Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Still shaking my head about the #menews panel. Here's why.

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I'm still shaking my head in dismay and disbelief after Monday's panel convened, allegedly, to discuss the future of Maine's newspapers. (Here's the video.) I've spent many years in the alternative and community press, and am well used to seeing frequent examples of the outright cluelessness and lack of vision at mainstream daily newspapers. It's helped form part of my theory about what's wrong with today's newspaper industry. (In brief, it's that they don't realize what strengths they have, they value what they shouldn't, and are too full of themselves to look around at the wreckage they inhabit and decide to clean out the pigsty.)

But after Monday, I'm actually reconsidering my view that the larger players in the media industry - even the larger players in Maine's media industry, who are tiny specks in the global media universe - are out of touch with reality. Now, I have begun to think they're operating in a fully alternate universe than the one in which I've been reporting and editing - and living - for my entire career.

Here are a few of the moments that continue to really shake me, and, in italics, why.

Tom Bell, Press Herald reporter and president of the paper's union, said the paper's plan for self-improvement now that it has been purchased by hedge-fund mogul Donald Sussman is to double its news staff from 8 to 16 reporters. In my professional life, I've never worked for an organization with that many reporters - and I've always worked at papers that scoop dailies on an extremely frequent basis. It's unclear to me that the solution to failing business models is to put out more of the same stenography mainstream dailies are famous for. That said, the PPH has hired two crackerjack reporters: Steve Mistler and Colin Woodard (the latter a now-former member of the Phoenix's freelance crew). If they're the mold for what's coming next, then that does bode well. But their advantage is their actual skill, not how many of them there are.

Bell also said, as he has in the past, that the reason Sussman bought the company is for "philanthropic reasons." So a daily paper that is still allegedly profitable (though less so than in years past) is now a charity? It's certainly unclear that charities are big innovators in the news space. Even "new" models like ProPublica and the anemic Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting (MCPIR here) aren't doing anything that has never before been done in the news business. They're operating investigative bureaus at a loss, seeking subsidy from other, profit-making endeavors. (In past cases, it was the classifieds department of the same company; here it's whatever their donors actually do to earn money.)

Tony Ronzio, director of new media at the Lewiston Sun Journal's parent company, Sun Media, said news organizations will survive because they're unbiased sources of information. I'd love to think that's true, but it's not a business model - and especially not in our present society, where people debate seemingly obvious facts like whether the Earth is getting warmer, or whether trickle-down economics ever actually help the people they're supposed to trickle down to. It's almost impossible to find unbiased information - and mainstream daily papers are one of the least likely places to find it, since their reporters' workloads are too high to allow genuine inquiry, and editors' stomachs are too weak to allow more than he-said-she-said-he-said exchanges on even the most basic of recounting of events.

Todd Benoit, director of news and new media at the Bangor Daily News, said that the BDN is offering blogs to important thinkers in Maine, such as political-science professor Amy Fried at UMaine. Those are people who would previously be sources for reported stories, he observed, who now can weigh in directly to the newspaper's audience. That is indeed an interesting model, and one many other papers have attempted. The problem is the potential for a newspaper's website to turn into an environment like a TV talk show, where allegedly important people pontificate without regard for the facts. Perhaps it was lack of time causing Benoit not to talk about an editing process, or the means by which the BDN picks its bloggers, but he seemed to be saying that the value of the newspaper reporter as an intermediary is diminishing, not remaining valuable.

Ronzio talked briefly about the economic impact of newspapers and their employees, observing in passing that printing and production jobs in newspapers are "nothing to do with the newsroom or news gathering. Those are blue-collar jobs." It was barely a decade ago that most reporters considered themselves blue-collar workers too. He's right that reporters now are more inclined to think of themselves as distinct from the working classes, and see more in common between themselves and the corporate-government elite that's been running amok since the 1980s. Those efforts have gathered speed in the last 10 years, and I don't think it's a coincidence that the lack of scrutiny has come at the same time as the detachment of daily journalists from their audiences.

Bell, responding to an inquiry about getting more young people reading the paper, suggested having a beat focusing on young people, rather than a geographic beat structure, like the Press Herald has. Perhaps he's choosing to forget the days Justin Ellis's "Generation NXT" column regularly made the rest of the Press Herald appear even more out-of-touch than expected by "the young people" (as Ellis's blog called those he intended to cover). Ellis is a nice guy, who had good ideas that were often hamstrung and neutered by myopic leadership. Maybe new ownership and management at the PPH would help. But that still ignores the fact that young people want to know about health care, the economy, education, politics, the environment, culture, and government. Which seems a lot like what non-young people want to know about. (And, for that matter, what people care about no matter where they live in a geographic beat structure.)

Bell also admitted that the Press Herald staff look at the Bangor Daily News and the Lewiston Sun Journal regularly, and said that's a change from the past. This is something that should give me hope, and should help me feel better about the state of Maine's newspapers. But the idea that the state's largest paper didn't even bother to regularly look at the second- and third-place papers is distressing. And the fact that it's new enough to be notable suggests it's not happening nearly enough yet. Bell also didn't mention that PPH reporters are well known for reading the community weekly newspapers in their coverage areas, and pretending they didn't get scooped by days or weeks when writing their own stories on subjects long since covered locally.

Benoit provided one of the only moments with a sense of urgency, when he said, "if newsrooms are evolving then advertising and marketing should be in full-scale revolution." Nobody talked about that at all, and from what's evident on the market and on the surface, Maine's mainstream newspapers are not even close. In fact, their newsrooms are farther ahead than their advertising and marketing. Which isn't actually saying much.

Terry Carlisle, general manager of the Ellsworth American, was perhaps the most obviously out-of-touch person on the panel. She outright scoffed at the idea of citizen journalism: "We're professionals . . . we don't need the help of people who are not trained to do it." It's never been clear to me that treating your customers as if they're helpless is a good business model. (Even hospitals know better than that.) And to outright refuse help? That's just stupidly arrogant. Admittedly, she works at a community weekly, rather than a mainstream daily. But none of the people sitting next to her even blinked when she said this, nor at her even more startling remarks.

Carlisle also claimed that young people aren't interested in newspapers; they only get interested later in life. National surveys show otherwise - and strongly otherwise. And that's in addition to the decades of success of alternative newspapers around the country, like the Portland Phoenix, whose core audience is in the group of people Carlisle suggests don't care about newspapers.

Carlisle also, separately, said that 18- to 24-year-olds "don't buy anything." Any of us who have ever been 18- to 24-year-olds know that's silly. If you're looking for expert advice, though, try the example of credit-card companies. They're extremely good at targeting people from whom they can make money, and they have for years been absolutely insane about getting college students to sign up for credit cards.

And Carlisle said she was dismayed by all the attention to lost circulation, saying that even after the drops, the Ellsworth American still has more readers in Hancock County than anyone else. She may be right about that - though the daily circ figures for the "mainstream" BDN and PPH are only barely above the circulation of the "alternative" Phoenix - but the problem is in how the circ drop combines with advertising rates. I'd bet none of the Maine papers has lowered ad rates, even while selling fewer eyeballs. Rather, they're in the position of trying to sell fewer eyeballs at higher rates. Sure, an ad in the Ellsworth American will reach more people in Hancock County than in any other publication, but why should it cost more than it did in the past, when it was an even better deliverer of advertising?

Carlisle had a very lucid moment at the very end, in which she said, "Nobody covers what we cover." This should give me hope - that perhaps people leading Maine's media outlets understand what they have that is valuable. But even Carlisle didn't seem to notice the importance of what she said. And certainly nobody else did. Of course, that statement isn't true for the PPH, BDN, and Sun Journal - not only are they all heavily reliant on wire copy (and on stories from the other papers under a shared-coverage agreement), but even the stuff they do cover is commonly covered by the local weeklies, often well before the dailies bother.

Bill Kuykendall, a senior lecturer in new media at UMaine (and a professor of mine when I was in grad school at the University of Missouri), observed that high-speed Internet access is expanding rapidly across Maine, thanks to the Three-Ring Binder project and UMaine's involvement in Gig-UThis is also something that should give me hope, except that none of the panelists even responded to this observation. That shows they don't understand the significance of the change that will come as their audiences move online even more quickly, and as mobile access to high-speed Internet gets even more widespread.

Kuykendall also asked the panel about moving to mobile apps, and what was possible for them to afford. Carlisle was the only one who answered the question -the Ellsworth American does have some mobile presence, she said. The folks from the dailies changed the subject. It's impossible to talk about the future of news without talking mobile, but that's what Maine's three largest daily papers are doing. Maybe they have something up their sleeves, but there was no sense along the lines of "we'll have something, but we can't tell you yet what it will be." Rather, the sense was, "Mobile? Who cares?"

There were a couple of bright points, though.

First was Bell's observation that Maine's papers are privately owned, carry little debt, and have owners who are involved locally. All of these are good starting points for organizations seeking to make changes. They're less likely to get bogged down in choosing a direction, more flexible at adapting, and largely unconstrained by outside economic forces. But being at a good starting point right now is WAY behind the rest of the industry's pack, and risks leaving Maine's media market - like its industrial market - as a backwater of little note.

And second was Ronzio's observation that the local community is what's going to support the newspapers, rather than any sort of national or regional advertising base or readership. He's right, and if even some of Maine's newspaper leaders are realizing this, they are approaching the starting gate on real positive change. But being at the starting line is still very far behind.

While I'm reluctant to end on a low note, the fact is I have a worse view of the mainstream press in Maine than I did before Monday. Not least is because I asked a question of the panel that I've been asking since 2009: Given what they're talking about as future changes (connecting with young readers, using social media, providing context and depth rather than just stenography), how will they compete with those news organizations, including the Portland Phoenix, that are already doing all of those things, and have been for years? There were jokes and criticisms, but no real ideas. As one person said afterward, it produced a lot of squirming, but no substantive responses.