How the economy looks from where I sit

One reason that I asked y'all to tell me how the economy was looking in your own lives is that if you work in the news biz, it helps to check with people who are not looking at what WE are looking at every day. When I talk about the economy, I'm perfectly aware that my own perception is colored by the situation that newspapers — and TV stations, and other media — find themselves in these days.

As you know, since I've told you in the past, I've lost just over half the staff I had at the start of this decade, due to cost cutbacks. And that was just because of long-term problems in the newspaper business model, the thing that caused Knight Ridder (which used to own The State) to suddenly disappear. (The short explanation: We have no trouble making the transition to online with our content, except for one thing — online advertising won't pay for the kind of news-and-commentary staffing that print advertising traditionally has. The money to pay reporters et al. has to come from somewhere; we just haven't figured out where yet.)

But take this long-term problem we already had, and add in this monster recession, and the effect on our business is huge. Think about it: Classified advertising has always made up a huge portion of the revenue that enables us to publish newspapers. OK, now ask yourself, what are the three main categories of classified advertising? They are 1) employment; 2) auto and 3) real estate. How many people are hiring these days? How are car and home sales? Get the picture?

Of course, you don't need me to tell you this. You've probably seen one or more of the following:

  • This TIME magazine cover story, currently on the shelves, headlined "How to Save Your Newspaper." (Spoiler: The author has no new, magic-beans idea; he just says we should charge for our content online.)
  • The New York Times, which obviously has a lot at stake in the question, ran a front-page feature last week called "Battle Plans for Newspapers," which offered the thoughts of various deep thinkers on the subject.
  • Then, you might have seen this headline in Editor & Publisher, "With Q4 Loss of $20 Million, McClatchy Vows to Cut Expenses $100 Million in '09." This should be relevant to you (it certainly is to me) because McClatchy is the company that now owns The State. (You could have read about it in The State as well, but I thought I'd also give you the third-party source.
  • Then, just so you think it's not all about newspapers, check out this story from the WSJ, "Local TV Stations Face a Fuzzy Future." You've seen some of the effects of the squeeze on TV, such as when WIS recently got rid of veteran anchorman David Stanton and six others. Since then, WACH-57 has laid off several people.

Some people think news people live in an ivory tower and aren't exposed to the vicissitudes of real life. Hardly. I'm hear to tell you that we are extremely susceptible to whether our community is doing well or not. If it isn't, we're sort of like the canary in the coal mine — we feel the effects right away.

I try to set that aside and perceive truly what is being experienced out there by people who DON'T work for newspapers, which is why I enlisted y'all to give me feedback on this earlier post. I hope y'all will continue to do that. In the meantime, I wanted to make sure you knew how things are looking from where I sit. In case you wondered.

20 thoughts on “How the economy looks from where I sit

  1. Greg Flowers

    I was looking the other day and it is really striking the degree to which news copy, particularly local news copy has decreased in The State over the past several years. The “City Room” must be a ghost town. The only section which seems to be as robust as ever is sports. There used to be all sorts of special interest writers who seem to have gone the way of the Yugo. Why are people less willing to pay for classifieds online than in print? What do you see as the future for local daily news publications? Will the blog usurp the realm of the editorial page?

  2. Lee Muller

    There is no lack of news to report.
    Editors just have to decide whether they want to print fluff stories, or sob stories, or black history stories…
    … or real local news about the facts behind the issues like the state’s waste and corruption, the city’s bankrupt management, bankrupt bus system, crime, failure of Innovista, etc.
    They have to decide if they would like to do real journalism, and maybe not be invited to lunch with the powerful movers and shakers.

  3. bud

    Lee is right on this, the State seems to have increased it’s “fluff” content in recent years. Maybe the fluff stories are easy to do.

  4. Greg Flowers

    Brad, just out of curiosity, over the past several years what are the figures on circulation and employment at The State and are they in keeping with national trends?

  5. Doug Ross

    I think The State misses an opportunity to capitalize on areas where it is ahead of the internet sites – namely access to key decision makers in the state.
    Why not open your editorial board room to teh public via a real webcam, not video you try to shoot as you are also taking notes. Bring in interns from USC to man the cameras for free.
    Open the curtain to the editorial process. I found the video you shot of Mr. Araial at work to be interesting and would like to see more of his thought process at work. Why not turn The State editorial department into a daily internet TV show?
    Break the format. Engage more people. Embrace the digital age.
    If it were me, my first thought every day would be: “How do I get more people to buy the paper and visit the website?”

  6. Lee Muller

    Several newspapers years ago solicited readers to come sit in on their editorial board meetings and give them feedback on the process at the end.
    I sat applied to, and was invited to sit in at the Washington Post and the Greenville News, and did. Both of them spent too much time reading other newspapers, trying to figure out what was the hot topic and the spin or angle they wanted to take. It has been my experience that if you do that in any business, you will be producing a “Me Too” product.

  7. KP

    I can’t pass up this opportunity to agree with Lee: if you’re a political/news junkie, there’s just not much to read anymore in any South Carolina newspaper. I figured the companies did surveys and found out what most people want to read (crime and death, fluff and food and sports) and cut out all the other stuff. But from the current state of newspaper sales, that seems not to be working either.
    I fondly remember the days when I LOVED my newspaper, when I took both the morning and afternoon papers, and they were full of things I was interested in. County Council, City Council, politics, state house, insider news. Now it takes me about 5 minutes to read The State and the Morning News, when I happen to pick them up at my mom’s house.

  8. Karen McLeod

    Correct me if I’m wrong, Brad, but most ‘fluff’ stories can be written by anyone who is literate in a minimum amount of time without the necessity of extra fact checking or even digging for the facts. However, really hard hitting stories require that one take a lot of time to sift fact from opinion, from outright falsehood, and then double check to ensure that the information is correct and that nothing of import has been left out. That takes a newsperson who knows what he’s doing; it takes that newsperson’s time; and it takes someone who can write that story while leaving out opinion, wordiness, and bias. Oops! Let those guys go several years ago! But that’s okay. We can always run that [cute/sexy/horrifying/sentimental] story about the [kitten and puppy/serial killer/rich girl gone bad]. Just fill in the blanks.

  9. Doug Ross

    Just take a look at the most read news articles that are shown on the front page of The State’s website. Like today, typically half of them are sports stories and the rest are usually related to crime.
    I get two FREE weekly papers in Blythewood every week in my mailbox. They are essentially the same paper – a mix of local news, high school sports, and local advertising. They serve a purpose. I’m assuming they are profitable.
    I’m not sure The State and most other big newspapers have figured out the what their most profitable purpose is. It appears to be an industry very unaccustomed to change. Other than being much thinner, The State doesn’t seem to be much different than it was ten years ago.
    If I had control of the paper, I’d put the lead editorial on the front page every day. I’d dump letters to the editor (blogs have replace them). I’d offer two pages of editorials every day providing different views on the same topics. Get Cindi and Warren to write something every day so that their “voice” can become familiar. Advise them both to start their own blogs so they can get more feedback. Use your assets to their fullest. Mr. Ariail is a too-hidden gem.
    Sell papers!

  10. bud

    I’ve noticed for some time now that the front page is ridiculously irrelevant. That me be a redundancy but just look at the front page story today. It featured Irmo High School kids having breakfast at Chic-fil-A. Ok. Even for a fluff piece that was pretty lame. Brad has tried to explain why these types of stories end up on the front page to me before but I just don’t get it. Seems like a huge waste of ink to me. Even for a slow news day it just doesn’t make much sense to show high school kids eating breakfast.
    Maybe next week we can have a feature story on middle age men brushing their teeth. Or, we can visit Finley Park and interview people on their dog-walking routines. Then if the State really wants to live close to the edge, how about a story concerning the horrors of finding a parking place in Five Points. Now that’s real news I can use.

  11. Lee Muller

    The problem with doing slack journalism 95% of the time is that the sloth carries over into how they cover serious news. A lot of the pass they gave Socialist Obama was just due to lazy work habits as much as it was to their leftist ideology and guilt trips desire to put a non-white into office.

  12. Brad Warthen

    bud’s right, occasionally I write here about front pages in general — why a newspaper might do this or that on the page — based on my own experience in that area (back in the mid-80s, I was responsible for the content and presentation of the front page at a couple of different papers).
    But you’ll notice that I stick to general observations or my own experience. What I don’t do is violate the church-state separation by commenting on exactly what the newsroom of The State does or doesn’t do. Or if you want another analogy, it’s like separation of powers: Judges refrain from offering commentary on the contemporary decisions before the political branches, and so forth. Or think gangs and turf — I don’ mess wit’ dem; dose guys don’ mess wit’ ME.
    Of course, you can tell my preferences by the things I do say. For instance, you know I’m not really into sports. I’m probably a lot less likely than most editors at most newspapers to play up sports stories, although I would occasionally, in keeping with the idea that the front page should be inclusive of many subjects and interests, and not monotonal. In other words, even if I were calling the shots these days on news play, I wouldn’t just play on the front page the stuff that interests ME.
    You know further about my tastes because I frequently mention the papers I most like to read in addition to The State — the WSJ, the NYT, and The Economist (which CALLS itself a newspaper, even though it’s a magazine). Those three are very different in their approaches to front pages. I would say that the NYT probably comes closest to the kind of content choices I made when I was a front-page editor. In fact, I used to make comparisons on a regular basis, and as far as national and international was concerned, the NYT came closest to choosing the same stories I did for the lead, and elsewhere on the page.
    The WSJ is highly idiosyncratic; it’s front page is like no one else’s. It’s What’s News briefing is very useful, and impressively well done (you’d be surprised how much work goes into something like that; I know because I’ve done something very like that — it used to take me half a day). It of course stresses business and financial stories other papers would pass over or put inside. And it ALWAYS has a story that many would categorize as “fluff,” which it puts at the center of the lower part of the front page these days. That “fluff” story is almost always one of the best-written, just-plain-interesting stories you’ll see in a newspaper anywhere.
    Then there’s The Economist, which has a COVER rather than a front page. And the cover is always about the lead EDITORIAL (the Brits call them “leaders”) of that week’s issue, not the biggest news story — which is radically different from what you see at any paper in this country (despite what you may believe or allege about news “bias”). Some Canadian papers follow that British model of opinion ranking ahead of news, but you don’t see it done like that in this country.
    And if any of you are leaping to partisan conclusions about what I’m saying above, you’re off-track. When I say my own thoughts about front-pages jibe most closely with the NYT’s don’t read that as a political leaning on my part. In fact, I am generally turned off by the Times’ editorial page. And I don’t much like the Journal’s EDITORIALS either, although I enjoy the op-ed material I find there (the Times’ op-ed stuff I usually already read on the wires), such as the daily book review.
    The Times is too doctrinaire left, and the Journal too doctrinaire right (or libertarian) for me. I find I often appreciate the Chicago Tribune’s editorials, but I don’t see them often enough to make a blanket judgment about it…

  13. Lee Muller

    For the most part, the views of the WSJ reflect economic and political REALITY.
    The views of most editors is to the far “left” because they do not understand economic reality, and think they can just refuse to obey economic laws.

  14. bud

    Brad, Don’t confuse a modern conservative with a true liberatarian. The biggest difference is their approach to war. A true libertarian is stridently opposed to foreign entanglements. Conservatives have no such qualms.

  15. Lee Muller

    bud, you are not qualified to speak for libertarians, conservatives, entrepreneurs, or responsible, patriotic Americans.
    Stick to being a icon of lazy, irresponsible socialism. Defend one of Clinton’s failed wars in Haiti or Bosnia.

  16. Lee Muller

    Libertarians support
    * the individual’s rights to keep and bear arms, and to defend oneself against agents of the State who are acting illegally. Most state constitutions explicitly reaffirm this right.
    * the individuals’ rights to market one’s labor without government interference.
    * the individual’s rights to risk some of the wealth they earned from their work by investing in businesses, and to keep any profits.

  17. Birch Barlow

    But Lee, surely “libertarian” is more than being just about the right to keep one’s guns and money, as important as those rights are, right?

  18. Lee Muller

    Being a libertarian is about being able to pursue one’s only life, and happiness, in as much liberty as possible. That means as only the most necessary government, to keep the peace and minimize force and fraud by non-libertarians.
    Birch, you asked about non-economic freedoms. Freedom is intertwined with economics most of the time, especially in a modern industrial society. What Afred Adler called “self-actualization” requires, in modern society, the freedom to pursue one’s life purpose in some sort of business or employment.
    As Thomas Jefferson envisioned, the prosperity of capitalism and limited government would provide enough leisure time for most people to contemplate society, and become better people. Socialists know that, too, and have sought to eradicate leisure time through high taxes.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *