Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Back again

The American Copy Editors Society once again had a successful and enlightening conference -- OK, in virtual terms it's tremendously old news -- it happened two weeks ago almost! -- but check out coverage at the ACES web site if you're interested. Every year, people at the conference say how they leave feeling renewed and encouraged about what they do. In these discouraging times, that's so wonderful to hear.

Part of that discouragement for some people seems to be what we used to call "information overload" before the overload went into hyperdrive. Andrew Ferguson, author of "Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College," puts it well, even though he does write for the Weekly Standard:

"Accustomed to turning to the Web to find any elusive piece of information... we now turn to it even for things that don't technically count as information -- advice, for example. ... As in other areas of life, such as pornography and day trading, the Internet hasn't caused the problem, it has just made it worse." Ferguson notes how nearly every hotel has reviews ranging from "good bargain" to "hellhole" and adds: "I of course had no way of knowing which advice to take. I'd search the comments for telltale clues that might indicate who was the bigger crank. ... The clues weren't there. And I'd be no better off than if I hadn't asked the question to begin with -- worse, maybe." And I love this graf:

"Internet utopians like to call message boards like College Confidential a 'community' ... What it is, is a Web site where people from all walks of life, from every income level and background, create a communal space without fear of reprisal and in a spirit of perfect openness, so they can spread misinformation, gossip, and lunatic conjecture to people who are as desperate as themselves. Cultural hierarchies are indeed upended, just as the utopians said they would be -- for example, the tyrannical, suffocating top-down arrangement that privileges people who know what they're talking about above people who don't." Maybe I have more in common with the Weekly Standard than I thought. (Whiggish! quoth the Internet utopian.)

And Scranton Times-Tribune columnist Chris Kelly: "The Internet has only amplified the din. Even the most specious arguments are granted legitimacy simply for having been made. Every opinion, however uninformed, is seen as inherently valuable. No argument is too preposterous or dishonest to share. If you are shameless enough to stand up and say it, someone is bound to agree and pass it along."

(To which I'm sure the Internet Utopian answers: Chaff from people already on the dustbin of history, pining for an era when there were gatekeepers. Judy Miller was a gatekeeper and here we still are in Iraq. Every argument is equally valuable because every argument may be equally wrong. But it does bring to mind from a somewhat enthusiastic story about the underground press of the 1960s this reference: “Editors rarely exercised the discretion that their title implied, for fear of being labeled ‘elitist’ or ‘professional,’” McMillian concludes. Naturally, this had ramifications on efficiency and consistency. At an Atlanta, Georgia paper called The Great Speckled Bird, the entire staff would sometimes convene for 'long and tedious meetings' whose sole purpose was to decide whether or not to cut a single paragraph from a piece.")

So, in the spirit of my argument being as good as anyone else's, let's let the always incisive Jim Chisholm make it:

"Whether our self-professed industry visionaries like it or not, 80 percent of our revenues will still be in print in five years' time. ... Newspapers are not so much losing readers as they are losing frequency and loyalty. In the United Kingdom, for example, over the last five years, the number of people who ever read a newspaper has fallen by 3.7 percent, but average issue readership has slid by 17.5 percent." But as he notes: "While around 60 percent of Web users visit a newspaper website, newspaper sites account for less than 1 percent of all pages viewed Internetwide." A chart shows that the average print reader spends 30 minutes with the paper, the average digital reader 4.4 minutes with the newspaper online; print newspapers reach 45 percent of the U.S. population, digital 10 percent.

Now, I do have my suspicion about this chart, because it says the average "Pages read" is 40, and a lot of papers have a hell of a time getting up to 40 pages. (And always have. When I grew up in Indiana, most daily newspapers outside the bigger cities struggled to get to 12.) And this is not controlled for age. But Chisholm's point remains true: "Our industry needs to refocus. That starts with recognizing that the 80 percent of the revenues that will continue to underpin our industry for the foreseeable future: Print circulation and advertising. Then, let's revisit the key drivers of success across all of our businesses, namely frequency, loyalty, and intensity."

Here in Philadelphia, my employer and nearly all the other area publishers of daily newspapers -- Calkins, Gannett, and Journal Register, everyone except Advance Publications and Metro -- have brought back the old idea of a Total Market Coverage vehicle, called Savings Spree!. Hate the name, but, the idea -- again, it's not a new one, but one newspapers dropped in the 1990s when all you needed to do to be rolling in dough was publish a Sunday help-wanted and real-estate section -- is to distribute "to more than 158,000 households not currently being reached by advertisers through Sunday newspaper subscriptions." The difference between then and now? Every newspaper back then -- and remember, we have more than 15 in the Philadelphia area -- put out its own product and gave it to people who weren't getting ITS newspaper. But many of them were getting someone ELSE'S newspaper, so advertisers were paying for duplicate circulation anyway. Under this plan, the product goes to homes that aren't taking ANYONE's newspaper. Also, combination buys used to be suburban papers vs. city papers. This brings both together.

"Who says traditional media like newspapers can't innovate?" asked Michael Scobey of Calkins, which also published in March a "Best Places to Work" section that reads suspiciously like that old newspaper standby for the low-revenue winter months, a Progress Edition. Well, two groups of people -- Internet utopians (who say it doesn't matter even if they do) and traditional newspaper journalists (who see every change as pearls rewarding swine and diminishing their status as social arbiters). Unfortunately, those two groups are very loud. The same issue of News & Tech that contains Chisholm's column also notes that the Fort Worth Star-Telegram expects a half-million in added revenue this year from a premium television guide. Of course, we all know that newspapers should all drop their TV guides because no one uses them anyway, particularly Internet utopians and traditional newspaper journalists. Our readers, though, continue to be Not Us.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Two Things Before An Exile

On the one hand, Montreal's La Presse -- the former spokesman for French North America, which used to have readers in New Hampshire and Maine -- says, give us three to five years, it'll all be tablets -- we'll just have some rump press run of 75,000. The story doesn't say, but I'm assuming that that's La Presse's circulation in metropolitan Montreal that would be saved and the rest is all over French North America where it no longer pays to run trucks to every village and town in Quebec. Just guessing. La Presse threatened closure during union negotiations a while back, so I'm guessing this is another hope that a Hail-Mary pass -- a Je vous salue, Marie pass, perhaps -- will save a threatened property.

On the other hand, AnnArbor.com -- how Newhouse was going to lead Ann Arbor into a newsprint-less future, killing the daily News and replacing it with a website and a twice-weekly publication -- lays off a bunch of people, accompanied by the usual platitudes about how this will lead to better local news. What is the success rate in football for Hail Mary passes, anyway?

With the exception of the Christian Science Monitor -- not a business in the usual sense -- which has benefited from dropping daily publication, who actually is doing well at this? I tried looking for current statistics, financial or readership, on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, but couldn't find any; I doubt I'd be able to read them for Jornal do Brasil. Great for the Monitor, hoping it's great for the PI, but this is starting to seem like the Peter Palazzo redesign of the Chicago Daily News -- great product, but you were already dead.

On yet another hand, Journal Register -- the former bottomest feeder of the bottom feeders -- gives out bonuses. It cites its digital efforts, but one notices it is still publishing print newspapers.

On yet another hand, the Project for Excellence in Journalism says online has surpassed newspapers as a source of news. (As always, we have to assume people mean "online" vs. "print," but we're never sure, since newspapers are online.) But it notes that the money is still not there. On yet another hand, Damon Kiesow notes that much of the use of mobile is people looking for weather and traffic reports. I've already read criticism of the project's report along this line -- that people aren't looking for journalism, but for the weather. But some people bought print newspapers just for the weather report.

What does it all mean? It seems like the answer is the same as five years ago: No one really knows.

Well, so much for pondering the imponderable. It's time for the American Copy Editors Society's annual conference. Hope to see you in Phoenix.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Little Tent

Doug Fisher at Common Sense Journalism draws attention to an essay by James Fallows in the Atlantic on why we should come to Love the New Media. As the headline deck puts it: "There isn't any point in defending the old ways. Consumer-obsessed, sensationalist, and passionate about their work, digital upstarts are undermining the old media -- and they may also be pointing the way to a brighter future."

(As a copy editor, always gotta love that phrasing "may also be." When I used to do headline seminars for Knight Ridder, one of my targets was any headline with "may" in it. It might be the best you could do, but that headline by definition could also be written as: "Or it may not." "Dow may hit 34,000, or it may not." If it stands for "largely unsupported speculation -- by respected and knowledgeable sources, however -- on a subject everyone's interested in," what can you do? It's the story you were given. If it simply indicates "story has no point," then you've got a bigger problem.)

OK, this is the same James Fallows who famously preached that Japan was going to overtake America, although with enough ahems, caveats, and shuffles that he could also fairly say, no, I merely presented this as a possible outcome. It is his style to do lots of reporting in seemingly foreign parts, then find a conclusion that's way out in front of everyone else, because -- well, most of us in journalism know who James Fallows is, right? You don't get attention by totally reasoned responses, as Barack Obama continues to refuse to learn. Fallows notes that 15 years ago, a book he wrote said "scandal, spectacle, and the 'game' of politics was driving citizens away from public affairs, making it harder for even the least cynical politicians to do an effective job, and at the same time steadily eroding our public ability to assess what is happening and decide how to respond." He now says that's still true, but what's the point of fighting it? The new media have won.

This is basically an overheated article about Gawker, and in justifying its approach, he says this, which of course is true: "Giving people what they want as opposed to what they should want is a conflict as old as journalism, certainly as it has been practiced in this country. My capsule history of journalism is that for more than a century after the Civil War, American readers and viewers were in various ways buffered from getting exactly what they wanted from newspapers and, later, radio and TV news shows. News, like education, aspired to be as interesting as possible but to have an uplifting civic intent." (Like all of culture. Read the book "The Judgment of Paris" to see the battle between the Academie des Beaux-Arts and the impressionists on this very point.) And then he shows how we in journalism have tried to have an uneasy balance of both: Drawing an audience with bells and whistles, but not so many bells and whistles that they would damage our self-proclaimed status as rational men and women above trying to attract people with bells and whistles. And all of this is true as well.

Then, in the "Japan will overtake us" manner of reaching a fixed outcome from a current trend, he writes: "Of course, there will for a long time be a range of publications, all of them subject to the new market pressures but each having its own conception of its culture and the 'brand,' the reputation and audience it can deliver to advertisers. But existing American media operations must become slightly if steadily more like the Gawkers of the business — we’re doing it right here, at the magazine Ralph Waldo Emerson and company founded before the Civil War — and new operations will grow up knowing no other environment."

For journalists and their self-conceits, however, the next part of the essay is very useful -- reminding us that Henry Luce and Brit Haddon were once seen as Gawker, and that our culture is still in thrall to something that ought to have a name -- the Richie Cunningham fallacy, perhaps? -- the idea that 1950s America should be normative rather than an outlier. He finally draws some conclusions, which are well worth reading. But I think one cannot go unchallenged, and not just because it quotes, inevitably, Jeff Jarvis:

"American life is becoming more polarized, and this is a phenomenon bigger than whatever is happening in the media. But the separate spheres of political discussion — Hannity for some people, Maddow for others — may be less of an emergency than is often assumed. 'Government is not life,' Jeff Jarvis, a Time Inc. veteran and the founder of Entertainment Weekly, who now teaches journalism at the City University of New York, told me. 'The fact that people want to ignore it is okay.' In this view, the political class, fascinated by the process of campaigning and strategizing, dominates the media, imposes its obsession on the public at large, and worries when citizens don’t share its passion.

“'The people who are mainly interested in politics are crazy in a way,” Denton (of Gawker) told me. 'Maybe I’d rather reach people whose first passion is video games, or fashion, or are retirees or young professional women. Their interest in politics is the normal interest in politics, not as the main source of rage and resentment in their lives or to the exclusion of everything else.' The targeting of such communities, ever easier with social media, is not an answer to America’s polarization. But it does suggest the possibility of new, complex connections that offset a stark right/left divide."

It does if you are determined to make lemonade. It may portend the death of the two-party system, which may or may not be a bad thing, genuflections toward the late David Broder, that towering believer in compromise and the middle who died this week, aside. But politics is not simply the same as a mall, where if the department stores are gone, an ever-larger group of big boxes and boutiques can supply the customers' needs, possibly more efficiently than when the Big Store was trying to satisfy all.

I'm not a religious person, but I occasionally play around with, what if I were to go back? Sure would be nice sometimes to be able to say, "I'm letting Him take charge of that one." But churches today don't seem to be the religious department stores they were in the Richie Cunningham fallacy era -- come in, take a pew, listen to music and words, put some money in the till, go and serve the Lord, see you next Sunday. It is an increasing expectation that you are joining a like-minded community -- not the imposing Gothic building near your house -- and will participate in Stephen ministries and feeding the hungry and marriage retreats, if not Wednesday night basketball games. If you're not interested in that -- well, there's no cultural requirement in America any longer that one be a member of a church. (One still has to believe in God to be fully accepted, but one can simply cite "faith" as one's method of worship.) So the churches become more about, and oriented to, those who really believe.

Everything's optional in life now -- except politics. Politics is still a single-class tournament like Indiana high school basketball used to be -- everyone's got a chance, and everyone's in the end watching. If politics becomes simply a video game or NFL for its obsessives, it will fall into the hands of those who look to it for "rage and resentment." For, as we're all learning, what the new media are about is emotional connection. Perhaps, as Fallows hopes, the answer to Fox News is The Daily Show -- and the answer to The Daily Show is Fox News -- and from this a better commonwealth will arise, one in which alternating stories based on some level of truthiness create opposed-yet-cooperating communities as the media used to feel existed in Congress.

Fallows thinks we have to believe this, because it's coming regardless and we should hope for the best. But when politics becomes simply another genre interest, such as fashion or football, we can forget that we can wear denim shirts and ignore all sports, but we can't not be citizens of our country. If we decide we aren't, those on the extremes will gladly make the decisions for us. One has to hope that American common sense will prevail as always -- but American common sense was always supported by prominent figures coughing, saying "harrumph," and, yes, writing articles sometimes vacuously saying "while facts are hard to come by, it appears more and more people may be...," all possibly full of holes but all existing to nudge people who Don't Care All That Much toward the middle road. Take those away, and it is a new-media world indeed.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Department Store Building of ...PottsVILLE (not town)

Busy times at work and in life... but here's another old department store building, the flat-faced brick one in the center. This one, in Pottsville, Pa., has been reused as a hotel -- as a number have across the nation (for example, the old Maison Blanche Co. store in New Orleans). A Ramada (previously a Treadway, a Travelodge, and a Quality) occupies this property at 100 S. Centre St., the site of a longtime branch of Dives, Pomeroy & Stewart.

Pomeroy's located here around 1900 after the closure of the firm of H. Royer and Son at the same address. The building that's here appears more modern. From the conventions of city directories -- where a change in address from "100-04" to "100-06" means some sort of expansion or rebuilding -- I'd assume this took place in the early 1920s. But I have nothing that actually says that, and the brickfacing on the building seems even more modern than that. Anyone know?

With both the main stores of Pomeroy's, in Harrisburg and Reading, now destroyed, there remain this store, the one on Public Square in Wilkes-Barre, and the former Laubach's store in Easton from the era when Pomeroy's, as the eastern Pennsylvania outpost of Allied Stores, was a name known from the Delaware River to the Susquehanna.

Beer aficionados make pilgrimages to Pottsville to visit Yuengling's. Some fans of nearly forgotten authors may still trek there to remember John O'Hara. Both sites are along Mahantongo Street, which in addition to being nearly unpronounceable offers a short history of Pennsylvania architecture in two miles. Beginning with an old hotel and passing a former coal company office building, a walk up Mahantongo passes typical Pennsylvania two- or three-bay attached houses with single dormers, Philadelphia-style rowhouses with flat roofs, at least one freestanding manor of the late 18th or early 19th centuries, Victorian turrets, bay-window duplexes that wouldn't be out of place in Boston, mansions of the Robber Baron era, 1920s Colonial Revivals, 1950s ranchers, 1960s two-story tract houses, even a 1950s garden apartment complex. before finally coming to an end a half-block beyond that staple of mid-20th-century development, a rounded-end cul-de-sac. Someone who knows far more about architecture than myself could do worse that doing a book on Mahantongo Street, which O'Hara renamed for his fiction as Lantenengo Street, and how it shows in one short walk the progress of residential architecture in the United States, from house styles that would have been familiar to the Founding Fathers to those baby boomers grew up with.