Saturday, December 13, 2008

The future of newspapers

Blogger Ettlin, on last day working in Baltimore Sun newsroom, May 31, 2007.

A columnist friend presents
a troubling question to ponder

My friend Dan Rodricks, the longtime Baltimore Sun columnist, posted a question on Facebook today, fishing for others’ thoughts:

If newspaper publishers want to win the day, why not shut down all their free web sites? To increase the value of the metropolitan dailies, like the one I work for, why not shut down the web and make the print editions the only way to get this valuable resource? We never should have given the news away for free, with any expectation that the print editions could survive. Now, with revenues and old-fashion paid circulation falling, why shouldn't we go back the other way -- on recycled paper, of course -- and say to the public: "If you want this, pay for it?"

I had a front-row seat in the same newsroom some 35 years ago when the first computers walked in – and it wasn’t pretty. The computers weren’t very good, but the printers recognized the threat right away. Their jobs were on the line.

For awhile, the computers hummed along with clanking Linotype machines. Some pages were put together the old-fashioned way, as pieces of cast metal and every line of a story a chunk of words you could hold and feel in your hand; others were assembled as a cut-and-paste job after the words spilled out of a darkroom-like enclosure in columns on glossy paper.

Printers made the usual mistakes: Sometimes a line would literally drop and vanish. Or maybe a few paragraphs would slip on deadline out of big Bob Bowman’s hand as he rushed toward the chase – the metal frame holding the page – and he’d reassemble them line by line, bending over the scattered slugs of metal on the hard wooden floor and reading them backwards since that’s the way type was cast. The amusing result, when it wasn’t caught on time in proofreading, was called “scrambled type.”

For a while, the Harris computers up in the newsroom imitated the printers. Scroll the dozen or so lines visible on the little greenish “video display terminal” display too quickly, and it would delete a line here and duplicate another there, usually making critical paragraphs unintelligible.

But the printers knew what was happening, and fought back at contract time. The pages still made of metal, they controlled – largely the classified advertising. And for one memorable Sunday edition, they inserted some extra pieces of metal, actually a lot of pieces of metal, in various sizes and fonts declaring many times on every page throughout the classified section: “Fuck The Sun Up The Ass.”

The phones started ringing minutes after the first edition – known as the “Bulldog” – hit the streets that Saturday afternoon. Supervisors dispatched to the composing room rooted through the pages trying to eliminate every hunk of terrorist type, but among the dozens of pages of classified ads, it was an impossible task. The subsequent editions included a full-page explanation and apology to readers.

The printers eventually won lifetime contracts that took nearly three decades for successor owners (Times Mirror and Tribune) to eliminate through attrition and buyouts, the last of them departing with settlements far more lucrative than those offered over the past decade in departments whose unions had no such lifetime guarantees.

Sign of times to come

In the end, the composing room where pages were set into type and assembled, which took up an entire floor of the newspaper building, had been reduced to a small office area where a sardonic sign was posted reading: “Decomposing Room.”

But who could imagine how much “decomposing” was in the newspaper’s future.

Departments had given way, one by one, as computers got smaller and better – engravers, lithographers, proofreaders, even telephone operators – the list goes on. (So far, security guard seems a safe occupation, although that task has long been outsourced to lowest-bidder, low-paying companies, as has janitorial work. Late at night, in the largely emptied newsroom, Spanish becomes the dominant language.)

I never thought online newspapers would happen so quickly. But one day, the computers caught up with photographic images and it became a simple matter to integrate “type” and “art” on an electronic page, and then posting on the Internet picked up speed, and newspaper companies started putting news and pictures together in pages anyone could see anywhere in the world much faster than a print edition could be manufactured and delivered.

And, as my friend Dan observed, most big newspaper gave it away for free. Some tried selling it, but retreated because so many others were not.

Mail-order subscriptions were as good as dead, and home-delivery editions – well, we know what’s happening in circulation numbers industry-wide. Fewer and fewer people are buying newspapers.

The question I pose is whether all those folks who are no longer buying newspapers are, instead, reading them online.

I bet not – at least not in the sense of turning pages. Newspaper sites are click-on driven, with stories tallied up as “page views.” Advertising is an annoyance, and the news sites try their best to force clicks onto ads to suggest that readers noticed them. Counts are what counts in this strange electronic information age.

And the “pages” mostly don’t look like newspaper pages. Click on a headline to read a story, click back to find another. Packaging of news is awkward, so threads of content are hard to follow. Few sites reproduce a full newspaper image beyond that of the front page.

People are reading newspapers less, and getting their news and information through alternative sources – not all of them as responsible as major daily newspapers.

And the newspapers themselves continue to contribute to their own demise by shrinking content, and original reporting. At The Sun, which once had its own network of foreign bureaus, unique international journalism is largely dead. It once had correspondents based in London, Paris, Rio, Bonn, New Delhi, Moscow, Tel Aviv (later Jerusalem), Johannesburg, Mexico City, Tokyo, and Beijing, and maybe a few others, though not all at the same time. They’re gone now.

The foreign editor took a buyout. There was no one left to manage and edit, really – just stories off wire service stories and from Tribune correspondents working for sister newspapers.

The highly regarded Sun Washington Bureau has shrunk, inevitably.

Once upon a very long time ago, The Baltimore Sun had a promotional slogan -- The Sun: One of America’s Great Newspapers.

A talented editor named Steve Luxenberg was leaving for better climes (he ended up at The Washington Post), and was smiling at a camera for the candid photo that would appear on a fake front page commemorating his departure. Behind him was a large horizontal poster image bannering the slogan. Steve, perhaps jokingly, put his hand over the word “Great.”

The Sun: One of America’s Newspapers.

Assessing blame

I can blame The Sun for its own decline only to a limit. There was, after all, the 1986 change from privately-held company to corporate ownership, and now being part of the Tribune media empire caught up bankruptcy filings in the ocean of debt created in the privatization purchase by billionaire real estate investor Sam Zell in the name of a fictional employee ownership plan.

But there were many decisions at home that alienated readers, time and again. Among them:

+ The company murdered its once-dominant evening newspaper earlier than necessary, forcing circulation down by duplicating content from the morning edition and figuring rightly that subscribers taking both papers would cancel the evening one. When numbers had dropped close enough to 100,000, the company used the plunging circulation to justify the end. It would have happened eventually, but the killing was premature and alienated many readers who for all their lives had preferred the evening paper.

+ The newspaper more recently alienated mainstay older subscribers with content changes that included eliminating stock tables from the daily edition, wrongly figuring they could readily turn to the Internet.

+ It redesigned the paper several times, always shrinking content in the process; for a time, it shrunk the highly read sports section into a tabloid format with far less space (and in reversing course with a return to a broadsheet format, the section was thinner than before).

+ There was a memorable note, about a year ago, from the powers overseeing the newspaper pushing increased use of photos and graphics, at a time when the news hole was already shrinking. Readers supposedly needed more charts and fewer stories. How about a pie chart in the face?

Slim pickin’s

There’s hardly enough paper in the paper for a modest crab feast.

The daily “Metro” or “Maryland” section is gone, preceded by the daily “Business” section. Now, the daily paper is just three sections – News (including local, national, international and business), Sports and You.

Yup, You. Whatever you’s are left, anyway.

Sometimes I grow wistful for the days when The Sun promoted itself as “Maryland’s Marketplace” and “Maryland’s Newspaper.” But time and again, it would launch expanded coverage of the rural counties, only to retreat to the core metropolitan area. Recently, the last dedicated Eastern Shore reporter was moved westward across the Chesapeake Bay to join a slimmed-down news staff based in Annapolis. In response, he took a buyout, or what’s now called a “voluntary layoff,” in the latest round of staff reductions across the newspaper.

The mission of The Sun – I still think of it as “my newspaper,” having worked there four decades and outlasting half a dozen folks called “publishers” before my buyout ship came in last year – has narrowed. And you can read what’s left for free on the Internet, where you’ll find dozens of other sources for the national and international news that used to be part and parcel of a “great” newspaper. Unfortunately, a lot of that news is coming from fewer sources.

You’ll also find on the Internet a clamor of other voices, some spreading truth and others lies, in a cacophony of information... a buzzing, even. A very loud buzzing.

Pandora’s box was opened, after all, and the bees are everywhere.

Dan, I’m afraid there’s no going back. We’ve given people too many reasons not to read newspapers.

For those who can access it, here’s a link to Dan Rodricks’ posting:

Maybe smaller is better

The National Public Radio program “Weekend America” had a related segment today, the thrust being that predictions of the demise of newspapers are premature. Newspapers currently have a profit margin averaging around 11 percent. But the profit is less than it used to be, and declining, and the largest newspapers are having bigger woes than smaller ones – and there are many more in the “smaller” category, where circulations may be around 35,000 daily instead of a quarter-million or more.

I’ve been working lately in a temporary, part-time editing job at the Baltimore Business Journal, a weekly newspaper with a daily Web report that takes up a big part of my two-day schedule. This week, though, I was asked to write a short opinion piece looking at the Tribune bankruptcy in light of my long association with The Sun.

It is supposed to appear in next Friday’s edition; I’ll post a link when it happens.

‘You will succeed in business’

Yeah, right. Sounds like something you’d find in a fortune cookie.

Well, The Real Muck is introducing a new feature: Fortune cookie message of the day, mostly courtesy of our favorite restaurant, the Szechuan Cafe in Pasadena, Maryland.

Here goes. Hold your breath.

Serious trouble will bypass you.

Your three-digit lottery number is 600.

Good luck.


MitchHellman said...

Here's a fortune cookie fortune for you:

"The stock market will recover from this, or lower, levels."

David Ettlin said...

Hey, Mitch, you know what fortune is coming, eventually... cheers!

MitchHellman said...

Here's a fortune cookie story you might not remember:

My girlfriend (Garnetta?) and I met you for dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Glen Burnie. As a gag gift, we brought you a box of MISFortune Cookies, guaranteed to have a buzz-kill of a message in each cookie.

Just then a young female colleague of yours showed up, fresh from a vacation to somewhere in South America. As she stood there and described in glorious detail the young stud she hooked up with while she was there, you silently handed her one of the aforementioned MISFortune Cookies. She opened it, read the fortune, and her face turned deathly pale. You picked up the slip of paper, read it, and handed it to me; on it was printed a single word:


Anonymous said...

That's a question that should have been asked 15 years ago.

Today, quite honestly, that would be an affront to the ways in which people conduct their lives today.

People expect to exchange information and ideas. They expect social interaction -- something like a conversation rather than a lecture. And they want transparency, a sense of who they're getting their news and information from. Technology makes those things possible. In truth, it makes it possible to create journalism that is fundamentally more relevant.

If I had to give up either newspapers or the possibilities that technology makes possible for journalism, it would be no contest. And I do, by the way, work for a newspaper.

Dr. Spaulding said...

Now that's a scary fortune.

"...Over at The Real Muck, David Ettlin responds by reminding Rodricks that newspapers alienated readers long before online news was an option..."

Anonymous said...

Kind of the way camera shops have gone, thousands have closed and you wonder where people get information on how to take photographs. Guess where, the internet and someone keeps writing about how to photography.

In some form or other people will still get the news even if there is no newspaper as we now know it.

My fortune cookie has always said "What ever you do, don't never unless you will"