Death by a thousand baby steps

Rome’s burning… or rather, Rome’s presses are. Yet the emperors… or rather, editors… are fiddling with little things.

: After Rex Hammock and I said that the Times-Picayune and should win a Pulitzer for their journalism, which happened to be distributed online and could not be distributed in print after Katrina, Mark Glaser did a good act of reporting and asked the Pulitzer committee about whether work online could win their prize.

Now before you read their reply, don’t you think their answer should have been: “Well, sure, if it’s great journalism, why should we care whether it’s on paper… especially these days. We want to encourage great journalism however it happens.” That’s what they should have said. Here’s what they said, as Glaser reports:

As for a possible Pulitzer, the board has considered online presentations as part of an entry for the Public Service Award before. In this case, however, it was print journalism posted online with the absence of a print newspaper due to the hurricane damage. Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzers and a journalism professor at Columbia University, told me the Pulitzer board would have to consider any exceptions.

“As I understand it, the Times-Picayune, at some point, produced a paper as well as online coverage,” Gissler said via e-mail. “So, in theory, it could submit an entry reflecting both components. Under our rules, it is up to the Board to modify the rules or to make one-time exceptions to the rules. However, I do not want to speculate on what the Board may or may not do in a specific case. It meets again in November, its regular business meeting.”

Don’t you just want to take them by the shoulders and shake hard and shout in their faces: Wake up! Your audience is online and you’re not! You’re going to die with your audience! You are not serving the public where the public is! You’re fiddling with your rules and nobody but you gives a damn!

: Now see this story about a new youth product from The Associated Press. I’m not a big fan of youth products. I believe that readers are just readers and it’s condescending to target something to young people because — so the reasoning and self-fulfilling focus groups say — they allegedly like shorter stories and punchier stuff. No, they want to be informed like anyone! I’m not young (damnit) but I, too, don’t like long, overwritten stories. Anyway, in The Times story on the AP’s asap, as the product is called, this was a line that hit me:

They said asap would use the word “you” more in its articles but would maintain A.P. standards.

Arrrgh. So young people in droves will flock back to newspapers because they are addressed in the second-person. But they’ll be relieved that this doesn’t degrade AP standards. Arrgh again.

Now I don’t want to single out the good folks at the AP. The point is that this is the sort of thing I’ve heard in no end of endless meetings about about what publishers can do to get the elusive young person to read papers. I’ve heard executives earnestly believe that this kind of thing will make a difference.

But maybe they don’t want to read papers. Or maybe they don’t want to read our papers. Or maybe they don’t want to read what we have to say on paper. Maybe we need to break free of the medium and reinvent our relationship with the public and stop thinking of that public as them or you but instead as us.

: Now see the BBC writing about The Guardian [full disclosure] switching from broadsheet to the smaller “Berliner” format, but not to the tabloid that the other British publishers embraced… and U.S. publishers are avoiding.

I recommended that the Jersey Journal switch to tabloid, something they’d thought about for years. The paper made the switch this spring. And it has been a success, from everything I’ve heard. Why shouldn’t every paper switch to a format that has proven to be a raging success — staunching a bit of the bloodflow of newspapers — elsewhere in the world? Because newspapers abhor change, even small change.

: And finally, see Jim Cramer says what I’ve been saying for a long time: There is no growth in newspapers (or, for that matter, any old media). Says Cramer:

Every time I think that my business is challenging, I think of what the newspapers face. The newspaper game, for the last decade, has been one of cost cuts and mergers. There’s been no growth in the business.

Now, with regulatory authorities frowning on any further mergers, with the cost cuts already in place to the point where you might just as well run Associated Press copy throughout if you make more job eliminations and with newsprint and delivery costs through the roof, a bleaker situation looks, alas, even more bleak than I thought.

Nobody controls costs as well as Knight-Ridder. But its negative announcement this morning reveals these newspapers as the ultimate value trap. They are losing on every line item. Now it’s auto classifieds; they are down big.

That can only be explained as a share-take by the Web, because last I looked, the auto companies were advertising up a storm.

These newspaper companies are in dire need of something, but, frankly, I don’t know what it is.

Break free of the shackles of your medium, that’s what I say. Recast your relationship with the public to enable more to gather and share news. Stop trying to own content or distribution and get back in the business of building trust. And stop taking baby steps. The baby steps are killing you.

: ONE MORE THING: What Tim says.

These days, when someone from a newspaper or a journalism school asks me to join a panel about the future of journalism or address the question of why a newspaper should have blogs, my inner response is a scream: You are slipping into irrelevance! You have an analog product in a digital world! You’re economic platform is dying! You must do something!

  • What do other editors say? Surely folks who judge these awards and sit on the board might realize the need to change the rules. And if they don’t…that says something about them.

  • All it really takes for ‘it’ to be journalism is to call it that. So next years webby’s can have: best online journalism, journalist, long and short catagories. Voila, recognized as journalism.

  • “Judges?! We don’t need no stinking judges!”

    John’s right. Let the people give the awards. Actually just get everyone to tag their votes on their site or link to the award category page so that Technorati can summarize the people’s votes for each of the different award categories.

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  • The people ARE deciding. Watch publishers’ share prices, another notch or three down after each quarterly earnings flash. If the Pulitzer committee sticks to pulp, it soon will be as influential as the Honorable Dayton Ohio Ball Bearing Standards Association, a once-thriving group that assembles now only at funerals.

  • There are two interlocked issues here: The future of an industry, and the future of a profession. Henry’s nutshelled the former. If I may presume to interpret, I think Jeff’s talking at least as much about the latter.

    Take a look at the Pulitzer board. If that’s not inside baseball, I don’t know what is. This is how the seniors of the journalism pass out their ‘well- dones’, whose receipt can make the career of a reporter or editor. Now add in a hackneyed business slogan: “What’s measured is managed.” And perhaps append: “What’s rewarded is produced.”

    Anyone in any doubt that is some part of any future of journalism as public service? Anyone care to dispute that people like Michael Yon are the brilliant precursors to any future of journalism as reportage?

    Actually, yes. I think Jeff’s wondering aloud whether journalism is the term we will be using, if that profession remains stuck to wood pulp by its rewards system. Because the audience doesn’t care about that distinction any more.

  • J-D

    Great post. However, what newspapers and journalists are attempting to hold onto with all their might is power. For years newspapers could determine the outcome of elections. The visual images on CBS News night after night with Cronkite (eventually) coming out against the war stopped an American War. A couple of investigative reporters brought down a President. These guys are about power. Power to change the world, power to influence elections, power to shape and mold this country. And they are not giving up this power gracefully, even though it is rapidly being stripped away from them.

    Power, as someone once said, is the ultimate aphrodisiac. People without any other purpose in this world thrive on it like an addict on his dope. They will not go quietly into that good night, but go they will, never having really “gotten it”.

  • John McGinnis


    More releveant mark — “What’s read is recognized.” Point is you have to have a reader to have an audience and make any sort of sale.

    The print press is in the midst or nothing more than a supply chain collapse. I don’t care how you cast it that is what is going on. This has happened in hundreds or industries. For the news, the consumer(reader) has cut out the middleman(newspaper) and is getting more and more of their news from people on the scene (citizen reporter). Supply chain collapse requires a catalyst generally. In this case it’s a double whammy for the news orgs. 1) Electronic messaging makes it possible to generate, transmit and aggregrate news online using RSS feeds. No longer a need for editors, the reader personalizes the content they need. 2) The cost structure of the new electronic methods are lower by a factor of 10 that of old rotary print. No need for a circulation dept with it’s cost. No need for the large print press investment. No need for the pools of editors. No need for a lot of reporters either.

    And the oddest of ironies are the people that are in the new media generally are subject matter experts in the topic that is being covered. Don’t believe me? Need I say Rathergate to make the point?

    It’s a long slow slide to oblivion for the print press. Can’t happen soon enough.

  • One factor that has been keeping pulp-based media in business is this: It’s just not very convenient to read large amounts of computer-based text. Either you read it on the screen, or print it out–both cumbersome alternatives.

    But very soon, we will have electronic ink / electronic paper technologies, which display text on light, flexible media that can be read easily in bright sunlight. I think this is likely to be a heavy blow at the traditional print media.

  • phil

    Michael Yon should definitely win a Pulitzer this year. Who else is
    doing the kind of reporting that he is giving us? But that won’t happen.
    Journalism is not a profession. A career, yes; a profession, no. And as a career it needs to be reimagined. There was a time when newspapermen would have scorned the title “journalist”.

  • Tim: Well said.

  • John

    I have read dozens of unbelievably strong articles and columns on the Katrina catastrophe and seen powerful photographs and newscasts aplenty. Many of those reports were not produced by the intrepid staff of the Times-Picayune. Yes, that staff has suffered an overwhelming loss and it has performed courageously and tirelessly in the aftermath of the storm. But so have other members of the New Orleans and national media. Truth be told, there were others in that market who used the Internet as a news-publishing platform earlier and better than the T-P.

    It’s often been observed that the best (albeit most painful) path to a Pulitzer Prize is to be accidentally situated in the location of a natural disaster. Shouldn’t the bar be higher than that? The time will come when awards are bestowed. Let’s not go handing out the Pulitzers just yet.

  • AST

    I was thinking the other day after reading a print columnist latest, that he’d never make it as a blogger. He’s paid to fill up a certain amount of space on a page between ads. So he writes more than he needs to make his point. There are others who, one senses, aren’t really interested in journalism, they want a column or they want to write a book. They write as though their reporting were short story rather than a “just the facts” summary.

    This approach will kill printed news.

  • I think Jim Cramer’s comments are the best measure of the “buisness” of journalism. They are losing business because they cannot produce a marketable and viable product. They are stuck in a narcassitic do loop of back patting and award giving that has them living with Alice in a looking glass world that is as distorted as a circus mirror.

    I love “the paper.” I have always gotten a paper, including such favorites as LAT, WP and now, the Oregonian. There are millions out there like me, but if these businesses…and they are businesses, cannot produce a marketable product…which it seems they can’t…they will meet the Passenger Pigeon in the great beyond.

  • I also commented on this specifically in regard to the Jersey Journal (which covers my area), and drew similar conclusions re the death by slow cuts. Really, it’s hard to draw any other conclusion. This paper is simply going to die, and no one on board has the courage, energy and vision to prevent it. And this story is being repeated around the country, aorund the world, at paper after paper. I hate to bring up the dinosaur comparison, but it is quite like telling the dinosaurs things have changed and they must adapt. The dinosaurs can’t hear it because they are, well, dinosaurs.

    What’s to replace the newspaper? If you have not seen this terriffic (and entertaining to boot) multimedia presentation, take this opportunity: