Sunday, January 4, 2009

De-pressed newspapers

I'VE BEEN  searching for a "happy" to attach to a New Year greeting to the newspaper business but I might as well have been hunting for a truffle at the summit of  Mt. Everest.  Except for some untested initiatives that are being advanced as stimulants to revive the heartbeat at a few papers, nothing else suggests that publishers have the slightest clue about what to do next to meet the challenges to their besieged newsrooms.  Instead they have chosen to compete with themselves in ways that defy basic  Journalism 101 rules that once echoed in college classrooms.

Indeed, we seldom even hear the word "journalism" mentioned anymore in the fixes that are being prescribed to stop the bloodshed.  A couple of nostrums that are being watched with anticipation in the industry  are being applied in Detroit and Cincinnati, so try to stay with me on these.  In Detroit, the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press  proclaimed a "sweeping set of strategic and innovative  changes designed to better meet advertiser and reader needs"  that, among other elements of the sweeper, will restrict home delivery to three days a week - Thursday, Friday and Sunday.  On the other days it will be available at your local newstand.  Okay.   The papers said the cutback in home delivery was recommended by a "leading global design company"   to meet economic pressure.  But the question remains:  How do you improve readership, on which advertising revenue is based, by cutting doorstep delivery four days a week?   You don't, can't and won't.    Out of sight, out of...

And what about the Cincinnati Enquirer's plan to to limit the number of days that it will carry classified advertising? Oh?  And to shrink the popular TV grid to evening programs on major stations? 

I don't have to be reminded that all papers are experiencing circulation and advertising declines and all of the folks in the board rooms are twisting their handkerchiefs these days.  On the other hand, did  I see an industry figure the other day that said the average profit for newspapers is a lively 20 pct.?  

I don't know how long newspapers will be around, although my guess is that they might outlive their current projected actuarial tables.  But it is well within the comfort zone of mostly absentee  owners to blame their misery on the economic climate rather than an internal  systemic problem that has been slowly eroding the quality of their products for more than two decades. For every round of layoffs, cutbacks and hiring freezes, there was always someone with a title assuring the readers that none of this would affect the quality of the paper.  If you close a bureau, that affects the quality.  If you eliminate a beat, that affects the quality. If you replace experienced reporters with entry level journalism graduates,   that affects the quality.  It is with some relief that I no longer  see the word quality used to soften the blow of more layoffs.

Joe Strupp, a columnist for Editor & Publisher, put it this way: 

"Somehow newspaper owners continue to think that the way to handle economic downturns is to make their product worse by eliminating its most important asset, people.  But with fewer reporters to dig up news as newspapers transition to the Web their content is going look more and more like everything else on line, limited and poorly reported."

There has been  scarcity of professional imagination in recent years to retard the retreat from excellence in newspapers as most front offices are content to endorse  the cost-cutting decrees of the owners without a whimper.   But cutbacks are not imaginative.  Graphics changes are hardly imaginative although the editors love to talk about how many sections they have moved  to other places in the paper.   There are repeated appeals to readers to advise the papers on what should appear in their news columns each day, a decision once left to the professional judgment of editors.  Can you imagine a fire  chief arriving at the site of a burning home and asking the neighbors to advise him on how to put out out the blaze?

Editors have surrendered whatever are left of their options to the modern gorilla at the top of their chain of command:  Wall Street, a discredited gang that measures newsapaper quality with stock quotations.  If there is a longer range solution than simply cutting everything to the  bone - a point of no return - it should be fair to ask whether today's newspaper is really in the newspaper business or preparing the way or an indecent burial?

Shortly before his death in 1981, John S. Knight told me his great regret was that the Knight Newspapers board had agreed in 1974 to merge with Ridder newspapers, making it widely accountable to public stock.  He saw no way that the papers that bore his family's name with enormous success could escape the demands of Wall Street  on profit-and-loss statements in good times and bad.  He died a very rich - and highly respected - editor and publisher, the last by many degrees of his titled foresight that had placed quality at the top of his papers' pyramid. .  

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Trufle on Mt. Everest" is felicitous.