Teaching Examples

Finding value and pinching pennies
April 18, 2006, 1:28 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

David Carr got it wrong when he analyzed the meaning of the Star Tribune’s reaction to employees taking copies of the newspaper without paying for them:

There is an implicit broader message. If the people who make the paper believe that an electronic version of the product is just as good as the one readers pay for, why bother subscribing? This month, Jack Shafer, the media columnist for Slate, suggested that the new, improved Web site of The New York Times had persuaded him to stop paying $621.40 for an annual subscription.

It is one thing to beaver away, building out a digital gallows. Given reader habits and industry trends, that kind of innovation is required. But at some point — perhaps when reporters are denied access to newspapers — publishers are saying something else to their employees and their readers: What you’re holding has no value. (The New York Times, April 17, 2006)

First, I’ll offer my two cents and agree that I think it’s strange to charge the employees for copies in the newsroom. I’ll add that when I worked at The Washington Post (19931995), the firm policy was that no employees got a free subscription. I paid full price to get the paper I worked for delivered to my home. But when I was “the late man” on the desk, I took a free copy of the early edition home with me. And when I came in to work each day, I picked up a free copy as reference for any folo stories that might appear in my queue that day.

The Post gave me a free hardcover dictionary and a free copy of the stylebook to use at work too. I wonder whether the Star Tribune now charges for those as well? We could see a new acronym: BYOD (bring your own dictionary).

This is nothing new. Many newspapers deny their employees the basic tools of their jobs. For example, a photojournalist from a mid-sized Southeastern U.S. daily e-mailed me to say his newspaper had insisted he learn Flash and start producing multimedia for the Web site. They even agreed to send him away to a one-week workshop! But when he asked them to upgrade from Flash 5 to Flash 8, the newspaper refused. That $900 for software was just more than the accountants could squeeze out. (Maybe their reporters still use manual typewriters too.)

Now that you’re either amused or angry, I’ll return to David Carr’s conclusion that the message of the Star Tribune’s “nothing free” policy is that the newspaper “has no value.” Not at all. The message sent and received is that the employees of the Star Tribune have no value — to their employer.

They are expected to work longer for no extra pay, do more with no extra resources, work weekends and holidays (as journalists always have), watch their marriages crumble under the stress and their retirement accounts grow by inches instead of miles — and, oh, yes, plunk down that 25 cents every day so that McClatchy does not go bankrupt.

The other message — which maybe Carr was also trying to get at — is that the dead-trees version of the newspaper is, in fact, too expensive to produce. Involved are not only almost unimaginable quantities of paper (there is nothing in the world like seeing the presses roll for a large daily newspaper) but also barrels of color ink, people running the presses and driving the trucks and — don’t forget — the rising price of oil. Circulation to far-flung suburbs is sucking millions out of the industry, and yet, that’s where the most coveted readers live.

The online edition of the newspaper is both savior and destroyer, angel and devil, friend and enemy.

The online edition is what will allow a newspaper company to break the bonds of the truck drivers’ unions, the paper mills, the subscribers’ complaints about soaking wet newspapers on the doorstep. If you could only get rid of that printed version, you could save … millions of dollars!

The problem, of course, is that your online readers aren’t paying.

Look, I buried the nut graf:

There are many, many reasons why people refuse to pay for the online edition of a newspaper. A big reason is that the online edition of most U.S. daily newspapers is slow, cumbersome, overwhelming and awkward — especially when compared with other Web sites that people use frequently.

Another reason is that the local newspaper’s Web site is often really bad at covering local issues, or at least bad at putting them forward in a way that seems relevant and interesting.

A third key reason is that if the stuff on the home page is not local or unique, why wouldn’t I just go straight to a better newspaper’s Web site — or to BBC News?

But instead of worrying about stuff like that (although the Strib does have one of the best online sites among U.S. newspapers; please look at their Slide Shows as well as the home page) — one newspaper company is worried about getting an extra 25 cents out of each newsroom employee.

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UF journalism alum from ’89 here — your blog is excellent, and this piece of about penny-pinching newspaper companies is one your students should read.

As newspaper circulation shrinks and the dead-tree product faces extinction, I think good journalists will be able to survive if they have excellent technical skills and can branch out into other parts of the business. The Washington Post is trying to lead the way toward a diversified multimedia product, but I think what they’ll discover is that they’re not going to be able to support all the people at the top who don’t contribute directly to the content or the bottom line. We’re heading toward much smaller, leaner news organizations. I think ultimately that will make good journalists even more valuable.

Comment by Mike

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