Friday, May 8, 2009

When readers are converted into chatterers

IS THERE ANYTHING  more that one can add to the endless eulogies that are being intoned for the sadly imminent demise of the newspaper industry?   Probably not, although there is still talk in the front offices that somehow your daily newspaper will indeed survive.  But there is less clarity on what the survivors will look like.

Such were the guarded opinions of three Northeast Ohio editors who occupied the dais of an Akron Press Club luncheon program in the Martin Center on Thursday. And, I regret to note, there wasn't much said that suggested full confidence in the industry's future.   They agreed bravely and with collegiality that there would be a future, as well as agreeing on everything else that infected the revenues of their dailies - the Internet, the recession, the shrinking ad bases as well as the shrinking news room staffs that can only mean shrinking news coverage. And that budgetary retreat, of course, will fray the papers' tight ropes even more. 

The panel included Bruce Winges, the Beacon Journal's editor and vice  president (the veep title comes with the territory); Susan Goldberg, the Plain Dealer editor; and Jeff Gauger, the executive editor of the Canton Repository.   Unsurprisingly, they gave a lot of attention to electronic editions and home pages that prompt comments  in what is now the  buzzword of the new media generation - reader conversations.   As a later arrival in the blogging business after 40 years  in the newspaper world,  I suppose I should concede the benefits of readers chatting with each other, and even getting vulgar at too many times, although I'm not sure what they are.   And someday we may learn more about how electronic comments sold more print newspapers. 

I would agree that today's newspaper editors are being held hostage by faraway corporate owners who read dollar signs better than the stuff in news columns.  Even the great media Midas, Rupert Murdoch, has taken some major hits to his pocketbook with his overzealous aspirations of owning the entire industry.  Did he misread Wall Street's tea leaves?

The essential question today is how did the industry get to this swampy point.  Recession? it hurts.  Electronic media? Of course it had a role.    But you must roll back the tape for a quarter century to find the   beginning of the end. 

 I was happy to hear Goldberg suggest that newspapers simply weren't paying attention - not yesterday, nor last year - but a couple of decades ago when, as she put it, they were making profits of "20-30-40 pct."  and weren't motivated to be innovative. (The media and General Motors must have been sharing trade secrets on how to stand pat.)  But Wall Street was still dissatisfied with those fat profit margins and one of the marquee owners,  Tony Ridder,  from his richly provided outpost in California,  represented the corporate thrust to freeze hiring at the Beacon Journal for many months at a time to assure still greater profit margins.  It's been all downhill ever since.  (The staff was always assured the cutbacks would not hurt the product! Fat chance. )

Too bad.  We are now being told that even with lean news rooms the remaining readers will get the full measure of local coverage, investigative journalism and even some stories about the arts.  That's a nice try, but newsroom production requires people, not robotic efforts to join every paper in Ohio with single story sources.  The habit-forming  charm and consistency of the daily newspaper are no longer in play.  Competitive  reporting among newspapers is history.  And so the reader is the loser.  If reporters are limited to clinging to their jobs and not jumping out of bed at dawn to see whether he or she  was beaten by a newspaper up the road, the assembly-line stories become increasingly lifeless.  Will that be the price of survival? 

Journalists have been ridiculed over the years as "trained seals".  I used to laugh it off to disguise my bruised feelings.   Today I believe it would be fair to apply the term to the publishers who have presided over the decline and fall of their papers while being taken to lunch by their brokers.   


1 comment:

TimJayFitz said...

Cutting the size of the paper while raising the price always seemed like an "interesting" idea to me.

Pay more for less - brilliant!