Saturday, May 03, 2008

Where will the axe fall next?

Torstar hit yet another 52-week low Friday, down 38% from its one-year high and more than 50% off its all-time high, reached in 2004.
So, what's wrong with Canada's largest newspaper company?
I bet they blame the Internet again.

I am still marvelling at the Ottawa Citizen, which killed off its lame-o Sunday feature section to run TV listings. Yes, TV listings are cheap. But TV Guide went out of business last year for a good reason: anyone with cable or satellite has easy access to TV listings on their TV. Anyone so impecunious that they don't have cable or satellite is unlikely to pay a buck for a paper. If the Citizen wanted to fill the pages with useful copy, maybe they should have published hundreds of sudoku puzzles. More people would have bought the paper.

Yes, the Citizen's Sunday features were boring. Multi-page series on the great pilgrimage routes of Spain, self-congratulatory crap written by boomers who never left the office, eyesplitter columns. Even the body language in Citizen column pictures -- bland-looking, badly-dressed boomers with their hands aggressively placed on their hips or slovenly slipped into their pockets -- is off-putting.

Like I said earlier this week, the Internet is the best thing to happen to stupid media managers. It gives them an easy out. But here's my question: why are magazines doing so well? And book publishers are still doing relatively well, considering they, at least in this country, nearly priced their products out of the hands of the middle-class.

You ask anyone from a 13-year-old to a 90-year-old what's wrong with newspapers and you get the same answer: there's nothing in them.
What that means is there's nothing that they care about.
But are newspapers addressing that issue?
What happened to local journalism? Where are the journalists who are willing to take on power and influence? Where are the publishers who give a damn about informing the public?
They're few and far between.
And the numbers reflect that.

Here's my tip to the Aspers and TorStar: fire any editor who wants to run celebrity news, wine columns, stories about menopause, anything about Kingsley Amis, columns about wonderfully wonky kids doing the darndest thing, TV highlights, the Cannes film festival, and cottage decorating. Cut most national political coverage, especially poll-based stories and "who's hot, who's not" dreck. Stick to telling people about new laws. If there are no new laws, policies or taxes of note, maybe there's just nothing going on on the Hill.

Hire people who are eager to leave the office and talk to real people to get real news. Run unfashionable stuff like obits to get older readers back. Get more reporters into the courts and city hall. Cover the surrounding rural area a bit. Tell people ways they can save and make money. Be hyper-local. If you see stuff on the 'net, you don't want it in the paper. Run the stuff that you can't get on the Internet. No one can read about local people, local politics, local issues, and local crime on the Internet. Don't post that kind of material. Make people pay for it.
If people think your web page sucks, great. Make them buy the paper.


Mikael said...

The Book industry is NOT doing well. Chapters and Amazon might be fine, but when they're discounting the final potter book 40%+, that's not a healthy margin for anyone.

Paul Wells said...

That's a real insight about TV Times, in addition to being funny. But surely it's Martin Amis we shouldn't be writing about? As far as I know, nobody's writing about Kingsley Amis. Of course it's possible an allusion just flew over my head.

bigcitylib said...

The book (esp fiction) is not easily replaced by a computer screen. I love to read in the bath, throw books against the wall, and so forth. Not really possible with a laptop.

Anything that's too long to absorb in a couple of minutes, and that you're supposed to enjoy reading, works best in book as opposed to online format.

Dana Nield said...

I've often wondered why North American papers haven't looked at what the British do, which is include copious amounts of free shit in the Sunday paper. Every time I'm in London I grab a couple of papers on Sunday. Not only are they a great read, but the freebies are fantastic. I still have "The State of Independence" playing on my car stereo from the last trip. It was a CD of music from indy artists that I would not usually listen to otherwise.

Perhaps it has to do with the distribution model or dare I say it, culture, but I beleive Canadian papers would befenfit from such a scheme....

Your mileage may vary.

Cameron Campbell said...

I'm with Dana, I just got back from England and I was stunned by how many papers there still seem to be operating with the twin impressions that:
1) their readers aren't complete idiots
2) they, as the media, actually have a duty to inform and teach (the Guardian and one other paper (my brain can't remember which) are both doing hand book things daily about science - the Independent was giving out DVDs of old war films and for a couple of days a novel.

Bill Doskoch said...

It would be foolish to ignore the impact of the Internet just as it would be foolish to blame it on the problem of poor editorial judgment.

From what I can see, a bigger problem for newspapers is that they still believe, in their heart of hearts, that they hold a monopoly on peoples' attention.

Another problem is that writing for newspapers is seen as part of an industrial process, not a creative one.

Most industrial processes are boring.

The push to maintain margins that hark back to an era when newspapers were monopolies is another thing that's slowly killing the business.

"You ask anyone from a 13-year-old to a 90-year-old what's wrong with newspapers and you get the same answer: there's nothing in them."

But it would be rather difficult to create a newspaper that would have enough of common interest to both teens and seniors to satisfy those demographic groups, let alone the myriad other groups in between those extremes.

As far as journos and publishers willing to take on power and influence, well, see my point above about profit margins. Investigative reporting is expensive.

That's too bad, because when they want to, newspapers can do something very few others can -- namely, real journalism.

G said...

The Citizen actually does have some good local writing -- but for some reason they don't publish it in the newspaper.

A few of their bloggers write some great local content online -- not hard hitting news by any means -- but it is LOCAL and INTERESTING. Read Peter Simpson's arts blog, or David Reevely's municipal blog. Always lots of interesting commentary, behind the scenes reporting, etc. etc. etc.

Way better than the majority of the dull columns in the Citizen.

I am a Citizen subscriber -- but I think I read more oln their website than I do in the printed paper.