Failing to appreciate what you’ve got

This passage, from a book review in The Wall Street Journal today of a book about a small town in Iowa, rang some bells for me:

Whether by choice or inertia, “stayers” eschew college and remain in Ellis to marry, have children, and work mostly at low-paid factory and service jobs. This route may seem “dead end” to achievers, but the supposed dead-enders find that it has its rewards. The primary reason many stay rather than stray is “that they simply like the town. They’re comfortable there and cannot really imagine living anywhere else.” This loyalty is unappreciated by Iowa’s leaders, who run campaigns to lure back yuppie achievers while ignoring the blue-collar stayers who are the heart of places like Ellis.

This may seem a little far afield, but last sentence reminds me of my last 20 years in the newspaper business. The failing to appreciate the people who like you just as you are part.

As a senior manager — first, as an editor in the newsroom, later as a vice president of the company — I saw a lot of fads come and go, all of them designed to “save newspapers” (something we fretted about even back when, in retrospect, newspapers were doing just fine). For awhile, we were all aflutter over the fact that not as many women as men read newspapers. So that led to pushes to downplay “macho” stuff like politics and play up stories about personal health, what to do with the kids during the summer, etc.

Later, we obsessed about young readers, who were not reading newspapers as much, as they aged, as their elders. So we ran all sorts of stuff that looked as lame as any attempt by grownups to be “with it” (to use a phrase that seemed impossibly square when I was a kid) in kids’ eyes is doomed to be. Embarrassing, for the most part.

Then, we decided to make newspapers more like television or the Web — you may have noticed the ridiculously large color photos and painfully short stories that some newspapers (actually, most newspapers) turned to even before the news hole shrank.

I use “we” rather loosely here. Since I was the governmental affairs editor when I was in the newsroom, and since I ran the editorial page when I was a vice president (and had similar jobs at other papers where I worked), I was always the old stick-in-the-mud who continued to be devoted to substance, in the traditional sense. Not because I was smarter or better than the trendier sorts, or had no enthusiasm for new things (after all, I was the only member of senior staff with a blog), but because that was my job. I was paid to do serious. That is, I was paid to do serious until March 20.

I had nothing against bringing in new readers. New readers are great. What got me during those years — and I frequently made this point at the time (which didn’t always make me popular) — was that our industry never seemed to do anything to show we appreciated the readers who appreciated newspapers just as they were. And increasingly, those readers came to feel like we were giving them the back of our hand. I heard it all the time.

Anyway, that’s what I saw over the last couple of decades in the business — a lot of painting, in garish colors, of the deck chairs on the Titanic

3 thoughts on “Failing to appreciate what you’ve got

  1. kbfenner

    Like you couldn’t sit down on the deck chairs because the paint was always wet. So you stopped going on deck, stayed in your cabin, and vowed to fly next time.

    So many discussions I have these days involve women and men aged 35-60 or so,wondering what happened to the newspaper? We miss it.

    So many businesses, when times get tough, cut marketing and cut inventory for sale on the floor. Brilliant. How in the world are you going to get out of tough times if you have nothing to sell and no one to sell it?

  2. Brad Warthen

    The Internet is a wonderful thing, but it has its limitations. I ran up against one of them today…

    At some point in the above post, I wanted to make a reference to “cutting velvet.” This would have made no sense unless you had read, and remembered, an article that ran in Harpers in 1977 headlined, “Cutting Velvet at The New York Times.” Some of you may have read it, but it seems a pretty good bet that you didn’t remember it, so I wanted to link to it.

    But every time I tried, I ran into a barrier: I couldn’t call it up without subscribing to Harpers.

    I’m not even positive that the link would have been relevant, but I think it would have. As I recall, it was about pursuing transient new trends (as opposed to solid, traditional journalism), which apparently infected the newspaper business even before I was in management, which really takes us back. Even at the Gray Lady.

    I remember this much: The headline was based on a joke, which went like this… a man who owned a business on the top floor of a building in New York’s garment district, seeing his business fail, decides to end it all, so he jumps out a window. As he’s falling, he sees through the windows of the lower floors what his competitors are doing. Based on that, he yells back up at his partner, “Cut velvet!”

    The point being, of course, that that’s what newspapers were doing: “Cutting velvet” even as they were doomed. An article on the cutting edge (forgive me), if I remember it correctly…

  3. kbfenner

    “Cut velvet” is a type of fabric. His competitors were using cut velvet for their fashions, so the doomed fashionisto was cluing his partner in to that fact.

    Cut velvet is now used largely for upholstery and drapery, if that. It was quite popular for pimpalicious jackets for men in the 60s and 70s, and for evening wear for women.

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