it’s new to a 7-year-old. ) Young readers are hardly going to wait for a once-a-week session with the Sunday funnies, and the dailies are scrunched into minuscule space so that we can keep running strips that debuted in papers dead for decades.

Perhaps young readers would be better satisfied by having one or two strips that were actually relevant and funny to their lives. But burying them amid the Beetles and Flagstons would not work.

And perhaps, as with stock listings, newspapers should think about just blowing the whistle on comics – I say this with trepidation, I love newspaper comics and have always read most of them that weren’t “The Girls in Apartment 3-G” – and, like college papers, finding one or two locally or regionally drawn features that would provide a break from the news that would be exclusive to them. If people were only taking the paper to find out what that hilarious Lt. Fuzz was up to today, perhaps those are customers who are no longer essential to us at that price of keeping them.
Still more to come.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Can You Think We're Sexy?

The July issue of Editor & Publisher valiantly decided to bring up the question: Is there any way that 18-to-30s can be made into newspaper readers? (These don’t seem to be online yet.) Internet enthusiasts will say, stop right there, fool’s errand. But if you run a business, you have an obligation to find out if your customers can be made to want your most profitable products, before you simply give up on them. Nothing revanchist or woolly-headed about that.

Utah State senior Rob Jepson – I have no idea how he was picked, he is the traditional aspiring journalist with a poli-sci major and a journalism minor – doesn’t blame the product, he blames the customer – or at least says, look, the customer in that age isn’t ready yet. I suppose that’s like saying, when we were getting smashed on Boone’s Farm in the 1970s it was because we weren’t yet ready for Chateau Lafitte, which is true. It’s also Jepson saying, I’m smarter than my peers, but let’s move on. Jepson says “the struggle … lies not in adapting the news to a disinterested generation, but rather sparking the interest of a generation that doesn’t yet know what it’s missing.” His answer – put the newspaper in fast-food restaurants. Put it on buses. Give it away at schools. “You’ll create a generation of consumers by capitalizing on the insurmountable power of trend…. Our age group is impressionable, and also eager to impress.”

No issue with his ideas, except that there’s USA Today free whenever I go to Chick-Fil-A. The Metro papers started out being given away free on buses. And the minutes of university committees are filled with years of “who’s paying for this and does it undermine the revenue of our student paper” debates over free newspapers at college. Yet circulation and ad revenue still decline. But Jepson does make a good point. Part of the reason people are fleeing newspapers is because they’re told that fleeing newspapers is the modern thing to do, that smart people and (most particularly) young and young at heart people don’t read them. (Despite our protests, they’re really not being told this by Google or Craig Newmark. They’re being told this by thousands of posters who want to make sure you know how impressed they are with themselves for being hip, and not reading a newspaper is a really easy way to show how hip you are, because not doing something is easier than doing something.)

I remember the ad campaigns for the Wall Street Journal back in the 1970s that basically said, if you want to be seen as successful, have a folded Journal under the arm notch of your suit jacket. Newspapers and journalists wanted to be seen as cool back then, until USA Today came out and marketed itself to John Q. Traveling Citizen, and journalists recoiled in horror because we didn’t find John Q., with his love of color weather maps and six-paragraph stories, to be cool. Cool people read 200-inch stories on rhinoceroses. And the readers ticked away.

Newspapers do need to make the newspaper seem like a good option for intelligent people “eager to impress.” It’s hard for them to do that, though, when they spend all their time saying, “Well, since hip people are getting their news through tablets, we’ve got to be hip and go there, even though none of us has a good idea how to make millions there.” Nothing wrong with following your customers; but how do you deal with it when following your customers makes your most profitable product look out-of-date? The industry says, “Give us some more time to ponder that.” It’s been pondering that for 17 years and still doesn’t have a good answer.

E&P also turned to Pat Ivey, circulation director in Durango, Colo., who notes that 18-to-30s have “seen everything…. What possible interest could they have in looking at a newspaper? Still, photos, bold graphics, and clever headlines may grab their attention. But if the story is yesterday’s news or it doesn’t spark their emotions, don’t expect much more.”

His solution is to “run stores that share real-life experiences others in their demographic have had, conveying a sincere regard for the interests of young adults. Invite their comments, print them, and don’t edit out those that may surprise or shock us… Give them fresh stories they will yearn to share with friends.” If they want some Red Bull, give it to them.

Back when times were good, at the Inquirer a bunch of our then-younger staff members – the ones we later largely laid off – put together what they called a “new view” committee. Their point was that we were not covering stories of experiences others in their demographic have had. We wrote about fancy houses of 50-year-olds and not how to furnish an apartment on $1,000. We wrote about suburban taxpayers and not about young people in the city (or the suburbs, for that matter). We wrote about power and not about those trying to figure out how to get it. And, OK, we wrote about sports, but often from the standpoint of, “This brings to mind Wilt Chamberlain’s famous 100-point game,” to people who had almost no idea who Wilt Chamberlain was.

They were right, and we did try to meet them. But every day in the newspaper business, one is reminded – sometimes very self-consciously – of the people who buy the paper every day who have done so for 50 or more years, and they want to read Beetle Bailey because they have read Beetle Bailey every day for 50 years and it is irrelevant whether he is funny or not. As long as Beetle lives, the world they inhabited is not over. The fact that these are not the people advertisers want to reach – well, that is irrelevant to them, as it should be. They want the paper they have lived with for years just like they want Maxwell House Drip Grind coffee from the percolator every morning. And unlike most of our readers, they have no compunctions about letting us know what they want. They’ve got the time, and not much else to do.

Jepson would want the business to say, “Smart is the new sexy.” Well, maybe not those exact words, but he would get the idea. In an editorial, E&P also trashes the Newspaper Association of America’s campaign using that very phrase. It’s not that the idea is bad; it’s that, in the view of editor Jeff Fleming, the ads being used are neither smart not sexy. His main argument (again, I’m not seeing it online), though, is “why this ad is … scheduled to run in print newspapers across America. I’m guessing the average subscriber is already smart and probably let go of sexy with their last hip replacement. And if, by chance, someone younger than 30 happens to see and actually read the ad, I don’t think (it) is going to turn them on to subscribing to a newspaper – especially after reading the 48 words of text that entice readers with how to make a peanut butter icebox pie.” As my colleague Nick Cristiano says, whenever newspapers try to do hip, they show themselves to be square.

Fleming notes: “If newspapers want a long-term, meaningful relationship with a 27-year-old, they need to walk the walk and feel the talk.” But we all know why the ad is running as a house ad speaking to newspapers’ current readers – it lets some publishers say they’re supporting the campaign while not actually spending any extra money, burying it in their PSA and glue budgets. “I ran the ad, but what can I do?” Walking the walk indeed.

Can newspapers reach 18-to-30-year-olds? Sure; they already do. Look at college newspapers and small-town newspapers. Can newspapers ever again deliver 80 percent market penetration? Not a chance. So we’re back to: Who are our customers and how do we find them? A question the newspaper business, with its Woolworth’s-like past of “Everyone is our customer,” still has trouble getting its hands around. “Smart people are our customers” is at least a start. And “emotions” is the key word in Ivey’s message from the Front Range.

Still more to come.

Monday, July 11, 2011

My opinion, and I do have one...

Into the second half of the year, and it still looks like the downward circle, not just for newspapers but for anything in the economy that isn’t based on corporate profits – which are being kept up by the fact that companies realized, after laying all these people off, that they actually didn’t need them, because one programmer with a good application can eliminate 20 people. Or something. That’s just an unsupported opinion. No facts whatsoever. Me being a blowhard. And that should qualify me to comment on the Caylee murder case as well. One of my local newspapers today ran a column by Scripps-Howard’s Dan K. Thomasson saying the jury did its job well, under a letter saying that those people were incompetent to be jurors.

As a journalist for decades, I believe that Dan Thomasson has more professional background and analytical skill to parse the verdict than does a letter writer from Lumberton, N.J., whose Web profile consists basically of "Camden Catholic High School, Class of '76. His view is based in years of reporting, interviewing experts, being on the scene. But in the end, his “the jury didn’t say she didn’t do it, just that it wasn’t proven. Like it or not, that’s the law” is no more based on verified reporting in this case than is Noreen Errigo-Hoff’s “We need to learn from this case that not everyone is competent enough to understand the modern-day complexities of a trial.” Both are just expressing opinion. Thomasson is saying that the law, as he understands it, demands that the jury find beyond a reasonable doubt, and that's the way it should be. The writer is saying that people know in their hearts what a reasonable doubt really should be, and that regardless of the lack (UPDATE: SEE BELOW) of evidence, the case was proven because “mothers don’t go to Blockbuster with their boyfriends … after their children die accidentally.” In a way, the point isn't in the end whether Casey killed Caylee; Casey thumbed her nose at society, at every self-sacrificing mother in the land, and should be punished for something. As Errigo-Hoff wrote, "Even if the jury didn't believe any of [the evidence against Casey], they are supposed to apply common sense. A liar is a liar; you shouldn't believe them." Q.e.d.

Ask anyone and you’ll get an opinion. You’ll have to trust me on this – I can’t find the article, so it's your opinion whether to trust me  – but there was an article in the last couple of weeks that noted that you can get 30 percent of people to express a view on a nonexistent candidate’s nonexistent policy statement. Well, why not? They’re not expressing their view that Sen. Mythical B. Chimera actually said something. Some are just being know-it-alls; others are saying, here’s what I think about this and I don’t really care if Sen. Chimera exists or not. What he’s saying is right, even if he didn’t say it.

So, looked at another way -- the classical-journalist way -- much of the populace is blowhards. That’s how we would traditionally see it. Back then we could confine the blowhards to the “Letters to the Editor” column and then say, the rest of the paper belongs to us, with our finely honed understanding of journalistic fair play, defendant rights, the moral obligation of the majority not to oppress the minority, our training in news values, and the like. But who now is “us”? If journalism is simply nonfiction writing about timely events of concern to the public, then both Dan Thomasson and Noreen Errigo-Hoff are journalists.

The crisis of journalism is not that newspapers can’t pay their bills. That’s the crisis of newspapers. The crisis of journalism is that 1) journalism has been defined down and outward in so many ways that no one can really say anymore what it is, and therefore every high-church article can be rebutted by an off-the-cuff posting and one cannot trump the other; and 2) that the crisis of newspapers (and magazines and all-news radio and the like) has eliminated a main definition journalists used for decades to define themselves as professionals, which is: Someone who has a printing press or a licensed transmitter paid me to write this.

More to come as I emerge from a few weeks of encyclopedia articles, book forwards, travel, and trying not to think for a while.

UPDATE: I received a letter from Ms. Errigo-Hoff, my neighbor in Burlington County, which she also attached as a comment, severely taking me to task and feeling that nose-in-the-sky attitudes like mine are why the press is getting its deserved comeuppance. First, let me acknowledge that it was a cheap shot to refer to her as I did in terms of her web profile. At the same time, as I said to her, perhaps it is a professional bias, but I would defer to the opinion of an experienced journalist over a regular citizen on a matter involving judgment from years of news judgment, as I would defer to a lawyer vs. a journalist on courtroom procedures and the law. But I phrased it in such a way as, in retrospect, to be sneering about someone I do not know, which was not only dumb, but stupid.

Second, I did mischaracterize her position in one regard. She referred to the "preponderance" of evidence against the accused mother. I used the word "lack," thinking more of the column as well as the quotes from jurors about how the prosecution had not made its case ironclad. But in doing so I put a word into her mouth that was 180 degrees from the word she had used. So in both cases, my apologies to Ms. Errigo-Hoff, who, I am glad to say, wants printed newspapers to continue despite all of our lacks.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Zero Game

This is really about John Paton, Alan Mutter, Robert Picard, and the economy of journalism. But first, a segue:

I knew, when I felt no need to grab my iPhone and immediately post a comment such as "NOOOOOOOO" at the end of Sunday's episode of "Game of Thrones" -- I'm trying not to be a spoiler, but has anyone who watches this show not heard about this episode yet -- that there's nothing worthwhile I could ever say about social media. I did the traditional thing -- my wife and I talked about it -- and she talked about it at work with another fan. No need for endless posted speculation about how could they do this! and will anyone keep watching! and the like. I could have posted something like, well, that's really using the old Bean, but -- to what point?

And then, of course, I write about it here. One could drive a truck through the contradictions in self-expression that exist in a world where everyone has a printing press. Entertainment Weekly provided actual journalism on the episode, talking to the star and the producers about the surprising turn. Except, of course, that it wasn't surprising to anyone who has read the books, or a synopsis of them, and has seen how faithfully the plot has been followed. So were the gasps of "NOOOOO" authentic gasps of surprise, or were they anticipated gasps, or were they attention-provoking exhalations simply to position oneself in the conversation? That's always been a problem with journalism -- we say we report the truth, but in damn few cases do we actually know it. What we know is what people say, and we try (sometimes) to line that up against what other people say and some things that are actually Known Facts, and then we say it has worth and (we used to say) people should pay someone to have it delivered to them, or someone should subsidize us for gathering an audience.

But now comes John Paton, widely hailed as a visionary for his digital-first emphasis at the formerly broken-down (let's be honest, still broken-down) Journal Register newspaper chain. Paton was given a weak hand to play and has played it well -- he has not only kept his neglected newsrooms afloat, but has made efforts to strengthen them, unlike the previous ownership, which cared about profit only, and has positioned himself as a 21st-century media guru. Alan Mutter, the well-regarded "Newsosaur" who has been one of the leading critics of the slow pace of media adaptation to a digital world he feels he was among the first to see, feels Paton has gone too far, though:

"Here’s what Paton said in remarks prepared for a keynote speech last week to the WAN-IFRA International Newsroom Summit in Zurich: 'As career journalists and managers, we have entered a new era where what we know and what we traditionally do has finally found its value in the marketplace and that value is about zero.'

"Explaining that the digital media have empowered everyone, everywhere to report or comment on the news, Paton pronounced 'traditional journalism' to be dead, according to a text of the speech he published at the blog he maintains to motivate the employees of his company. 'The Crowd collectively knows more about any subject, city or event we choose to cover than we do.'"

Mutter has not been among the "conversation" zealots or the "Stop the Presses immediately" crowd -- he has tried to base his views in economic analysis as much as in post-Internet journalistic theory or anger at plodding executives who didn't increase his web-news budget 150 percent every year because it would chip away at classifieds. But Paton is not breaking new ground. Media analyst Robert Picard largely said this in a speech at Oxford in 2009 called "Why Journalists Deserve Low Pay." Some excerpts:

"If one assesses the value that journalistic practice and skills creates, one rapidly comes to the conclusion that journalists are not knowledge workers, that is, they are not professionals with a unique base of knowledge such professors, medical personnel, and engineers or even electricians and computer technicians. Consequently, they are unable to create value through the scarcity of and control over professional knowledge. Journalists instead gather and convey knowledge from others. Consequently, the primary economic value of journalism derives not from its own knowledge, but in distributing the knowledge of others.

"Today the value created by the practice, functions, and skills of journalism are being severely challenged. The fundamental challenge comes from technology that is deskilling journalists. It is providing individuals the capabilities to access sources, to search through information and determine its significance, and to convey it effectively without the support of a journalistic enterprise. Well‐paying employment requires that workers possess unique skills, abilities and knowledge. It also requires that the labour must be non‐commoditized.

"Unfortunately, journalistic labour has become commoditised. Professionalism of journalism and journalism education have determined the values and norms of news, commoditized the product, and turned most journalists into relatively interchangeable information factory workers. Average journalists share the same skills sets and the same approaches to stories, seek out the same sources, ask similar questions, and produce relatively similar stories. Few journalists encounter skills‐related problems changing from one news organization to another and the average journalist is easily replaced by another. This interchangeability is one reason why salaries for average journalists are relatively low and why columnists, cartoonists, and journalists with special skills (such as enhanced ability to cover finance, science, and health) are able to command higher wages. Across the news industry, processes and procedures for news gathering are guided by standardized news values, producing standardized stories in standardized formats that are presented in standardized styles. The result is extraordinary sameness and minimal differentiation.

"This problem is compounded because the uniqueness of their skills and activities are diminishing and that there is high competition to provide the news and information from persons outside the journalism profession.

"It is clear that journalists do not want to be in the contemporary labour market, much less the highly competitive information market. They prefer to justify the value they create in the moral philosophy terms of instrumental value. Most believe that what they do is so intrinsically good and that they should be compensated to do it even if it doesn't produce revenue."

Indeed, as Mutter said:

"Even if, arguendo, there were no 'commercial value' to journalism, the pursuit of disciplined and open-minded inquiry into public affairs and social issues has an incalculable value to society. Whether they are working for a media company or blogging for free, ethical and professional journalists contribute just as much as artists, scientists, academic researchers and people who dedicate themselves to fighting to assure honest government, enhance social justice and alleviate human suffering."

Which is exactly Picard's point -- and probably Paton's. Maybe there is, but it has to be created.

Although Picard did not have a concrete answer, he did show a direction -- one in which Paton does not go, from Mutter's synopsis:

"If value is to be created, journalists cannot continue to report merely in the traditional ways or merely re‐report the news that has appeared elsewhere. They must add something novel that creates value. They will have to start providing information and knowledge that is not readily available elsewhere, in forms that are not available elsewhere, or in forms that are more useable by and relevant to their audiences. ... It is not just a matter of embracing uses of new technologies. Journalists today are often urged to change practice to embrace crowd sourcing, to search specialty websites, social networks, blogs and micro‐blogs for story ideas, and to embrace in collaborative journalism with their audiences. Although all of these provide useful new ways to find information, access knowledge, and engage with readers, listeners, and viewers, however, the amount of value that they add and its monetization is highly debatable. The primary reason is that those who are most highly interested in that information and knowledge are able to harvest it themselves using increasingly common tools."

Which brings us to an editorial in this month's Editor & Publisher that I can't find online:

"Newspapers still own a solid competitive advantage over the Internet, but this advantage is slipping as newspapers play to the level of their competition and adapt to what everyone else is doing, instead of vice versa ... Newspapers that make the gutsy move away from day to day headlines -- news that is being disseminated better and faster online -- and focus on strong investigation and intelligent intrigue may be the ones that succeed in reintroducing themselves to subscribers willing to pay for breadth rather than immediacy."

As TTPB has repeatedly said: You need to find out who your customers are. You need to understand that your customers are not yourself. You need to create a pipeline to those customers that you control the spigot, because without that you cannot price. Simply trying to be part of "the conversation" is a doomed enterprise for a business or for most journalists, because much of the theory of "the conversation" is a rebuke to journalism as a business, a desire for a noncommercial agora of ideas, and most journalists do not have the ability to create an individually economically scalable presence.

Perhaps Mutter now sees better where some of this is going -- which is not the way he wanted it go to.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

On the Newspaper Front...

It's only been depressing. Advertising is recovering everywhere but in newspapers. It is rarely pointed out that newspapers' ad base -- the now-nearly-vanished help wanteds and real estate, the display ads for new subdivisions, and local retail -- continues to be the area worst-hit by the economic malaise and thus showing the slowest advertising recovery. That really doesn't make any difference to the bottom line, though.

So what increasingly looks to many like a march to the cliff continues -- it's now become folk-wisdom, as in "I love your newspaper, it's a shame you're all going out of business." I just wish that in writing about the problems of newspapers, people would cite the no-call law (as Rick Edmonds pointed out in noting an award for the New York Times' success in selling, yes, print subscriptions at events), the merger of Federated and May Co. that killed local department store competition in many markets, and other issues instead of simply saying "the Internet." As has been noted, it wasn't "the Internet" that's essentially killed Borders and put Barnes & Noble in jeopardy; it was the Internet (Amazon) plus Walmart and Target selling nearly every best-seller (or at least every best-seller with a strong female readership) at 40 percent off as a loss leader to get women to do all their shopping there. But journalists tend to look for one cause for any effect. It's the fatal flaw in "get both sides of the story." That works in court and on election night. But most stories have multiple sides -- which makes them, of course, worse stories.

And where did that meme about "the Internet" and its eventual triumph over -- well, everything come from? Read the book "The Filter Bubble" by Eli Pariser, board president of MoveOn.org. Read it for its own usefulness in showing just how quickly the Internet is become a series of paths we will be led down. It's not that the transformation-of-media Pariser writes about isn't happening. It's the law of unintended consequences that he now sees. There's a gem on nearly every page of this book, in which Pariser is hopeful that the better world early Internet enthusiasts saw will still happen but acknowledges that at the moment, it's been hijacked.  I could quote this book all day -- and infringe on Pariser's copyright -- but for now I'll just quote this:

"Experts have a lot invested in theories they've developed to explain the world. And after a few years of working on them, they tend to see them everywhere."

And who did newspaper reporters call about what was happening to their business? Internet experts -- who not only saw the effect the Internet would have on newspapers, but also, more importantly, wanted it to happen and thus told newspapers there was nothing they could do.

Also for your reading list, from the New York Review of Books, "The Very Violent Road to America," by J.H. Elliott, a review of Daniel K. Richter's "Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Paths."  When you're asking yourself, exactly what America do the tea party people want back, don't just think about the president's color or heritage. Remember the history of our country that we all were taught:

"The resulting story, as told to generations of Americans, was relatively simple and straightforward. Its origins were located in England, the England of Magna Carta, the Protestant Reformation, and the seventeenth-century struggle to save liberty from the grasp of arbitrary power. It was thus an essentially English story, which was then carried across the Atlantic by English emigrants, and was in due course replayed on the soil of America, and primarily of New England. Naturally it acquired new elements along the way....

"The story, however, continued to be shaped by three defining elements. It was Anglocentric, in the sense that it placed the weight of its emphasis on the contribution of British settlers, with some assistance from continental Europeans, primarily those of Teutonic origin, who were granted a kind of honorary Anglo status. It was teleological, in the sense that everything in the story built up to a logical conclusion in the winning of independence. And it was exceptionalist, in the sense that it was a story like no other about a nation that itself was like no other. As William Findley wrote, even before the eighteenth century was over, Americans had “formed a character peculiar to themselves, and in some respects distinct from that of other nations.”

"Over the past few decades all three pillars supporting the structure of colonial history have come to look increasingly insecure, partly as a consequence of changes in the discipline of history, but also because of the enormous political, social, and cultural changes that have transformed the world itself. As far as teleology is concerned, the Whig approach to history, with its retrospective selection of those features of the past that are held to explain a distinctive, and equally selective, interpretation of the present, has fallen out of favor. ... American exceptionalism, too, has come to look out of joint with the times.... On examination, the early settlers of Jamestown do not look so very different in their aspirations and methods from the Spanish conquistadores hunting after gold and Indian laborers in Mexico and Peru. But perhaps most important of all, the world has changed, and, with it, the United States’ sense of itself. National self-confidence, which once took for granted a manifest destiny deriving from a set of exceptional national qualities and characteristics, has taken some hard knocks since the 1960s. If the destiny is less manifest and some of the characteristics are less positive than they once appeared, then perhaps, after all, the United States does not have all the answers."

That's the America they want back -- the America that made them, as Americans, not only the greatest people in the world but sort of the point of a theory of cultural evolution. As with creationism, the America they want back is one in which the point of Western history was to create -- us. "Us" did not include a half-African who grew up in Jakarta -- happy to have you live here, of course, but as with everyone who does not have "honorary Anglo status," mind your manners and know your place. This story is about us, not you. When myths meet reality, though, don't myths usually win?