Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Alan Mutter's persistent whining gets annoying

Last fall I had the great pleasure of attending a "Media Technology Summit" at the Googleplex in Mountain View, California.

Our host was former journalist and continuing blogger, Alan Mutter, from whom I wrangled the invitation. I mention this because I'm going to spend the rest of this post trashing Mr. Mutter, and I want to start by acknowledging that conference and Alan's hard work in putting in together.

On the other hand ...

Alan Mutter is pretty good at identifying what the newspaper business doesn't do very well. He's really terrible at offering constructive solutions, and therein lies the rub. If you're going to complain, at least have the spine to suggest alternatives to the strategies (or lack of them) you're complaining about.

Not only that, but he likes to use broad, industry-wide statistics to paint a broad, industry-wide bleak picture. This is misleading. As I've said before, of the 1,400 or so daily newspapers in the U.S., the vast majority are regional and local dailies that remain profitable and reasonably healthy. The failing newspapers that get all the headlines (and that tend to drive the statistics) are generally from metro areas.
But allow me to be more specific. Below are some excerpts from one of Mutter's recent blog posts. My response follows in bold face.

" ...  newspaper and magazine sales in the first quarter dropped respectively 9.7% and 3.9% at the same time television expenditures advanced 10.5%, Internet rose 7.5% and radio gained 6.0%."
 At the Post Register, total revenue is tracking to increase by nearly 2 percent in 2010. Several key areas are up solidly, in particular pre-prints (those ad fliers that fill up your Sunday paper), which are up 4.5 percent.
"While auto manufacturers and dealers on average increased their ad budgets by 18.6% in the first quarter of the year, automotive classified at newspapers fell 16.0% in the same period. The over-all market data is from Kantar Media, the ad-tracking company formerly known as TNS. The newspaper data is from the Newspaper Association of America."
Well, NAA didn't ask us. Classified remains significantly under what it generated four or five years ago, but we're running about 5 percent behind prior year in 2010. The truth is, and Mutter knows this, classified advertising at newspapers will never be what it was as the Internet takes a bigger and bigger chunk. Part of finding a sustainable new business model is acknowledging that.
"While newspaper publishers have been able to boost the battered profitability and beleaguered share prices of their companies by cutting deeply into headcount and news hole, these short-term expedients are no substitute for forward-looking strategies to create innovative print and digital products to revitalize their audiences and attract fresh ad dollars. No business ever cut its way to success. Newspapers won’t either."
Here, Mutter resorts to business cliches and general nonsense. Of course, newspapers have cut expenses, including headcounts, during this terrible recession. Of course, we understand that it's a short-term tactic, not a long-term strategy. We also know that it's downright shameful to not mind your mama.

Mutter succeeds another complainer-with-no-solutions, Steve Outing, as a regular columnist for the resurrected Editor & Publisher magazine. Mutter and Outing seem to fit comfortably with E&P's tough love approach to writing about journalism -- they all seem committed to covering what they clearly see as the inexorable slow death of newspapers, instead of telling the complete story of what I believe will be a resurgence of our business. We want no Pollyannas here, but one-sided pessimism isn't real journalism, either.

Publishers and staffs at 1,400 daily newspapers are working harder and smarter than ever to rejigger our business model into something more sustainable. Mutter isn't helping by reiterating the obvious issues without joining us in working on potential solutions. 

24 comments:

  1. Amen!!!
    Who cares what Mutter says anyway? He just says anything he can in an effort to stay relevant in a world that has passed him by.

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  2. You say you want solutions? OK. I've been offering some of these for quite a while. Newspapers such as yours don't want to listen. Here they are:

    * Get the focus back on content, where it should have been all along. Stop obsessing about the design of the front page and on trivial things like hairline rules.

    * Hire intelligently -- no more wild, trend-based swings. Don't hire recent college grads simply because of the "fire in their eyes." Get the best people.

    * Drop the celebrity obsession pieces.

    * Get the agendas out of the newsroom. Readers see through them easily.

    * Start being proactive -- today. Come up with a plan and present it to the staff. If you have to alter it, then so be it. People will grumble, but if you have hired well (and chances are good you have not), then they will adjust.

    * Offer transparency. If something gets screwed up, explain to the readers what happened, why it happened, and how it will be prevented in the future. Don't throw anyone under the bus.

    I'm sure there are others. And I'm sure you will reply with something like: "OUR paper does things the right way!" Sorry, but that is weak. Isolated outposts like yours are not going to drive the business model, no matter how much you want to insist they do.

    Finally, if you are going to a "media technology summit," then you should be glad you heard from someone with newspaper experience. These days, there are many charlatans such as DingiDave Cohn and Pat Thornton who think technology itself is the solution. They have not the first clue about what newspapers should do, and they never will.

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  3. If you think your small growths show that the future is in newspapers, you are in for a serious reckoning.

    The problem with journalism is people like you, old codgers who twist the facts to try to avoid the fate -- the medium makes little sense considering the options available in the market.

    New journalists are wishing you'd just shut down and move over so that other operations can startup, rather than continuing to wander around, dead on your feet -- while spreading your paper cancer over ad-agencies, local business, and on our driveway.

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  4. Dear anonymous:

    Thank you for your thoughtful and insightful commentary. Indeed, "new journalism" is in very good hands.

    R.

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  5. In many ways, you're guilty of what you accuse Mutter of.
    You say he fails to offer up solutions. Similarly, you provide no foundation for why you foresee a "resurgence in our business." On what basis?
    It's great that your paper's in the black, and is even seeing an uptick in revenue. But why would you be crowing about preprints? Sure, they're better than nothing, but I bet a fair portion of those were display ads at one point. And those preprints are only as good as those chains stay in business (we miss you, Linens 'N Things and Circuit City, e.g.).
    Don't get me wrong, I want you to succeed. I'm an incurable ink-stained wretch. I still have three papers land on my doorstep. But when I see my local paper (not one of the three) trim coverage, cut the physical size of the paper, raise the prices and then think people will pay to access their content online, something is horribly wrong. I never was a great math student, but I know that when you charge more and give people less, that's an equation that adds up to nothing.
    So, that leads me back to: what do you have in mind? Are you going to add back staff? Increase your commitment to enterprise and investigative reporting? Aggressively cover state government? Every day provide readers with content they couldn't possibly get anywhere else? If so, I like your chances.
    But if you're like most publishers and cut the muscle as well as the fat, then you have to hope the thud of those preprints arriving outside the loading dock grows ever louder because you're going to need them.
    You're in the fairly rare position of being able to wear two formidable hats inside your building. You're responsible for the product as well as the bottom line; an exhilirating, perilous task. But if the Post Register is to thrive in the long-term, the publisher must let the editor prevail. You have some difficult choices to make. I hope you choose well.

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  6. You are whistling through the graveyard. You don't even know what you don't know. Retire, please.

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  7. Ah, it's John Newby, publisher of the Ottawa Times in Illinois. His newspaper group did things like:

    * Give awards for sports headlines where names were misspelled.

    * Encourage people in the newsroom to violate ethics by selling advertorial space.

    * Ignore chronic problems that led to the same "early" deadline being missed week after week.

    * Create the same failing atmosphere where content played second fiddle to obsession about design.

    * Pit newspapers in the same chain against each other.

    He, his newspaper, and his chain are examples of why the entire industry is in serious trouble.

    Also, anyone who thinks the staffing cuts are short-term and that they will be reversed when the economy recovers is living in a fool's paradise. Those positions are gone, and they are not coming back -- ever.

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  8. The problem isn't so much that Mutter has no solutions. The problem is that, when he's describing the problems, it's clear that he has no idea what he's talking about. He just pulls stuff out of the air and declares it as fact. Regularly. It's the opposite of journalism.

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  9. Steve:

    Well, shoot, I'm full of solutions (by the way, I've never understood the aversion to preprints -- they are far more profitable than ROP ads and there's nothing inherently sacred about ROP).

    My solutions:

    http://gumpole.blogspot.com/2010/03/note-this-was-originally-written-in.html

    http://gumpole.blogspot.com/2009/08/it-wasnt-too-late-to-save-newspapers-in.html

    http://gumpole.blogspot.com/2009/11/readership-advertising-and-profits.html

    http://gumpole.blogspot.com/2010/05/latest-on-leveraging-value-of.html

    R.

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  10. Balanced (I hope) assessment. I used to work with Alan Mutter, he's very bright and a rock-em-sock-em tabloid-type journalist who loves headlines that will attract an audience. On the other hand, just about everyone in the newsroom was afraid of him yelling at them. He's somewhat bitter about his newspaper experience and it shows in his posts. That said, he does do a good job of piercing through industry hogwash about how things are getting better.

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  11. I'm not here to defend Mutter, but please, let's be honest with ourselves. The biggest problem here that doesn't entail straight financial issues is that far too many newspapers have been broken beyond repair as brands for too long. The earlier post refers to junior hires. Where I worked, those hires were made solely, exclusively, on the basis of minimal salary, with a diversity hire thrown in every couple of years because, and this is a direct quote from a then-executive editor, "Corporate says we have to do it." My paper chopped its staff by 40 percent in the 1990s, in the Clinton boom, to boost profit. Our publisher, a scion of the owning (inheriting) family, called it (direct quote again) "right sizing." The newspaper never recovered from the self-inflicted shotgun blast to the face that this cheapjack, superficial approach to newsgathering constituted. It's not as if my paper was the only one doing it. There's a lot of blame to go around, and as an industry, newspapers have been staggering toward irrelevance for a generation because inept owners got greedy. Stop blaming Mutter for telling the truth.

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  12. Nearly forgot; there's this one, too: http://gumpole.blogspot.com/2009/08/rogers-rules-of-orde-on-internet.html

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  13. You wrote: "Mutter succeeds another complainer-with-no-solutions, Steve Outing, as a regular columnist for the resurrected Editor & Publisher magazine." ... Roger, I think that's unfair. A look back through the E&P archives of my old columns will find that I offered loads of ideas and solutions. As I recall from our back-and-forth over the years, you just didn't like most of them!

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  14. That's probably a fair comment, Steve, though I don't recall much in the way of fleshed-out proposed solutions. Still, Mutter is undoubtedly whinier than you were and my comparison was imprecise, at best, and smacked of the over-generalizing that I accused Mutter of. Honestly, my larger frustration is with E&P, which seems to delight in bashing us.

    R.

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  15. "A look back through the E&P archives of my old columns will find that I offered loads of ideas and solutions. As I recall from our back-and-forth over the years, you just didn't like most of them!"

    This happens quite a bit. The established newspaper people simply don't want to change. In their mind, they have to do things their way and only their way.

    Even as I type this, there's a report of the San Diego newspaper cutting 40 staffers and establishing "junior writer" positions. Yet there's still room in the payroll to bring on the well-traveled, myopic design wonk Yuri Victor. Newspapers have endorsed this silliness for way too long.

    Jim Donnelly is 100 percent right when he says newspapers are horribly broken as brands. They won't be fixed by the coddling approach Mr. Plothow seems to favor. There has to be a lot of getting in people's faces and telling them again and again that what they are doing is not working.

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  16. rknil:

    Your comment, as others above yours, lacks depth and assumes facts not in evidence.

    "The established newspaper people simply don't want to change." I suppose that's true of some, but not in my personal experience. My experience is that none of us is afraid of change and we're all doing it vigorously. It may not be the change that some observers think should be made, but the claim that we don't want to change is simply wrong. One difference between most people who are attacking newspaper companies and publishers and the targets of their attacks is that we employ people and put out products and are expected to find a sustainable business model.

    "In their mind, they have to do things their way and only their way." Again, that's not been my experience. It's a broad indictment that doesn't withstand scrutiny.

    "They won't be fixed by the coddling approach." Who's suggesting coddling? Not I. I'm simply demanding something more than repeating the same tired complaints. Do you believe in journalism? Then work with us to find the new business model.

    "... newspapers are horribly broken as brands." Not only doesn't this mean anything (there's no such thing as a newspaper "brand" -- there are 1,400 daily newspapers in the U.S., and each must establish its own brand), but it doesn't bring anything meaningful to the debate.

    "There has to be a lot of getting in people's faces and telling them again and again that what they are doing is not working." No, there doesn't. Nothing gets accomplished that way, except for a few smug people getting to feel like they told off a few "dinosaurs."

    I challenge you to find a single place that produces original news content and puts it online only that is profitable. One. Anywhere. And, please, do your homework. (I do know of one -- the BBC. Of course, if I could tax every television in my market, my worries would be over.) I further challenge you to find any news organization that is earning more than 5 percent of its revenue directly from online without bundling (i.e., giving away its online ads as part of a print buy but allocating revenue to that category), and that fully allocates overhead to the effort. Aggregators don't count. There one may be out there, but I've not found it yet, and I've looked.

    I love the Internet. It is transformative and, as a distribution vehicle is a whole lot more efficient than dead trees. How much fun would it be to stop printing! Alas, that's not what the market demands. We have systemic issues. What fun it is to look for solutions! But listening to people lob verbal potshots not only isn't fun, it doesn't accomplish anything.

    R.

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  17. Another thought:

    rknil, your first comment was exactly right -- not a word there with which I disagree. I've been preaching much the same gospel for a decade. If you read my other posts on this blog, you'll probably find a lot with which to agree.

    R.

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  18. One thing you should realize: I don't agree with the young bunch that runs around calling people "dinosaurs." I thought my first point would have made that clear.

    You say you want facts and evidence, but I just gave you one from San Diego. There are many other examples of that pattern: Clueless newspaper execs push the steady, non-flashy people out the door in favor of "junior" staffers and design wonks. That approach has yet to work anywhere. Why aren't you issuing a challenge for someone to find a single place that has succeeded with the design-first model? That part of the established media has been protected for years, probably because it's easier to obsess about visuals after the paper comes out than it is to focus on content while the cycle is live.

    If you don't push for that process to be changed, then you are just as guilty as the people who proclaim it to have been a success.

    Finally, I'm glad you agree with that first post, but actions speak louder than words. Why on the face of the earth would I work to find a new business model with people who made it abundantly clear they did not respect any number of things that should be part of good journalism?

    P.S.: I see you object to the "brands" argument. Mainly I was agreeing with another poster's statement, but I do think newspapers believe their "brand" is enough to keep people coming back. The rest of your point is a semantic argument that is not worthy of debating.

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  19. Roger deserves credit for taking issue with those who pontificate from a digital stage about the decline of the industry. Talk is cheap and digital typing is even cheaper. The most constructive digital Chicken Little would be one who seeks out the best practices in the industry -- the ideas that are working. Yes, newspapers are on their way out in the long run. But journalism will live on. That should be the focus, rather than useless "woe is me" hand-wringing. Don't we understand that we're scaring away a whole generation of potential young journalists? And the digital detractors have blurred the difference between the structural problems of newspapers and the deep-deep recession. Amateurs.

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  20. Anonymous/rknil:

    Have you not read anything I've written on these topics since 1999? It would have been hard to miss my contrarian works in E&P, Presstime, AJR, OJR and throughout the blogosphere. I've spoken to the NAA, PNNA, Associated Press and every organization in eastern Idaho that will let me in. Most of that stuff is preserved in one way or another on this blog. To wit:

    "Yes, newspapers are often messy and chaotic places. Sterile environments they are not. But there is a combination of art and science that is practiced inside a good newspaper that requires training, commitment, experience, leadership and adherence to a code of conduct and ethics that is gospel to the journalist."

    "There's no arguing that the Internet has removed a major obstacle to local newspaper competitors. But delivery was never our main ace in the hole -- it has been, and is more now than ever, journalism. Citizen journalism is an interesting idea but not the basis for a business model. Real, passionate, local, expertly practiced journalism differentiates us from our rivals, from TV web sites to those coming from someone's basement.

    "Differentiation is not just a journalistic issue. “We've had a lot of scams off of Craigslist,” said Detective Gretchen Ellis, Tacoma Police Department, talking about the recent infamous case in which a Craigslist ad led to the complete ransacking of a vacant house. “We've had prostitution things happen, rental scams, fraudulent activity. In this case, it appeared the items were going to be given away, but they were not.” This presents us with a tremendous advertising opportunity – there is still a place for trained human intervention. Of course, then there’s more tragic case of the Craigstlist killer."

    "The key is this: If we don’t put out a “newspaper” regardless of the medium on which it ultimately gets “delivered” that contains compelling, necessary, unique information that local readers need to have, none of our strategies will matter. Content (news and information, including advertising), is, indeed, king."

    "Use sound principles of journalism as your Great Differentiator. Yes, anybody can start a blog. (Heck, I’ve got five myself.) But bloggers aren’t trying to run a business that feeds hundreds of employees and their families, is a good corporate citizen, and makes the place they live better. Journalism matters, and it will set us apart from the rest of the Internet world."

    That last one comes from "Roger's Five Rules of Order on the Internet," which is complete with cartoons and everything, based on a presentation I made to the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Association last fall. Read the whole thing, with cartoons, here: http://gumpole.blogspot.com/2009/08/rogers-rules-of-orde-on-internet.html

    Besides bopping individual publishers and corporate CEOs on the head, what else would you have me do?

    R.

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  21. Well, if you are thriving on the "blogging from the basement" cliche, then it's no wonder I had not read much of your previous stuff.

    You ask what I would have you do. First, stop paying lip service to the "content is king" philosophy. If it really is king, then step up to the plate and start criticizing approaches like the one in San Diego, which combines the usual dumping of writers and copy editors with the redesign panacea (a solution for stupid, poorly educated people who shouldn't even be in newsrooms) and the hiring of something called Yuri Victor, who conveniently is brought on board right before an organization starts slashing.

    I have many more suggestions, but you won't even take me up on the first one. You and your ilk generally shriek pathetically: "NO! We CAN'T change our philosophy on design! It HAS to stay!" It's really quite sad, especially when that approach has never boosted long-term circulation at any newspaper.

    You know what they say about insanity -- doing the same thing over and over and hoping for different results. You and your fellow clueless wonders in the industry keep trying the same failing approach.

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  22. OK, uncle. I get it. You hate the UT, and anyone who doesn't share your bitterness is an ilk.

    R.

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  23. Yes, I must have some grudge against the UT if I don't like its new plan. Next you'll be telling me I just didn't have ink in my veins.

    The responses are threadbare, overused, and tired. No wonder the youngsters gripe about the fossils running newspapers.

    It's tough to blame them. Your crowd ran the ship aground, and now you sleep inside the vessel, coming out only to contest anyone who dares propose change of any sort.

    Also, I've seen some editions of John Newby's paper recently. Whenever there is a liftout quote, the paper takes care to misspell the name of the person being quoted. That shows the staff cares.

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