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.