Sunday, December 14, 2008

Newspapers: "Black and white and totally over?"

Chris Davis Explains it All

Posted By on Sun, Dec 14, 2008 at 4:00 AM

On a cold, gray Tuesday afternoon last week, John Malmo brought heat to the Memphis Rotary Club's lunch meeting, with a fire-and-brimstone take on the shabby state of the American news industry.

He began with a salty anecdote and an apology. The media consultant and 50-year veteran of Memphis' advertising scene shared a backhanded compliment once bestowed upon him by a business associate: "Malmo," said associate allegedly barked, "If I ever order a car-load of S.O.B.s and it arrives with only you inside, I won't feel cheated."

The man whose business column ran for 11 years in The Commercial Appeal had some tough love for his former publisher. He mocked the full pages the CA devotes to reader-supplied photos of "ribbon cuttings." And he promised to delver a formula that could rescue newspapers from going the way of the telegraph.

"If I offend anybody, it's not personal," Malmo growled. "It's just my nature."

And offend Malmo did. ABC-24 News anchor Cameron Harper stood up to protest what he felt to be a negative stereotyping of TV news. He was dismissed by Malmo, who said Harper's profession was too busy chasing "flashing blue lights and yellow tape" to do any real reporting.

Malmo's speech was timely. News is big news at the moment. The CA's parent company, E.H. Scripps, is trying to sell the Rocky Mountain News. Industry wide layoffs and the Tribune Company's bankruptcy are making national headlines. The Daily Show's Jon Stewart may have said it best when he riddled, "What's black and white and completely over?"

For all its timeliness, Malmo's message was anything but up-to-date. His criticisms of Internet content, especially sharing and networking sites like Digg, were reminiscent of Steve Allen back in the 1950s, calling rock and roll a fad and Elvis a talentless flash in the pan.

"I went to Digg I saw the top story was, 'Awesome Old Lady Goes Berserk,'" Malmo said, with an eye roll, as though that was somehow relevant to the fact that the way people access information has changed forever.

Malmo went on to grumble about "the bloggers" -- those perennial straw-men and women of the Internet -- generalizing in a fashion once reserved for ethnic stereotypes. "There are no reporters on the internet," Malmo declared, which must have come as a surprise to Harper, a sometimes blogger, and to other reporters and media professionals in the room who produce credible, Internet-only content.

Like a Baptist preacher talking Bible, Malmo held forth on the superiority of serif fonts and wrinkled his nose at the very idea of all those wimpy, hard-to-read sans serif fonts that are used by the Internet. And that's where everything else the venerable expert said stopped making sense.

So what was Malmo's plan to save the daily newspaper business? He outlined three basic steps: First, he said that regional papers should get out of the national news business and focus on own backyards. Second, papers should invest in good human resources who can provide comprehensive local coverage and, more importantly, expertise. And finally, raise the price of papers and subscriptions -- "double the price," if necessary. Malmo's stated goal was not to saturate the market, as papers have tried to do in the past, but to capture only that share of people who are willing to pay more for a quality product.

I believe Malmo's basic assumption is correct: Even in a sour economy, people are willing to spend a little extra money on a quality product. While retail sales falter and newspapers across the country bleed subscribers, i-Phones are selling briskly this holiday season. That should be an unmistakable signal to anybody reasonably well-versed in market trends: people want to get their old media in new, more convenient ways.

All nostalgia and tactile pleasures aside, daily papers now appear on telephones, and being a media guy, Malmo certainly knows this. The digital and cellular revolutions have already happened, and as content providers, newspapers have adjusted far better than their reputation suggests. Online, they now function as television stations, documentary film producers, blogs, vlogs, and repositories for traditional newspaper reporting. Many news sites, most notably The New York Times, even use -- yes, Mr. Malmo -- a serif font.

Best of all, digital newspaper news arrives several times a day, is never soggy, and anybody can get it anywhere in the world without delay.

Newspapers are ready to get out of the tree-killing business and consumers seem to be loving all the new things their phones and mobile devices can do. Of course, the big rub is that the revenue model hasn't made the jump to hyperspace, though online revenue is growing. In fact, the CA's smallish "online only" sector is the only slice of the paper's financial pie to show growth in the last tough quarter. But everything else is withering.

Malmo ended his self-described sermon, appropriately enough, with an altar call. He asked everybody in the audience to go out in the world and do their part to save the daily newspaper. "Subscribe to The Commercial Appeal," he implored, stressing his firm belief that as the inked word goes, so goes America. "Tell your friends," he requested.

Sadly, a few hundred new subscribers aren't going to do anything to save the CA, which recently ceased home delivery to nearly 10,000 households in what have been traditional territories for 100-years because it cost more to create and ship the product than the company could recoup.

"If I had to pick one reason why our democracy has survived, it would not be geography or ethnic diversity or capitalism or talented leadership," Malmo said. "It's impossible," he said, to imagine what will become of our democracy when newspapers aren't there to use their resources, "to protect us from our government."

Props to John Malmo. Newspapers need all the cheerleaders they can find these days. So do other legacy content providers, as witnessed by the surprising layoff of brand-name anchor Donna Davis and 14 of her co-workers at local news powerhouse WMC-TV this past week. There can be no doubt that it's time for tough talk and tougher decision-making.

That all starts with letting go of the fable that there will be less available information because wire service and picture-padded daily papers may soon only deliver a physical product three times a week instead of seven. There will simply be fewer opportunities for broadsheet advertising.

Daily newspapers took massive revenue hits when eBay and free online classifieds made that kind of newspaper advertising obsolete in print. Malmo quoted figures indicating that the amount of time Americans spend reading newspapers has slipped from 18 minutes a day to 13. He attributed this to there being less news to read. But that's a bad metric and a bad example. Chirographic forms of communication are actually surging rather than fading, thanks to text messaging, email, social networking sites, and the simple fact that more and more people are reading newspaper content online. If anything, that's the positive newspapers and their supporters should be cheering instead of constantly accentuating the negative.

Perhaps it's time to call the newspaper crisis what it really is: an advertising-sales crisis. And if "Double the price" is the best sales pitch a lion of the persuasion industry like John Malmo can come up with, then there are indeed more difficult days ahead.

--Chris Davis

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