Journalism: Accepting The Inevitable

So Romenesko’s its usual buffet of stupid today. hirings and firings and a lot of whining about newspapers going the way of the buggy whip, or something, and this Swedish thing which I actually think is rather cool, but I’m reading this and just getting frustrated all over again.

If we just covered this and not that, if we just put a reporter here and not there, if we just wrote more stories about nannies and less about government, if we just tried to reach people where they were, if we just … if we just … most of it focused on what the newsroom is doing wrong and none of it dealing with what the boardroom is screwing up. Most of it focused on endlessly tweaking news coverage and none of it on ending profit-squeezing, shitty to nonexistent marketing, zero community investment, lack of support for those still trying to actually break news, and based on a gut-level fear of spending money and a teenage-girl level expectation that someday our Readership Prince would come.

It’s not that I don’t understand these intstincts on the part of newspaper company “managers.” It’s easier to tell a reporter making $30,000 a year that he or she isn’t doing the job right than it is to tell a CEO to take his bonus and shove it. It’s easier to continue the trend of bringing in consultants and coaches and gurus and spend endless hours jerking off in meetings than it is to force a conversation about exactly how much of that jerking off is really necessary. It’s easier to lay off half a dozen reporters than it is to tell a corporate board that if they want their pound of flesh they’ll get it when they come down and do their own dirty work and not before.

It’s not that I don’t understand the caution and the fear. After all, it’s not like there are a lot of examples of people fighting those fights and winning them. Look at Dean Baquet, look what happened to him. People are worried about their jobs, after all. They’ve got kids in private school. People don’t want to risk their livelihoods on anything that isn’t assured.

There aren’t a lot of examples of people fighting those fights and winning them. Try pointing out, for example, that as with most things it’s not about content but about marketing, such that people feel they have to read the paper, and they’ll only do that if they can’t turn around without seeing it. Try pointing out, for example, that it’s really about distribution, boring shit like trucks and drivers and deadlines, and getting your paper on the porch by 6 a.m. It’s so much more fun to talk about the Internet and the death of ethics and such, than it is to talk about those kinds of practical matters, but if you want to know what’s killing newspapers, it’s cost-cutting in those two areas.

What happens when your marketing and distribution operations get gutted? One, nobody’s aware the paper exists, and two, they can’t get it even if they want it. I’m the biggest news junkie on this earth and I cancelled my Sun-Times subscription because the delivery driver couldn’t get the fucking thing to my house before 9:30 a.m. and by then I’d left for work. If people can get to your paper, then you can start tweaking stuff to appeal to them. If they can’t get it, doesn’t matter what you print, nobody but you and your mom will see it.

It’s tiny, practical matters, and they cost money to do properly, so that’s the real fight nobody wants to have because they think they can’t win it. It’s not like this is confined solely to journalism, either, so don’t think I’m letting oil companies or the auto industry off the hook. I’m talking about a general culture of getting screwed and pretending to like it. We’ve become so conditioned to knucking under to the inevitable that it’s no wonder we end up with the politics we’re mired in, it’s no wonder our economy is what it is. We’re the optimist who jumped off a building, and every floor down, yelled, “So far, so good!” Things just keep getting worse, and we just keep acting like we’re lucky to have the scraps we’ve got. When did we all get so helpless?

It is downright dangerous to allow this attitude of taking whatever shit gets shoveled at us to infect our discourse, our national conversation, the way in which we communicate with one another. Yeah, there’s a lot about blog triumphalism I find really shortsighted and stupid, but at the very least I do have the freedom to say in print that focusing on what’s going on in the newsroom first is insanity, if your goal is fixing newspapers.

From farther down in that article, here’s a solution that actually makes sense, and doesn’t rely on some ingrained sense of fatalism and exhaustion:

“Start viewing themselves more as a community service and forget about 20-percent profit margins. And start speaking truth to power.”

That’s from Craig Newmark. Go figure.


6 thoughts on “Journalism: Accepting The Inevitable

  1. “Start viewing themselves more as a community service and forget about 20-percent profit margins. And start speaking truth to power.”
    That’s from Craig Newmark. Go figure.
    I’m starting to think that at a minimum, no news media should be allowed to be owned by anybody doing significant business with the gubmint.

  2. Getting the paper on-time is a big deal. I had a very expensive out-of-state NYT Sunday subscription and they were lucky to deliver the damn thing 1/2 the time. I just told them to stop delivering it the other 1/2 of the time and stop billing me as well. That stuff matters a lot.

  3. The publisher of our local newspaper is a bidnessman. Cannot write his way out of a paper bag–and he’s tried. Reportedly said, “How could the editorial board endorse Kerry when all our advertisers are Bush supporters?”
    I understand that the news is a business, but if I could tell publishers one thing, it would be “Write the paper for those who read it, not those you hope will read it.”

  4. >>”Start viewing themselves more as a community service and forget about 20-percent profit margins. And start speaking truth to power.”
    what?!? you want them to behave…like BLOGS?!?
    dead-on about the nuts-and-bolts stuff being critical. many endeavors forget that, not just newspapers.
    i guess charles foster kane was wrong – it’s not fun to own a newspaper!

Comments are closed.