Friday, November 21, 2008

Modern times to newspapers: Wake up

We know it’s bad for the U.S. economy, and for everyone who earns or spends money in that economy. And we’ve known the situation has been more than just momentarily dire for the print media, specifically the publishers and journalists who toil at newspapers and magazines. Two recent stories, though, bring home rather painfully just how bad it is if you work for a newspaper in these 24/7 Internet days.

The Denver altweekly Westword reported on Wednesday that staff members of the Longmont, Colo. Times-Call newspaper have been invited to the publisher’s holiday party … but not like you might think. Planners for the party, meant to pay tribute to Ed Lehman, observing his 51st year as the Times-Call's publisher, intend to give the newspaper’s staffers the option of working the party … as valets — parking cars for the arriving guests. Westword's Michael Roberts reported that Times-Call employees who do the valet work will earn the same rate of pay they get for their day jobs.

Editor & Publisher’s Joe Strupp reports on how grave the situation is for the Newark Star-Ledger, part of the Advance Publications galaxy of media properties and a newspaper that has struggled with economic downsizing and its editorial consequences for many months. Strupp said this week in E&P that Star-Ledger reporter Jason Jett and assistant deputy photo editor Mitchell Seidel had been recently reassigned to the mailroom and have been filing, sorting, and delivering mail. Star-Ledger editor Jim Willse declined to comment — and what the hell could he possibly say if he did? The thing speaks, with a sorry eloquence, for itself.

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These events are a sad testimony of an industry in technological and economic decline. The newspaper industry’s woes are nothing new. The newspaper industry has long been a victim of a tragic irony: a craft and a calling responsible for communicating the Now to its readers has been historically reluctant to end its embrace with Yesterday.

It was newspapers that were called to account for their failings to fully report news beyond the concerns of their white male executives and managers, in the 1968 Kerner Commission reports.

It’s newspapers, and the magazine biz (their partners in cultural myopia) that are still criticized for a lack of minority hiring and advancement in the editorial ranks.

It has been newspapers at the tip of the spear of an industry slow to recognize the awesome information-gathering potential of the Internet, then slow to adapt the Internet’s capabilities to their own business model.

And it’s the newspaper business that’s in a free fall so seemingly irreversible, some have suggested that the newspaper business as we’ve known it is a dead issue.

The newspaper industry has dug in its heels, resistant to change as it’s always been.

Want proof? Blogger, publishing industry veteran and media critic Martin Langeveld, whose blog News After Newspapers scouts the frontier of news and information deilvery, blogged about The American Press Institute’s media CEO conference, held on Nov. 13. Langeveld took note of the following excerpt from the API summary of the event:

Participants agreed to reconvene in six months, and to explore additional collaboration. Some spoke of joint investment in research and development of both technologies and products, others of more formal means of sharing information.

“Six months?” Langeveld responded. “What are they thinking? They’ve laid off more than 10,000 people in the last six months — what will be left six months from now? They need to launch a Manhattan project to blow up their industry and start over. Now, not six months from now.”

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The leadership of the API conference apparently has some grasp of how dire the situation is, calling in a behavioral expert to put things in the clear, stark, analytical language that journalists understand.

Some verbate from the API summary:

“According to James Shein, Ph.D., turnaround specialist and professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, companies should start by plotting their place on a "Phases of a Crisis" chart. The earliest stage is indicated by a company essentially blind to eroding conditions undermining its business. This is followed by acknowledgement but inaction, followed by faulty action in hopes of a quick fix, followed by full-blown crisis and finally dissolution of the enterprise. According to Shein, failure to take action at any point on the curve means the enterprise inexorably moves to the next point. As an organization moves down the crisis curve, it will find executing a recovery plan more difficult, and will have less time to do it.”

Shein apparently pulled few punches telling the newspaper leaders the truth.

“The biggest hurdles to progress [are] the industry's senior leadership, including some of the people in this room.” Shein told the group at one point. “I am not sure you can take a look at your industry with fresh eyes.”

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Can this institution be saved? Can this institution be transformed? Time will tell. A blogger writing as Newshare, commenting recently at News after Newspapers, noted that the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute will convene The Information Valet Project from Dec. 3-5 in Columbia, Mo.

“It's just the sort of blow-up-the-industry solution that's needed — a complete change of perspective away from a focus on a product — the newspaper — and to a new relationship with users,” Newshare writes.

For the sake of reporters and editors turned into carhops, for the sake of journalists reluctantly repurposed as mail sorters … one can only hope.

What’s called for is new thinking — utterly, scarily new thinking, something along the lines of what constituted the dividing line between monks writing on parchment and movable type. It’s got to be that stark. That dramatic. That old world-versus-new.

Otherwise … this is the fishwrap nightmare come true, the twilight of the gods of print media, those once-mandarins of communications whose medium, subject to today’s rapacious informational Darwinism, is on the verge of irrelevance.
Image credits: Times-Call logo: © 2008 Longmont Times-Call. Star-Ledger logo: © 2008 Newark Star-Ledger/Advance Publications. 'Len Ganeway,' Brookgreen Gardens, S.C.: Derek Wernher, republished under GNU Free Documentation License. Phases graph, American Press Institute. Woodcut, 1568: Public domain.

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