Posts Tagged ‘newspapers

16
Aug
08

Fear and Loathing in the newspaper business

I’m no Hunter S. but …

There was failure in almost every direction, growing all the time. Not just across the publicly held chains, but up the gray ladies and down the suburban dailies all around the country. . . . You couldn’t strike sparks anywhere, even banging a rock on a hard place. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was wrong, that we were losing. . . .

And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable doom from the forces of new and modern. Not just in a mean or commercial sense; we were better than that. We felt our energy simply needed to prevail. Without us, who would watch the animals, who would check the cages. Would anyone care if we didn’t? Would anyone notice if we were gone? Or is it all about Brittney’s panty-less crotch, her shaved-head madness, oh those poor children, those poor, poor children. Rachel’s lament as entertainment; Rachel’s lament covered by the National Enquirer . . . But there seemed no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. They had all the momentum; they were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. We were about to be swept beneath it. . . .

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08
Aug
08

Print first, think later

Buzzmachine takes note today of the new tack ordered at the ailing Philadelphia Inquirer. Put everything in print first. That will shore up the falling subscriptions at the financially free-falling newspaper.

Here is what the memo from the Inquirer managing editor says:

Colleagues – Beginning today, we are adopting an Inquirer first policy for our signature investigative reporting, enterprise, trend stories, news features, and reviews of all sorts. What that means is that we won’t post those stories online until they’re in print.

This isn’t about the rush to be first, as some commenters at Buzzmachine have suggested. This is about establishing a clear policy that the dead trees edition trumps all. Problem with those blanket statements is that they tend to stand in the way of a thoughtful decision-making process.

Here is what might be a better policy to establish — we will determine, beginning with the assignment of every story, whether it would work best in print, with photos, as video, including graphics or any combination of those things. We will likewise decide, as each story nears completion whether it should break first in print, online or in some other fashion. We won’t put print ahead of online or vice versa because putting the audience and the story first will eventually serve us better than any arbitrary decision-making process.

By simply deciding paper comes first, they are betting they can help themselves by forcing people to buy the paper in order to get the story. Parents eat their own children, story at 11. (Me, I love it when TV does that. I always stay tuned.) First they better hope their “investigative reporting, enterprise, trend stories, news features, and reviews” are very, very compelling. Else-wise, would-be readers will simply shrug and look at something else. Evidence also is this is a pretty bad time for them to be making such a gamble. If they are wrong they are likely gone.

You would think the “brains” at newspapers would be past this type of thinking at this point. But I just had a long conversation with a long-time newspaper man at my place who still thinks we just need to wait out this “perfect storm.” Once classified comes back and the real estate market turns around then those with the patience to weather this little “down-turn” will be sitting pretty. Yeah, that’s a good plan, too.

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.