Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

November 26, 2012

Not Comics: Setting Fire To The Deck Chairs On The Titanic

I don't mean that headline in the provocative way it might sound. It's more like I always think of my dad when I write about the newspaper industry, and my dad was super-fond of playing with existing puns and turns of phrase.

imageAlan Gardner calls attention to the efforts by some of the staff at the Cleveland Plain-Dealer to forestall a three-day-a-week plan for that long-established paper. I understand the efforts to do this, but there seems to me such a huge disconnect between the profits some of these ownership groups want and what newspaper people want for their publications that I almost think that's the story rather than the competing views. It seems to me -- seems -- that we don't have a new ethos when it comes to profits at newspapers, and that maybe one is called for. It seems to me that when newspapers were reliably profitable in a way that delighted their ownership, that's when the idea settled in that they might want to be as profitable as possible. I don't know see how that kind of model, that conception, sustains itself in a day when print is no longer reliably central to people's lives. It therefore strikes me that's what really going on here isn't so much an abandonment of all that's sane by short-sighted ownership groups, it's more of an inevitability -- both the problem, and the fact that the kinds of ownership that sought out these papers and to whom traditional newspapers sold would pick the option that involves cutting off limbs rather than trying to save them.

So yeah, that sucks, but I'm also wondering if this isn't an exaggeration of status-quo policy rather than an aberration arising in opposition to status-quo policy. My guess is the former. Is it crazy to think that these companies believe it wise to compete in markets by limiting the number of people on-hand to cover those markets as the quoted staffer would have you believe? Or is the real crazy thought that such companies give two shits about the quality of the material except as the coverage overall finds its level commensurate with the community's needs for display advertising? You tell me. I would feel a lot better about the wisdom of arguing that people need the newspapers that newspaper people think they need if someone out there could take the self-conception argued and simply sell ads for that one and put that paper out and thus stick it to these companies that are putting a model out there that cuts staff and services. As far as I know, this hasn't happened in a significant market. The closest I've seen is nearby papers expanding their efforts into a city no longer served by everyday publication of a local. It's not really the same thing.

Again, talking about this stuff is hugely unpleasant, and I can never seem to give it the time it deserves. I just think like a lot of things that the huge scramble from a few years back was a sign of a deeper problem rather than the problem itself, and that deeper problem is a generational shift away from paid content, print and a general, shared value of journalism as a social force. Newspapers were uniquely unprepared for the information economy reaching out across the table and smacking them full on the face. The ones that sold to corporations that based their profit forecasts on those values staying values forever were even less prepared for the new reality that's followed. As a result many are continuing to stagger around in a lot of ways they probably didn't need to be staggering. That doesn't make any of the choices facing them more hopeful.

The ramifications for the newspaper strip business of this kind of thing seem obvious. Although, actually... you know, I'm completely uncertain just how limited, not-every-day publishing has an effect on syndicate sales. Does my three-day-a-week paper buy a full six days of Zits dailies?
posted 8:00 pm PST | Permalink

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