Wednesday, July 04, 2007

"That was then but this is now. What are you going to do about it?"

David Sullivan: "That was then but this is now. What are you going to do about it?"
Posted by Sniffer dog at 7/3/2007 7:58 AM and is filed under Innovation,Weaknesses,NEWSPAPERS,Online newspapers,US journalism,journalists,Journalism,Convergence,Trends
SnifferDog writes: This is a column by David Sullivan, a journalist in Philadelphia, written especially for Inksniffer. It's a passionate plea for newspaper people, management and staff, to stop destroying their own business and work out what we need to do to survive and thrive. Please leave comments and throw your ideas for what newspapers might do into the pot. You can call it brainstorming. You can call it open-source innovation. You can call it thinking out loud. But our first steps will be fueled by our own ideas and the things we do with them.


We need to form a new trade organization: Journalists Who Believe in Printed Newspapers.
JBPN isn’t much as an acronym, so someone else can do better. But it’s become clear that blogs, discussions and articles on the (nearly always hopeless) future of the printed newspaper are not merely composed of those looking on with disinterested analysis. There are People Who Honestly Are Platform Agnostic, and then there are People Who Are Internet Triumphalists, and People Who Just Hate Print, and People Who Hate Print Because They’re All Damn Liberals Over There.
And they get a lot of mileage out of their ideas.

Sure, let a thousand schools of thought contend. But The Next Big Thing always gets more press than the Currently Existing Thing. So those of us who believe that the Currently Existing Thing has a future – here at The Inksniffer, Juan Antonio Giner with Innovation in Newspapers, Alan Mutter with Reflections of a Newsosaur, Samir Husni at Ole Miss, and many many more - need to speak louder.

Yes, the Internet is a wonderful medium and tool for us to learn with and from and develop many journalistic uses for. It’s tres cool. But as was noted on this blog recently – the Internet is part of our future, it is not the future.
Think of cities. At one time Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse or Wright’s Broadacre City were the utopian future. Crumbling cities would be torn down and replaced by World’s Fair visions of towers in the garden for the uplifting of mankind. Then Escape From New York and Blade Runner became the future and 1970s-style urban dystopia was inevitable.
In Philadelphia in 2007, I walk on the same streets Washington and Jefferson did and pass some of the buildings they saw. I also pass high-rise towers surrounded by gardens. We have bombed-out districts and vital neighborhoods. Most of what was predicted happened – but only to some extent. None of the predictions became the single, unavoidable answer.

Some of this is the persistence of infrastructure and culture. But also, people who believed in historic buildings acted not just to save them, but to give them new uses so they would be economically viable to save. People who believed in downtowns saw that while the 1950s Main Street was gone, downtowns could prosper with the right mix of residences, culture and businesses.

At the same time, it took downtowns a long time to begin to recover because people had to get over wanting to “bring it back the way it was.” The world we operated in even 10 years ago is gone for good. It’s up to us to position print for the 21st century. Doing so doesn’t mean we didn’t do our jobs in the 20th as well as we could.

So the Internet is not the single, historic, inevitable answer to our future. It's not the single thing that we need to devote all of our time to at the expense of letting the printed paper go to its inevitable death. Because there never is a single answer.

But, of course, we’re scared. And newspaper owners are even more scared. And so as an industry we try to cover every bet. It’s all about search! It’s all about video! It’s all about podcasts! It’s all about blogs! It’s all about social networking! It’s all about citizens’ band radio! It’s all about Betamax! Whoops…

Take just one of those categories, video. TV stations snoozed a long time, but they are getting more serious about the Internet. They have 60 years of experience doing video. We don’t. Their staffs’ only purpose is producing video. We have a few people who can do it and have to parse or pirate resources to get more.

And the Internet for TV is mostly a change in method of transmission. Video on a computer by broadband is pretty much like video on a TV screen. Sure, you can add links and the like, but they're still in the same field.
For newspapers, video is an effective tool – for some stories. And we can make good use of it as an adjunct. But video isn’t our primary business. And we have to watch over the manufacturing and distribution business as well. Video is their entire business.

So who’s my money on to ultimately dominate video on the Web? Hint: They’re not listed in the E&P Year Book.

We like to think of ourselves as in the news business or the media business, following Theodore Levitt’s Harvard Business Review article, “Marketing Myopia,” in 1960:

“The railroads did not stop growing because the need for passenger and freight transportation declined. That grew. The railroads are in trouble today not because that need was filled by others (cars, trucks, airplanes, and even telephones) but because it was not filled by the railroads themselves. They let others take customers away from them because they assumed themselves to be in the railroad business rather than in the transportation business. The reason they defined their industry incorrectly was that they were railroad oriented instead of transportation oriented; they were product oriented instead of customer oriented....”

And from that many would draw the conclusion that we are wrong to see ourselves in the newspaper business and whether there is a print product is irrelevant and thus comes the inevitable triumph of all things Internet, because the railroads should just have junked all their trains and gotten out of that 19th century vestige known as the railroad business.

But less known is that later in the article Levitt said:

“As transporters, the railroads still have a good chance for very considerable growth. They are not limited to the railroad business as such (though in my opinion rail transportation is potentially a much stronger transportation medium than is generally believed). What the railroads lack is not opportunity, but some of the same managerial imaginativeness and audacity that made them great.”

In other words, there was nothing inherently wrong with the railroad business as long as you saw it as a part of the transportation business. Once there was more than one way to get to Bugletown, saying “We have one train to Bugletown that leaves at 3:13 a.m., and you’re welcome to buy a ticket on it between 4 and 6 p.m. the previous day” no longer worked. But saying “close down the trains and put everything on trucks” wouldn’t work either, because the railroads knew little about the trucking business. The point was to see how you could serve the customer’s needs, and as a railroad, your strong point in doing so was the railroad business. You just could not offer “this is how we do it” as your only answer to the problem. But someone else could do a better job of putting it on a truck.

Delivering breaking news on the Internet is a good thing and fun and a service to democracy and we should do it because someone is going to anyway. Using the Internet to expand and enhance the reach and influence of the newspaper and let you see things you can’t see in print is a good thing. That is seeing the newspaper business as part of the media business.

But thinking the newspaper business can somehow “transition” to being a primarily or exclusively Internet business runs into the fact that for some years, many years, decades – the time differs, but even those who want to yell “Stop the Presses” for the last time most fervently acknowledge it – most of our cash flow, most of our business, is going to be print-based.

So a newspaper company that is having to draw most of its money from its “legacy” business, and pay a huge amount of attention to the logistics and production of that business, and that has prospered and survived because it is successful in that business, is somehow going to completely change its core competency and have the funds and resources and staff to produce the Next Big Thing in the Internet business that is going to replace all that cash flow, restore profitability, bring down manna from heaven? It defies rationality. Companies whose primary business from the get-go is the Internet are going to do that.

Probably most of us know that in our hearts, but then are faced with the fact that our leaders then have to go before investors and say, “Um, well, yeah, actually, the print-newspaper business will still be a good business, but it will be a smaller business and will never have 45-percent margin cash cows again.”
Sell! Fire the board! Fire the CEO!

So we say that it’s all about the Internet and just give us time, give us time, and we’ll get there. And then there’s not as much money to improve the core business, and then the Internet Triumphalists say: "You’re dead meat, and you just haven’t noticed that your legs have turned green."

Which is very tempting to say if you have found in the Internet a wonderful place where people will flock to listen to you unedited, and get into immediate arguments with you, and create other blogs to discuss or praise or disparage you, and link to you, and you have infinite space to express fully your youness, and not chafe at the restrictions of editors and space, and when all of us can be there, we will say to ourselves, what a wonderful world.

And that world will exist, and money will be made in it; and I’m not knocking it, because this very post is part of that world; but it's just another part of the media business. It’s not the newspaper business and it’s not going to kill it.

Another false analogy often used is the buggy whip business. The buggy whip business didn’t die because people started using Star Trek transporters to get from place to place. It died because people replaced the horse with an engine. But the buggy is still there – four wheels, seats, cargo space, paint, dashboard, steering and brake mechanisms. The buggy business became the auto business, in many cases literally, because it was the same business, with a motor. The buggy business didn’t become the airplane business, even though both transport things. Now, the buggy whip business is more like the syndicated-bridge-column business. That little subset of business may indeed die. But we’re not in the buggy whip business.

We who believe that the printed newspaper 1) has a firm place in the 21st century and 2) anchors the brand under which whatever we may want to do on the Internet or anything else can stand out, have got to change our thinking. We have to put the dustbin-of-history panic out of our heads and, more importantly, others’. We have to stop assuming that any blogger who writes “I will never use a printed newspaper again” somehow stands for uncounted millions in an inevitable dialectic.

Fine, let him never read a printed newspaper again. Find the ones who want to read newspapers, and give them a Newspaper They Want. "They Want" meaning, they’re not going to just eat their vegetables because daddy journalist says it's good for them. "A Newspaper" meaning, there are still some vegetables on the plate. It’s printed and it’s got stories next to ads and it’s got a lead and someone runs it off on a press and it winds up at your home or office or corner store.

If we’re honest, we’ve known for 30 years what we need to do to make a better newspaper business. We just don’t want to do it and hoped we wouldn’t have to.

Short-sighted management is doing its part to commit newspaper suicide. (Laying off too many people is one way. Lousy reproduction on flimsy paper is another. Throwing newspapers on the street in the snow and expecting readers in 2007 to want to walk out in their slippers and pick them up at the curb is the worst.)
Journalists need to stop aiding and abetting them with our own self-destructive urges.

Students in marketing are told: You are not the customer. The fact that you want to go into marketing means you are different than the customer. Journalists go into the profession with the belief that the reader really is, or wants to be, or should be, like them.

Journalists have to overcome their contempt for readers who have less than noble motivations or interests, and work to put out a product people will want to buy. (Actually, journalists don’t have contempt for The Readers. They are proud to serve The Readers. But they have contempt for individual readers. It’s kind of like the communists distinguishing between the People and the people.)

As one colleague of mine put it in 1984: "Wouldn’t it be great if we could lose 9/10ths of our circulation, so that we could write just for people who understand what we’re doing?" Well, we’re on our way. And it would have been great, except losing 9/10ths of the staff wasn’t part of that bargain, I’m sure.

Readers have said for years that they don’t like jumps. Al Neuharth took them at their word and said one jump per section, and it is hard to believe that is not one reason that USA Today became the largest paper in America. Journalists looked at USA Today and said, well, we wouldn’t want to read that. USA Today isn’t written for journalists. It’s just written by journalists.

Readers have said for decades that they want local news – about events in their communities, about new businesses, happenings in the schools. Our responses in many cases:
1) We don’t care about that, so why should you? We didn’t go to college so we could write about bagel shops. Stupid reader.
2) We have things we care more about, like “Rationing of fuel roils Iranians.” Sorry, no bagel space.
3) OK, we might cover things like that, but only by using our college-educated journalists to write stories about whether the growth in bagel shops means that urban Jewish culture is more acceptable in the heartland. Maybe then we could run a list. Maybe, if we can find a clerk to compile it.
4) Whoops, we can’t afford to do that anymore, so, we’re going to stop doing that. We will still run “Rationing of fuel roils Iranians,” though. Some day you’ll thank us.
5) Oh, hey, but if you want to post that stuff that you seem to care about for free on our Web site, go ahead! We’ll even tell some people in the newsroom it’s their job to watch over it. But don’t expect most of them to get promoted. That will happen to the guy interviewing roiled Iranian motorists.

Readers have for decades loved comics. Every time we have to shrink the page size, we shrink the comics rather than eat into that “vital newshole,” and then say to the readers: We had no choice.

Readers have said for years that they want standing elements to be in the same place every day. Sometimes advertising wants to sell an ad there, but sometimes we just get bored with doing the baseball standings the same way, so, we change it. Readers call and complain. Stupid readers.

Readers have told us for years that they don’t have time to read the whole paper. A sorry excuse, we respond; look at all we do for you? If we could, we’d give you even more to read, and you darn well better be grateful. After all, everyone we know reads the New York Times. Does anyone we know ever say the New York Times should be smaller?

Readers have told us for years that our newspapers are dull. Journalists have told each other for years that they don’t read most of their own newspapers. Wonder why?

Readers have said for years that the paper looks crappy. Maybe when the Times has a front page that looks like the Virginian-Pilot’s it will be OK to be different. Until then most of our examples come from overseas. Take a look at Giner’s redesign of Eleftheros Typos. Take a look at the new business newspaper Mint, designed by Mario Garcia. These are products designed with readers in mind first, not with upholding journalistic tradition. What, you wonder what we can learn from Greece or India? Reminds me of Ronald Reagan flying over Sao Paulo. He looks at this modern city of skyscrapers and saying, "Gee, I didn’t know you had things like this down here".

Readers have more recently been telling us that one product doesn’t fit all needs. I am always amazed in our few remaining two-newspaper cities to see journalists occasionally advocate merging the papers on the basis of: instead of sending two reporters to cover the same meeting, one of those reporters could be doing something really, really substantive, like spending six months on a takeout project about Abyssinian wolves. State it here again: The reader is not us.

Note as well that the question is not: "What are you going to do in print to get it back up to 550,000 paid circulation and a newsroom staff of 675."

The newspaper business will never be what it was before the Internet. It is not what it was before cable news. It is not what it was before TV. It is not what it was before radio.

But then theater is not what it was before movies. Painting is not what it was before photography. Concerts are not what they were before recordings. They’re all still there, though they’re different. People enjoy them. They buy tickets and go to galleries.

And printed newspapers – different, yet still the same - will be there too, unless we really, truly wish them to go away.
Start the presses.