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.