Saturday, August 15, 2009

Why are newspaper doomsayers usually so sloppy?

I don’t know Bill Wyman from a posthole, and you probably never heard of him either. You might wonder why I’m sitting in the country on a sunny Saturday afternoon bothering to critque his analysis of Why Newspapers Are Failing. It’s certainly not like other people haven't plowed this ground before.

And besides, he actually seems like a pretty interesting guy. I agree with 75- or 80% of what he’s arguing and I’d love to have a guy who writes with his verve working for my newspaper. (Oh yeah; I did. Several of them.)

But I read so much ill-informed, sloppy criticism of the newspaper industry that I have to get this stuff out of my system once in a while or explode. What’s more, NYU prof Jay Rosen has cited this analysis approvingly; he said that it “explains very well why I'm not horrified that some daily newspapers may expire.”

Is this kind of analysis the alternative, Jay? If so, you’d better get your horrified on again.

As I said at the top, most of Wyman’s criticism is appropriate and largely correct. It’s a bit threadbare by now, more or less conventional wisdom. What Wyman has done is write it a bit nastier and with more bite than usual.

Please hear this: I am not rejecting criticism or even a lot of Wyman’s criticism. Lots of it is right. But we don’t need to concentrate on what’s right; let’s look at the rest of it.

Much of it is shockingly superficial, and some of the rest is wrong in ways that would have easy to check. It sure doesn’t add up to the kind of thing I’d expect a smart journalism professor to praise.

Wyman's main point is that newspaper companies failed to see or prepare for the epic transformation as it came. Well, who did? Salon? Microsoft? Yahoo?

I hear this all the time. Why didn’t newspapers start Craigslist? Why didn’t newspapers invent Google?

Well, Christ. For the same reason almost no established, highly profitable business ever makes radical changes in its business until it has to. That’s about the best-known truism in the disruption narrative. Why does Wyman figure it happened to airlines and car makers and steel mills and mainframe computer manufacturers? What about film and camera companies, or sailing ships? Why didn’t Western Union buy Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone patents when they had a chance?

More to the point, perhaps: Why did Google stumble along unprofitably until AdWords, a technology invented elsewhere for which they had to pay Yahoo to settle a patent-infringement case?

Wymnan wryly acknowledges his career has been marked by coming in after the battles to shoot the wounded; this analysis of what went wrong at news companies shows he hasn’t stopped that yet.

The central point Wyman and many others miss is that the fate of newspaper companies is far from decided. They get written off every day by careless or ignorant or mean-spirited critics, but the fat lady certainly has not sung.

For those wondering whether an industry beset by disruptive technology can stumble and yet recover, I offer two words: IBM and Kodak.

As you may know, I’ve offered several times in the last year to bet $1,000 on McClatchy’s prospects. None of the doomsayers has put up yet.

Indulge me, please, with just a few specifics from Wyman’s piece so I can get this cathartic purge over with.

David Carr offers a public serrvice by summarizing the main points of Wyman’s 9,000 words here. One of the five main points was “Newspapers were monopolists who cravenly serviced advertisers and failed to remember their fundamental mission to be of service and use to readers.”

Here’s a specific Wyman cheapshot on that theme:

... vast swaths of a typical American daily is [sic] filled with news whose primary source is a press release of one form or another, from entities governmental, political, or corporate. It was part of an unspoken but implicit agreement the papers had with advertisers—that the vast majority of what the paper printed would be complementary with the advertising. (It would be complimentary too, of course.)

I’ve been directly enagged in newspapers for 40 years, Bill. You’re full of shit.

He also suggests that circulation revenue doesn’t mean anything to news companies. He’s right that advertising accounts for the lion’s share of revenue, but ignorant about the percentages. You could have checked, Bill: at McClatchy, for instance, circulation revenues will be something like $280 million dollars, extrapolating crudely from first-quarter reports. Paid circulation newspapers are not, as he claims, “high end shoppers.” Indeed, a key differentiation between newspapers and shoppers is that people want one of them enough to pay to have it delivered. That matters to advertisers.

After proving that he doesn’t grasp all the history, Wyman proceeds to offer his prescription for success. I can’t imagine why anybody would care, but in case somebody does, please take care with his first recommendation: “Go hyper local,” basically, go all-in on a single strategy.

Well, okay. Maybe. But to be clear, this is the one well-tested prescription in the list that has been repeatedly proven to be a loser. Just saying.


Allan Hoving said...

Isn't Bill Wyman the former bassist for the Rolling Stones?

Lisa Williams said...

Howard, have you read Harry Frankfurt's essay "On Bullshit?"

Frankfurt says that bullshit differs from lying in this way: liars know what the truth is and say something different, but bullshit happens when people are uninterested in the truth because their speech isn't really about the topic at all but about advancing an agenda.

For example, people who are protesting outside town hall meetings against health care reform are not interested in the real truth about healthcare, because getting engaged in a factual debate will not advance their cause.

To me, the more interesting question is, what agenda is being pushed when someone makes an argument that newspapers will/should fail? How does someone making this argument benefit if people believe/agree with their argument?

That's not a hypothetical question, I really don't know the answer.

Howard said...

Allan: Indeed, he was. But this one wasn't. (I checked).

Lisa: I wouldn't presume to impute motive to all, but I have argued publicly many times that there is a cadre of "internet triumphalists" who always select pro-net or anti-newspaper factoids and extrapolate wildly. I am obviously a newspaper partisan, but I do my level best to be agnostic in evaluating the situation.

Bradley J. Fikes said...

Wyman gives some very specific examples of corporate-level stupidity that could have been prevented had the execs had the same level of tech-savvy as their underlings. AP's debacle of a plan to track content and charge for use indicates this stupidity is still with us at the highest levels. So much for "conventional wisdom."

Howard said...

Bradley: "Conventional wisdom" only means "that which is conventionally thought to be wise." Of course it can be (and in my opinion often is) distinctly stupid.

Like pay walls.

BruceMcF said...

In this particular case, it seems that the argument is sloppy because the arguer does not have any substantial understanding of how the process of "creative destruction" following an innovation wave normally works.

That is, Wyman is rewriting Shirkey's piece, Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable except swapping out the actual analysis of the underlying economics and historical comparison with the rise of the printing press with personal anecdote.

And having swapped out serious analysis and historical grounding with personal anecdote, he then has to devise serious sounding points to thread the anecdotes together with the pre-existing argument regarding the challenge of surviving the collapse of a market barrier to entry.

Howard Owens said...

I'll take issue with this part of your response, not that it detracts much from the rest of what you write, per se:

"... a key differentiation between newspapers and shoppers is that people want one of them enough to pay to have it delivered. That matters to advertisers."

So have you ever compared the advertising lineage in a good shopper to that of the most directly competitive daily newspaper? In most cases, you will probably find that a whole week of newspaper display ads (throwing out daily duplicates and inserts) doesn't match what can be found in a shopper.

Clearly paid circulation doesn't matter much to advertisers. I'd even argue that all the money spent on ABC audits is quite a waste.

Why do advertisers buy shoppers? Because compared to newspapers, they're inexpensive and effective, on both counts a better buy than the newspaper.

And I wouldn't hang too much of my argument on the virtues of newspapers on paid circulation. We both know which way that arrow has been pointing for the past several decades, and if you subtract the dying-off generations, the numbers look even worse.

The problems newspapers face have little to do with the Internet. Chest thumping about the value of journalism isn't going to help newspapers figure out where they went off the rails and why.

Too much of the doomsayers criticism of newspapers focus on too many of the wrong problems and too much of the counter arguments rely on "people need us" and "what we do is important" kind of thinking. Both lines are ultimately destructive to the journalism business.

dan said...

Howard the main problem and you still have not replied to me, and that is also part of the problem, people not replying to inquiries, only talkiing to VIPS, boo, is this: kids are not reading newspapers on paper anymore. there's been a huge shift. they are getting their news on screens. No matter what we do , print newspapers will soon be dinosaurs. Now will you answer my emails or not? I thought you were my friend from Alaska. What happened to you? Sheesh!

dan said...

I’ve been directly *enagged in newspapers for 40 years, Bill. You’re full of shit.


John Howard said...

A fundamental issue is not that newspapers should have invented Google or Craigslist, but that they should have recognized their obvious value and learned from them. In the fiscal landscape of the Internet, traffic and interaction are everything. It's the electronic equivalent of newspaper circulation. It pays the bills, it drives the ad revenue, it's not rocket science. Newspapers aren't, and never were, omniscient. But they sure could have moved faster.

Howard said...

Hard to argue with that, John.