Blog Post

Newspapers: Dumb, Fat & Lazy?

[qi:004] Howard Kurtz, media columnist for The Washington Post, in a harsh critique of the newspaper industry, writes today that:

The people who run such companies bear a considerable share of the blame. In 1993, just before the Internet became a consumer force, I argued in a book that newspapers had become too cautious, too incremental and too dull, tailored largely for insiders. The rise of hugely profitable monopoly papers in most cities made them increasingly bland, seemingly allergic to controversy.

In other words, the newspaper industry is no different from the U.S. automobile sector — markedly out of step with the mainstream buyers of their products.

Things are bad out there. Many of my friends are out of work, while others are secretly dreading the day when the axe falls. Predictably, many blame the likes of Google (s goog) for their woes. Yet Kurtz points out that his own employer is talking to Google in an effort to figure out new ways to make money. So is The New York Times.

Let me see if I have this straight: Instead of coming up with a smart strategy and innovating, they’re going to Google to help fix their own mess. If an industry can’t think for itself, well, what do you call it? How about dumb, fat and lazy?

Just to be very, very clear, I am not talking about the working stiffs — the journalists who pound the pavement, every day, looking for news and their editors. I am talking about the members of the executive suite, which who with every passing day prove themselves to be as calcified as the remains of a T. rex.

43 Responses to “Newspapers: Dumb, Fat & Lazy?”

  1. Richard Jones

    The criticism of the newspaper industry ( of which I am a former member of) misses the point. What makes OM think this blog or the crap over at Techcrunch is any better off than any of a dozen newspapers or magazines out there slowing dying. They have a business model (overhead) based on revenue streams that are drying up. Now this “blog” may have less over head but at the end of the day you depend on the same revenue streams that ..the “fat..lazy” newspapers and magazines depend on. The same fate that visited inside.com will eventually visit the self important advertising dependent blogs.

    When this blog first started the posts provided a fresh take of all variety of tech related topics..but honestly since Microsoft backed off Yahoo 90 percent of the post on this network have the feel of “post for the sake of posting ”
    The shark was first spotted when you allowed your “reporters” to pose with Bill Gates ..Then we saw a fin when The DR. Dre Found Read post. But Fonzie OM went over the shark with the Apple / Taj Mahal post. Which is prehaps the single worst post in the history of the blogospere. And you call papers lazy. …Since you wont do it I will give you the answer to the news business problem …..find a source of revenue that is not as dependent on advertising ..or slowly cut to the bone as your real customers ( plumbers, auto dealers, chain stores, and employers) die off during the current depression.

    • Richard,

      What makes you think we are not thinking about all the issues you are bringing up, and working on the future models. What makes you think that we are not aware of the issues involved in the business. We are, and we are doing something about it. Unlike the newspapers.

      • Richard Jones

        What makes you think .the media industry is not also “aware” of those issues and working on “future models” In fact they have foe decades ..Kaplan , Trade Shows, Careerbuilder, TV stations, ..the point is the are no fatter dumber or lazier than most large industries. Kurtz makes good points but any business staffed by humans is going to ebb and flow ..add too many layers, hire some people who are less innovative than others. Hell if I had newsroom full of Woodard and Bernstein I would be in heaven but still dependent on advertising revenue ..there are no perfect worlds …..my last media employer went tabloid and became the hottest tv news station in town …….the impression was they would take on anybody ..no scared cows ..the public eat it up and in most cases rightfully so …but the stories you never see are stories about used car dealers, or shady plumbers or god forbid the bait and switch world of window replacement…because they pay the bills ….Please stop playing Blodgett and provide rational analysis and please dont blast others for failing to provide a solution to a problem that not only are you also facing but have failed to provide a solution for

  2. Approximately a three years ago, the belieguered Press-Enterprise newspaper, Riverside, CA, began to erect a new building next to the old with the intention to set aside enough funds to demolish 80% of the old one, allowing the paper rolls and transportation dept. to remain there. Management must have known that President G.W Bush was still in his economic destruction phase of his presidency. How could they not; They are in the news business.

    Each day as I took the truck to make a delivery — either a distribution center, a post office, or private merchant mostly — I noticed the edifice rise and fill out until they crowned the completed bldg. with the “Press-Enterprise” logo. Finally, the landscapers and gardeners moved in to plant vegetation. Finished.

    I waited for the old structure to be demolished as planned; The old front entrance began to look badly. No one watered the planters and the white paint began to turn color and peel. Oh oh, I thought. Steve Woodard, a fellow trucker said, “They must not have enough money.” This was about two years ago.

    Then about one year ago, Class A, big rig truck drivers, my friends, Steve Woodard, Steve Juarez, Tommy Ramirez and I were told that we, along with the rest of the full time staff in the other departments would be offered a voluntary buyout in order for management to cut operational costs. If it got enough volunteers, leading to enough cost savings, management would not need to make any further staff reductions. If it did not, then management would make involuntary staff reductions. It was made clear that the truckers cost the newspaper more than their jobs were worth to the bottom line; They’s better prepare to be laid off.

    Indeed, all three were laid off. Each was given a fairly generous separation package, I believe one month pay for every year at the job. Steve Woodard lined up another Class A job while he was still there and, as soon as he was separated, he simply and easily moved in that direction. I don’t know what Juarez is doing, but Tommy Ramirez found a job in Arizona, I heard, where he would be near his young son and former wife.

    In the meantime, Joe Baldwin, a benefited full-timer, and my direct supervisor, was gone one day. His desk was cleaned out. A part time, unbenefited driver from the night trucking crew was given the desk. She became my new supervisor. Another night-time driver was transfered, I later learned, to take my place. It makes sense as I had only a Class C lisence, meaning that I was not authorized to drive big rig trucks. Then Joe’s supervisor, Steve Prermann (yeah, there were three Steves), left before any of the staff reduction, obviously knowing his future at the P-E. With a connection, he got hired to supervise the transportation department at the Blood Bank in San Bernardino, CA where, I heard, he is doing well.

    I remained…for a time, but was reassigned to mail delivery, a rinkidink job, driving a pickup truck. I mostly picked up and delivered inter-departmental mail as well mail to and from the downtown post office. Big clue about my future; It told me that I as being phased out, but I stayed, hoping against all hope that the tentacles of the bad Bush economy would not reach down to me.

    But about six months ago I became part of the involuntary because the worsening Bush economy continued to put pressure on the newspaper business. As part of the separation package, I was given two weeks of pay for every month that I was employed at the newspaper, which was for two years. I was also given a complete refund for all sick days and vacation days accrued.

    I then got a Class B license, allowing me to drive bigger trucks and, shortly after, I got a Class A, allowing me to drive big rigs, i.e., 18 wheelers. But with even over the road trucking companies either freezing or laying off 18 wheel truck drivers, I have not found such a job in the six months, but now my unemployment benefits ran out, having received the last installment yesterday. I will apply for an extension because jobs in the Inland Empire and Riverside, CA are still few.

    Getting back to the topic of who is to blame, yes I blame management. When a worker does bad work, the management blames the worker, but, when management does bad work, it blames the system, in the same way that Bush blame everyone but himself for the bad economy and for failing to find any WMDs. So, while I blame the Press-Enterprise’s management for not doing their job to increase income, I have to also blame Bush for allowing America’s wealth to be transferred to foreign entities, thus weakening the domestic economy.

    • Dominic

      It is amazing how John Dingler manages to get to the issue as professionals fight to explain the sitaution. in my country Uganda, truck drivers are far analytical than University professors!
      What is wrong with our society ?????. I can not imagine a person qualified to be president being wasted away behind a truck stiring wheel!

  3. Quite a few people have hit on individual issues that exist in the business and from an abstract level, exist in many industries. The common theme here is that conventional value chains and business models that have changed little in the post-Industrial Revolution era.

    What people need to recognize that the distruptive effect of the Internet is still in its infancy. We will continue to see meltdowns, but in the end new business models will rise above the ashes and a new level of prosperity will be achieved and will be more pervasive than before.

  4. Unfortunately, I can neither remember nor at the moment find the name, but there is a paper in the UK that has been expanding its readership. How? Breaking and strict news reporting go online. The paper itself is saved for multi-directional single-topic focuses and extensive amounts of analysis. In other words, it’s a newspaper doing something that isn’t so easy online: creating a directed focus and navigation to give round coverage to a given topic. Now that is an intelligent set of management. But most are still pining for the days of 35 to 40 percent profit margins. The psychology of management has to change from being a gatekeeper to local audiences to creating something that attracts those audiences, and which can then attract the advertisers or even charge for content.

  5. charlie

    Funny, I thought big newspapers were in trouble because their stars (Howard Kurtz, Tony Kornheiser, Tom Friedman) just use their salaries as publicity to jack up their book sales and TV appearances.

    And Om, the problem is most working journalists are dumb, follow the crowd, and don’t have the time and/or expertise to write really great stories. Blame management all you want. And that is true of online journalists as well. Most of them are lazy and just reposting what they find on wiki. Sure the top 10% is great, but the product is mostly crap.

  6. The problem cannot be pinned on any one area. Yes, the print world missed the paradigm shift, but even if they had seen it and responded, we probably would be in the same place. The real problem is that the way people gather information has now fragmented. The internet is everywhere, but it is not ubiquitous. Close to half the population still doesn’t know how to find news on it. Many get a great deal of their world view through chain e-mails. People still read magazines and news papers, but just not enough to attract significant advertising. The world is bifurcating between those with real knowledge and those without, the latter being significantly larger and influential in the decisions that are made.

  7. Our local newspaper decided several years ago they “had” to get involved with the Web. They were fortunate enough to hire a web editor/publisher with lots of experience who was looking to move from San Francisco to Santa Fe.

    He started up and built a stunningly successful presence – winning best news site in the region year after year. The newspaper site became the focal point for discussion not only on local issues; but, national and international. And all along he told them – I remember the day he put it in writing for them – you will come to a time when your online presence will exceed the traffic in your print edition. You must prepare for that. Start figuring out how to maintain both systems as comparable, profitable.

    When that day landed about a year ago – and print sales dropped below profitable – what did they do? Complete denial set in. They laid-off 20% of all staff – starting with all the folks who worked on the Web Edition. Put 1 reporter in charge of it. Removed the software for discussion of news articles – just buying into the Topix package for about 5-10 local articles per day.

    Worthless.

  8. insider

    Om, I tend to agree with the commenters who point out that craigslist, and LBO and conglomerate M&A debt burdens and the consolidation of advertisers have negatively affected the newspper business as much or more as management blunders (despite blogosphere hysteria the newspaper industry adopted the internet very very early on and has been frantically experimenting ever since.)

    And anyone who has read The Innovators Dilemma must acknowledge that the newspaper industry is just like every other big propserours entremeched industry — lulled into complacency by successful core businesses and slow to innovate due to fear of harming said core businesses

    But OK, Om, I’ll bite – what do you think the newspaper industry should do? or should have done? Cmon be specific. The blogosphere is too full of armchair experts bloviating about the newspaper industry but few if any of these rants ever contain and concerete practical advice (beyond inane generalities like “pay attention to the customer” or “embrace the new technologies”

    Om?

    • Insider

      It is not the first time I have said this — in fact if you look at my past writings and my comments on other people’s television shows, I have often talked about how the newspapers need to leverage what they have the most of — ability to provide context to news. News is getting commoditized but ability to present it in a manner that gives the whole 360 view is a point of differentiator.

      I have often written about the fact that the newspapers needs to adapt their internal structure to the new realities of media business. If their medium of distribution is changing to the Internet, they need to change their business models to adapt to that.

      Of course, I could go on- but those are the two which I have talked about in the past.

      • insider

        respectfully, i still think your comment here and all your previous writings (i have been happily reading your for a long while!) don’t amount to a hill of beans.

        there simply may not be a way to “save” the newspaper industry. some technologies/platforms simply do not translate well to new eras, e.g. telexes, faxes, the dewey decimal system, sleeper cars on trains, etc

        i mean, if it really was only a matter of adapting, why o why are there literally zero success stories? the newspaper business has been in crisis now for 15 years, at least. but no one — literally no one — has figured out how to survive and prosper?

        and all the while the hysterical blogosphere screams, “dummy wake up!” as if there was some readily accessible strategy or solution or tactic just sitting there like a plump ripe apple on a low hanging branch

        not to tar you with that brush, om. unlike so much of what paases for professional writing these days, i find your writings (and your site overall) to be balanced and calm and thoughtful and mostly thorough

        but jeez louise, am i tired of the chest beating narcissictistic self-promoting overheated rhetoric pouring down from mount bloglympus onto the poor wretches who (like me) love the newspaper business and wish it could be saved and, perhaps in vain, work like crazy to try to preserve professional journlism from being destroyed when the fragile platform of print comes to its natural end

    • Kevin Kelleher

      >what do you think the newspaper industry should do? or should have done?

      Here’s what I’d say to that.

      First, newspapers should have stayed private. They should never have become public companies. Newspapers are cutting jobs and “doing more with less” while delivering quarter after quarter of profits to make shareholders happy. But it’s very hard to please shareholders and serve a community, which is really what a newspaper is there to do. Many newspapers were privately owned for decades by owners who understood this. Someone above asked why newspapers took on so much debt, and I think this is why – to sustain otherwise unsustainable profit growth.

      Second, they should never have talked down to their readers. Except for New York, the cities I’ve lived in have always done this, and the San Francisco Chronicle has always been the worst. I know reporters there who tore our their hair as they watched their good work watered down and dumbed down by a team of five or more editors, supposedly to make it more palatable to readers who are actually quite smart.

      Third, newspapers did use the Internet, but they didn’t embrace the Internet. Blogs embraced it totally because they really had no other choice. For journalism, the Internet is simply a new platform for news. But it takes years to really understand how it works. Writing for blogs is very different from writing for newspapers, just as writing for magazines is different from either. But many newspapers simply ported their print stories over to their Web sites. Or they tinkered with what the Web can do, but in a half-hearted way.

      This is changing, of course. The NYT, the LAT, the WSJ and more have very good journalists writing blogs. And the NYT is doing some interesting experiments with new apis. So the bloggers vs. newspapers distinction (cited most often by newspaper executives) is more and more a false one.

      Finally, newspapers can solve the conundrum that no one seems to want to talk about – why are ads so much cheaper on the Web when the content is the same? Advertisers pay less to reach consumers online, even though online ads are supposed to target users much more efficiently. So they should in theory cost more than print ads. I can’t answer this, and I’ve never heard a good answer to it. But until this is addressed, the business model for journalism is going to have a hard time of things.

      I have to add that I’m amused that there is even any controversy to Om’s assertion that newspaper execs are dumb, fat and lazy. Journalists have been saying this about publishing executives for as long as they’ve been drawing paychecks from them. Most of the time it’s true, and the Internet hasn’t changed that one bit.

  9. Perhaps due to the progress of technology we are moving on from newspapers. They haven’t been around since the beginning of time and won’t be here until the end of it. The newspaper killed the town crier and now the internet has come to take the newspaper away.

    I think the papers that are forward thinking and adapt to the internet will survive without print editions, the others will disappear and there isn’t a lot they can do about it.

  10. Bill Emmott

    “I am talking about the members of the executive suite, which with every passing day prove themselves to be as calcified as the remains of a T. rex.”

    If you’re going to criticize newspaper management — the ultimate straw man — you might do it with “who” rather than “which.” Say what you want about those dullards, they usually observe the rudiments of English grammar better than most self-appointed experts in the techno-blogosphere.

    • Point well taken and error/grammatical oversight is regretted.

      That being said, my main argument stands. And as you mock the bloggers and the grammatical mistakes on this blog, but you muddle the argument yourself — the dullards as you call it are not subject of my ridicule here. It is their bosses.

      You also forget that on any given day newspapers have more mistakes per page than this blog does. And as for self-appointed expert part: i have spent over two decades in the business of media, mostly as a reporter. It has been enough time that I am privy to the fact that many need more than help from the editors to get the job done.

      • Bill Emmott

        Yes, I understood and agree about newspaper management, and know how maddening it can be. Our local paper here, in central coastal California, is a black hole where talentless editors hold on for dear life while smarter folks leave for greener pastures. The LA Times is a tragicomedy.

        I started reading GigaOM two or three weeks ago. The editorial range is mostly good but the writing is often a mess. I notice articles don’t seem to get many comments. NewTeeVee is loading something among the gigabytes of stuff on the homepage that causes my mouse cursor to disappear. On IE, the GigaOM Job Postings pane doesn’t load and there are other layout problems. And so on.

        I know what I’d think if this were the technology section of a newspaper’s website. Oh well, we all know that the rule of writing applies in high tech more than anywhere else: if you know anything about a subject, you’re probably not writing about it in a newspaper/blog.

        • Bill

          You are now switching conversation to a whole different topic – our product.

          To that, I say thanks for you comments and appreciate your input. We try and improve every single day.

          • There is not enough investigative reporting. No one mentioned the fact that journalists have been threatened to stop reporting on the Iraq war and other stuff to appear in print.

  11. Main issue is that 20-40 year old are not reading newspaper.
    By moving to the Internet is not going to help.
    Same thing should happen to TV as well.
    Corporation covet 20-40 to brain wash into buying their crap.
    No wonder Corporation will sell their left nut to get to the Indian youth.

    As far as Debt is concerned. it was US government policy where it is cheaper
    to borrow then to save. all tax policy is aimed at that.

    It is simple as that.

    More that can be done to disrupt 4th branch of government and their cozy
    relationship to politician the better. especially when all the money raised
    by politician ends up by advertisement.

  12. Richard Jones

    Why not smart ..well thought out analysis. The newspaper industry is neither fat nor Dumb. In fact much like any business that depends on advertising it is in decline. But this is about DEBT …..Industry debt and the debt and lack of access to new debt for the industry customers. This is not about Google, The internet or “user generated content”
    Whatever the hell that is…..this is about DEBT….Om everytime you try a take on the auto industry you come up lame …..The auto industry is complex …far too complex for the drivel that passes for commentary on this site lately

    • Richard

      I think you are wrong in your views about the newspaper industry. Having worked in the media long enough I know the shortcomings all too well. Mr. Kurtz summed them up pretty well for the Washington Post.

      As far as your comments about auto industry and complexity: i know one thing about business. You make a product customers want. If you don’t, someone else will. That is what I understand is the problem with Detroit. So where you see complexity, I see a few inefficient companies that are out of touch with a majority of their market.

      You are right about one thing — it is about debt. Well, how did they end up being in so much debt? Isn’t that part of the business-process.

  13. All these articles, bloggers and analysts are looking at the big city and major newspapers. No one seems to be really digging into the smaller communities or smaller city papers, a layer or two down from the majors. While I agree the newspaper industry needs help and there is declining circulation, there is still a lot to be said for what newspapers provide in their communities that aren’t covered by bloggers or other media. A TV station can’t get into details on stories, because they are hurting as badly as newspapers and usually have much smaller staffs. Bloggers are not the answer,because they just aren’t there in smaller cities. However, more community involvement is the answer. Many newspapers have suffered from bloat and they are now having to start to operate lean & mean. That is what all companies need to do in this economy. Hundreds of newspapers failed during the depression, but the industry survived. They need to start looking outside their buildings and thinking they know what their audience wants and actually listen to the audience and react to that. I have an Internet background and work at a newspaper. I know the egos and high and mighty views that were there. That is changing. They just need to adapt and survive. They may not be in paper form, but I think they will survive in some form.

    • Touche! :-)

      Barb you are right, but these examples are not as many as we would like to see them. On your point

      Hundreds of newspapers failed during the depression, but the industry survived. They need to start looking outside their buildings and thinking they know what their audience wants and actually listen to the audience and react to that.

      I think this is part of the problem — thinking outside the box is missing.

      • It is obvious that you know very little about a depression.
        The Great Depression started when the stock market crashed in 1929. That was 80 years ago and the next depression will be much worse.By the way, did they have email in 1929? When we have our economic meltdown (depression) there will be civil unrest and food riots. The government will have complete control of the food and water. Many Americans will starve because they have no food. I bought food prepared for long term storage. This depression could last as long as 10 years.It has been suggested that each person have enough food to last for 7 years.Very few people can afford that.

  14. It’s not just the newspapers – print magazines are hurting too. Blender, Domino, Men’s Vogue…these won’t be the only titles to get the axe. It’ll get worse before it gets better, but I’m also optimistic that some very creative and useful new venues will emerge from the wreckage.

  15. There have been so many structural changes, well beyond Google and craigslist that have gotten newspapers where they are:

    * Consolidation among key advertisers. Think Macy’s, Citi, etc. There used to be many local brands with local buyers.
    * Demand for trackability by advertisers.
    * Rise of information technology. Businesses can target their key customers at little or no cost.
    * Competition from their own suppliers such as wire services and syndicates.
    * Rise of user-generated content.
    * Increasing cost of commodities.
    * Increasing environmental consciousness.
    * Decreasing density of newspaper subscribers.
    * Inability to develop national scale to compete effectively with national players.

    More details on these here:
    http://blog.agrawals.org/2009/04/05/newspaper-companies-cant-unring-the-bell/

    Add to all that the crushing debt burdens imposed by reckless acquisitions fueled by easy credit.

  16. Thomas

    I’ve heard from a journalist friend of mine that major newspapers were paying journalists six-figures a year to file two stories and be in the office 2-4X/yr. And then you’re going to layer editors on top of that, and executives and then try to support a physical distribution system in the face of a gloriously more competitive digital one?
    I mean, isn’t it amazing that they’ve lasted as long as they have???

  17. About 13 or 14 years ago I was working for a division of The Tribune, Compton’s New Media. I was also in charge of Tribune’s Growth Fund efforts in the Silicon Valley; responsible for finding startups that showed great promise for either The Tribune specifically or for new technology in general.

    I remember one meeting back in Chicago when Mr. Madigan mentioned that Bill Gates came to Chicago to speak to The Tribune. My response to Mr. Madigan’s entrenched perception that The Tribune was pretty invulnerable –

    “You think that you control the methods of production because you own printing plants – well, 2 guys just bought the methods of production at Circuit City with what was left on their credit cards. You think you control the channels of distribution with your delivery trucks and satellite relays and your kids peddling up and down neighborhoods on their bikes – well, those same 2 guys just set up their worldwide distribution network by plugging a wire into their phone jack. . . . .”

    And this was before social networks, Twitter, camera phones, etc – so there goes the content.

    And on and on and on.

    • Why would dumbed-down Americans want to read newspapers. They may buy the USA Today newspaper because it has a lot of colored pictures.
      Don’t forget, The US is #39 on the literacy scale. Nothing tobe proud of.