Monday, January 30, 2012

Onward, Part Two

Perhaps because we are enjoined to spew out of our mouths that which is lukewarm, it’s always been hard to say, when confronted with the imperfections of newspapers as opposed to the ideals of journalism – well, this newspaper may not be perfect, it may not be as good as it can be, but perhaps it’s better than any of the alternatives that could reasonably be expected to occur. But part of it was, it was just the way things were. One didn’t speak back in those days of how international coverage was being passively underwritten by automobile dealers and Realtors. The concept didn’t even enter one’s head. There was advertising revenue, there was spending on news coverage, things went into a big pot and then someone doled out the honey.

At least that was the case in newsrooms, most of which were into the 1970s before the concept of “a budget” took hold – not a news budget, but a spending budget. Until then, you spent money, and if you were spending too much money, the publisher told you to spend a little less for a while. The publisher was never going to give the newsroom enough money to break the bank, and the editor had a pretty good idea of what he could spend – but it was still a business where, as happened in Alabama in the 1990s, the editor of Newhouse’s Mobile paper could be talking to a company official about wanting to obtain a sister paper’s coverage of University of Alabama football and be told, well, why don’t you just hire your own beat writer? It was informal, ad hoc and, as long as the owners got enough money to live their lives the way they wanted to, not terribly complicated.

We, of course, as journalists, were too high-minded and high-status to think about things like how the money was divided up, which brings us to progress editions. At my first two papers we did progress editions. Whether you were a reporter or an editor, you were assigned stories for the progress edition. (For those unfamiliar with the idea, it is a once-a-year section extolling the community’s economic growth and prospects, and including company-by-company profiles, which, depending upon the local view of things, were variously 1) done totally on a journalistic basis, or 2) assigned based on who bought ads but still were written objectively, or 3) were written as puff pieces that were guaranteed when you bought an ad. But they were done by the newsroom and not the advertising department.)

I, like everyone else in the newsroom, resented doing progress editions. It wasn’t my regular job. It was shilling for someone who bought an ad. It had no news peg. It wasn’t what I went to college to do. It did not benefit society. That was what advertising people did – promised an advertiser anything to get money. I was above that. I was a journalist. These were elements from a less ethical past, when reporters took free liquor at Christmas from the mayor. Still, I had to do it, so I tried to write the best article on the National Automatic Tool Co. that I could. But I knew nothing about its business, had no interest in what it did, and, to be honest, looked down on the people who worked there, managers and workers alike, as people who spent their lives assembling National Automatic Tools, whatever they were, while I was living in the world of ideas, of abstractions, of political and generational change, hanging out with hip young people who didn’t drive pickups, didn’t go hunting, didn't follow conventional morality, and didn’t wear flannel shirts except to be cool.

In the second year of my doing progress edition work – I believe this year I had to edit the stories – I asked the managing editor, why do we, professional journalists, have to do this crap? It is beneath us. To which he answered: You may not have noticed, but no one advertises in January and February. It’s winter. Most people don’t buy new cars.  Most people don’t buy new houses. Knollenberg’s and Elder-Beerman don’t run big sales.  People just buy what they have to, so other than the supermarkets, businesses don’t advertise.  This is how we make money in January and February, by appealing to the vanity and civic pride of the Wayne Works and the Second National Bank and the National Automatic Tool Co. They want to advertise in the section because everyone advertises in the section and if they don’t, someone at the Rotary will say, “I see you didn’t advertise in the progress edition. Aren’t you for our city’s progress? Are you having, er, financial problems?” If we didn’t do this, we would have less money and would have to do less the rest of the year.  So go edit the damned stories.

I was amazed, given that the American economy no longer is based upon local industries such as the National Automatic Tool Co., to see not only that progress editions are still being published, but that the reaction to them – in this case from a journalism professor – is exactly the same. Justin Martin, Ph.D., Honors preceptor at the University of Maine – yes, I had to look “preceptor” up, it basically means “head of the honors program” – reacted unfavorably to a progress edition in the Bangor Daily News, the local paper for the main campus in Orono. Unlike in my day, the stories were advertorial. Unlike in my day, the section was labeled as advertorial. But as Martin notes:

“According to the author of the articles, these stories focused only on companies that had previously purchased advertising from the paper. Editors, though, weren’t transparent about this with readers. Atop each of the seven full-page articles extolling the virtues of the businesses, there was no note to readers indicating the stories were linked to money coming into the newspaper. The content was delivered on broadsheet newsprint, not the smaller inserts of, say, Best Buy offerings or Parade magazine, which set the content apart from a paper’s own news. And the newspaper’s name listed beneath each of Fitzpatrick’s bylines seemed likely to confuse readers into believing these were standard news stories on Maine businesses.  The minuscule disclaimer is not enough. This insert feeds readers copy that looks like vetted news. In the version of the insert published online, the notice that the coverage is linked to advertising is invisible unless one zooms in considerably on the front page.”

Martin – who, and I know this is a cheap shot worthy of Michele Bachmann, not only mentions his doctorate in the tagline, but once in the article where it is not really necessary -- is severely offended by all this. His feeling: “Readers have virtually no way of knowing that the upbeat coverage of the businesses is connected to paid advertising. Even if readers saw the extremely small identification of an ‘advertising supplement’ on the front page of insert, is that enough? Readers don’t know the content inside is a thank-you to companies that have written checks to the paper. The section’s front page boasts in very visible type that ‘Maine has a rich business history, and within these pages you’ll find great examples. And we’ll honor seven of those businesses that have stood the test of time with in-depth histories.’ This language leads readers to believe The Bangor Daily News is independently appraising these companies. When flattering news coverage is in any way linked to paid advertising, news providers have an overriding obligation to fully disclose that quid pro quo to the public. Of course, it would be better if news outlets simply resolved not to flirt with deceiving their audiences in the first place.”

Well, all well and good, except, of course, we have not proved that anything in these stories is false, overwritten or deceptive beyond the fact of their existence. The editor of the Daily News, after some hemming and hawing, promised in the future to try to have each article labeled as “advertising.” And I’m not writing to defend the section – it may be a piece of junk.

But here it is 2012, after years upon years of collapse in the newspaper business, and Preceptor Martin, Ph.D., remains as high-minded as Young Journalist Sullivan was in the 1970s. The answer of “this is how the Bangor Daily News pays its bills in the winter” would doubtless not satisfy him. The answer of “we do this so that we can provide more and better journalism in the news sections” would not satisfy him either, any more than it would have me back then, although it would now. The only answer that would satisfy him is, “Journalism must be above commerce.” Because, of course, journalists should not have to deal with the sort of messy matters that confront the publisher of the Daily News – or that confronted the owners of the National Automatic Tool Co., which did not last much longer than my story about it. Journalists place in society is to do journalism, and the car dealers can subsidize the cost.

At this point in my life, my prescription would be somewhat different that Martin’s, although we might agree on some points. Make it a news section. Do two or three good stories about business in Maine and Bangor. Then have reporters do stories on firms that buy ads – not just a 1x2, you have to buy a quarter-page. Tell them the reason they are doing these stories is that today’s equivalents of NATCO – the hospitals, the trucking companies, the firms that fill the office parks -- are where most of the readers work.  Their stories, their companies’ stories, are usually untold in the newspaper, which will never notice them unless they go bankrupt or have a layoff. (We will spend our time focusing on government and agencies for the disempowered.) And no, we don’t want a piece trashing these companies. But it doesn’t have to be slimeball stuff either. It’s just a piece saying, here’s what the CEO or whoever says the next year looks like for his company, and exactly what it is his company does, and what his company's local payroll is, and is that up or down from last year, and so forth. And now you, our local journalist employee, actually know something about the people who write the checks that pay your readers who spend money on the newspaper and its advertisers. And now you, our local journalist employee, understand that your own paycheck comes from much the same place. And yes, we're going to call it a progress edition, and no, we're not going to use it to critique capitalism or call for Realtors to get 2 percent commissions or ask how the CEO can live in a $1 million house while people are homeless.

But if you can pay for more and better journalism through stratagems such as a progress edition – which John Q. Reader is not going to give a fig about its provenance one way or the other – in this financially challenged era, and can benefit your newspaper, then, to channel noted journalism critic Sarah Palin, “Sell, baby, sell.” It may not be perfect, but these days it's as good as can reasonably be expected to occur. Part Three to come.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Onward, Part One

A story for Bloomberg News by Nathan Myhrvol reminds “TTPB” that two things happened to the newspaper business as we knew it and only one of them has to do with new approaches to journalism.

One is that the growth of the Internet provided an alternative to classified advertising that was easier to use, less costly, and more versatile. People started fleeing in large numbers from classified before newspaper circulations started to follow suit. The falloff in newspaper revenue since the high-water year of 2005 has been tremendous, but how much larger it would have been had volume after the dot-com crash followed its usual upward slope with the recovery. Instead, newspaper advertising volume remained pretty flat in the first years of the 21st century, and revenue was boosted through raising rates. It’s true that people were pounding on the door looking for ads. It’s also clear that a lot of people were no longer pounding on the door.

The other is that not that many of the attacks on benighted newspapers from journalists – need we mention the name Jarvis here? --  are not only about the loss of revenue and the industry’s generally poor, disorganized, and fitful response. Some critics have concentrated on the interplay of the decline of the business model and the journalism produced – the always thoughtful Howard Owens, the redesign artist Alan Jacobson, and Alan Mutter with his continuing chronicle of the industry’s descent into the flame. But others would have been attacking daily newspapers if classified revenue was still storming along, if a way had been found to finance newspapers in print as well as adapt to the Internet age.

Their criticism, to me, is that “newspapers” does not mean the same thing as “journalism,” and either 1) should or 2) since it doesn’t, newspapers should just die.

The momentary crisis over “Is Joe Paterno dead” shines light on the point. Until its premature obituary Saturday night, Onward State was being hailed as an avatar of the new way, of throwing out all the barnacles that have held back newspaper journalism. It was being hailed in the same way that “underground” newspapers had been hailed. It was being hailed somewhat in the same way that the “new journalism” had been hailed. Now, these guys at State College just made a mistake in the same way that UPI used to make mistakes. They thought they had something and they didn’t. Careers should not be ended. But is their process, their approach – described in the article as “smashing some sacred journalism traditions, quaint rituals like editing, striving for objectivity, and verifying rumors before publication” -- truly a model for us to emulate, or is it simply the desire to let the id run free?

There’s always something to appeal to journalists, professors, and other critics who want to decry newspapers for being, as they forever have been, not hip, not disinterested, and not solely devoted to the care and feeding of journalists. They call out newspapers as institutional. Subject to the whim of editors who may not be as knowledgeable as they should be. Closely allied with the traditional power structure. Wary of “offending” their longtime readers. Subject to competitive marketplace pressures. Occasionally willing to kill stories to satisfy car dealers, real estate agents, and the like. Aimed at a mass market that doesn’t know Uganda from Uzbekistan. Reporting on the deeds of institutions and not the needs of people. Mainly printed to sell dry goods. Alternating between a principled stand against intimidation and fear that their readers are so easily swayed that they will lose them unless they “balance” the editorial page 80-20. In big cities, largely staffed (until recent years) by college-educated cosmopolitans whose interests were not the same as Joe Sixpack’s.

And some of the critics are people who strode into newspapers full of purpose and ideals and self-regard, as we all did, and then were told, after writing a poetic 250-word lede or wanting to spend six months researching the problems of adoptions from Tanzania (if there indeed are such problems), that, well, we don’t do that. Give me 10 inches on this car crash. Some of us said, OK, that’s what the job is, and others said that this was not what they intended to do with their lives and talents, and therefore what they had been told to do was wrong, irrelevant, out of date.

From the time of the penny press, through the muckracking era, into the attempt to create PM, through the readership of I.F. Stone’s Weekly to the era of alt-weeklies, and now to today’s world of the Huffington Post, there have always been efforts to break the perceived stranglehold of the establishment press, the mainstream media. And there have always been people who portray themselves as the honest seekers of the truth as opposed to the dull scribes, who feel that if we could just break down the walls of tradition and process and manufacturing there would be a journalism that would finally shine its light on the darkest corner, finally do its fullest part to end whatever evils one perceives. Oh, and a journalism that would never, ever make me change my lede or trim to length.

And all of us bow before this criticism and feel duly chastened, because we know we are not as high-minded as we once were, and with the loss of revenue we can lose faith in what we do, which, as Steve Yelvington noted, traditionally has been to work in a business whose core competence was manufacturing and delivering a product to people’s homes. 

Newspaper companies would like to tell you that their core competence has always been storytelling or creating content. They would like to say this because in part they believe it, in part because they want to believe it, and in part because they see the business of delivering a product to people’s homes falling apart. But this is not what they have been. Regardless of whether you spent gadzillions on journalism, like the New York Times, or tried to eke out an inferior report on starvation-level expenditures, as the Jelenic-era management of Journal Register did, the product was essentially the same. You brought together whatever you had, news and ads, you put it on pages, you printed them, and you delivered them. That was the business.

What you made into the content and how much you paid to get it was secondary, and was to some extent a loss leader to give people a reason to buy the product. Your customers were your advertisers and people who paid to have something in their hands every day as they sipped their coffee. Your customer was not the needs of society. Your product was not simply journalism. You were glad that your business allowed you to commit journalism, within certain strictures – such as not “offending” longtime readers, not being critical of 6 percent real estate commissions, and being gingerly in covering the affairs of the powerful who decided whether they would buy ads. It was not ideal. It looked to ideals for inspiration and fell short. Still, the good far outweighed the bad. But to some, the fact that there was bad simply invalidated the good.

Part Two to follow.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

All the World's Knowledge, and It's Theirs

On this morning when the always unimpeachable Wikipedia decided to show us that it is not simply a group of public-spirited citizens trying to bring the benefits of the link economy to everyone, but, in the end, just another business engaged in protecting its own interests at the expense of its customers -- even though, like any business, it would say that its long-term interests are of course in its customers' benefit, what's good for General Motors is... -- it brings to mind a recent Harper's article on Amazon's control of the book business.

 The story isn't available free online, but it basically concentrates on the Amazon-Macmillan feud over pricing. (Here's a look at publishers' options in the wake of that.) The piece is a jeremiad and not utterly convincing in broadening from its example to a universal argument that the gospel of "efficiency" is a corrupting influence on America. But its main argument is that companies like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Apple -- and, yes, Wikipedia, even though it is organized very differently -- are just as much monopolists as Andrew Carnegie or John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller presented what he was doing as ultimately in the public good by rationalizing the oil business to prevent price wars that drove producers out of business and to share the cost of capital investment so that the benefits of oil could be made available to the world. Doubtless it did that. It also did many other things not quite as beneficial to all.

Does that mean that Larry Page is a latter-day Henry Clay Frick? No, and it doesn't have to, although Jeff Bezos seems much more the Rockefeller of our day. We're not seeing goons going after Wobblies; those battles have been outsourced, if they are to happen at all. And instead of the railroads setting ludicrously high prices for Midwestern farmers, we see Amazon selling online books at a loss. So perhaps it is different and the innovative giants of our age are merely enabling a flowering of human culture unlike what has ever been seen. Perhaps legislation such as that Wikipedia and others are fighting are continuing attempts by the Old Economy to strangle innovation and restore monopolistic controls.

On the other hand, Wikipedia told all of its users and contributors today: You may think this is yours. We've told you this is yours. But we own it. And we can do with it what we want. That's the way of monopolies and oligopolies. In the end, they get arrogant. Can't be helped, probably. That's not the point. The point is that millions of people around the world still believe, "This time, it'll be different." That coolness and connectivity are worth any price that those who offer them exact. That the people who offer them are the good side of Steve Jobs without the bad. Maybe they are. Or maybe Google is today's Standard Oil.

The public needs to debate and decide, but somehow the flow of information seems to have made it harder to hear anything except talk about issues where the lines were drawn in the pre-Internet era -- so many of which still seem to be men talking about whether women were created by God as vessels for babymaking and little else.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

New Year, Same Issues?

So little time, so much to do, this falls to the bottom. Thanksgiving, Christmas, who has time to blog? So the world has probably forgotten about “TTPB.”

But a number of interesting things have happened since last we met:

Does Warren Buffett’s buying of the Omaha World-Herald – which included a number of smaller dailies in places like Kearney and Council Bluffs, not that anyone noticed – mean he sees signs of life in the newspaper business? Or does it just mean that in his old age, Buffett, to whom the World-Herald is barely an accounting mention, wanted to help out some fellow Omaha citizens – the company was employee-owned – by giving them a payoff before the value of their shares went down to nearly nothing?

Does the Albany Times-Union’s announced purchase of a new press – an increasingly rare investment in iron – mean that there’s a future for printed newspapers in the mind of the Hearst Corp.? Or does it just mean that publisher George Hearst, whose name is on the company’s door, got to finally buy the press he announced he was buying back before everything went bad, one he can leave as his legacy?

Will the move by the Columbus Dispatch to print at modified Berliner size, and print the Cincinnati Enquirer as well, find acceptance with readers who say they like the size better? Or, by the time the new size debuts, will people have simply found the whole thing irrelevant regardless of size?

And is it not interesting that while a few years back, a big ethics dustup at the Santa Barbara News-Press brought condemnations down on its publisher, in this straitened era the changes at the far larger San Diego Union-Tribune (now to be called U-T San Diego) – the publisher’s saying, “Yeah, we’re going to support a new stadium,” as well as running a jingoistic slogan on the front page – have merited only a few harrumphs? Is this because the San Diego paper has been seen in the industry as an underachiever for most of its life? Is it because the editor who was fired at Santa Barbara had many friends and allies in the business from previous jobs? Will the new publisher’s stated creed that the U-T should be “a cheerleader and a watchdog” resonate with readers who feel that newspapers have become cranky scolds telling John Q. Public how unenlightened he is for being against – oh, people like a newspaper employee-blogger who would think that calling America “the world’s greatest country” is jingoistic and lacking in journalistic objectivity rather than simply a heartfelt statement of a beloved and universally understood fact? Or is it just that no one really cares anymore what a newspaper does?

Pretty pessimistic thoughts for this pro-print blog, but the losses, the defections, keep piling up, each one giving you a little less money to operate with, while – not just in the minds of the digerati, but in any real-world scenario – creating internal resentment in companies because one has to keep spending most of one’s money on this THING, this PRODUCT, instead of spending it on these other new things that seem to bear more promise, while your competitors don’t have to. And it reminds this department store fan how within the scope of a few years, department stores went from being essential to being easily ignored -- from symbols of their cities to places you went to when you had to.

For Christmas I got three department store books – Jan Whitaker’s great look at department stores around the world (though primarily in the United States, France, England and Japan), and two of the History Press’ offerings on local department stores: “Look to Lazarus” (in Columbus) and “Burdines” (in Miami). At various points in one or another of them are reflected three points:

1), that as the shopping mall developed from strip centers into enclosed regional behemoths, the mall in essence became the department store – serving the same destination function. The department store then became one of the less-exciting departments in the mall-cum-department store, because its fixed costs, traditions, and multiple bureaucracies made it harder to change than a Spencer Gifts or a Limited. Substitute “Internet,” of course, for “shopping mall.”

2), that we need to always think about the money. Burdines Inc., for example, which dominated South Florida, was sold to Federated Department Stores in the 1950s after Allied Stores, seeing an opportunity, started opening Jordan Marsh stores nearby. Burdine’s had largely defined the Florida resort-wear look among department stores, but didn’t have deep enough pockets to compete with Allied on the one hand and the rise of discounters on the other. It had a wonderful business and loyal customers and had done great work, but just take away a small percentage of that and your profit margin is gone. Substitute “other web sites” for “Jordan Marsh” and “discounters.”

3), that trying to cover every bet may get you to the same place as not trying to cover every bet -- it may be that you just can't win. Metropolitan department stores felt they had to open branches everywhere to be competitive and cope with the defection of shoppers from their downtown stores to suburban sites. But as an official of the F. and R. Lazarus Co. noted, you increase your costs nearly three times fold with three stores, but your business doesn’t increase by the same amount, because much of it is just transferred from one site to another. You spend X times 3 to make X times 2. As a result, service, training, and upgrading kept being cut back, making the department stores less distinguishable from what had previously been seen as inferior competitors. This was simply the law of unintended consequences at work. It remains to be seen whether “multiple platforms” is the substitute for “branches everywhere.”

If Hutzler’s in Baltimore, as noted in Michael Lisicky’s book, had just moved its operations from downtown to Towson, it could have had a very profitable store for years – but could not have stayed competitive in the market as Stewart’s, Hochschild Kohn, Hecht’s, Penney’s, and Sears flooded the market with branches. But by having to open more and more stores to remain in the community consciousness, the company was drained – as in the end were most of its competitors, all from trying to keep up with each other and everyone else. Substitute “multiple platforms” for “suburban sites.”  Hutzler’s was the best department store in Baltimore, but that did not save it. Its competitors were seen as perhaps not as good, but as good enough – which put them and Hutzler’s in the same category.  "Less efficient" doesn't mean "worse" -- it just means "more costly."

Well, let’s not think about that. Let’s end with a paper that believes in print, the Washington (Pa.) Observer-Reporter, as forwarded by my relative Larry Stratton: Online, this article has been read 283 times. Help it out. Spread the word.