Posts Tagged ‘advertising

05
Jun
08

I have met the enemy and he is me – Pt. 1

The problem with newspapers is their readers.

I went to a relatively well-known East Coast university in an urban environment with teachers from several Pulitzer-winning daily newspaper. There my journalism professors often insisted that the biggest problem facing newspapers was their audience.

Even in the early 1980s newspapers were seeing troubling signs. Many had been shuttered and what has become a 30-year trend of declining circulation was just beginning to be glimpsed.

These days lots of printed papers are on the brink. Slipping readership has turned into free-fall. Stagnant revenue has turned into advertising genocide. Such traditional newspaper strongholds as the classified pages have become virtually extinct. Other streams, like national display, are being diverted in massive amounts, mostly to online entities.

Who is to blame? Remarkably, many in the business still spout the old canard about readers. Americans are uneducated, they have forgotten how to read, they don’t want to know what is going on in their backyards — much less the rest of the world. These willfully ignorant, in-bred, idiots would rather watch television or just drift aimlessly illiterate through the world.

Millions were sunk into trying to teach Americans to read newspapers. Long-term efforts were launched to recruit youngsters to a life-long newspaper addiction. USA Today was begun with the concept that McNugget News would solve the problem. Supposition was that since more Americans watched insipid local TV news, then newspapers needed to ape that format with bright colors, big pictures, and stories that spun out bite-size bits of sugar rather harder to digest meat & potatoes.

Now we have the internet. While accelerating the decline of newspapers (and TV), it has also taught us print types quite a few things. First, people do read. Moreover, many many millions will read news. Consumption of information and news is, in fact, at an all time high. But subscription to newspapers is headed south at an accelerating rate.

What does that mean? First, that the average American probably isn’t nearly as stupid as newspaper people have insisted for decades. Second, many people are interested in the content found within the pages of newspapers. Third, an inevitable conclusion it would seem, if it isn’t the audience or the content, then the problem must be the package.

The issue, it seems is the broadcast nature of newspapers (and television networks). It is the one-size-fits-all mentality that believes if you drop a 10-pound package on someone’s doorstep they will pick through to find the 8-ounces they are after. That might be true if they didn’t think the other 9.5 pounds was crap they had to pay for, pick up soggy from their driveway, then tote weekly to the curb for recycling. Likewise, numerous newspaper web sites insist on forcing people to accept the same ratio of gems to junk, which has given tremendous legs to countless aggregation and private commentator sites.

For decades newspaper people have deluded themselves that the fickle, unlearned audience was the enemy. Now, despite mounting evidence, they cling to that delusion when they should be using their new-found self-knowledge to radically change how they do business.

For many newspapers it may be too late. Lack of innovation have led to the complete erosion of the advertising that almost single-handedly supported newspapers since time out of mind. Classifieds typically made up almost 60 percent of the revenue at many newspapers. Now it is gone and will never return.

Other advertising forms are migrating rapidly to the web, but not to newspaper sites. They are looking for targeted audience while most newspapers are still trying to export their broadcast model to the 21st-century printing press.

Signs are cropping up everywhere that proclaim the unthinkable to newspapers: The end is near. But many newspaper types still shake their heads in disbelief, blindly insist that somehow this will all turn around of its own accord, or cling to the myth that the blame can be placed on the overwhelmingly dumbness of the American public.

I have met the enemy and he is me.

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31
May
08

I’m mad as hell and I’m going to write about it

I read recently that blogging is supposed to be good for you. According to some psych studies, blogging is far better than simply keeping a journal (an old technique for getting troubled people in touch with their feelings). Blogging is better because you may get a supportive audience, one that not only understands how you feel but is struggling with some of the same issues. Letting go of all those repressed emotions is also supposed to be beneficial to physical health. So …

For a few years I have been really angry about what I see happening to the newspaper industry and my newspaper in particular. I’ll give some personal background and that may explain.

When I first began paying attention to the world around me the Vietnam War was winding down and Watergate was heating up. I read Woodward & Bernstein, stories on The Pentagon Papers, “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” John Steinbeck, Stepehn Crane, and Ernest Hemingway. Journalists had their fingers on the pulse of history in all sorts of ways. They wrote about it as it happened, analyzed it after the fact, and novelized it in between. But it wasn’t simply that they knew what was going on, they seemed to play an intrinsic role in American civic affairs at a time when the US government was proving itself far less trustworthy than my parents wanted me to believe. So off I went to J-school and then into the newspaper business, where I have toiled (happily and otherwise) for the last 30 years.

All of that is to say: Yes, I am an idealist. I believe journalism, especially the kind done by newspapers, is important. What’s more, I have really liked doing it even if I didn’t always like at all the people I was doing it for.

More than a decade ago all of my journalistic dreams seemed to come true. After years working for either cheap and/or ethically questionable daily papers I tripped into a paper where my highest journalistic goals were met. Suddenly I was being paid a livable wage and, while I was there, the paper began winning some of the highest awards in the newspaper industry. I wasn’t a reporter anymore, just an editor. But I hadn’t really imagined I would win such lofty prizes, I just wanted to be part of a paper that did work recognized as outstanding by everyone in the industry.

But after only a couple of years there began to be little signs of trouble. The internet began taking off, but not at my paper. The people inside the paper scoffed at the internet: there wasn’t anything important going on there. Our company formed an independent arm to handle our web needs. Tension began to arise because the web people and the print people couldn’t get on the same page because they didn’t even agree on what a page was. It wasn’t surprising since people in the editorial department couldn’t even act like they were on the same team. Yet we were still doing great work at the paper, so I ignored the signs and kept plugging away.

Then the economy of the newspaper business began to turn. We heard rumors our paper wasn’t profitable anymore. The web was becoming ever more important and our relationship with our web folks was deteriorating even more. That last part might not have been so troubling if it looked at all like the web folks knew what they were doing. But after years of labor they seemed to have done little more than recreate the newspaper as an even less functional entity on the internet. I shouldn’t have been surprised they didn’t want any advice from me on what they could do differently. Heck I was starting to discover that the people running our editorial department didn’t want my thoughts either.

Roll forward a few more years and my newspaper — my entire industry — is in deep trouble. Those laughable predictions that newspapers would cease to print are suddenly becoming terrifying possibilities. Even papers with successful web sites are getting pinched by the collapse of traditional newspaper advertising. At my place the editorial folks and their relatives at the online site both have heads firmly inserted in collective assholes, but that doesn’t stop them from constantly sniping at each other. It’s the Hatfields and the McCoys, only they’ve decided to fight it out on the deck of the Titanic. I’m watching the industry, trying to figure out trends, offer constructive advice on which direction to turn the ship, but nobody can hear me amidst all that shooting.

Look, I’m not the smartest guy in the world. The people who run my company are worth millions and millions. The people who run my editorial department have guided several newspapers to great success. If I was smarter than them I would either a) be worth multiple millions or b) running a successful newspaper. Truth is I don’t think I am qualified to run the paper or the company. But that doesn’t mean I can’t figure out what is happening online and how we are about to be crushed by the greatest change in the publishing industry since Gutenberg invented the printing press. Any idiot can look at what is happening online and see the fundamental flaws in the way many many newspapers are approaching the internet. I have proved to the people at my place that I a) know my job, b) understand the internet, and c) can accurately predict how the internet will affect my job (the latter doesn’t require any special prescience, it is more like basic math). I have written countless memos offering a verifiable record on the afore-stated contention. But the response from on high has been to demand that I shut-up. Apparently, if I don’t keep quiet I’m part of the problem.

Under the circumstances, complaining to co-workers doesn’t really help. They either look at me like I’m looney (I am past being surprised at how many still think our current situation is just another of the periodic economic slow-downs that have struck the newspaper industry and, if we just don’t think about it, it will eventually go away) or they make sympathetic noises that can change nothing. I don’t believe I will fix anything at my newspaper. There have been recent indications that we are a light-switch away from going out altogether and there is more than one hand reaching for the toggle. But I’m going to risk everything and start talking about what is happening for a variety of reasons.

1. It’s good for me to talk about what is happening.

2. It might be good for others to talk or even vent about what is happening at their newspaper.

3. What is happening to newspapers is of historical importance. We ought to try and make some record of how an industry that only a couple years ago had multi-billions of revenue from multiple sources of advertising managed to disappear in about the time it takes to drain a bath-tub. I’ve always wondered how I would cover the end of the world, now I get to do a first person account.

4. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we should talk about what newspapers are doing right (just because it isn’t happening much at my paper doesn’t mean it isn’t happening anywhere in the industry). One of the things that the internet has brought to greater attention is the intelligence of collective consciousness. The internet allows unprecedented tracking of trends and the predictive nature of trends can help some to almost see the future. If enough people are spotting the same or similar trends, that is a good indication that signals something real and important which might inform innovation. To paraphrase Tony Stark: That’s how Google did it, that’s how I do it, and it worked out pretty good (for Google) so far.

Let me be clear. I don’t want this to be all pissing and moaning. Yes, there will be lots of that. But I want to also discuss intelligently what is happening in the industry and to the industry, with an eye on how the “newspaper” or journalism will survive. As the blog title suggests, this blog is about both the institution and a person (me) inside of it. We’re both Black, Blue and RED all over.

Anyone can participate in this little rag fest. But this isn’t just about an audience for me. If nothing else this is therapy, I’ve been mad as hell for a long time and now I’m going to write about it. Letting out all that pent up anger can’t help but be helpful.