Roll over, Beethoven

I was with David Carr until he got to the classical music critic.

Using Circuit City’s ill-fated decision to get rid of its veteran clerks as a metaphor, Carr laments newspapers getting rid of their experienced talent. Kicks to my groin aside, I’ve also lamented that. I’ve argued that when newspapers offer buyouts – and when it’s often the best and the most experienced who choose, often wisely, to take them – they should at least offer to help set up these journalists as independent agents with blogs and ad networks (which I’m seeing happen in one market; more on that later). But I’ve also argued that newspapers must focus on their key value and can no longer afford ego and commodified news.

So when Carr takes on the Tampa Tribune for laying off its editorial page editor, a columnist, the movie critic, and the classical music critic, he loses me. Of course – regardless of what the groin-kickers say – I have sympathy for those jobless journalists, just as I will for the GM SUV assembly-line workers sure to lose their work and even a few of the Lehman Brothers veterans.

But if newspapers are to survive as news organizations, they must focus on their key value and fast. And the key value of a local newspaper is, on its face, local reporting. Says Carr:

But there is a business argument to be made here. Having missed the implications of the Web and allowed both their content and their audience to be scraped away by aggregators and ad networks, newspapers are now working furiously to maintain audience, build new ad models and renovate presentation. But they won’t stay relevant to readers with generic content ginned up by newbies with no background in the communities they serve.

Well, my first quibble is that aggregators are sending them traffic and ad networks are sending them revenue, if they want. My second is that movie reviews are pretty much generic content unless your name is Ebert.

I’ve argued that newspapers should have spent these last five years retraining all these people to take on new-media skills, inventing and promoting new products, and focusing intensively on local value. Then, perhaps, they might have been in control of their fates. They didn’t. Now they’re in a crisis.

When a bunch of newspaper executives gathered last week – behind closed doors – to recognize their crisis, they said the might get together again in six months. Steve Outing asks whether they have six months.

  • “My second is that movie reviews are pretty much generic content unless your name is Ebert. ”

    Up to a point – there’s nothing especially local in reporting back that the new Tom Cruise film has been shot to make him look taller.

    But that’s not to say that local paper movie coverage has to be generic – just that the value for a local news organisation might sit somewhere other than in providing times and summaries for the multiplex. Towns and cities have a film culture that exists beyond the popcorn-and-hotdog circuit, and that’s something worth reporting on. It might not be a full-time post, but if you can fund a movie critic who works the local art-house beat, the film societies, the college societies. They’d probably welcome coverage, it adds value and sense of local to the newspaper product that running a Parade interview with Jennifer Aniston never will – it might even be possible to persuade some of these groups to share their marketing budgets with the paper in return for the paper supporting and reporting what they’re doing. That, surely, has to be two thumbs up?

  • Here you are Jeff, someone on your side (the grand daughter of IF Stone):

    She parallels Stone’s way of working to modern bloggers.

  • Jeff,

    Check your spelling: it’s Ludwig van Beethoven. That’s something the classical music critic wouldn’t get wrong, for starters!

  • Here’s one for your side Jeff, by IF Stone’s grand daughter:

  • A popular local columnist and an editorial page editor (unless there is something I don’t know about these individuals) are exactly the kind of experienced local content producers that should be staying.

    Yeah, movie reviews are beyond generic and classical music is too elitist to make money in a local niche. High quality local opinion is critical to engaging the local online world and learning to interact with the local blogosphere. Getting rid of them is foolish, especially if they are still wasting a dime on national syndicated columnists who are also generic.

  • Tim Collie

    I feel a need to chime in here. The classical music critic in question, Kurt Loft, formerly of The Tampa Tribune, was far more than that just a critic. He wrote in depth science articles and covered NASA when I was at the paper. The guy was a workhorse, indicative of so many who wore different hats at that newsapaper and others in Florida. He doesn’t deserve to be ridiculed.

  • Mike G

    I’m kind of surprised at you, Jeff. You’re so hooked on this local thing that you apparently see it as the only strategy, rather than one of what should be an arsenal of strategies.

    And one of those strategies should be developing name brand talents in a host of different interest areas. Indeed one future one could see for newspapers is that they no longer expect people to read The Bayhorn Bugle at all any more– but they build an audience out of the X number of readers that a sports writer gets, and the X number of readers that a food critic gets, and so on through every niche interest that can attract a certain number of readers. Instead of grabbing a mass audience and giving it many columnists to read, it catches readers through all those personalities’ individual efforts, and then cross-promotes the others and makes a little ad money off each one.

  • Tim,
    No intention to ridicule him but to disagree with Carr as he described it.

    Mike G,
    I’m not sure that a local food (as opposed to restaurant) writer is more valuable than a local reporter. I do think that there are opportunities – a la the Star-Ledger’s Pharmalot – to create products that have national and even international appeal but llikely as separate products and even businesses. The point is that given spare resources and the need to focus and maximize value, I do assume that a local newspaper needs to be local.

    I don’t know. I think I’d still push for reporting over opinion.

    Who needs editors when I have you. Thanks.

  • Jeff,

    Looking for your comments on the speech Rupert Murdoch gave that was published today:,21985,24640951-5018380,00.html

  • One point worth making here is that the value ascribed by advertisers to print media persists at many times what online media earns. So if your local print media product has 10,000 readers, you are going to get far, far more ad revenue per issue than an online publication with 10,000 readers. But the content, assuming it is equally professional and topical, takes just as much work to produce. Therefore, going online will not save a news organization.

    Also, the ‘aggregators’ are proving very adept at creating custom local content, and even more importantly, the aggregators are far better at coopting local ad dollars. Why put a classified ad in a local online publication (or print product) when you can place it in Craigslist or Google, etc.?

    Media will never be the same, and newspapers are not going to solve their challenges by going online.

  • Jeff,

    Reporting over opinion is one of those false choices. A good local editorial writer or columnist has to report to make themselves worth reading. There’s a lot of no-reporting pontification with national issues, a lot less on local.

    If a newspaper has local opinion people who don’t report, they should ditch them regardless of the latest change in profit margins.

    That said, the online, the distinction between news and opinion is disappearing. News people don’t often adapt very well to dropping the no bias pretense and so much of the new stuff takes at least a large element of opinion sensibility.

    Good link journalism benefits from opinion. Going into comments and responding to your readers requires opinion. A good breaking news blog requires edging closer to opinion.

    When newspapers play to their local strength, they’ve got to keep the local opinion. Look at the top stories at most newspapers over any week and you are going to see plenty of local opinion. If you have access to really good stats and you divide the readership numbers by the FTEs it takes to generate that readership, opinion is among the most popular local news.

  • Anon

    “Newspapers confront tall, menacing seas in the coming year, but it is a sure bet that the ones that dump the ablest hands on deck will be among the first to sink below the waves.”

    And what about those who steered the newspapers into menacing seas?

  • Pingback: Near-crisis for newspapers calls for urgent action, execs told « The Information Valet Project()

  • Mike G

    “I’m not sure that a local food (as opposed to restaurant) writer is more valuable than a local reporter.”

    Okay, but here’s the key example. Does a paper in Chicago need its own movie reviewer? Not really. Chicago is hardly central to the film industry even if a few big movies are shot there each year.

    Now, does that mean the Chicago Sun-Times might as well dump Roger Ebert? That he brings them no value they couldn’t get with syndicated reviews– or no reviews at all?

    The individual voice who draws attention is every bit as great an asset as a focus on local, is my point. It’s not easy to find those stars, but when you have them, don’t lose them.

  • Andy Freeman

    > And what about those who steered the newspapers into menacing seas?

    Huh? The internet wasn’t a choice made by anyone associated with newspapers.

  • A local tv station ran a story on how imported cars are piling up at the local port. The local newspaper ran an AP story on how imported cars are piling up at the port of Longbeach. Guess which one is for sale, and can’t find a buyer.