Get me rewrite

In the post below about the Knight Ridder sale, someone calling herself or himself “journalist” left a long comment that perfectly encapsulates the kinds of arguments I hear from some newsroom residents who quake with fear at the new world outside their doors and try desperately to protect their old world inside. Not all are like this. But the vocal ones are. I’ve heard them. So I’m going to respond to the entire comment.

First, it’s a shame that whoever this is hides behind the nom d’interactivity of “journalist” without the conviction to stand behind these words with a name. But that itself is all too emblematic of how old news operates: They have made themselves into institutions; they have forgotten how to have a conversation, person-to-person. Perhaps their bosses make them afraid of speaking out loud and speaking their names. Perhaps they are afraid themselves. In either case, my first message to them is: Don’t fear the people you are sworn to serve. If you want to argue with me, do it eye-to-eye. If you want to serve the public, meet the public.

Though I don’t know, it appears that I may be speaking here with a journalist on a big-city paper. Now onto his or her comment:

1. Moving papers online, as you encourage, leaves behind an enormous number of citizens who are not online in a society that doesn’t support universal computer literacy or universal public access to the Internet.

Well, a daily newspaper is also an expensive thing that not everyone can afford… except, of course, for the free papers that are now cutting into big newspapers’ expensive paid circulation, just the way the internet is.

The New York Times costs $9 a week on the newsstand (and I dare you to find their regular home delivery rate — not their introductory, temporary, discount, special — anywhere on their site.) Netzero, on the other hand, costs $9.95 a month. So for less than a dollar a month more — call now! operators on duty! — you get not just the news from one source but the entire world of information, interactivity, consumerism that is the internet! Call in the next 15 minutes and we’ll throw in naked ladies and free porn!

My library has the internet for free. Soon Philadelphia — whose Knight Ridder papers are among those doomed to resale and uncertain futures — will have inexpensive universal broadband.

So I don’t buy your argument anymore; neither does this fellow commenter. Your argument says we should hold back progress to wait until the last person is on the rocketship: ‘If we can’t all afford to go to the moon, then no one should go.’ That attitude will get you precisely nowhere.

And I’m not moving papers online. The public is online. the question is whether newspapers want to be there with him.

Journalism is not a luxury.

But neither is it a God-given or government-granted entitlement. Journalism needs to be supported by audience and interest and advertising or, in an alternative model, by contributions. I never want to see journalism supported by government, for then government may withdraw that support. And I believe that the market pressure on newspapers is good and healthy; it is the marketplace, the public, the readers telling a newspaper what it should do. If a newspaper fails to serve that market, it should not survive and a better replacement will follow.

Look at Britain, where there is an incredibly robust competitive marketplace of newspapers, each one better than the next. That is what newspapering should be, not the one-size-fits-all monopoly of the dull, big-city local. That is what news can become again when there is more than one press, albeit virtual.

An uninformed society quickly becomes feudal.

You infer that you are all that stands between us and the black plague. What hubris. There are many ways to inform society. Society informs itself if given a chance, if we enable that to happen.

Instead of arguing that the world must stay as it was, instead of being satisfied informing the world the old way, your way, why not imagine the new, better, and bigger ways there are to inform society today? Why not imagine the ways that you can use the internet to connect more people to more information than ever before? Why not? Because, I suspect, you fear it cuts you out of the role of the gatekeeper. But gatekeepers are fixtures of feudal societies. The internet tears down the castle walls. You can’t win with this feudal metaphor trick, not when you’ve been a member of the closed and privileged priesthood for too long.

If you want to make a killing, sell pet rocks. The business of informing society should not be merely a cash cow for the greedy.

So we’re back to that: Evil profit. But you live in a capitalistic world. Even China is capitalistic now. It’s OK, it’s necessary for newspapers to make money. Profit fuels engines and pays reporters. It’s a good thing. Profit is what made your newspaper as big as it is. Well, was.

Corporate demands 30 percent profits from its news operations. When they were private, they thought 25 percent was lavish, and sacrificed down to 23 percent when they needed to make magnanimous investments in their journalism.

Now, we can argue relative profit margins until the cash cows come home. But that is not the point. It’s about growth, my friend. Newspapers don’t have it. That’s why McClatchy is putting a dozen big, old Knight Ridder papers out to pasture. They and their markets are not growing.

Top salaries and bonuses gouge investors more than living wages for journalists.

So you think this is all about saving the newsroom and its jobs. I’ll say again that I’d have more respect for your screed if it started with the conviction that we can and must do a better job of informing society using all these new tools at our disposal. You complain about execs and investors thinking only of their money but you also think first of yours. That’s what this is about, isn’t it: not informing the public but saving jobs.

2. Top union wage at the Philadelphia Inquirer, for experienced reporters and copy editors, is $67,983.24; makeup editors get $50 more a week. Those complaining so bitterly about this make much more, of course. (Source: Guild contract online)

And you have new competition today, citizens and entrepreneurs and upstarts who can publish to the world for the sheer reward of it, for the passion, for the love. Sorry, but that makes you expensive… unless you find ways to maintain and grow your value. A newsroom job is not an entitlement. It’s a job. You can view the others who would cover the meetings you can’t afford to cover as competition. Or you can enable them to do it better and prove your value that way. Your choice.

The person whose job it is to get the paper in on deadline is a nonunion management editor. The drivers are probably Teamsters; do they get overtime because these managers are not able to let go of stories to meet deadlines? Well-run papers have managed to eliminate all overtime.

This is a beaut: Deadlines are a conspiracy of greedy capitalism, eh? In my day, youngun, deadlines were a matter of professionalism.

3. Jeff, your internet evangelism would make more sense if accompanied by efforts to get everyone online. I would expect someone with your history to care more about the digital divide and less about stoking corporate windfalls because paper and presses are no longer such a chunk of the expenses.

Of course, I’d be delighted to get everyone online. It’s good for business. But I’d say that’s not really my job. I own no pipes, and so I can’t plug them in. I am not a politician, and so I can’t throw off the regulatory shackles that would open competition and development. But I do agree that we should make it a national priority to meet and exceed South Korea and Japan and Sweden and even France in broadband service. We’re behind and that is a national tragedy. So please forward me the columns and editorials and investigations you’ve done on this issue. Send me pictures of you wiring your local school. I’ll be eager to see them. If your Guild is having a demonstration in favor of free wi-fi in Philadelphia, let me know and I’ll blog it and make myself a Cafe Press T-shirt to sell the cause.

4. Have you looked at what happens when there’s no budget for newsgathering any more?

Yes, and I’ve also looked at what happens when editors and publishers waste editorial budgets on commodity news, fluff, and egos. Do we need to send 15,000 journalists to the political conventions where nothing happens, which we can all watch on C-SPAN? No. Why do we do it? Ego: to have our people there, our bylines. That is a sinful waste of editorial budgets. Ditto golf columnists going to golf tournaments. Ditto movie critics. Ditto stock tables. I made a few humble suggestions for prioritizing a newspaper budget here. I argue that local newspapers should, indeed, concentrate on what makes them valuable, on what they can do specially: local reporting and investigations. But that takes the strategic courage to get rid of a golf columnist and use the wires and damn the egos and cancel that convention boondoggle so you can have a local reporter truly provide value to your community.

Where big papers are reducing staff and closing bureaus, small dailies in those areas are expanding to fill the void.

Well, listen to that: People want local news. Big, old city papers aren’t great at doing that. They can cede that territory — their terrority, damnit — to these small dailies. Or they can find new ways to work with citizens to gather and share more local news using the tools of the web.

Little more than shoppers, they’ll [the small dailies will] write nice stories about anybody who buys an ad.

I dare you to go into the newsroom of the small daily by you and shout that out loud. You not only believe that you, the big-time journalist, stand between us and the black plague, you not only ignore citizen journalists, you dismiss local-paper journalists as corrupt shills. Guess you won’t be going there looking for jobs when you lose yours. But because you’re anonymous, at least they won’t know who you are.

Meanwhile the big news site still has to struggle to perform the watchdog function with local advertising gone to the Podunk County Daily Times. And the big-paper executives retire to sunny beaches on the multimillion-dollar bonuses they accrued while making one clueless mistake after another, leaving the areas they’ve served so poorly without a reliable source of news and information.

And you and your newsroom take no responsibility whatsoever for failing to see how to keep readers, for the circulation that has fallen as your public has rejected you?

Helluva revolution, Brownie!

I don’t get the punchline, “journalist.” Is everything, even the fall of the big-city paper, now Bush’s fault?

: OK, fellow journalist, let’s both turn down the snarkometers and get down to business. Our goal should not be to save the newspaper or newsroom or jobs in it as they were. Our goal should be to take advantage of all these new tools to gather and share news in new ways because if we don’t do it, someone else will. Rather than ignoring change, figure out how to take advantage of it and get ahead of it. Lead, damnit, lead.

And learn about and deal with the business realities of media today — just as the music, TV, movie, book, video, retail, travel, and telephone industries have had to — to find the ways to support the journalism we both care about. You’ll get your wish: Margins will fall. But if you don’t come up with a sensible business strategy first, so will you. So force your bosses to make the tough strategic decisions, to innovate, and invest, to experiment, to lead, damnit, lead.

: LATER: As I was posting this, Journalist had another comment on the post below that, as I see it, laments technology. Go read it; I won’t quote that one in full. I’ll say that I think she/he continues the rocket analogy: Until everyone has radio, we shouldn’t rely on radio to give people the news. Instead, radio became — before TV — a great way to get people the news. Cue Murrow worship. It does no good to lament that technology has changed and that people are using it and are leaving the old. What you need to do is figure out what to do about that. Do I believe that internet access will become as ubiquitous as cable? Absolutely. I also believe that waiting until something becomes ubiquitous is the definition of being too late.