Thursday, May 24, 2012

The #menews op-ed, and my response

Published at

Some of you might remember my long post about the #menews forum a couple weeks back. Well, they're still at it - and so am I. In my inbox this morning comes moderator Mike Cuzzi, with an opinion piece jointly penned by him, Maine State Chamber of Commerce head Dana Connors, and Tony Ronzio, the Sun Journal's new media director - one of the more clued-in folks on the panel. (BTW, Tony, I've had a website since 1992. Can we stop calling it "new media" soon?)
They asked if I'd consider printing it, so I took a look. And I've agreed to publish it here - with my responses in line. And no, this doesn't stop me from shaking my head at Maine's daily newspaper situation. 
Anyway, here's the op-ed, with my responses. I'm in bold.

The Future of Maine's Newspapers
Despite National Trends, Maine's Newspapers Remain Strong

The national narrative about newspapers is expressed in two words: they're dying.  
Let's be clearer: the national narrative about daily newspapers is that they're dying. Weekly newspapers, including alternatives, have hit a rough economic spot just like everyone else, but are doing just fine.
Over the past few years, newspaper circulations have declined, staffs have been cut back, budgets have tightened with the shrinking economy and the explosive growth of digital and social media, and some publications even closed their doors. 
Yep, such as the Portland Press Herald, the Portland Press Herald, and, well, the Portland Press Herald's York County bureau. And Village Soup Media, of course. Or were you going to tell me Maine's an exception to this stuff?
However, the national narrative is largely driven by the experiences of big, publicly traded newspaper chains, like Gannett or McClatchy, or the big institutions, like the New York Times or Washington Post. Neither represents the real story of newspapering in Maine. 
Except, of course, for the obvious and well-known facts that Maine daily newspapers have lost circulation big-time, shrunk their staffs significantly, tightened budgets, and closed their doors.
First, most daily and weekly publications are owned by Maine individuals and families who live and work in this state.  While committed to turning a profit, these local owners read their newspapers like broadsheets -- as opposed to spreadsheets.  
And as we know, people who live locally are by definition better than people who live far away. This is why, as we all know, Maine has the best telecommunications companies, the most innovative universities, the world's best teachers, the most talented artists, and more Nobel Prize winners than anywhere else on the... (Fine, we have some of these - but Maine-centric exceptionalism is hollow rhetoric that substitutes boosterism for substance.)
This also attempts to get away with lumping the struggling all-things-to-all-people daily newspapers in with the successful niche-publication weeklies. Don't let this sort of silliness cloud your vision. Daily papers print the Internet - after it's been posted online. Weeklies print the news first, with insight and context.
Second, there is cautious optimism in Maine that its newspapers are rising again, albeit slowly, after some difficult years. 
Who is optimistic about that? Is it anyone outside the newspapers in question?
Maine's papers are making money, hiring newsroom and other staff, either holding or growing circulation, and reaching more people than ever before with their print and online offerings.  
If the dailies are making money, it must just not be enough for their local owners, who continue to seek greater profits by cutting back on content while raising cover prices. They're not "holding" circulation, though by some measures they are slowing the losses. But it's important to note that how circulation is measured has changed, allowing greater flexibility in determining what counts - specifically so that the newspaper industry can make its numbers look better, in an attempt to regain control of the narrative of the obvious.
And if they're claiming to reach "more people than ever before," make sure you get them to show you how they know that they're not reaching the same exact people in print, online, and mobile devices - and just counting them multiple times. What's that? Oh right - they can't show you that. Because they don't know that. Also, make sure they show you how many of those online readers are people who would gladly pay to read what's there. Oh yeah, they can't show you that, either, because most of them wouldn't.
That greater reach hasn't necessarily translated into greater profitability, but even so, Maine's newspapers' balance sheets as a whole are trending in the right direction.
Just cut the word "necessarily" from the sentence. And if the balance sheets are looking up, it's not because there's more revenue. It's because costs are lower. That means fewer workers, at lower salaries, less employee benefits, and smaller circulation (accompanied by smaller print runs).
Third, Maine's newspapers are now more competitive than ever before, battling for the best reporters and investing in new, more robust technologies to deliver content to ever more sophisticated consumers.  
The dailies are indeed more competitive with each other. Perhaps that's because they're engaged in a race for survival. Can this state really support three major dailies and three smaller ones? They are as uncompetitive as ever with weeklies, who trounce them time and again, week in and week out, in print and online.
What are these "new, more robust technologies" they're talking about? Better blog engines? Slightly faster websites that might load faster in a state whose overall broadband speed is terrible?
The existential crisis of Maine and national newspapers is reshaping their mission and invigorating them to rapidly adapt to new challenges. This strong competition and renewed sense of purpose promises to keep Maine's newspapers vibrant. 
Innovation, competition, and reinvigoration do not directly and automatically equal success. Some innovations fail. Some businesses lose competitions, and renewed energy can be wasted by mismanagement, or by outside economic factors.
So what does the future hold for Maine's newspapers? The precise answer is unknown. What is known, however, is the future exists -- despite gloomy predictions to the contrary. 
Ah, that's some refreshing honesty. Despite the original interpretation of Mayan predictions that the world would end in 2012, the new interpretation is that the Mayans expected the world to continue for many more years. "The future exists" is the banner of promise that is held high by people whose entire jobs have for decades, even down to today, been obsessed with telling you what happened yesterday. Their newspapers certainly don't reflect the idea that the future exists - and only rarely even address the present. They just talk about what happened in the past.
So daily newspapers are discovering that "the future exists." This is important, but continues to underline the idea that daily newspapers and their leaders are profoundly detached from the rest of the world, in which we're constantly worrying about the future and talking about what's next, and only rarely deeply interested in what happened in the past. (And yes, I'm a trained historian, and I recognize the distinction between my interests and those of regular people. Daily newspaper workers have continued to think theyare regular people - and they're not.)
Recently, in Portland, we hosted a panel discussion about the future of Maine's newspapers. The participants came to some common conclusions, although with divergent opinions about how to get there. 
What? I was there, and didn't hear any common conclusions - besides "We don't know what's happened, but the future exists."
First, print editions are not going away anytime soon. Plenty of fans still exist for printed newspapers, particularly in Maine, which supports dozens of excellent weekly papers that cover every inch of the state. 
And the fact that weekly newspapers are successful has what bearing, exactly, on daily newspapers, which are an entirely different animal?
Going forward, though, print will become just one vehicle for readers, as opposed to the dominant one. Digital journalism and advertising will eventually supplant printed papers for primacy, but never replace them entirely. 
This is already true - and not just something we'll see "going forward." Print is just one vehicle - for a decreasing number of readers. Perhaps printed papers won't ever entirely disappear. Some people still put music out on cassette and vinyl, after all.
This will happen not as readers' news consumption changes, but as advertisers optimize how they pursue and attract customers online. For decades, newspapers have aided businesses in the quest for customers; as the digital age dawns, newspapers still remain ideally suited to provide this service for years to come.
Here's another bright spot of honesty: This transition won't happen because of what daily newspapers think their readers want. (Reason: They have no idea what their readers want.) Rather, it'll happen because of what advertisers demand, and what makes the numbers work. Sounds a lot like what's already at work killing daily papers.
And what it really says is that Maine's daily newspapers will not be leaders in innovation, but rather will follow the innovations of others, who will determine the future of advertising. Being a follower - especially when calling it innovation - is always a good way to save your failing business, right?
Moreover, newspaper advertising departments are transforming themselves into full-service digital providers to businesses, offering value-added services such as website design in response to businesses' growing digital needs.
Ah yes, website design - so glad that's a new offering of Maine's newspapers. Have they heard of Blogger, Tumblr, Google Sites, or any of the zillions of free and low-cost, easy-to-use services already out there? Oh wait - newspapersstill aren't used to the idea that they're competing with the entire Internet.
In other words, local advertisers will have as much to do with the evolution of Maine's newspapers as any other force, actively driving news organizations to become more rooted in the digital economy. 
Any chance those local advertisers could drive daily news organizations to become more rooted in their actual physical communities? Yeah, didn't think that was on your radar.
The willingness of consumers to pay for information received online is also increasing. While not a full answer to revenue challenges, digital subscriptions add another revenue stream when done right and are proving successful at large and small papers across the country.
The pay model requires two things: scarcity and quality. The Wall Street Journal and New York Times can limit free access and require payment because they do stuff nobody else does. Maine's papers not only share each other's stories, but are heavily dependent on wire copy. Associated Press copy you read in your daily newspaper is by definition at least 12 hours old - that's how long it takes to receive, edit, lay out, print, and distribute information that's been online for free for most of a day.
If Maine's daily papers even want to think about charging for access, they have to start providing information that's unique to themselves, hasn't been published in weekly newspapers already, and is of unquestioned quality. Right now, there are fewer than five journalists in the state working for daily papers whose work is worth paying for. The rest of them may have talent and smarts, but are being ground into meaningless, useless dust by outdated management and editorial ideas - such as those that think making websites is a business opportunity for the future.
These models prove that readers value what newspapers have historically provided to their communities: unbiased, objective reporting and engaging, insightful information about the places where we all work, live and play. 
You forgot the word "timely." You also forgot the word "exclusive." And when we see all that as a regular feature of all three of Maine's daily papers - and not as a special exciting extra, we'll think about being willing to pay. But if the NYT can't command more than $15 a month from subscribers - half the monthly print rate - how is a lower quality publication with smaller readership that has plenty of other options for getting information for free going to get any amount worth counting? If the PPH allowed digital subscriptions at half its present rate, that would be $6.50 a month. And remember, PPH quality, volume, and exclusivity are all far lower than the NYT, so we'd really be looking at something far lower as a subscription rate.
It's not yet clear what Maine's digital subscription models might look like, but it's fair to say greater experimentation is coming.
And experiments always find success, so positive results are assured, right? Right?
Finally, all newspapers agree that providing excellent, engaging content is paramount. Content is king and is driving competition and innovation across the industry, top to bottom.
Yep - and this is the first time that "content" and its quality have appeared in this missive. So we see where it rates as far as a priority for the daily newspaper leaders of Maine.
It is a golden age for journalism and those that practice it. With more people consuming more content in more ways than ever before, journalism's mission has never been more obvious or more important. 
More boosterism, with no relevance or insight into how this will help Maine's daily newspapers in any way. Plus, any newspaper editor would have made sure "those that practice it" was properly edited to "those who practice it."
And as long as that mission is valued, a business model will emerge to support it.
Again, placing the foundation of this argument firmly in the clouds.
It won't be what newspapers looked like in the past, but it will be innovative and responsive to the rapidly evolving expectations of Maine's media consumers.
And closing with a heartfelt, meaningless, boosterish platitude. Maine's daily papers haven't changed a bit. And I wouldn't hold your breath about that.

Dana Connors is the President of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.
Michael Cuzzi is a Senior Vice President with VOX Global, a strategic communications and public affairs firm located in Portland.
Anthony Ronzio is the Director of New Media for the Sun Media Group & Past President of the Maine Press Association.    
Jeff Inglis is the managing editor of the Portland Phoenix, Maine's largest single weekly newspaper, and its only alternative weekly newspaper.