Saturday, December 27, 2008

Alvah Chapman is dead and newspapers don't feel so good themselves

A man best known as the longtime publisher of the Miami Herald and a South Florida civic leader, Alvah Chapman, died Dec. 25. He was what newspaper people are at their best, a proponent for the community his paper covered. I wonder how many of today's bloggers are as engaged in their real, as opposed to their virtual, communities as was Chapman. One of the assets of the Internet is that it creates a worldwide community. I often wonder if people will one day be less likely to join armies and kill people on the other side of the world when they know some of those people via their computer. But one of its liabilities is that it breaks down connections to one's spatial community.
I never knew Chapman, but I started in newspapers at the newspaper he started at in his hometown and mine, Columbus, Ga. When I walked into the Ledger-Enquirer newsroom, it was in the R.W. Page building, named for Chapman's grandfather. One of the things I find so distasteful about the tenor of Newspaper Death Watch and Jeff Jarvis is their unabashed glee at the damage done to newspapers as a community institution. Where's the momentary nostalgia? The poignant reminiscing? The social consciousness? All we have is people dancing on Alvah Chapman's grave. Can't you show some respect?

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Newspaper workers of the world unite!

Ever since the Lewinsky affair, I've been an occasional reader of that cardinal right-wing news aggregation site, The Drudge Report. I've noticed during the current decline in newspaper readership and profitability that links to this or that dire news about newspapers rate top billing on his site. I sense that Mr. Drudge relishes the "imminent demise" of this nation's old gray ladies. He is, I'm sure, in his own imagination the future of news, the doorway millions will take to their daily news fix. I wonder whose links will take up his white space when all the newspapers go away.
I read on "Newspaper Death Watch" and kindred blogs that newspapers have fallen down in not seeing the benefit of news aggregation that Mr Drudge represents. Why should Drudge have all that success and newspapers suffer? That question misses the point. I'm sure the paltry advertising on Drudge provides a nice income for him and the handful of computer geeks he likely employs, but the income would make little impact on the bottom line of the Post or the Times.
An article in New Yorker this month, James Surowiecki accurately notes that at a time when more people than ever are reading newspaper content, the profit model for newspapers is breaking down decisively.
I have always worked at newspapers with a solid wall between the finance/advertising side and the news side. The two sides employ very different types of workers, people who are usually antipathetic to each other. Over the entire operation is the publisher, who almost universally comes from the finance/advertising side. It is his job to ensure the viability of the business model. But in 2008, thousands of newsroom employees have lost their jobs. Is it because their work has been rejected by the American news consumer? Hardly.
Ten years ago, as a reporter, I would go to the police headquarters and find a report about a stupid criminal who showed his driver's license to steal a case of beer, and a few thousands among the readers of my print edition may have read it. Today the same story may be picked up by Mr. Drudge and millions may read it and get a moment of mirth from my handiwork. Ten years ago those few thousands of readers provided a viable business model to keep me employed. Today, those millions of Internet readers get me fired. Ten years ago those few thousands paid a quarter to read my story. It was an audience of interest to the hardware store down the street that bought an ad on that page. Today, millions pay nothing to read my story and are of virtually no interest to any advertiser anywhere.
So what brilliant publisher thought it was a good idea to give Mr. Drudge and millions of people my story for free? Evidently all of them.
It's a business model that doesn't work and must be abandoned. If there is a future in the news business, it has to be a paid model. We can no longer rely on advertisers to carry the burden of financing the news industry. Too many corporations see too little value in newspapers, or any medium for that matter. The Internet has given them the idea that they can go straight to the consumer, by letting them record their own Web commercial for Butterfinger or Budweiser and posting it on YouTube. They may be right or they may be wrong. I don't know; I'm a newsman not a publisher. But I do know there is inherent value in my work, and I deserve the benefit of that work.
It is a notion that the music industry came to terms with long ago. As damaged as they have been by music sharing, they know there is no future in giving everything away free. That is the genius behind iTunes. Many millions may be lost to free downloads, but many millions can be made by appealing to the better angels of our nature. For a small fee, $1 a song, I can download my favorite song and keep my conscience in tact. This evidently works for Apple. Why can't it work for the newspaper industry?
If Yahoo! wants to publish news, let them hire reporters and set up news bureaus. We can no longer allow them to publish our best stories and give people no reason to come to our sites. If someone wants to read our newspaper, let him pay 50 cents ... every day!
According to, on Dec. 24, 2008, about 7.5 million people went to the Web site of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a newspaper with 326,000 daily circulation. Certainly, not all 7.5 million would be willing to pay 50 cents. How many would? I don't know, but the profit would be more than they are getting now. And those who did pay the 50 cents would largely be locals, the kind of people local advertisers care about. Local readers of local news who are attractive to local advertisers is the only route to profitability for newspapers. I like the idea of someone in Mumbai reading my police report, but the hardware store down the street can't make a dime off of him.
At the turn of the 20th century, when workers were being exploited by greedy bosses, people sympathized with unionization to protect rights. At the turn of the 21st century, when newsworkers are being expoited by overextended corporate ownership and, yes, stingy readers, who can blame newspapers for colluding/unionizing to force pay for content?

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Cuts come to Oklahoman

The Oklahoman of Oklahoma City is cutting 150 positions of 1,000 in the company. There are 200 newsroom positions. Cuts will come through buyouts of veterans first, then layoffs. This is interesting as the Oklahoman is privately held. Cuts at other newspapers come to satisfy shareholders and maintain margins, so the cuts at The Oklahoman means profitability was becoming unacceptably low for the well-heeled, local owners. This could mean the first wave of newspaper cuts have come full circle or it could be a harbinger of another wave coming to publicly held papers.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The small town newspaper will survive

I hate blogging. I hate bloogers. I've been a newspaper columnist, opining on subjects from relicensing of dams to big city radio. Blogging is by no means the equivalent. Blogging is bloviating without accountability. I have for several years now been an editor of many different kinds at newspapers in Lawrenceville, Ga., Gainesville, Ga., Robbinsville, N.C., Altus, Okla., and now Lawton, Okla.
Legions are lining up to write the epitaph of newspapers. Count me out of that number. Big city dailies my decline, burdened by their own weight. But the weekly papers of the heartland, the one's you cut pictures from and post on the refrigerator and in the scrapbook are here to stay. I have looked online for a champion of the small-town newspaper. I haven't found one. So here I am. Over the next few months I hope to chronicle the story and anecdotes of the defender of our inky faith, the small-town weekly and afternoon daily newspaper.