Friday, April 27, 2007

Line drawing

Loren Steffy’s heart is in the right place in his column in the Houston Chronicle decrying the decision of the Philadelphia Inquirer to let a local bank sponsor a daily wrap-up of business briefs. But his head isn’t.

“With the direct sale of its words, the Inquirer has mortgaged their value,” says Loren, arguing that the “bone-picking investors” who bought the once-proud Inquirer have crossed the line in their desperate efforts to scrounge sales for the struggling property. “Newspapers exist through a delicate balance in which advertising funds the platform, but it doesn't directly fund the content.”

Well, excuse me, Loren, but advertising does indeed directly fund the content of a newspaper – and everything else, too, including payroll, paper, presses and pixels. Except for the pixels, that was the deal well before any of us got into the business. If newspapers survive as commercial enterprises, it will be the case evermore. So, get over it.

The problem is that revenues are getting hard to come by, forcing newspapers (and other media companies) to get increasingly creative about what they are willing to sell – and where they are willing to sell it. And some papers, as Loren rightly notes in his must-read commentary, may be getting perilously close to the point that they would auction a writer’s oeuvre to the highest bidder.

As a former business columnist and unreconstructed journalistic purist, I shuddered, too, when I heard about the Inky’s dinky plan. And I winced when I discovered at approximately the same time that a bilious green ad was squatting in the lower right corner of the cover of my hometown paper, the San Francisco Chronicle. My Chronicle happens to be owned by Hearst, the same company that owns Loren’s Chronicle. So, it’s entirely possible that he ain’t seen nothing yet.

The struggle over where to draw the line between journalism and commerce isn’t new. Well before newspapers got themselves in trouble by denying the threats and opportunities of the technologies that have disrupted the once-cozy media business, publishers often leveraged the power of their presses to grub for money in unseemly ways.

A few years ago, for example, a friend told me that his first big assignment at a major metropolitan paper in a city famous for its beignets was to investigate building-code violations at several downtown department stores. A few weeks after his multi-part series hadn’t been published, he worked up the courage to ask his boss what happened to it. “Don’t be silly,” responded the editor. “That was just something to help the advertising department negotiate this year’s contracts.”

The biggest issue facing journalism today is not that the ever-oscillating ethical line has begun moving more erratically. The real scandal is the lack of imagination and enterprise that has forced the industry, in its desperation, into a position of increasing ethical agility, if not to say fragility.

Instead of turning their account reps into feet on the street for Yahoo to buttress their sagging sales, why couldn’t newspapers have come up with the sort of creative online business being brought to market by my friend Alan Jacobson?

He is starting a video classified site that he might have called Craig’s Tube but instead will be known as RealPeopleRealStuff.

Alan is launching on a shoestring under the noses of some of the nation’s leading media companies. Among the clever, but not particularly ground breaking, tactics he will employ will be the viral, pass-along viewership that built YouTube into a $1.6 billion brand.

In stealing a march on the powers that be, Alan is not only outsmarting them but underspending them, too. His launch budget is bound to be considerably smaller than, say, the combined expense accounts of the newspaper executives who put together the Yahoo deal.


Blogger Carl said...

A writer for The Houston Chronicle and a columnist in The Nation have written critically about our decision to run advertising with a new business column on our section front. Neither writer contacted me, and there is no evidence that these writers regularly read our work or talk to our journalists. What these writers, and other commentators, are doing, though, is raising doubts about the integrity of everyone in this newsroom. I've worked here more than three years, under every imaginable stress, and I have absolutely no doubt about the dedication or ethics of this staff. Are we pulling punches? Will we? Of course not. The evidence is in black and white, and it is in front of readers every day. Some recent examples: We went to court to force Rohm & Haas to release sealed evidence in a legal battle. We uncovered allegations of serious conflicts of interest involving one of the city's biggest builders in a development plan for the post office site. We published a front-page investigation about moonlighting by the head of the local Chamber of Commerce. We revealed outsize compensation packages for the board members of one of our largest local businesses. The work we do has value because it is built on a foundation of fair and responsible inquiry. We answer to our readers. Anyone who has a question about our ethics is welcome to call. We will continue to provide answers every day.
Thank you for reading,
Carl Lavin
Deputy managing editor, news
The Philadelphia Inquirer

3:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Houston Chronicle author's comments make no sense on any level. They harken to the same holier-than-thou bull that permeates too many newsrooms. That the author never called the Inky for comment/discussion only underscores the utter inanity of these high-and-mighty pronouncements.

3:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In support of the host's comments, the fact is that advertisers support content in all sorts of ways, including one off of direct.
There would be no Food section without grocery ads, there would be no Weekend section without entertainment ads, etc. Indeed, not too many years ago, the decision over Sports sections would have been tougher had there not been tire and display auto ads (for the male audience, as it was supposed back then).
In fact, the key criterion of any substantial new element in the daily newspaper for the past 40 years has been whether a commensurate advertising base exists. That is, can the "news" pay for itself? The last of the specialized weekly sections the NY TImes added, the Science section, was added as a gift to the news department. Management thought it would have no ad base, but it gave it as a "gift" to news after all the other feature sections produced unimagined new revenue. Then, it turns out, Science came along just when personal computers did, and it paid off too, which is basically why it exists to this day.
The entire structure of a newspaper depends on the corresponding advertising base. Why, after all, do Florida newspapers have large Real Estate sections?
One (but just one) of newspapers' key problems today is the decline in general advertising (e.g., first-section department-store ads) that puts the general news sections at a disadvantage. (The Classifieds picture is even worse, but that's another story.)
One might as well admit all that, then do the best that one can as an editor. But to pretend that the trade-offs are either nonexistent or easy is a dream world, one that neither the Houston Chronicle nor any other paper ever enjoyed.

6:50 PM  
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8:35 PM  

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