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CSotD: Sizzling information

 

The railroads did not stop growing because the need for passenger and freight transportation declined. That grew. The railroads are in trouble today not because that need was filled by others (cars, trucks, airplanes, and even telephones) but because it was not filled by the railroads themselves. They let others take customers away from them because they assumed themselves to be in the railroad business rather than in the transportation business. The reason they defined their industry incorrectly was that they were railroad oriented instead of transportation oriented; they were product oriented instead of customer oriented.  — Theodore Levitt, Harvard Business Review, 1963

Pat Bagley offers an optimistic, almost defiant commentary on the Salt Lake Tribune’s decision to cease printing a daily paper, suggesting that they know they are in the business of news, not the business of newspapers.

Which I frame with a quote that was rocketing around the industry 35 years ago as the Internet cut into the pie, but which, alas, was being quoted by the Cassandras who were correct but were ignored by the people at the top, who insisted that the newspaper business would be just fine.

The Tribune has decided to be in the information business, publishing on-line during the week and printing a major Sunday edition to honor the tradition of Sunday morning with the newspaper, coffee and donuts.

Meanwhile, on the East Coast, the Hampshire Daily Gazette has made a move to stay in the newspaper business, firing their editor and grouping her tasks so that one editor will produce two small New England papers, having already sold its press, outsourced delivery of the paper and put their building up for sale.

They can’t both be right, and, while it’s not certain the Tribune’s moves will work, focusing on delivering information seems like the smarter move.

To finish a triad of immediate news, the Washington Post interviewed a number of cartoonists “on 1995, the year that comics changed forever.”

I dunno about that headline, but it’s a good story and it’s certainly true that

When (Calvin and Hobbes) ended its run a quarter-century ago this week — on Dec. 31, 1995 — the departure capped a seismic year of farewells by superstar strips: Gary Larson had retired “The Far Side” that January, and Berkeley Breathed had ended his Sunday-only “Bloom County” spinoff, “Outland,” that March.

And it’s also true that newspaper strips are in as much danger as everything else at the paper.

Start with this idea: A newspaper is not a fine restaurant. It’s a diner.

Nobody expects a gracious gourmet meal when they go to a diner. They expect a good lunch for a reasonable price, and they don’t expect to come out saying “Oh, the French fries were magnifique! And the cole slaw! Oooh-la-la!”

They say, “That was good. Let’s do it again tomorrow.”

Similarly, a newspaper offers a menu of various things: News, sports, entertainment, advice columns, comics and ads. You may have a favorite among them, and, just as a good diner might specialize in really good pies, a good newspaper should stand out for excellence in one facet or another: Sports, comics, state coverage.

But it’s the composite that brings people back. And, at the risk of bursting a bubble, you don’t need a tie-breaker when there is only one diner in town.

Back when each town of any size had two newspapers, a good comics page could swing the choice (as could good sports coverage, or some other point of excellence).

But those days ended around World War II, as newspapers merged for reasons that would fill an entire column, but involved there being no ads for cars and refrigerators because we were making tanks and planes instead.

Suddenly, it was no longer a matter of which paper to buy. But it would be half a century before it became a matter of whether to buy a newspaper at all.

To honor the premise of that WashPost story, the change in comics seen a quarter century ago is that cartoonists took charge of their strips to a level not seen before — not entirely in 1995, but when people like Bil Keane and Lynn Johnston fought to own their strips, rather than to work as hired help producing a syndicate product.

Before that, Watterson, Breathed and Larson could have retired, but the syndicate would have brought in hired guns to keep the strips going and, if you loved those strips, the prospects should give you a bad case of the collywobbles.

And, again, that’s a whole article, maybe a book, because there were fights over rights that go back to the Yellow Kid and the Katzenjammer Kids.

Or you could write a whole other article about Penny Arcade and xkcd and the Oatmeal, who are in the comics business, but not the newspaper business.

Let’s focus instead on newspapers vs. information, because Bagley is right that competition for newspapers came in the form of information and entertainment, from radio, television and the Internet.

In 1905, when Earnest Elmo Calkins introduced “Modern Advertising” — emphasizing the importance of design in the industry — he noted three main media for ads: Newspapers, magazines and streetcar placards.

As late as 1920, ads for national products — not just the familiar little ads for patent medicines but large, expensive ads for food, toiletries and even tire chains — appeared throughout the country in local papers.

Within a few years, radio nibbled away at that ad income, but it wasn’t until television that newspapers lost those generous national ads.

About the time that ads for Post Toasties shifted to television, there was a consolidation of stores, which began to drive out locally owned small businesses, while, at the same time, newspaper chains began to grow, and the personal relationship between local businesses and the local paper began to fade.

Advertising decisions that used to be made over lunch were now made over long distance.

Newspapers still mattered: The grocery ads ran Thursday, and you’d better stay out of the stores that day because they’d be overrun with shoppers.

That was true up into the 80s and 90s, though with nationally-distributed, one-size-fits-all inserts rather than individually designed ads.

Then came the Internet and the decision whether to stay in the newspaper business or focus on the information business.

One of the first major blows came when newspaper executives failed to come up with a sensible defense for Craigslist.

It’s only a fad, they insisted, as classifieds, a major source of income, plummeted.

And that quote about railroads? It was being cited by prophets who warned against giving away the news on-line.

But the response from the brass was that we’d make it up in clicks, whateverthehell that was supposed to mean.

In practical terms, it was like charging for food at the counter of that metaphorical diner, but handing it out for free at the drive-thru while relying on the indoor income to not only cover the costs but turn a profit for shareholders.

Brilliant plan.

So here we are. Now what?

First of all, get over the notion of being in the newspaper business and focus on being in the information business.

Then beef up the menu at that diner — not just its content, but its visibility.

As the cartoonists in the WashPost article noted, it does nobody any good to carry a good selection of comics if you make readers search for them, and that can be said about your other features as well.

Don’t expect readers to know where to look. No successful business operates like that.

Get your menu out front and tell them why they need you. There’s nothing new in that, either: Elmer Wheeler said it more than 80 years ago: Sell the sizzle, not the steak.

And then sell it. Don’t give it away.

 

Asking for $150 (or $180) a year seems like asking a lot, and a national newspaper might do better to sell inexpensive subscriptions to a worldwide audience.

But if you have the sizzle — the information local readers need and the entertainment they want — $15 bucks a month isn’t a big deal. It’s a little more than Netflix, but presumably they’ll use it more often and for more reasons.

Here’s another factor: Once you stop being in the printed-newspaper business, it’s not just that you forego the cost of paper, plates, ink and pressroom salaries.

You’re also giving up a roughly 30% commission on each delivered paper.

And, yes, there is bandwidth and so forth to consider, but, still, it costs pretty much the same to deliver 1,000 copies as it does to deliver 100,000 copies.

But you can’t take shortcuts on that product: You need to be vital. You need a fully staffed newsroom and you need a full menu of interesting, fun, useful features and you have to let people know what you offer.

As Wheeler wrote:

The sizzle has sold more steaks than the cow ever has, although the cow is, of course, mighty important.

Mighty important, indeed. Don’t think that because you’re “only” a diner that you can sling any kind of cheap slop on plates and that people will keep coming back.

What the locally-owned, non-profit Salt Lake Tribune is doing to stay in the information business has an excellent chance of success.

Cutting quality to stay in the “newspaper” business will not.

And now a reward for comics fans who have waded through all this:

Juxtaposition of the Past

(Pearls Before Swine, 2006)

 

(Ted Rall, 2008)

 

(Elderberries, 2009)

 

Meanwhile, the old steel rails still ain’t heard the news, but wasn’t it lovely anyway?

Community Comments

#1 mark johnson
January/1/2021
@ 7:27 am

Mike
Love that song. First stop out of Chicago for the City of New Orleans train was Homewood Ill, which, as you may recall, was where I grew up

#2 Ignatz
January/1/2021
@ 8:00 am

I think the Salt Lake Tribune is making the right decision. I don’t know what printing and delivering 80,000 newspapers every single day costs, but it must be enormous. And some papers have a lot more than that.

I think it may be a good idea for on-line newspapers to focus on local news, since that’s the only thing fairly difficult to find on the internet, and give you a reason to USE your local newspaper’s site instead of Yahoo, Google News, or the Washington Post. You could also have an advertising section, where people intentionally look for ads, instead of “Give us money to stop this thing from popping up in your face.”

#3 David M Spitko
January/1/2021
@ 9:22 am

Thanks for today’s blog. Your insight into newspapers helps me understand what is happening in the industry. All this reminds me of Kodak which was the first company to invent digital cameras – but the film division put the kibosh on them because there was no need for film in the digital cameras. Kodak following that thinking straight into its demise. It is just amazing how short-sided “corporate titans” can be.

#4 Kallaugher
January/1/2021
@ 9:52 am

Nice job, Mike.

#5 nancy o.
January/1/2021
@ 11:15 am

$150 a year might sound like a lot at first glance, but I’ll bet their current subscribers are paying considerably more than 41 cents a day for their daily paper.

#6 Bill Williamson
January/1/2021
@ 12:30 pm

Thanks for that survey, Mike. In my city, Victoria BC Canada, our local newspaper is well subscribed but two new online local newsletters publish every morning with exclusively local information. They are now fundraising after being free. We are betwixt and between your two examples, I guess.
Happy New Year, Mike.

#7 Hank Gillette
January/1/2021
@ 7:36 pm

Speaking of a national newspaper selling inexpensive subscriptions to a worldwide audience, the Washington Post is currently offering a digital subscription for a year for $29.

washingtonpost dot com slash subscribe

I don’t feel guilty about mentioning this because the Washington Post is my local paper.

#8 Mike Peterson
January/2/2021
@ 4:49 am

Hank, it also occurred to me that a local paper could monetize an international audience by offering cheap subscriptions to a single feature.

Specifically, this occurred to me while I was being shut out of a cartoonist’s work because I don’t subscribe to his paper. I don’t want to know everything going on in that city/state/country and I’m not going to pony up for a full subscription, but I’d pop a few bucks to read that particular comic (or columnist, for instance).

They’d not be getting less money than a full subscription — They’d be getting money they wouldn’t get otherwise. Why not?

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