Friday, April 24, 2009

Black and white and read all over?

The answer used to be newspapers, but the times they are a changing. It’s not clear how many are going to be left in a few years. Comes right down to it, I have more faith in the survivability of a weekly; many if not most dailies I wonder about. Weeklies learned about economics a long time ago.

Actually I don’t think much about dailies, even though I worked for the blamed things for something like 25 years. My inadvertent retirement has left me in the position of not having to care and by gum I really don’t, although I do care about people still in the business. I’m not as well informed as I was when I had access to all the news all the time, but manage to get by with TV and the Internet. The access is still there, on the Web, it’s just that you’ve got to work harder to find, sift and digest it. And some days I’m just plain too lazy to do that.

It’s instructive to remember, too, that although most daily newsrooms still have constant access to wire service updates from around the word it’s been some time since most considered it their mission to actually help their readers be broadly informed. All local all the time is the new mantra as surviving dailies with diminishing staffs stake their futures on becoming nouveau weekly plus the Internet. How they plan to do that with fewer reporters is not clear.

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I started in weekly newspapers and that’s what I still subscribe to, The Chariton Leader and The Chariton Herald Patriot. Your ancestors may have stepped off the ark onto Mt. Ararat, but mine stepped off in Lucas County. I can make a fairly good case to prove we’ve subscribed with some degree of consistency to every newspaper ever published here --- from Lucas to Zero. The Leader and the Herald Patriot are all that’s left, they are my newspapers and although I don‘t agree with the publisher‘s politics and quite often think the news reports could be better, I will subscribe to them come hell or high water until the latest edition is pried out of my cold dead hand.

Notice I said “my” newspapers. That ownership deal’s become a problem. Most weekly newspaper publishers and the publishers of privately-held dailies had a grip on it. They knew that although they had the keys to the front door in their pockets and owned the name and the equipment inside the office, the newspaper itself belonged to the people who subscribed to it and advertised in it. Any newspaper owner at any level who overlooked that was headed for trouble, and many are these days.

That doesn’t mean subscribers and advertisers dictated how the news was covered, although they certainly influenced it, occasionally adversely if the editor or publisher lacked guts. In most instances, however, subscribers and advertisers were willing to sit back and just read (and complain loudly if their own oxen were gored) so long as product quality was maintained. If it wasn’t, subscribers stopped subscribing and advertisers stopped advertising --- the real owners stepping in to say, “enough.” That seems to be happening a lot these days.

A lot of the blame for that belongs to media companies that came to look upon newspapers primarily as investment opportunities and opportunities to corner the news market rather than as, well, newspapers. And to the type of upwardly-aspiring types encouraged by those companies who came to see jobs as springboards to other places rather than, for at least a time, ends in themselves.

Back up a ways and some of the cause can be traced to a previous generation of newspaper publishers who did know their stuff and who built businesses so successful that no one could afford to buy them when it came time to liquidate --- other than the media companies that did, or were willing to borrow beyond their means to do so, then blew it.

In many cases in part because of this, the product has become increasingly unhitched from the folks who own it, you and me. Most newspapers, knowing they’re in trouble, have come to rely on “focus groups,” small groups of supposedly representative people who tell them what readers want. That’s fine, but newspaper people who don’t know us well enough to know what we want and have to call a convention to find out are in big trouble. Readers and advertisers, meanwhile, are hotfooting it elsewhere.

If you like newspapers, the potential consequences are scary. If my former corporate master, Lee Enterprises, goes down --- and there’s a fairly good chance it will considering the massive debt it incurred buying other newspapers, it will take with it the daily newspapers in Mason City, Davenport, Muscatine, Waterloo and Sioux City as well as a variety of weeklies and subsidiary publications. And that’s just Iowa.

That doesn’t necessarily mean publication will stop, but does open the door to all sorts of mischief. Media garage sales, for example.

I decided Lee was going to hell when it sold off Ottumwa, one of the original Lee newspapers. As it turns out, Ottumwa’s probably higher on the survivability scale because of the sale although it’s probably not as good a newspaper as it was when Lee sold it.

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Newspapers whine a lot about the Internet, citing its rise as a primary reason for their decline. Well that’s partly true. But look how newspapers reacted to the Internet, taking the cheap and lazy way out.

Instead of coming up with new and innovate products branded with their names designed for a new medium to send out there into cyberspace, most if not all just began to shovel the contents of their print publications online and still do. Attempts to sell the online version failed, so now nearly all just give it away.

What sensible person, faced with parallel products --- one free and the other not --- would opt to pay? So subscriptions decline. And no one yet has found a way to make online advertising revenue pay for a quality broadly-based online news product. The big bucks online remain in the niches. A newspaper wouldn’t recognize a niche if it stepped one --- although they talk about them a lot.

Newspapers seem to just keep pushing the same old stuff online or playing catch-up with others’ online innovations. Some time after blogs caught fire, newspapers decided select staffers should blog, too. Ho hum. A fine newspaper editorial type doth not necessarily a fine blogger make. And now Facebook and Twitter. Give me a break.

A whole bunch of newspapers are either trying or looking at trying to drop all (a very few cases yet) or some of their print editions and publishing at least part of the time entirely online, an idea with roughly the same potential as the Edsel. Remember the Edsel? Fewer and fewer people do.

The insurmountable difficulty is that they’re doing this to cut costs and that means they’re not going to be willing to pay the salaries of the highly-skilled people, now for the most part still employed by newspapers, needed to gather, investigate, process and write or film the online news.

Somewhere along the line the idea slipped into newspaper gospel that it’s the managers who count. As staffs are cut masses of managers gather in conference rooms to wring their hands and strategize. Sadly, at least half of newspaper managers, and perhaps more, have about as much potential for innovation and revolution as the cement in the parking lot. It’s the news gatherers, photographers, filmers and coordinators, the online empresarios, the worker bees, who are important and most likely to be innovative here. A good reporter’s value exceeds that of his or her weight in rubies. Managers are a dime a dozen.

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Newspapers whine a lot about the economy, and there’s no denying it delivered a big punch. But the overwhelming debt many newspaper companies had incurred because of bad decisions made before the punch seems to be the tipping point. Well-run newspapers hunkered down and made it through the last depression; it’s not clear that there are that many well-run newspapers around these days.

It’s also instructive that most newspapers, back in the day, had other sources of revenue to cushion falls. Job printing was one of those --- many newspapers also were the principal printers and private publishers in their communities. Technology turned most of us into our own printers and innovative non-newspaper companies absorbed the rest of that market. Newspapers just let it go in order to focus on their “core” product, then lost track of what the core product was.

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Push comes to shove, I truly believe daily newspapers are the dinosaurs that critics in more agile media say they are, lumbering off into the sunset and adversely affecting a lot of fine journalists and us subscriber/advertiser owners as they fossilize and fail.

I still have hope for weeklies and community journals that continue to offer, for a price, something that’s not readily available elsewhere, that know what their core product is and that have not broken their connection with the folks like you and me who really own them.

I hate to see newspapers go. It think we’ll all be less well informed, more prone to swallow nonsense we read somewhere on the Web and pass it on, just too lazy to look hard for the truth.

I miss having a reasonably coherent summary of city, state, nation and world conveniently processed, packaged and printed on sheets of paper that I can study at my leisure --- and ever hopeful still buy The Register now and then.

I think it’ll all work out in the end --- we’re a remarkably innovative lot and there are lots of intelligent, creative, curious, committed people out there willing to track down and turn in the bad guys, one of the best things newspapers used to do. There may even be room for innovative continuing, new or resurrected news products printed on real newsprint.

But it’s been a bumpy ride and it’s likely to get bumpier. So fasten your seat belts.

1 comment:

Ed Abbey said...

I gave up on the Register not because I disliked it. I still remember the good feeling of having all the print in my hands and being able to digest it at my leisure. I disliked it because of the carriers. Back in the day, they were reliabe and on time. Last fall when I finally had enough, I was missing a newspaper two and three times a week because they just weren't delivered and over the last several years would have to go through several weeks of complaining because it would be delivered to my roof, the flowerbeds, the street, the driveway under the car, etc. Once I got a new delivery person trained by complaining, he would up and quit a few months later and the process repeated itself. I just got tired of it and decided the paper wasn't worth it. If I could get it delivered reliably again, I would subscribe in a heartbeat.