Posts Tagged ‘prediction


I have met the enemy and he is me – pt. 2

In the old newspaper world readers lived in cages. Every day someone would slide a variety of food through a slot and they, those rather domesticated readers, could take from it what they wanted. Usually there was a bit of meat, a few potatoes, veggies for those who liked that stuff, a few sweets, and a lot of fluff. Take what you want, leave the rest.

Me, I read the newspaper cover-to-cover every day. I discovered worlds I never knew or even imagined in the nooks and crannies of that newspaper. But I was fairly unusual. Most people discarded 80-90 percent of the newspaper every day. Some were simply carnivores; they only wanted sports scores or stock tables. Some were just vegetarians, so they had a bit of world news before seeing what they could glean from the living section. Some just liked sweets, so they stuck to the entertainment section and lived for the comics. Those who who thrived on fluff just wanted the ads. The cross-over was small in those different groups.

But that was OK. What choice did they have? Unless they were willing to buy the New York Times at a news stand, they took what news nutrition they could from the local paper. Sure they could wait for Time or Newsweek, but those were for analysis (roughage?) — not news. Yeah, there was nightly television, but that required one to be in front of that TV at a specific hour and then you only got what the networks decided were the top stories of the day. TV has always been something akin to a liquid diet. Pureed news. You wanted movie reviews, stories about musicians, an early morning chuckle? Chances are you needed the paper. You lived for classifieds or coupons, there was no way to get that fix without buying your daily dose of pulped wood.

Choices were limited. For the voracious consumers of information, like me, you took what you could get and you chewed it down to the bone. Everyone else fumed over how little of what they really wanted could be found within the dirty pages of the local rag.

Today’s readers are not prisoners. They live in a vast information landscape. It isn’t just a Serengeti, there are huge grasslands, mammoth hunting preserves, candy mountains that dwarf Everest, veritable forests of fluff that can be sorted and sifted to one’s hearts desire, and waterholes of every ilk dotting every environment. Few have time for foraging amidst all this bounty. Most gravitate towards the information habitat that come closest to providing them what they want or need. And they populate the water-holes most traveled by those closest akin to their kind. They now live in an all-you-can-eat world and the only price is their time and patience.

While the printed product does not easily translate to this new freedom, except perhaps as a sort of daily map, the digital versions of newspapers need not be limited by that ink-on-paper motif. They could be whatever they want to be — whatever they need to be. So why do they insist on trying to force their online products almost exclusively into that old mold? Newspaper people have made a living for centuries off of surfing cultural trends, so how come they can’t see that the cage doors are open and the animals roaming free? In fact, the cages have been torn down entirely and the animals are headed off toward the raw food sources of their choice. Some newspaper sites look like they are being run by Laurel & Hardy. They’re still trying to figure out why the lock doesn’t work anymore.

It isn’t that there is no longer a market for the processed and prepared food newspapers have been providing. It is largely that people want only the type of nutrition closest to their needs or desires and, they would like to participate in the preparation. Had newspapers recognized this five years ago there might not be quite so much hand-wringing over red ink these days. Sure things would probably still be less rosy than the good old days of endless 30 percent profit margins — hey when the animals are caged you can feed ‘em what you want and charge whatever they are willing to pay. But newspaper executives might see a future that didn’t involve so much blood being spilt.

Today, newspapers are beginning to recognize that everything has changed and they need to adapt or die. Some newspaper leaders are starting to realize that they have seen the killer of their industry every morning in the mirror. I have met the enemy and he is me.

Now, what am I going to do about it?


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.

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