Abandoned newspaper racksIt hurts to read Bill Wyman’s blunt, sometimes savage piece on Five Key Reasons Why Newspapers Are Failing, but the veteran journalist says some things that need to be said. Unlike recent analyses that have mainly focused on the industry’s business challenges, Wyman aims his guns squarely at the editors and reporters whom he believes fostered a culture of risk-aversion and self-absorption even as the need for change grew urgent. Although the piece is heavy on anecdotes and light on statistical evidence, we found ourselves nodding in agreement frequently as Wyman ticked off a list of editorial missteps.

Perhaps the most damning point in the 9,000-word opus is when the author lists headlines from a “recent” (actually, it was well over a year ago) features section of an unnamed local newspaper (actually, it was the Arizona Republic). They include: “Post office food drive,” “Fight Crohn’s and colitis,” “Mom and Estában,” “Healthful salsa non-guilty pleasure,” and

“Great gifts for teachers.” The point: “There was nothing there of remote interest [to] just about any sentient being. But that’s not what the paper’s editors were aiming for. The point is that there was nothing there that could possibly offend anyone.”

Wyman hammers home this point repeatedly. In his view, advertisers and editors joined in an unholy alliance decades ago in which watchdog journalism was sacrificed to reliable and profitable ad contracts, stable circulation and don’t-rock-the-boat blandness. As a consequence, the guiding principle in editorial departments changed from informing the public to offending as few people as possible. Causing a reader to cancel a subscription was the ultimate sin. Better to under-inform than to antagonize.

As a longtime arts critic, Wyman has some stories to back up the premise. He tells of one arts editor who instructed him to avoid negativity in reviews because readers didn’t want to “hear bad things about their favorite artists over breakfast.” Reviews sections in local papers are almost unfailing positive, or at worst blasé, he notes. Arts sections are filled out with snippets from those stanchions of informational blandness: Press releases.

“Let’s be honest. Most newspapers in the U.S. aren’t watchdogs…Most papers are instead lapdogs, and the metaphorical lap they sit in isn’t even that of powerful interests like their advertisers…The real tyrant the papers served was the tender sensibilities of their readers,” he writes.

Tangled Web

The piece is equally damning in its criticism of newspaper websites, which Wyman believes are too often ponderous, difficult to use and inwardly focused. Search results return rivers of irrelevant promotions that the user doesn’t care about and that exist only to serve the interests of internal constituents, he says. External links are far too rare and readability is managed by people whose expertise is mostly in print. As a result, newspaper websites are some of the least useful properties on the Web, which is a shame because their content should be some of the most useful.

Wyman’s piece makes valuable reading, if only to hammer home the problems of a change-averse culture that still exists in many metro dailies. In part, that attitude is a hangover of management greed that has steadily pared back resources in the interest of maintaining 20% profit tax margins. However, the evils of management are a horse has been beaten to death pretty thoroughly by now. What’s different about Wyman’s perspective is that he takes editors and reporters to step to task for not doing more with the resources they have. Pack journalism and the not-invented-here mentality frustrate efforts at meaningful change. Last week’s acquisition of EveryBlock by Microsoft and MSNBC – rather than by a newspaper company — is just another indication that these businesses don’t move quickly enough.

Bloggers’ Harsh Glare

One insight that we found particularly illuminating is Wyman’s observation that the freewheeling — some would say reckless — culture of the blogosphere has cast a harsh light on the mediocrity that many newspapers have dished out for years. “The Web mercilessly exposes the flaccidness of the content of most papers. It creates a straightjacket for them: As they desperately bland themselves out on land, the material they have on hand to impress in cyberspace is correspondingly pallid,” he writes.

This point deserves special attention. Journalists like to trash talk bloggers for lacking basic journalism skills, but for all its weaknesses, the blogosphere is nothing if not interesting. Put another way, the sudden availability of massive choice exposes boring information for what it is. Big media could get away with mediocrity for many years because readers had no choice. Now that they do, the weakness of the products is magnified.

Wyman’s piece is far from perfect, being at times more tirade than exposé. But it is thought-provoking and — dare we say it — interesting. To hear him tell it, that’s a characteristic that’s all too often missing from the publications he criticizes.

Miscellany

After six quarters of stomachturning losses, newspaper companies finally reported some stability in the most recent quarter, and even a couple of upside surprises. The Wall Street Journal asks if the recovery is sustainable and largely concludes that it isn’t. One unexpected factor in the industry’s recent good fortune has been the plummeting price of paper, which is down nearly 40% in the last nine months. But the Journal expects those prices to come back as the market winnows out some weaker players. It also points to recent research indicating that marketers are more likely to cut newspaper and direct-mail spending than any other line item in the name of increasing their interactive budgets.


Rupert Murdoch’s British newspaper company plans to close the free daily thelondonpaper after reporting a ₤13 million pretax loss. Thelondonpaper is one of two afternoon free dailies, which are targeted mainly at young commuters. It lost ₤12.9 million in the fiscal year ended June 2008 on revenue of just ₤14.1 million. About 60 jobs are affected, though it’s not clear how many people will lose their jobs.


Marty Petty, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist-turned-successful-publisher, will leave the St. Petersburg Times after nine years. Calling the apparently voluntary move a “business decision” that reflects the shrinking size of the newspaper, Petty said management must adjust along with employees. Petty was a member of two Pulitzer Prize-winning teams at the Kansas City Star and Times in 1982. She later joined the Hartford Courant, where she rose to the position of associate publisher. She was named the Tampa Bay Business Journal’s BusinessWoman of the Year for media in 2005.


pornWhat do journalists and porn stars have in common? Plenty, according to a short piece in New York magazine. Jessica Pressler writes that pornographers who were making good money online just a couple of years ago are suddenly confronting a new threat from amateur videographers who are giving away all the sex you can watch for free. Once highly paid porn stars are complaining that they can’t find work and there’s little new blood coming into the system. Pressler suggests that maybe The New York Times ought to steal a page from the porn industry by focusing more on stars than on programs. That means orchestrating the careers and various activities of its best reporters instead of simply publishing their stuff.

Comments

comments

This entry was posted on Thursday, August 20th, 2009 at 4:02 pm and is filed under Advertising, Business News, BusinessModel, Circulation, Future of Journalism, Journalism, Layoffs, Murdoch, NewMedia, Newspapers, R.I.P.. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

10 Comments

  1. August 20, 2009 @ 7:35 pm



    The London Paper also died today…… but it was a freebie

    Posted by mike wheeler
  2. August 20, 2009 @ 7:36 pm



    The London Paper also died today…… but then it was a freebie

    Posted by mike wheeler
  3. August 21, 2009 @ 9:27 am



    I’m taking a course in media business this fall and the textbook dates from 2002.

    I’m going to shut up and let the teacher fantasize on about revenue and expenditure figures.

    I’ll be salting the rest of the students with some questions to ask him.

    Then I’ll take notes, smile quietly at myself … and pass.

    Posted by msbpodcast
  4. August 21, 2009 @ 2:53 pm



    Just throwing it in: on YouTube to find is an old, done around 1940, advertisement
    for potential journalists. It tells in about 10 minutes how the newspapers work, what
    they do, what the jobs of reporters is like, and so on. It has a certain naivity to it.
    Can be recommended to anyone with a sense of humor and bit of curiosity
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9rvBgaxUXrc

    Posted by Joe
  5. August 21, 2009 @ 8:00 pm



    Thanks Joe. I enjoyed it. :-)

    Posted by msbpodcast
  6. August 23, 2009 @ 11:28 am



    It’s right to point blame at editors and lackluster scribes. The decline of newspapers is especially evident on so many op-ed pages, typically populated these days by former newsroom editors who survived the cut but who are not very well acquainted with the princely, prima-donna, historic legacy of good op-ed writing. These eds are not used to handling the kind of temperaments best suited for the page; they bristle when they are told something they don’t want to hear. The result is good contributors going elsewhere and the paper left printing a bunch of opinions by politicians–whom their newsrooms already give enough publicity–and professors, who tend towards the soporific when expressing themselves.

    Blaming the Internet—the Internet just reinforced the lazy ethos, as scribes in the newsroom started to cull blogs rather than stay in people’s faces. But the best blogs are the ones that actually make phone calls and appointments–just like the best scribes—and offer insight when they aggregate rather than just aggregate alone.

    Radio didn’t go away when tv came along–it morphed into something more precious, and found its niche, especially in automobiles. But the newspaper people–it’s like a bunch of people showed up with pea-shooters at the castle, and the people in the castle not only surrendered, they devoted the next decade to intensive pea-shooter research and development themselves. They went overboard.

    Posted by joseph
  7. August 24, 2009 @ 11:31 am



    The problem with all these local papers is that they serve these small c0mmunities (less than 50,000) and really, their purpose is to highlight the positives of that community. I am frequently disgusted with my small local paper because it never critically analyzes or criticizes local businesses, institutions or issues. It is published twice a week and frequently misses stories, and fails to follow up on stories about 50% of the time.

    But it exists to cover local kids in their sporting and educational endeavors, births, deaths, marriages, local clubs (gardening, book club, etc), and local history, etc. These small papers are going to have to go local to survive. They are doing a very bad job at covering national issues, and are frequently blatantly partisan. If they didn’t do that, then the local advertisers would not pay for them, and they certainly cannot get more money out of subscribers. Most newspapers in the country serve communities that are too small to really support critical investigative journalism because they also depend too much on the advertising moneys of the very businesses and institutions they should investigate. And don’t get me started on local government….

    Posted by Lisa
  8. August 25, 2009 @ 3:33 pm



    “Radio didn’t go away when tv came along–it morphed into something more precious, and found its niche, especially in automobiles.” -Joseph

    The production model of broadcast was stretched by the introduction of television, but not into places where it didn’t belong. You “cant” watch TV and drive.

    The business model of producer/consumer was not put at risk through the introduction of the already defunct VCR, DVDs, CDs and their players.

    But the introduction of the CD recorder and the DVD recorder started to enable media shifting,

    The arrival of broadband has put on life support all of the other media which relied on the producer/consumer economic models.

    The disintermediation of intellectual property from its expression in some form of protectable product is half of he problem facing traditional media.

    The possibility of maintaining a conversation with anyone, any group, over the entire planet for essentially nothing, the rise of so-called social media, is the other problem facing the traditional media.

    That feature is the one that is effectively “pulling the plug” on Gran’ma Media.

    And, while they try to sue their own consumers into submission, to conquer he first problem, they have nothing to say about the second, because there is nothing they CAN say.

    Marx would be so proud.

    The means of production are now affordable enough to be owned and controlled by the workers.

    And it all happened because a whole bunch of people saw a buck to be made selling prosumer toys to all those people.

    At some point, the production quality became “good enough” and all of that babble broke out of the tower.

    Posted by msbpodcast
  9. August 25, 2009 @ 4:44 pm



    Well said. “Good enough” usually beats great if the technology is affordable enough. The glut of information has created a glut of advertising inventory, which is forcing down prices and disrupting the business model. This isn’t TV challenging radio, it’s the printed word challenging the Catholic Church. The impact on societal power structures will be profound.

    Posted by Paul Gillin