The newspaper disease

iNSIDE AND OUTSIDE of the paper, there’s no confusion about who the paper belongs to. Not the editors who built it, not the reporters who fill it with articles, but the men who bought and paid for it. - David Carr

This was the killer graph of David Carr’s mournful recent column, At the Journal, the Words Not Spoken.” There are two big assertions here—ones that helped cause the great slide in the newspaper business. First, Carr implies newspapers are for the newsroom, not for the readers. And second, he suggests that there’s something wrong with the owners of a paper actually running it.

These are wrong ideas, ones that have tripped up journalism over the last 50 years, setting a fluid, dynamic business like concrete, into a stiff, unresponsive institution. J-school defined the methodology; the unions dictated the job descriptions; and the big chains, with their organization charts and greed did the rest.

Reporters, led by The Newspaper Guild, acted on the assumption that their profession was as permanent as that of doctors and lawyers, and as such, could survive all kinds of specialization, never mind featherbedding. More than a profession, the newsroom was convinced that journalism was a public trust, which implies that the public was somehow complicit in this. Journalists believed that they had deserved this trust. The business was so good that the permanence of their social institution was taken for granted.

Of course the public was involved in the deal, but not in the way journalists came to think. People bought the newspapers, not so much because they needed them, but because they liked them. Newspapers were useful, yes, and even necessary during wars and recessions, but people paid money for them because they were interesting and sometimes fun.

The 1920s-style, general-assignment reporter (cf., The Front Page) who could cover anything and write it up beautifully, all the while drinking heavily, was actually interested in selling newspapers. He (and it was mostly male in those days, notwithstanding His Girl Friday, the remake of The Front Page, starring Rosalind Russell) took delight in a zesty mix of cranks, crackpots, clowns and crooked politicians. Newspapers ran the photo of plane crashes, the maps of battles, the profiles of movie queens and breakaway baseball players and random escaped zoo animals. There were not a lot of correspondents down at the city hall waiting for press releases.

They had competition at the beginning, but it was with other newspapers that might have writers who would occasionally be guilty of juicing up a quote to make a better read. Or worse. This underpaid hack was gradually replaced by a better-trained, more responsible specialist who turned in less copy. The rewrite desk, with wordsmiths in the “slot,” was abolished. By the time I started working on newspapers in school, the daily had become a boring update on minor changes to the social status quo, crime and traffic stories, and an occasional big “enterprise” piece that reminded you of a chapter in your social studies textbook.

Radio, TV and then the Internet carved away the assumed franchise and started to sap the great profits that the newspaper owners had gotten used to. In the last quarter, the newspaper decline seems to have taken a steeper dive, and some senior news executives doubt that they’ll be able to pull up before the revenue line crashes below the expenses line.

As with the federal government, it won’t help to keep doing more of the things that aren’t working. It won’t work to keep cheapening the product. To use Gordon Bethune’s line about a similar problem in the airline business: “You can take so much cheese off the pizza that nobody will eat it.”

A New York Times employee told me this weekend that an editor at can’t put copy on the web site. Only a “producer” can do that. This is a perfect example of running newspapers like they were permanent fixtures on the landscape that could be loaded with all kinds of redundant job descriptions and still stand up. The designer who told me this probably has a better idea of what to do to turn around the paper than does Arthur Sulzberger, along with all of his sisters and his cousins and his aunts.

What is needed is a fundamental restructuring of the newspaper business. And it has gotten too late to expect the inmates to redesign the asylum. It’s going to have to be done by the proprietors. Willful, single-minded, near-genius proprietors like the ones who built the business. Sam Zell may not be the man to do it. He has not reduced the insanity at the Tribune Company no matter how many have quit or been laid off or fired. But he’s in a better position to fix the problem than the McCormick and Chandler heirs, or the stagnant old managers, or the stultified newsrooms in L.A. or Chicago (unionized or not).

Newspapers have about a year to get rid of all the people who can’t pull their own weight and to redeploy all the smart energetic journalists who can find the great stories and push them out to print, web and video. Some papers still have lots of talent, but they must push it to the front so readers can find it and find that they like it. Papers which continue to bury the smart people (or have already driven them away) will not make the cut. With the current recession, if newspapers don't move quickly, the market will crush them.

Rupert Murdoch knows something about markets and about restructuring (e.g., The Wapping dispute, 1986). He has a better chance of saving The Wall Street Journal than the Bancroft heirs did. Taking a page or two out of the Hearst or Pulitzer or Thomson books, Murdoch can work quickly and instinctively to change the paper. He already has by putting in more non-business news. Whether he is on the right track, time will tell. But I wouldn’t bet against him. Nor would I assume that “the Dirty Digger,” as they called him when he arrived in London, doesn’t understand good journalism. He is a born journalist. He takes great risks and will support great reporting, even when the establishment is pushing against him and the lawyers are lined up at the gate. (I was at the old New West when they did a piece on Jim Jones, whose legacy is the horrible “drinking the Kool Aid.” Murdoch owned New York and New West then, and when a number of California big wigs tried to get the magazine to stop the investigation, Murdoch said, “If you’ve got the goods, print the story. I’ll back you up.”) That’s what sells papers.

Whether the Times will counter by out-reporting and out-writing the Journal on its own turf—business—is unlikely, but that would be an easier goal than Murdoch’s. This competition might save both papers’ business propositions.

The reporters and editors of The Wall Street Journal, of all papers, should know this, and know about the value and rights of private property. If they had been truly watching the markets, they would have known that the newspaper business is in a tailspin, and unlikely to pull out of it. They should have been ready for the crash.

David Carr described their sadness to see a colleague, Marcus W. Brauchli, go. But, they shouldn't have been surprised.

Your Thoughts (2 comments)

2008-05-15 by Brad King

Still Conventional Thinking

While the piece certainly makes an effort to understand the structural problems at newspapers, your argument makes the same mistake so many traditionalist make: that reporters, editors and designers have the solutions to the problem. **SNIP** Newspapers have about a year to get rid of all the people who can’t pull their own weight and to redeploy all the smart energetic journalists who can find the great stories and push them out to print, web and video. Some papers still have lots of talent, but they must push it to the front so readers can find it and find that they like it. ** Your argument assumes that the medium -- the Internet and the Web -- operate with the same functionality as print and television. Just as radio is good for one type of information, television another and print a third, we need to begin to understand that data -- not stories and picture -- drive the web. That means developing databases and creating tools that allow people to function in a read/write world. Adding video to a print story with audio and putting it on the Web is a clunky -- and ultimately misguided -- way to conceive of the Web. The smart people are the ones who understand the role of the media (Fourth Estate) and the function use of the medium (crunching data, read/write communication) and building the core business around that.

2008-05-19 by Myer Berlow

A Disease needs a diagnosis the Newspaper industry demands and Autopsy

I am not sure I want to argue with your opinion here, so I think I will couch this in the form of another facet of the same problem.

I think the issue of “who the paper is for” (the writers, the owners, or the people) is less an issue than the fact that in the discussion, the word “consumer” is thought to be interchangeable with the words “reader,” “audience,” and “people.”

The decline of the newspaper business wasn’t due to union demands or owners’ greed, it was due to pure stupidity, a lack of the acknowledgment of responsibility and the failure to understand the mission of news organizations, the role they played and the business they had. Since newspapers lost sight of their role long before the advent of “new media” there is confusion as to the decline and a perception that the business is crumbling quickly when in fact the bankruptcy came a long time before the money ran out.

The demographics of the reader were clearly on the decline years ago as the audience aged steadily for decades. Newspapers saw this as a problem of getting young readers, when in fact, it was an issue of getting “new” readers. The test however wasn’t the numbers it was the fact that Americans felt comfortable saying that they got their news from TV as early as 1980. To admit that your source of news was a 30-minute newscast so early in the day that most people didn’t see it (the combined news audience was less than the audience for “Sanford and Sons”) was an admission of ignorance that was staggering. This said a lot about the role of newspapers in the mind of Americans and the response of the newspaper industry was tragic.

They attempted to compete. In itself that would not have been so bad but it was done without regard to the traditional role of the press in America. When “audience reaction” and “what people wanted to buy” became the yardstick all the tradition of journalism went out the window and any pretense to the concept of “free press” and the underlying rational of “free speech” went with it. “Free speech” was based on the belief that the electorate would choose in the marketplace of ideas. That was the reason the Founding Fathers took care to protect it. The marketplace of ideas isn’t what a collection of conglomerates have created. They are marketing products not allowing ideas to compete in the marketplace. When you “market” content you begin to blur the line between free speech and commercial speech. One is protected by the First Amendment and the other isn’t. Someday the argument will be made that pornography, paparazzi, and People magazine are in the same category as advertising and are not therefore protected speech.

Journalists, who did not give up, focused on becoming the next Woodward and Bernstein, which wouldn’t have been so bad except that the end they had in mind wasn’t the breaking of the story but the sale of the movie rights. (Which I am sure wasn’t a motivation of the Watergate reporters) Who today will pursue a “Pentagon Papers” story? When the Times held back the wiretapping story until after the election they perverted the First Amendment in a fundamental way. To be so concerned about one’s sources as to go to jail but so unconcerned about the rights of the people to know that you withhold a story until after the election represents misplaced priorities.

The “union issue” is as irrelevant here as it is to all the other industries it is applied to. Labor cost is the whipping boy of incompetent managers who lack vision and need an excuse. It wasn’t labor who killed the auto industry it was the multimillion dollar salaried management who didn’t design or market cars successfully. It wasn’t the salaries of the pressmen or reporters that killed newspapers it was the lack of vision of the managers who moved up the corporate ladder or out of the right womb to lead their companies into a dead-end. Sam Zell bought the Tribune for all the other assets that the company put their money into for years as they refused to invest in their business.

Newspapers limped along to the late 1990’s watching the economics decline living off the fat reserves they built up over the years (real estate, other media, etc), and they were able to fool themselves into thinking that the strong were surviving a sort of media Darwinism. Efficiencies were achieved but “looking hard at their business” was as rare an exercise as looking at their role and responsibility. They chose to ignore the Internet as it threatened their business. (Ignoring something that’s a threat is not a strategy that often proves successful.)

They attempted to “sell their content” through online subscriptions (a strategy that has proved to be only a little bit better than ignoring a threat but still about equal to the strategy of pushing water up hill).

I remember the rational they gave. “We cannot lower the value of our content” was interchangeable with the argument that “it will cannibalize newsstand sales” and then when they did “put their product online” they did it in a way that could best be described as taking a knife to a gunfight. Rather than using their vast resources to do breakthrough online programming with the added advantage of reader involvement they essentially published their papers in HTML format. To use their offline media to promote online entries was seen as promoting competition and wasn’t done as it also violated the basic strategy of ignoring the media they hoped would disappear. They lost the opportunity to create a relationship with their readers. If you look at the blogs which have mushroomed in the past years you get an idea of the potential content they gave away.

In the advertising area their lack of understanding and insight as to the true nature of their business led them to forget that classified advertising was the franchise to protect. They refused to create a local interactive marketplace that people could use. The “lost value” is only possible to calculate by looking at EBay’s market cap but when Craigslist goes public (an event that is thankfully far off in the distant future so it will not embarrass the remaining newspaper organizations who gave that business away through inaction and incompetence).

So they gave away, content, community, and commerce and what was left?

In a way the decline could be seen in the way we see politics. But I don’t think we get the government we deserve any more than I think that the quality of television needs to sink to or below the IQ of the average American to be successful. Newspapers are where they are because they failed to fulfill their role and the “blame,” if there is any, ought to fall squarely on the management, who lost sight of their responsibilities to the shareholders, to the industry, and ultimately to the citizens of the country who protected their rights to a free press.

Imagine people risking their lives for the “right of a free press” when the press is Fox News in print.

I’d rather read blogs of people who don’t know anything about the subject they are talking about than corporate news produced by companies who are concerned with their “news product” and producing “efficiencies of scale.”

Sorry if this is so long, but it seems to me that when it costs nothing to publish the length of a piece is only governed by the attention span of the reader. In my case also the attention span of the writer.

Thank you Roger for setting this off in my mind.

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