Wednesday, February 9, 2011

As the Wave Heightens

Long thoughts and third thoughts:

1) As Rick Edmonds noted on Poynter, that was depressing news in McClatchy's earnings report. The rate of newspaper ad dollar fall-off for McClatchy -- which admittedly has a lot of operations in still property-depressed areas such as Florida and California -- was back to 10 percent in January after reaching  reasonable levels in the third and fourth quarters of 2010 ("reasonable" in the sense of "not falling off a cliff"). On the one hand, didn't major national advertisers -- whom McClatchy chief Gary Pruitt blames for the loss of advertising -- basically tell us this last year, that they were going to redirect dollars from newspapers toward online? Are we surprised that after 15 years of newspapers telling everyone how they're going out of business, advertisers have now gotten to the point where they completely believe it? (After all, if it's in the newspaper, it's so.) At what point do online revenues, which are increasing as a share of most companies' revenue not because of incredible success online but simply that print revenue keeps disappearing, achieve the 35-40 percent level at which your other revenue simply goes for paper, ink, and trucks, and so you don't care if you lose it if you stop the presses? But since you get a dime online for every dollar in print, your online revenues have to grow, what, 100 percent a year to cover that 10 percent print loss? And can you be sure that without that print avatar in the market, you will be able to sustain your online ad rates? And you've still got to deliver inserts. And will everyone whom advertisers want to reach follow you online, or will they just say, oh, the heck with it, I'm using Google News?

McClatchy and Gannett have responded to this distressing news by laying off people. A Los Angeles Times story on what happens to Southland journalism after Freedom is sold at auction, and with it the Orange County Register, says the hedge funds that now control about 10 percent of American newspapers (much more in terms of circulation) have decided that there isn't that much more cutting that can be done on the news side or you don't have a newspaper. Apparently our newspaper companies themselves don't agree. On the other hand, I'm sure the principal job Gary Pruitt is concerned about is Gary Pruitt's. That's not a cheap shot or a statement that he is a heartless person. Anyone who's had to decide to lay people off, or tell them, knows it's hard for everyone no matter how they try to spin it. But the job I care most about is my own, and I'm sure Gary and his counterparts at Gannett feel the same way, telling themselves, "If we can just get past this, we can hire again..." Which always reminds me of the pilot in "The Right Stuff" auguring in toward the ground, saying, "I've tried 'A'! I've tried 'B'!"

2) Hearing AOL chairman Tim Armstrong and Arianna Huffington talk about the merger of AOL and the Huffington Post on PBS news Tuesday night, what struck me about the gamble AOL is making is that if they're right, it means Internet 2.0 is over for the news business. What they were basically describing is a newspaper without the presses -- floated by ad support, covering a wide range of issues, covering them perhaps with more spin than print has done but not being a liberal political organ. Huffington herself took pains to show how many writers from the right the Post has brought on board since the 2008 election. I don't know if HuffPo still draws most of its traffic from celebrity photo galleries. I can't imagine how Arianna Huffington is going to relate to the local-local Patch. (For the life of me, I can't imagine how, after her career, she is suddenly going to be able to succeed in a large organization she did not create. Any bets on which one of these two will be around a year from now?) Maybe she believes that with apps the era of browser-based Internet usage is indeed gone and she'll never get a higher price than this and she really doesn't care. But that doesn't seem like Huffington. But can HuffPo transition to be a sort-of-New-York-Times with local news from Summit and Flanders?

Either way, this and Murdoch's The Daily mean that we're leaving the era in which the future of journalism on the Internet was going to be defined by at least Talking Points Memo, if not Daily Kos and its equivalents. AOL/HuffPo may not work. But news on the Internet is going to become a business and not a free agora of ideas done from love and passion and obsession. Newspapers, alas, got there too early, and have spent the last 15 years Trying A and Trying B to preserve their way of doing business while every time running up against the Innovator's Dilemma. On the other hand, we now can look forward to decades of reminiscences about Internet journalism's "Golden Age," just like television producers and scriptwriters did sitting at the bar talking about how much better life was before networks discovered they could draw bigger audiences with "Petticoat Junction" than they could with "Playhouse 90." Not that it wasn't better, at least for them, but as "Mad Men" and "Boardwalk Empire" and many other programs show, golden ages come and go and come again; it's just that most of us only get one, if that, and it only lasts for a while.

3. The rumor about Andy Reid losing his job as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles drew a number of columns in response locally -- that of John Smallwood of the Philadelphia Daily News is here. I use it as an example not out of any desire to single out Smallwood, a fine columnist. But he, as other columnists who wrote on this, first makes his obligatory bows to the house god of online -- the "yes, folks, you know I'm not a Luddite" line -- and then deplores the loss of print standards in the virtual world that allowed a silly, unsourced rumor posted on one site to become a viral exclamation point. What I liked about Smallwood's column was how he mentioned the effort he had to spend chasing down this ridiculous rumor. Before the Internet, this would have been a water-cooler conversation that got spread among people by phone or at bars, if that. Someone might have called the sports department and had the phone slammed down on them by a clerk after he yelled out, "Anyone hear anything about Reid?" But because someone posted it on his website and someone else picked it up, it becomes News, it becomes What Everyone's Talking About, and frantic calls must ensue.

Smallwood rightly notes that mainstream journalism has to come up with some sort of rules or conventions to deal with this. Perhaps it will be easier when the Internet is a business, and journalists who work for Internet businesses will be journalists and bloggers will be anonymous tipsters. But nothing made every sports medium that covers the NFL or Philadelphia football chase this. They could have said, gosh, there's nothing to this, we would have known, we would have gotten a tip, we Cover the Freaking Eagles! But then they would not have driven traffic to their website from obsessed Eagles fans willing to check 40 websites in 40 minutes to see if Permanent Loser Andy was indeed gone. They would have looked noncompetitive by not reacting to idiocy. Yes, we need to consider the source, not the frequency. But to do that, we need to stop thinking that we are competing with everyone in the world. We are competing with people who do what we do to gain the readership of people who want to follow what we do. Those are our customers. Other customers will go to other types of information. With every person having a printing press, it has to be that way. There are too many options to cover every bet. We have to figure out what customers we can get and what they want, and not be worried about the customers we won't get.

Mainstream news media also need to note the blogger's initial response when he posted that the whole thing was not just an unsourced rumor, but an unsourced rumor he heard from someone else, not even someone in the Eagles -- "What Fun." This is like the response of the guy who posted the New York harbor tornado photos from 35 years earlier that sucked in NBC -- that he was just doing it for a hoot to get a rise out of his friends. Katie Couric was doubtless wrong for Tweeting that Hosni Mubarak had resigned, when he had not. (On the other hand, UPI used to do this sort of stuff all the time.) Couric wasn't doing it just to get attention. She thought it was a legitimate story. She would not have posted a photo of a years-ago tornado in New York harbor and said it was new just to get a rise out of her friends. The people who do this may have websites and may occasionally post something of interest and possibly of newsworthiness, but they are not journalists. Be watching this case in New Jersey to see if nonjournalists suddenly are defined as if they were. Again, newspapers shot themselves in the foot on this, on the one hand for First Amendment motives and on the other for Web Economy reasons (if we link to you, it will drive traffic), but in doing so again forgot exactly what they are selling. Smallwood is right. We need as a profession to come up with ways to handle this, and that means seeing ourselves as a profession and not just as the equivalent of anyone with a site.

No comments: