Well, maybe it DOES matter

Some readers are inspired. Others urge Bob to take his head out of the sand

I thought you might be interested in some of the responses I’ve gotten to the “It Just Doesn’t MATTER” screed of November 9. Some of the writers are named, some are not, others are semi-anonymous.(I saved my fave for last.)

Well, maybe it DOES matter

Well, maybe it DOES matter

A New England reporter: Nice job saying what needs to be said about what ails newspapers. I’m. . . watching in astonishment as management drives us into the ground. I’m sick of the excuses: “How are we going to attract young readers?” or “Well, you know, the economy, cable television, talk radio, blogs, blah, blah, blah.”

There seem to be a lot of people in this business who either should have gotten out a long time ago or never really had it in the first place. They don’t have a feel for substantive news. They seem bored by it all. What’s sad is that it really could be different, with the right leadership.

–A Midwest reporter:Thanks for writing this. I — we — needed it. When I talk to young reporters, I always advise them to try writing a story they would read. We all should do it.

A Northeast reporter: It’s become almost painful how little swinging for the fences we’re doing. it’s like the gatekeepers in the glass offices haven’t figured out that the blogworld and the instant opinion world can be an opportunity for outlets that can do authoritative work.

There were, as there should be, dissents. Like this:

Vicky McCargar, Associate Technology Editor, and Dave Rickley, Production Editor, Los Angeles Times:Your passionate call for great journalism calls to mind the old paradox of journalism: Is a story a story if it hasn’t been printed?

That koan started morphing in the 1990s to this: Regardless of medium, if a story hasn’t been published, is it a story?

Individual newspapers had a lot of autonomy in the days of the family-owned chain, but media consolidation has turned us all into “business units” of a larger entity. It’s all about sharing, which is all about delivery. That, we think, is an important point to understand if you want to talk about presenting great journalism to the world. Consider:

–The information landscape is a lot more competitive than it was when we all started out in this business. There’s plenty of content out there, and some of it is even great journalism. If we can’t deliver stories, photos and graphics to the right place, at the right time and in the right form, customers will use someone else’s.

–Great journalism is expensive. Media companies are very interested in sharing the results for a couple of reasons. First, that great journalism will enhance all the other newspapers and web sites that publish it. Second, it distributes the costs; more bang for the buck. Hire a great reporter in market A, run his stuff in markets B, C, D and E, and that content just got cheaper. (Not to mention, the reporter in market A gets to continue to write great stories, because there’s now a wider demand for them.)

–Newspapers are still very much wired to a print mentality. Given our time-honored propensity for pushing deadlines, that means that most of the great journalism we’re producing is unavailable to others until late in the print cycle. The math is simple. Papers on the West Coast are two or three hours behind the print deadlines of their corporate brethren. If customers can’t get the stuff they want before 2:30 in the morning, they’ll use someone else’s. Here’s the point: A lot of newsroom processes must undergo a total overhaul.

Paper is an excellent, convenient medium, and great journalism will continue to appear on it. But print has to be viewed as a part of an information whole, not a series of processes that converge on the pressroom at midnight. Like it or not, reinventing the paper comes down to technology. If we want to continue to educate, enlighten, provoke and delight readers with our “unpredictable magic,” we need to embrace technology–harness it, conquer it, exploit it–and use it to share the magic. If we can’t do it, it will be done for us, and we’ll cease to control it. And if we can’t figure it out, people will read someone else’s magic.

A Southern California reporter: Do not concur. It DOES matter… especially when the corporate bean counter taps you on your shoulder and the $10 an hour rent-a-cop gives you 10 minutes to clean out your desk… Nothing could matter more at that moment.

We need to stop thinking of ourselves as a newspaper with a (forced upon us) presence on the web… instead we must evolve into a multi-media news gathering entity that embraces every source of legit information technology in existence.

I am 40… and NONE of my friends read a print newspaper… and they are all college educated middle class professionals… they get their news on TV or the web…

It doesn’t matter how good our product is if no one sees it… We don’t have to die. It is time to collectively pull out heads out of the sand and embrace change.

An L.A. reporter: Those fightin’ words struck me as powerful and inspiring… I can’t wait to keep busting balls on my current project right after breakfast.

A New Jersey editor-in-chief: I posted it on my bulletin board outside my office.

A “news-focused entrepreneur” from Fairfax, Virginia:I wonder. . .whether stimulating reporters to write better is enough. Print newspapers are heading south and in my humble opinion othing is going to change that — it has to do with the medium, not the content. Their online offsprings are in — potentially — better shape, what with the soaring popularity of online ads. However, my “potentially” caveat is cover for what happens when the online version loses the reporting subsidy of its print parent (an inevitability). With so many different online news sources available, consumers seem to view the news story as a total commodity. Regardless (well, not quite regardless, but close) of how well the stories are written, and how much depth is provided, readers seem to be quite willing to flip from source to source.

Some argue that if a news source dramatically steps up its quality, the market will follow. But will it? Many viewers stop at the headlines, and few venture past the lede. How much quality can show forth in the headline and lede only? Probably not enough to pull off a hockey stick rise from the commodity glob.

A corporate-communications specialist: You and people like you focus on the stories, while everybody else seems focused on the means of delivery of those stories. I’ve seen this a thousand times, this chasm between people obsessed by the product — that would be you — and people obsessed by the process. All the conference calls, all the meetings, all the endless e-mails — process trumps product every time. You know why? Because if you’re in the pipeline business, you don’t have to worry about what flows through that pipeline. You just rent the pipes, and what flows through, flows through. In this case, the duelling pipes are print and on-line — and everybody has discounted what’s flowing through them because the fight is about the pipes. It’s a shift in the basic notion of what has more value: This is The Age of The Pipes.

Picture this: Michaelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci at war over which is better, paintings on canvas or frescos. Sounds silly, doesn’t it? That’s because both processes work in their own way — both MEDIUMS work. It should be the same with your biz: not print vs. online but print AND online, each with its own market and sensibility. If the folks who ran your business were smart, they would explain it that way to The Street: we got print, and we got online, and we got broadcasting — we got it all, because people are different and they like it the way they like it. God, in that world of discrete media, the fiery sense of righteousness that informs your point of view would define print and the crazed, get-it-now attitude would define online. But why the people who run your industry insist on accepting Wall Street’s view of print vs. online as opposed to print AND online is beyond me.

Editorial cartoonist Kate Salley Palmer: “Your “mantra” is the best thing I’ve read yet about the situation. It . . . perfectly describes the way we political cartoonists feel. We are like the moth in Don Marquis’s “The Lives and Times of Archy and Mehitabel” –trying to break into a light bulb and fry himself on the wires.

Archy the cockroach reports to Marquis that he questioned the moth’s sanity, But the moth described his love for the beauty and excitement of fire. Moths know that if they get too close it will kill them, but feel that it is better to be happy for a moment than to live a long time and be bored. So they wad all their life up into one little roll and then they shoot the roll. That is what life is for, insists the moth:

“we are like like human beings
used to be before they became too civilized to enjoy themselves.”

and before i could argue him
out of his philosophy
he went and immolated himself
on a patent cigar lighter
i do not agree with him
myself i would rather have half the happiness and twice
the longevity

but at the same time i wish
there was something i wanted
as badly as he wanted to fry himself

I know this subject is more complicated than I made it sound. But I also know that there is a limit to any good editor’s or reporter’s tolerance for literal-world economics. What we do requires a peculiar pathology, a weird sense of aggression, a potentially dangerous lack of patience and a healthy (well, more often unhealthy) disdain for common sense. If I wanted a job where I had to wear a tie every day and do the logical, reasonable, prudent thing required to elevate my corporation’s earnings per share, I wouldn’t have gone into the newspaper business. Once you take the insanity out of newspapers, they cease being newspapers. Once you try squeezing a 30% profit out of them, they cease being newspapers. I’ll leave you with my favorite quote, from the great cartoonist Jules Feiffer:

Be warned of the good advice of others. Be warned when they tell you that your attitude is immature. Be warned against all “good” advice because “good” advice is necessarily “safe” advice, and though it will undoubtedly follow a sane pattern, it will very likely lead one into total sterility–one of the crushing problems of our times.

Recommended reading: New York Times business columnist Joseph Nocera’s Nov. 12 piece put a microscope on part of the issue we’ve been discussing: when can newspapers can get away with charging for stories on their web sites? This is not merely an interesting column, it’s a textbook lesson in explanatory technique. Personally I’m sick of this topic but this story broke down my resistance with its sequential logic and sympathetic ending.

TRYING TO WEAN INTERNET USERS FROM FREE
By Joseph Nocera

People hate, hate, hate to subscribe to things on the Internet,” Microsoft’s chairman, Bill Gates, said a few weeks ago.

Mr. Gates was sitting in the 14th-floor boardroom of The New York Times, speaking to a small gathering of executives, editors, editorial board members and reporters. Rather painfully for us, while he was making a broad point about consumers and the Web, the specific example under discussion was TimesSelect. That, of course, is this company’s nearly two-month experiment to, well, see if people will subscribe to things on the Internet.

Or at least to see if they’ll pay a subscription fee to read New York Times columnists online. For years now, The Times has largely posted its content free, relying on advertising to generate revenue. With the TimesSelect program, however, the columnists have been put behind a wall.

Newspaper subscribers can still read the columnists online free — though they have to sign up for TimesSelect to do so. But those who read The Times only online must now pay $49.95 a year (or $7.95 a month) to get their fix of Maureen Dowd, Thomas L. Friedman, Frank Rich and the newspaper’s other columnists, myself included. (TimesSelect subscribers also gain access to the newspaper’s archives and some other online-only goodies.)

From the start, TimesSelect has been controversial. Part of the opposition comes from that segment of the digerati who tend to believe that information on the Internet should be free as a matter of principle. Others simply don’t want to pay for something they’re used to getting free. Twice in the last month or so, I’ve had the odd experience of having wealthy Wall Street guys I’ve interviewed for this column ask me to e-mail it to them because they refuse to subscribe to TimesSelect.

There are other, more philosophical, objections as well. Mickey Kaus, an unrelenting critic of TimesSelect who writes the popular kausfiles blog for the Slate online magazine, told me recently that he had no particular objection to paying for Internet content. ”What I object to,” he said, ”is the idea that The New York Times is essentially saying that its columnists’ opinions are so much superior to everyone else’s that they are going to charge for it.”

Jay Rosen, a New York University journalism professor who writes a blog called PressThink, said he believed that the move would wind up hurting the columnists. ”What is the product?” he said. ”It’s influence.” With so much of the political conversation now taking place online, he said, Times columnists would inevitably be less influential if only paying subscribers could read them. This view is shared by some of the columnists themselves.

So it was a bit of a surprise, after all the sturm und drang, to see the early results of The Times’s online subscription experiment. They’re not half bad. In a news release issued Wednesday morning, the company reported that since it began in mid-September, TimesSelect has generated 270,000 subscribers, half of whom already subscribed to the newspaper (and hence get the new service free) and half of whom were plunking down cold, hard cash.

To be sure, that is a far cry from the million-plus people who spend as much as $600 a year to buy the dead-tree version of The Times, and it’s not even remotely close to the 20 million-plus ”unique visitors” who come to the Times Web site each month. But it’s something. Martin Nisenholtz, who is in charge of digital operations for The New York Times Company, told me that the numbers were ”at the high end” of expectations.

It is far too early, of course, to predict whether TimesSelect will ultimately succeed. The roughly 135,000 online-only subscribers could represent a new willingness on the part of consumers to pay for newspaper content online — or not. But what I’ve wound up wondering is whether, even if it is a roaring success, TimesSelect — and other online subscription models that are bound to follow — will be enough to stop the erosion of the economics that underlie newspaper journalism. I’m not terribly sanguine.

Mr. Nisenholtz said that The Times had always assumed that it would eventually find a second revenue stream. ”Advertising is always going to be cyclical,” he said. ”And businesses that have only one revenue stream tend not to be as healthy as those with multiple revenue streams.”

It is hardly a surprise that a newspaper company executive would want to generate subscription revenue as well as advertising revenue: that’s the way it has always worked in the business. Today, for instance, 27 percent of The Times’s revenue comes from circulation, and 66 percent from advertising. (The other 7 percent come from things like syndication.) Indeed, in the world of paper and print, a healthy paid circulation helps generate ad revenue, because advertisers like to see that readers care enough about a publication to pay for it.

But on the Internet, general interest publications charge for content at their peril. The Wall Street Journal has largely pulled it off — it has 764,000 subscribers to its Web site, and it even charges people who subscribe to the actual newspaper (though at a reduced rate).

But The Journal is the exception to the rule. In 1998, Slate magazine put its site behind a paid wall. It was a dismal failure — ”the worst year in Slate’s history,” recalls the editor, Jacob Weisberg, who was then a writer for the site. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution tried to get readers to pay for some of its online sports content; it gave up after a year. For two years, The Los Angeles Times charged readers for its online Calendarlive section; it threw in the towel in May.

These efforts didn’t work because they generated too few subscribers to interest advertisers. Calendarlive was particularly misguided because the movie and other entertainment listings it produced were exactly the kind of content advertisers love. Which also helps explain the series of choices The New York Times has made. Like many newspapers, including The Washington Post, The Times focused on generating large numbers of viewers that it could deliver to advertisers. To do that, it needed to keep its content free, even if it meant that some readers were bound to give up their newspaper subscription and go to the free Web site instead.

And then, when the company decided that its Web operation was strong enough that it could experiment with a second revenue stream, it chose to use its columnists as the guinea pigs for basic economic reasons.

For starters, the Op-Ed columnists in particular are popular with readers, so there was a decent chance that consumers might be willing to pay to read them. In addition, though, moving the columnists from free to paid brought the least risk of cutting into advertising revenue. You’ll notice that the company hasn’t put New York Times movie reviewers, who are also quite popular, into TimesSelect. Movie and entertainment pages are as important to New York Times advertisers as they are to Los Angeles Times advertisers.

From a purely business point of view, this all makes a reasonable amount of sense. TimesSelect strikes me as a worthy experiment, even with the obvious downside for the paper’s columnists, who don’t have the readership they had before going behind the paid wall.

Besides, at a time when newspapers are struggling — with circulation down at many newspapers, and readers and advertisers increasingly moving to the Internet — The Times has to do everything it can to find ways to maximize the amount of money it generates from its Web site. So does any newspaper that wants to continue doing ambitious journalism. When journalists criticize TimesSelect, Mr. Nisenholtz said, they seem to forget that the primary goal is to find a business model that will make it possible to continue paying for serious journalism, which at The Times costs over $200 million a year.

This, though, is precisely where I become discouraged. Look at what happened to the music industry, which tried — and has largely failed — to sustain its pre-Internet revenue as the Web destroyed its business model. It has ham-handedly tried to beat back technology with litigation, but no matter how many courtroom victories it reaps, the technology keeps winning in the marketplace.

Or look at what is happening to telephony, or film, or all sorts of businesses that are undergoing wrenching change thanks to the rise of the Internet. Margins shrink. Revenue drops. Profits dwindle.

From where I’m sitting, it sure looks as if the same is happening in the newspaper business. The ruthless efficiency of the Internet, for instance, is changing the way ads are paid for. In print, an advertiser places an ad and pays for it — end of story. Online, most ads generate revenue only when readers click on them. And the rates are much lower.

William G. Bird, a Citigroup analyst who covers the newspaper business, says that 6 percent of all newspaper ads are now online. He compared it to taking money out of one pocket and putting it in another. But here’s the painful twist: ”For every dollar coming out of the dead-tree pocket,” he said, ”only 33 cents is going back into the online pocket.”

Doesn’t TimesSelect — which, remember, costs $49.95 a year — suggest that down the line, there will be a similar contraction in circulation revenue? And that’s if the experiment succeeds! Yes, as more readers gravitate to the Web, distribution and paper costs will surely be reduced. But it’s highly unlikely that those savings will offset the hit to revenues.

Esther Dyson, who edits the influential technology newsletter Release 1.0, compared the Internet’s effect on newspapers to the effect of the open source movement on the software industry: ”It doesn’t steal your business,” she said. ”It erodes it.”

As a business journalist, I’ve tended not to worry a lot about music executives trying to salvage their broken business model. My general view has been that if they can’t adapt to disruptive technologies, then they probably deserve their fate. But in the six months I’ve been in the newspaper business, I’ve learned to have some sympathy for those who are staring down the barrel of the Internet.

It’s not fun.