Thursday, November 30, 2006

As we near ...

... the midnight strike deadline, I want to return to this, posted by John Brumfield while I was unwell: In view of Frank's position (supine, I assume).....
First, let it be understood that, though I come from a union family - my mother was a member of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and my father a member of the Fraternal Order of Police - I am not by any stretch of the imagination a kneejerk opponent of all things management. I think unions do have tendency to get out of touch with economic reality and to forget that it's 2006, not 1936.
That said, I was dismayed by one of publisher Brian Tierney's quoted remarks: "We don't need a Jerusalem bureau." This dismayed me for three reasons. First, we have a very fine reporter, Ned Warwick, in Jerusalem right now, doing superb work at no little risk.
Second, we do have a large Jewish population in this area, and a lot of news comes out of the Middle East these days that might be of interest to them.
Third, as a native Philadelphian, I resent the presumption that my city is a parochial backwater that can settle for getting its national and international news from the New York Times or the Washington Post or various wire services. I think the city deserves a world-class newspaper to match its world-class orchestra and world-class art museum. Philadelphia is within an hour's drive of more degree-conferring institutions than any other city in the nation (86 within a 25-mile radius of Center City). The inhabitants of those institutions are unlikely to be content with a strictly provincial newspaper - which, of course, is why so many of them already prefer the New York Times.
Where is the hard evidence that the local, local, local mantra has actually boosted any paper's circulation? And speaking of mantras, one that I've heard here for almost as long as I've been here is that we have to appeal to the young, we have to appeal to the young. I can find no evidence that people under 35 have ever constituted a major part of the newspaper-reading public. Moreover, people over 35 constitute a huge demographic. In fact 25 percent of the U.S. population was born between 1946 and 1964 - those unforgettable Baby Boomers - and they control by far the largest portion of the nation's disposable income. Doesn't it make sense to tailor your product to a large group with a lot of money to spend?
The easiest - and cheapest - way for The Inquirer to signal to its readers that it intends to make itself into a newspaper worthy of a sophisticated city is to restore to the paper its stand-alone book section. Remember, such a section, precisely because it deals with a product available anywhere - books - can be sold anywhere. It can be a separate publication that people in other cities might want to subscribe to. The Inquirer's book pages already feature reviewers from around the nation and globe. This blog attracts comments from all over. A real book section offered to subscribers everywhere ought to be able to attract sufficient advertising to cover its cost of production.
The Inquirer should not be surrendering readers to the Times. It should take up the challenge to compete with the Times. That will attract advertising and that will make money, enough money for it eventually to put out a weekly competitor to the City Paper or the the Philadelphia Weekly - in fact, that's what the Weekend section, which already exists, could easily become.
So let's stop selling the paper short. And let's stop selling the city short. Who needs local owners operating on the assumption that Philadelphia is third-rate?

19 comments:

  1. Frank,

    For the life of me, I still don't know why stand alone book sections have been axed from most papers. Are they really so unprofitable? Don't newspaper readers and book readers belong to the same very marketable demographic?

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  2. You get no argument from me on that, Ed.

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  3. Susan Balée5:31 PM

    Hear, hear, Frank: Well spoken!

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  4. Hear, hear, Frank.
    As we used to say in 1936, sock it to 'em ;-)

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  5. Gosh, what is this, karmic resonance? Look at what Susan and I both wrote, and at the times on our comments. Spooky?
    (her comment was not there while I was typing mine,but when I pressed publish and the screen refreshed, there it was)

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  6. Hi Frank,

    I should not be surprised that someone like Brian Tierney rounded up the money to buy the Inquirer. One problem is that he is either kidding himself or trying to kid everyone else, that he has a vision for the paper. This "vision" is to streamline in a downsizing move, with apparently no growth to speak of.

    Visions have growth to them. For instance, he could say that the Inquirer will be pursuing the purchase of smalltown, even troubled newspapers in Pennsylvania, keeping the tradition going, while bringing the modern world to them, and to do this, he will need to make certain changes. Those changes will make complete sense, being so coincidental with the vision.

    Anyone of us can claim we are broke. It is a foolish thing for a business or a businessperson to do, because he becomes a loser. People want to stay on board with, or invest in, a winner. Each of us being broke at whatever level we are broke at, even the truly poorest among us, can and should still come from abundance. The world and our country depends on the Tierneys, whom we set up with their money, to come from abundance.

    If he has no vision, then he might be trying to set the Inquirer up for another group of investors. Here's the problem. No one will want it unless at a bargain price, and Tierney will have lost a fortune, even while he exudes all this confidence people speak of. He is not walking the walk.

    Very very important. The whole idea of allowing people to be filthy rich in this country, the entire argument for it, is that it is to the benefit of the country to be this way. We allow the wealthy to have this absurdly lopsided share of our money, in exchange for the benefits they bring to the society through the highly capitalistic economy that we chose to have--because they are so good at delivering the goods and services. We could decide to go socialistic, for instance. Capitalism is a choice the rest of us make, that benefits Tierney.

    His responsibility at this point is to 525 people whose livelihoods are in the balance--in the balance of him either making decisions that benefit them (which is what he must do, and I would think not only ethically, but legally), or in some cases, destroys them. His vision must include all 525 employees, or he's a chump.

    If he has no such conscience, then he should be at the very least tarred and feathered and run out of town for pulling such an irresponsible stunt as to buy a company that employs so many people, as if it is some new pet shoestring venture of his. He best get himself in gear, but it sounds like he's over his head.

    Yours,
    Rus

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  7. Phaedra7:04 PM

    Bravo, Frank.

    What happens in Jerusalem, Baghdad, Kabul, London, Moscow and all over the world does have a direct effect on one's life in Philadelphia. Ask the many families whose sons, daughters, husbands and wives are in the military. Ask the newest Americans who are still sending money back to their families abroad. Ask the guy whose job moved to India. Ask anyone who lost a loved on Sept. 11.

    Philadelphia is a world-class city that deserves a world-class newspaper. I was proud when The Inquirer hired me, and I've been proud to work here every day since (even during the darkest days, the Walker Lundy days).

    Giving our readers only local news, implying that that's all they care about, does them a disservice and insults their intelligence.

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  8. Brian Tierney follows a long tradition of Inquirer editors who pay lip service to local news and treat local readers like small-minded morons.

    Where, as I posted elsewhere, is there any evidence that the Inquirer's emphasis on local news has done anything but gut its staff, demoralize those who remain, create a revolving door for editors-in-chief, send circulation down the tubes, and undercut the Inquirer's standing as a serious newspaper?

    But of course I'm an egghead, an outsider, and out of touch with what the readers want (Never mind that I live in Philadelphia, unlke Brian Tierney. And how anyone who presides over a newspaper whose circulation, reputation, achievement and readability have plunged so drastically can claim any insight into what the readers want is a deep mystery).

    One of my little revelations in the Inquirer's latest anti-Inquirer effort happened at a thoroughly blue-collar lunch counter in South Philadelphia. The owner and a customer were talking about Brian Tierney's vision for the Inquirer, and one said to the other, "Geez, they're turning them into minor leaguers."

    I propose a new motto that reflects the new owners' attitude: "Philadelphians: They'll Settle for Less."
    ===================
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder is More Fun Away from Home"
    http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

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  9. With reference to Ed's post, I can tell you about the scenario in India. A lot of national newspapers publishing out of New Delhi have dedicated book sections, because there is a huge market for them, at least in the Capital. The growing popularity of books, in general, is reflected in the opening of new bookstores, thanks in part of the emergence of a new breed of young writers expressing themselves in English. The Times of India, which had scrapped its book page in the 80s has started it again recently. This can only get better with dedicated magazine formats appearing on the horizon.

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  10. The point of my post was not to bash Brian Tierney. I wanted to register my objection to one thing that he said, because his saying it provided evidence that he has bought into a line of conventional wisdom about newspapers and readers that is not only wrong, but pernicious. One wonders how long it takes for people to realize that dumbing down, pandering to something they think is "youth," and taking core readers for granted hasn't worked and will never work. I have nothing against capitalism - and I have a lot against socialism (principally, that it doesn't work), but the great capitalists are entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs are guided, as Rus suggests, by a vision. In this case the vision should be of a newspaper that is matched to its city and its readers.

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  11. Hi Frank,

    Yes, I want to note that I was not putting Tierney down. It's just that it looks from the outside, like he is not capable of handling the responsibility he has taken on, and does not truly comprehend it. You cannot blame someone for that.

    It sounds to me as if he has the type of personality that does not understand when he has gone over his head like this. He may believe he is on some right track, and may never find out that he isn't--which in human terms is that he tragically isn't.

    People are very limited. It's part of being human. There was a psycho-social study done just a few years back, where the researchers found that people don't know what they don't know. This seems to apply to Tierney.

    By the way, has anyone done the simple math? $562 million, is over a million dollars invested for each of the Inquirer's 525 employees.

    Yours,
    Rus

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  12. I know that you know business, Rus - a hell of lot better than I ever will. I've spoken a couple of times with Brian and I rather like him. I actually think, if given half a chance, he can turn this into a great paper. But I think that, to do that, he will have reject a lot of recent thinking about newspapers - and much of that thinking comes from people who work in the newsroom, people whose minds seem to have been arrested during some episode of Leave It to Beaver or Happy Days and think that television is still the be and end all of America's domestic existence, people who think - quite mistakenly - that only a select few read books. I could go on, but I think the idea is clear enough.

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  13. I forgot: Maxine, you're right. It is karmic resonance - and think of the difference in space. A macro demonstration of quantum mechanics?

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  14. Hi Frank,

    Let's assume, and hold it to be true, that there is a Beave mindset in the newsroom. Let's even hold it to be true that this could be the single greatest problem with the people at the paper.

    Now, let's step back to last year, when GM celebrated with the entire country that it had achieved the three highest quality automobile manufacturing plants in North America. This included not only Ford and Chrysler plants, as you know, but Toyota, Honda, Nissan--all of them. GM had, not only the top plant, but the three top.

    The best thing in the world they could have done, they did. They celebrated and attributed this success to the entire country, letting everyone buy cars at the employee price--a brilliant business move.

    This, followed by the stupidest thing they could have done. As soon as the veeps got wind that the union wanted to talk, they barfed out about how poor they were, how they were desperate and going bankrupt. Want to kill your big business? Tell the union you're nearly bankrupt. This made each car on each dealer's lot, sudden go from high-demand shiny new automobile, to distressed merchandise.

    Yours,
    Rus

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  15. Proving, Rus, that the greatest threat to free enterprise after the government is ... corporations. Maybe there is an epidemic of stupidity happening!

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  16. Anonymous12:27 AM

    I think the greatest threat to newspapers, newspapers we hold in our hands every morning over coffee, curl up with until noon on Sunday mornings is this medium we are communicating on at the moment. It's us older folks who like to hold a paper in their hands, who still buy a book of poetry. I asked my son at Thanksgiving if he'd like to have the daily SF Chronicle for a Christmas present...a morning ritual for me...he said, "Nah, I read it online". And he does read it online and other newspapers all over the world online, but he does not get the same news I do, coffee and paper in hand, at the breakfast table. I think the loss of that daily ritual will prove to be immense.

    Pat

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  17. I agree completely on both the dumbing down being a Bad Thing, and on the increasing popularity of books. It is heartening to read Vikram's comment, as you have posted later, Frank,

    Unfortunately, both these arguments are similar -- the people who are the "customers" or "users" are on the whole well-educated "middle class" people. Those who suffer on both counts are the less well-off. For example, as I have often posted and you've kindly linked, Frank, the public library system in the UK is being eviscerated of books. People who can't afford to buy books depend on libraries. People who come from homes and live in a wider environment where there is little literacy, education, or mutual civilsing respect, need to have some way to have access to it. Schools and libraries.

    So yes, a few niche publications can survive by keeping their standards (eg the Financial Times) whereas others go downhill in a dumb race, we see here a publication teetering on the brink like so many other "media outlets" (publications, TV stations, etc).

    What concerns me, though, is the lack of an educationally enabling culture. The people who are reading this blog will always read -- they will find a way to read about and find books, if not in the PI then on the web or otherwise. They will read books that contain thoughtful and stimulating content, if not available in the local bookshop or library, then from Amazon marketplace or similar.

    But what of most of the world? And future generations? That's what worries me more than a bit of dumbing down, because at the end of the day, those book reviewers and even foreign correspondents will find a way to communicate that like-minded people will be able to read and share.

    (Of course, in an ideal world, I agree that it would be wonderful for all newspapers to maintain book supplmements, foreign desks, etc. But as we know, the worlds is far from ideal.)

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  18. Frank & Maxine

    First, I read that there's been an extension in union talks, which is always a good thing.

    Second, I share the same worries as you do the quality the Inquirer, and for media outlets in general.

    I don't understand why the big thinkers and marketing heads in this country insist that the majority of us don't like to use our heads.

    They'll say 'polls and focus testing' or 'demographics' or 'sales figures'.

    Okay. I understand that a newspaper is a business. What I think the media and our own government has forgotten is this: responsibility.

    Chasing the extra dollar has become more important than "This is wrong. I won't do it."

    Chasing a youth market is double speak for sticking a celebrity, or an accident shot, on the front page to sell copies instead of reporting real news.

    Statistics show that youth markets get their news from Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. All those major market media companies should check out their demographics.

    I thought the shiny corporate news outlets were "infotainment" to pull in that sector. Here's news: It's not working.

    As Maxine noted, people who watch the news, or read the newspaper are going to find their sources. Me? I watch Jim Lehrer. I can't stand network news anymore. I stopped reading the daily paper when they started putting bikini-clad women on page 3. I read my news on the internet.

    Some people don't have those options, and worse, some people won't know that there's more in their heads and more out there than the appreciation of "bisexual kissin cousins" on Jerry Springer, or that there's more to read about than the 15th accident on Hwy 10 this year or the many divorcees in Hollywood.

    The truth is, papers and magazines and television should help us find more: explore, expand, EDUCATE. It won't show on a ledger, but there's a higher cost to dumbing down America and shirking your public responsibilities. Some things can't be stored in your wallet.

    To quote Marshall Macluhan: "Men on frontiers, whether of time or space, abandon their previous identities. Neighborhood gives identity. Frontiers snatch it away."

    Use your power. Show me a new face.

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  19. I repeat that the Inquirer has abandoned all pretense of educating readers; that would be considered condescending. As a reader, I much prefer something just over my head, that makes me want to read more, that holds my attention. The Inquirer has abandoned readers like me.

    I hope Brian Tierney and our new editor remember, in other words, that I am not just an employee of the Inquirer but a potential reader as well.

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