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!