Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Debunking the Claims of Craigslist: 5 Mortal Wounds Crippling Print Journalism

After reading the hype-rific article on Craig Newmark and Craigslist in New York Magazine , I got to thinking more and more about the claim that Newmark's list is, like David, singlehandedly bringing down the Goliath of print journalism.

Now, if my knowledge of late 20th century history and pop culture is as good as my bible knowledge (and believe me, both are formidable), Goliath wasn't particularly crippled by the slings and arrows of the Israelites before he faced David--or at least not the way print journalism has been devastatingly crippled by the slings and arrows of a fast-changing American cultural scene and downward spirialling economy.

Saying Craigslist is singlehandedly killing newspapers is more like saying a matador doesn't need picadores to win at a bullfight. But I can see where puddin'headded, pie-eyed journalists with gaps in their knowledge of late 20th century America could make those claims.

So, over the past couple of days, I've been able to synthesize five key shifts in the American economic (and cultural) landscape that are still impacting, and will probably overtake, American print journalism--and might even get Crag Newmark's p/r people and all those gushy journalists to think again:

1) Downsizing, Networking, and the rise of Temping: Downsizing of upper level clerical and middle manager jobs effected want-ad directly. No jobs, no need to post ads. Getting wise, people began to mine their business contacts more regularly for employment opportunities--something many working and lower middle class folks had never done. When big corps that had considerably downsized needed to fill vacancies, they turned to temp agencies--the costs paid to temp agencies offset paying additional h.r. folks to screen applicants and were far less than what a company would pay in benefits for an new employee. But people are optimistic, and temps could be strung along for very long lengths of time before they figured out the temp-to-perm job was ever going to go to perm. Big corps didn't need to run large ads for long lengths of time to bring people in for jobs because temps and temp agencies were more efficient and cost effective. When push came to shove, and coprs needed people, and after people protested and it became illegal not to post and interview for a job even if a corp was going to hire from networking, corps chose to run ads on Sundays only, when more people traditionally bought the paper. People looking for real jobs, quickly picking up on the trends of networking and temping and Sunday only ads, stopped purchasing papers during the week and waited only for that one day. Revenue dropped for daily paper sales and probably stayed the same for Sunday. Ad revenue certainly dropped.

2) Courtesy Cards issued by Grocery Stores: Mom and Dad used to subscribe to the local paper not just for keeping up on local happenings, but also because each and every local grocery chain ran coupons in its Sunday and Wednesday editions. Courtesy Cards, originally issued to help store patrons cash checks, became ways for stores to offer "clipless coupon" discounts in their stores (as well as keep track of customers' purchasing habits.) There was talk for a time of completely phasing out coupons, as in-store clipless coupons were just as effective as the printed issues. Even though there are still manufacturers' coupons, issued in glossy supplements, the advent of courtesy cards and clipless coupons made it so that consumers didn't need to buy papers on Sunday and Wednesday especially if they wanted to get in-store coupon deals. Some grocers will still run ads, but people don't need to purchase the papers--and a lot don't have the time to read the ads anyway. Clipless coupons also helped to make ads smaller. Smaller ads, smaller revenue. Clipless coupons eliminated the need for economically squeezed consumers to buy newspapers. No purchases, no revenue

3) Decentralized Newsrooms: In the late '80's and into the '90's, many small papers began to be bought up by the conglomerates--Knight-Ridder and Gannett among others. They consolidated facilities along the lines of the downsizing trend going on in the rest of corporate America. Printing became more mechanized, which further eliminated, or radically changed traditional jobs like typesetters. Newspapers got leaner because there was very little local reporting. Case in point: my old New Jersey local paper The Home News was bought and consolidtated with The Asbury Park Press. Local bureaus were dismantled--the net effect being that we in the New Brusnwick region began to know more about what was going on down in Neptune than we did about the five car pileup on Rt. 1 in Edison. There seemed to be no need to purchase local papers regularly, and some people stop subscribing to local papers....and especially after the Next Big Thing...

4)Free On-line Content: if the local paper was no longer local, and its content was now provided free, on-line, why bother purchasing a print version? As a New Brusnwick resident, I could log into the new on-line version of The Home News and Tribune and read only the paltry local stories. A resident didn't even need the paper to find out about theater listings, as they were also on line, and had a better chance of finding out about the local bar scene from various 'zines that started to appear, with more frequency, in music stores--as well as from the area "alternative press." So, unless one likes the tactile sensation of newsprint rubbing off on one's fingers, and the rustling sound of paper pages being turned, all the information one used to need from a local paper--job listings, movie times, and reports on local stuff--was now free. Why buy? Revenue decreases again.

Newspapers have crashed...the final thing that burns them out of existence might be:

5) There is no such thing as a NewspaperWoman: In my survey of the newpapering industry, there seem to be second, third, even fourth generation newspapermen. Ever heard of even a second-generation Newspaperwoman? Nope! Know of any of the paltry few first-generation NewspaperWomen who are mentoring a new generation if NewspaperWomen? Nope. They may be toiling away in obscurity, but they, and their protegees (if any), aren't necessarily getting loads of press. Further, men still seem to occupy the majority of editorial positions with both major and local papers. The few women that are in editorial positions rarely make it into the club that would classify them in the same sense as the newspapermen. When women have managed to infiltrate even the Fortune 500, even fewer, if any, have been able to claim the mantle of "NewspaperWoman" and, more importantly, to add their voices to that particular Good Old Boys' Club. The few women that are allowed to occasionally dine with The Big Boys never seem to express opinions about their profession that are respected and promoted by their peers. Print journalism is possibly the very last closed shop that's out there--and that closed-minded, closed-shop mentality has, I believe, hampered print journalism's ability to perceive, accept, and flex with the changes that have occurred in American culture and economy.

Across the landscape of history, women have been integral to the continued existence of, and have made significant contributions to, philosophy, science, religion and the arts. That women are still shut out of print journalism's club of Newspapermen is, in the 21st century, not just a disgrace, but might be the final fastening nail in print journalism's coffin. What is it they say about new blood invigorating things? Apparently the newspaper industry's missed out on that one in favor of the old saw "Stay the Course."

So, perhaps, Craig Newmark isn't doing anything to newspapers that newspapers haven't done already to themselves. When Goliath has self-inflicted mortal wounds, and is reeling from loss of blood, the pebble that dispatches him need only be the size of a grain of sand. And, unfortunatley, because of the short-term collective memory of many, and the excellence of a good p/r firm, that grain of sand ends up being perceived as a rock.

Think about it.

, ,


Jon Garfunkel said...

Woof. The article didn't exactly make that case-- sure, it was adoration "Exploder of Journalism"-- but most of it was about Craig. And when it got to the question of Craigslist's affect on newspapers, Craig shrugs off his solo role. As does the author: "The more honest response is that the Internet is undermining newspaper readership, and if it wasn’t Craigslist, something else would be driving the business to the wall."

Of course, you're right on all counts. It's a combination of factors. I think what Craig proved was that an average schlub could figure out how to engineer Classified ads to work-- and newspapers completely missed the boat on it.

Newspapers did invest in a *lot* in new distribution mechanisms in the late 1990's and even the 1980's (TimesFAX, anyone?) And they got a bit burnt by it; they couldn't quite retain R&D budgets. And it's not like newspapers didn't have visionary people working for them.

Next time we sync up I'll lend you Digitizing the News by Pablo Boczkowski at MIT/Sloan. There's a portrait of an earnest Jeff Jarvis and Susan Mernit trying to seed a community website for New Jersey Online, a joint production of the Advance Media properties in the state (the Newark and Trenton newspapers, the Jersey Journal and Channel 12). Their "Community Connection" was early "citizen's media" and was lauded by its peers, collecting a 1999 award from E&P for public service. But it couldn't keep pace with the changing times; Advance folded it two years ago. And all the times I've heard Jarvis, and of all Google has indexed of him, he neglects to mention anything from it. Susan Mernit could only summon it up once. So if I'm Si Newhouse at Advance, I'd be a bit disappointed that my stars never delivered.

Tish Grier said...

Accusing me of being bitchy, Jon? ;-) but I thought it a good bold move to use the old hyperbolic kvetch to get this subject rolling.

I do, though, get sick of hearing the other hyperbolic hype spewed over and over--people are more familiar with that hype than they are with Craig's self-effacing corrections.

Craig has a good product, yes...as I mentioned previously, it works really, really well in densely-populated urban areas where computer use is high. Out here, in The Middle Of Nowhere, it has little impact beyond a handful of people.

My biggest concern, and what I think is a hugely overlooked factor in the demise of newspapers, is the derth of Newspaperwomen. Little is being done to bring new women in, or to do anything to forward longtime women journalists into prestigious editorial positions. Women win Pulitzers for Journalism, but don't get in the door.

So, as far as newspaper's vision is concerned, I see its vision as being focused, still, on a particular male, particularly socio-economic and ethnocentric viewpoint. When there are no dissenting viewpoints, no alternative opinions, it's very easy to make bad business decisions and overlook strategies that could be helpful.

As much as a bit of testosterone works to lighten the estrogen load in a henhouse of female clerical workers, a healthy dose of estrogen could indeed mellow out all the chest-beating testosterone of the newsroom.

And as far as Advance products go...well, I know you remember my post about the lack of comments on my local paper's blogs. Advance isn't, well, all that advanced it seems.