Friday, April 29, 2011

Not Dead...

But the last month has been so busy, haven't had time to think. Well, why would that mean I wouldn't post? In fact, not thinking means I should post more.

The first-quarter earnings reports from newspaper companies -- you can find them yourself, they're too depressing to link to. Alan Mutter's view: Get used to it. He uses the case of car advertising, where people no longer go into a dealership (or read newspaper ads) to figure out how to be sold, they go to automakers' sites to sell themselves, and then go to the dealer essentially to work out the final price of the order. Why, then, does Low-Price Joe need to advertise in the newspaper (or anywhere)?

Mutter makes a good point, but still, Low-Price Joe is running radio and TV ads. Are newspapers simply failing to get them -- or is newspapers' print advertising all going over to far-cheaper newspaper online advertising (cannibalizing its own business) -- or is the continuing problem with newspapers that even without the Internet, the lines of business on which they most heavily depended -- real estate, help wanted, local retail -- have, in addition to moving largely to (or being wiped out, Amazon-style, by) online presences, been the ones still failing to rebound economically?

(One of the things that puzzles me about the Newspaper Holocaust is how people -- the guy whose company just repaved my driveway -- will look at today's newspapers and say, "It's so thin, nothing to it." Before the big run-up in advertising in the 1970s, this is how thick most newspapers were. Yes, they were wider and had smaller type sizes -- I'm not talking about content, just thickness. We then went on to produce newspapers that took half a day to read and people complained -- and now that we no longer can support newspapers that thick, people say, why should I read it, it's so thin? Is a puzzlement. But it probably would have been better had we not added so many pages when times were good.)

Technology creates and enables social change, but the social change goes beyond the technology. So take a moment to read this story by my colleague Inga Saffron on changes planned to the Kimmel Center, the performing-arts center built in Philadelphia just a decade ago and now called, accurately, by Saffron "prematurely old." What happened? It had a four-star architect, the support of donors and politicians, the desire to create a great hall. Problems with acoustics happened -- they usually do. But the problem with the Kimmel is that it has never seemed "inviting."

Comparisons to the fits-like-an-old-shoe Academy of Music aside -- wasn't that traditionally part of the point? Saffron notes that the plan would have "the temple of high culture merge into the theater of the street." I'm old enough to know that for most of my life, the purpose of a Kimmel Center would have been to keep that street out. (Out there are people like them; in here are people like us.) But as the bankruptcy petition of the Philadelphia Orchestra shows, there aren't enough "people like us" anymore. More to the point, there are fewer and fewer people who aspire to be "people like us," even if they have wealth, manners, and an interest in the arts. They want to be people like themselves.

Most intriguing to me is the proposal to build a row of bleacher-type seats. She notes: "The bleachers have no purpose other than to encourage the Internet generation to sprawl around with laptops and lattes -- which is, of course, purpose enough." They will replace "embarrassing, banquet-hall-style cocktail tables." And in her summing-up: "Despite its promises to be a populist gathering place, the Kimmel behaves more like a traditional, cloistered culture box."

Well, yes; at the time it was planned, no one walked around with laptops except for the truly geeky. More important, no one would have brought a laptop into a hall where a major symphony played. Show some respect! Sit at a banquette! Hold your cocktail and talk in modulated tones! Act like us! And so it goes for mainstream churches, old-style department stores, and, yes, newspapers, where tradition demands that you approach them in a certain way (set up home delivery, read them by section, check them in the morning before starting out). The wired world isn't just about checking car prices without reading newspaper ads. It's about feeling that there are enough social media friends, supportive sites, and the like that the disapproving look of Mrs. Van Alstyne Ringsworthy as you slouch on the bleachers in the eventually reborn Kimmel to check updates -- you're OK nevertheless. The world is something you pick and choose from, rather than a continual hunt for the least oppressive cattle chute to fit into. If the news is important enough, it will find me.

The designers of the Kimmel may have failed in many ways, but they could hardly have anticipated that. To a greater or lesser degree of success, they tried to create a more approachable cloistered culture box, the same as newspapers tried through graphics and new styles of writing to create a more approachable yet traditional news package. (I saw a recent copy of the San Diego Union-Tribune, which when sold a couple years back said it was going to be a radical change, and it feels just like the Inquirer but with upstyle sans-serif headlines. There's only so much you can do without completely starting over.) Could anyone 15 years ago have truly anticipated a world in which hierarchies were so subverted as to seem irrelevant?

One thing this blog has said from the beginning is: Everyone can't be your customer. Figure out who you can get as your customers, and appeal to them. That, in 2011, means an equal dialogue that still would be largely anathema to many people of my age, and certainly to those of a generation before. I'm not sure I like it, but people feel like they know as much as you do, even if they don't, because they can look it up on Wikipedia too. So your customers, if you're a newspaper, are those who will accept that your judgment -- your curation, to use a word I hate -- adds to their understanding (or gives them something to yell at). Those who don't -- they won't be your customers.

Can a newspaper do that in any form but online? Probably, but it'll be really hard. It's hard enough online. By its nature, an institution says: You think, but we know. You desire, but we maintain. You ask, and we decide. Neiman Marcus set style, and you followed it. You could also reject it, to the harm of Neiman's profit. But you did not tell Neiman's what to do. (Similarly, you went to conferences to follow a schedule to be given ideas. Now, in some cases as at Philly Tech week, you go to conferences not knowing what the schedule will be, and meet when someone fills in a time slot, simply to exchange ideas.) I've come to think that what's been so bad for newspapers, for department stores, for Main Line Protestantism, is not that they have more blockheads than the things that are replacing them but that their DNA is to be institutions -- and institutions by their nature do not engage in equal dialogue. How can they? If they do, they are not.

A reborn Kimmel Center -- and this will take a decade or more to do, even if the money suddenly arrives -- may well become a vibrant center of the arts for the 21st century, and if so more power to it. Doing so would end its role as a temple of the arts. Or we may learn that a cultural center is, in the end, a cultural center, and no bleachers can overcome it. Who knows? But those who believe that the point was a temple -- that many people may say they are artists, but an ever-more-demanding set of priests determines their admission to the holy of holies, and to be able to observe them you will act in a certain way -- do they just die off, reading their newspapers to the end?