A window on the endangered world of the MSM

A packed house watches "Page One" at the Nickelodeon last night.

Last night, I went to see “Page One: Inside The New York Times” at the Nickelodeon. I had been asked to watch the movie, a 2010 documentary, and then stay to be a panelist for a discussion — along with Charles Bierbauer of USC and Dan Cook of the Free Times.

As I arrived, I felt a pang of guilt that yet again, I was making a public appearance and forgetting to tell you, my readers, in advance, in the remote chance you’d like to attend. But I needn’t have worried. The show was sold out. The audience included a lot of familiar faces, such as my old boss Tom McLean, who hired me at The State and was my predecessor as EPE, and the paper’s long-time attorney Jay Bender.

On the way in, I ran into Bill Rogers, head of the state Press Association. He said he was sorry he wouldn’t be able to hear me, because the show was sold out. I told him they had given me two tickets, and my wife was at a book club meeting instead, so he could be my guest. When he sat next to me at the back of the theater (I couldn’t sit at the front because of my neck thing, for which I’m going to get another shot next to my spine today), I took advantage of his slightly owing me to make a pitch: Look Bill, I see that the Press Association is offering online, multi-publication ad packages, and advocacy-ad packages as well. Why not throw come blogs in? It might add some value for the buyer, and I need somebody to sell ads for me.

Shameless, huh? Well, that’s the state of news media in America today.

In fact, one of the most meaningful lines in the film, to me, was spoken by David Carr, who was essentially the star. He’s a great character. A former crack addict, he’s now a media columnist for the NYT — a brilliant reporter, and an awesome bark-off spokesman for why a dying industry matters. (Favorite momentThe movie wasn’t so much about the Times as it was about the horrific troubles of the MSM, using the media desk of the NYT as a window on that world.

Great Carr moment: He’s interviewing the founder of Vice, and said founder is going through the usual mantra about how the MSM don’t cover the real story, so you need the gutsy, edgy fringe guys to tell you what’s really going on and Carr interrupts:

Just a sec, time out. Before you ever went there, we’ve had reporters there reporting on genocide after genocide. Just because you put on a fucking safari helmet and looked at some poop doesn’t give you the right to insult what we do. So continue.

Excuse the language, but one of the things this movie does is show the way people talk in newsrooms. And Carr was talking to a guy who pumped that up to the nth degree to show how hip and edgy he is, so Carr used his own terminology to put him in his place. By the way, here’s the story Carr wrote from that interview.

But that wasn’t his most meaningful line to me. That came when he had been researching an in-depth story about how the boorish Sam Zell had run the Chicago Tribune the rest of the way into the ground, and had done the obligatory interview with the Trib’s spokesman in which you say, Here’s what I’ve got; what’s your reaction? After the ritual comments about “hatchet job” and “I’ll get back to you,” Carr hangs up the phone. Sometime later, after communications from the Trib’s lawyers, he says,

The muscles of the institution are going to kick in at some point. It’s not up to me.

Exactly. And that’s one of the virtues of working in the MSM. There’s somebody to sell the ads, and you’re not even supposed to talk to them (usually, you don’t know them). There’s somebody else to worry about threats of legal action. You just worry about getting your story, and getting it right. And people who’ve never worked at such an institution — or even the somewhat smaller ones like it, across the country — have no idea how liberating and empowering that is.

Frequently, people ask me today whether I find I have greater freedom as a blogger than I did as editorial page editor of the state’s then-largest newspaper. That’s a really stupid question, although I don’t say that, because the asker has no way of knowing that.

Part of the stupidity of the question is based in the notion that when you work at a newspaper, “They tell you what to write.” I’m not entirely clear on who “they” are, but I suppose it’s the owners of the paper. I suppose, and I’ve heard, that when you work at a locally-owned paper where your masters are intricately tied into the community you cover, there are sacred cows, and positions you are told to take and others you are told not to take. But that doesn’t happen when you’re a part of a publicly-traded corporation. In all my years as editorial page editor, only once did anyone at corporate made even a suggestion about editorial content: Tony Ridder tried to make the case to Knight Ridder editorial page editors that the company’s papers should not endorse in presidential elections. His reasons for saying that appeared to be a) that we needed to concentrate on local issues; b) that what we said on our local levels about national politics didn’t matter; and c) that such endorsements only made about half of our readers furious at us. That last reason was, as I recall, more implied and stated; he really concentrated on reason a).

I thought that was a fine theory for a guy who lived and worked in California, but a pretty silly one for an editor in the home of the first-in-the-south primaries. For months before a primary, I had media from all over the country, and from abroad, contacting me to know what I, and we, thought about the candidates. I wasn’t going to tell our readers what we thought? How absurd. I ignored Tony’s suggestion. So did most of the other editors, to the best of my knowledge — I didn’t check, because I didn’t care what they did.

There’s another comment I used to get from people a lot, when I was at the paper. They used to commend me for my “courage” for taking a certain stand. That, too, was ridiculous. I got paid no matter what I wrote. I wasn’t taking any risk, beyond the inconvenience of maybe a source not talking to me any more. So I might as well take stands that mean something rather than write pap, right? I had that whole institution standing behind me, that warm blanket of security.

Here’s what I wrote a while back about the “liberating” effect of no longer working for the MSM:

The first casualty of unemployment is the truth.

OK, maybe not the first. First there’s the blow to one’s bank account. Then the loss of self-confidence. But truth is right up there. Especially for me. Until I was laid off in March, I was editorial page editor of South Carolina’s largest newspaper. A colleague once said to me, accusingly, “You don’t think this is the opinion page. You think it’s the truth page.” I just looked at her blankly. Of course it was the truth page.

Readers expected me to tell everything I knew, and plenty that I only thought I knew – about South Carolina’s feckless politicians (Mark Sanford, Joe Wilson – need I say more?), or whatever struck me, without reservation. And I delivered.

My reputation survives my career. Recently, a friend warned me that people feel constrained in talking to me, because their confidences might turn up on my blog. After all, bloggers tell all, right? Ask Monica Lewinsky. Ask ACORN.

“HAH!” say I.

As a blogger who answers to no one, I am not nearly as frank and open as I was as a newspaper editor who thought he had a secure job.

I haven’t disclosed whom I have worked for on consulting gigs since leaving the paper, because my clients haven’t been crazy about the exposure. Every word I write, I think: Might this put off a prospective employer? And I know it has, despite my caution.

There are things I have not written – pithy, witty, dead-on observations on the passing parade, I assure you – because I think, “Do you have to write that and run the risk of offending this person who MIGHT point you to a job? Can’t you just write about something else?”

And where am I applying for jobs? Well, I’m not going to tell YOU, am I?

People used to praise me for my courage for taking on powerful people at the paper. But I was taking no risk whatsoever. As long as I was supported by advertising, a transaction I was ethically barred from even thinking about, I had impunity.

But an unaligned blogger still trying to function as a journalist stands naked and alone, and is not nearly as free and honest as he was writing from the once-impregnable citadel of an editorial page. At least, this one isn’t. Keep that in mind, citizen, as newspapers fall around you.

Watching that movie launched me on many different streams of thought; I could have talked about them all night. What I just told you describes part of my reaction to a single line. As Tom McLean said after one long-winded response I gave as a panelist, I always needed an editor.

20 thoughts on “A window on the endangered world of the MSM

  1. bud

    Did anyone mention a projected opening date for the new Nickelodeon? Seems like that project has been in progress for at least a decade.

  2. Herb Brasher

    The first casualty of unemployment is the truth.

    Very interesting. And I might add that, in a lesser way perhaps, all of us who comment are similarly affected–sometimes even more so when employed–to the point that we sometimes can’t comment at all.

  3. Brad

    Herb, the advice I keep getting from some of my smartest, most world-wise friends is to stop blogging. They figure it can do nothing but hurt me.

    But you know what? If more people would just stop being so cautious, and speak out about what they know, South Carolina would be a better place.

  4. Doug Ross

    When I look at the newspaper business as an outsider, I see the perfect embodiment of the phrase “Change or die”. The newspaper business appeared to this observer as one that just pretended the internet wasn’t happening. And then when it did try to get into the game, it applied all the same rules and traditions to a completely different model for disseminating information.

    And the whole internet impact was preceded by the formation and success of USA Today which was treated as a joke by old school newspapermen. Meanwhile, USA Today created a product that people wanted and dragged the old newspapers into the 21st century kicking and screaming. “Color? for something besides the Sunday comics? Charts? Graphics? Our readers don’t want that! Wait, where did all our readers go?”

    The newspaper business dropped the ball. It had the monopoly on the dissemination of information and serving as the advocate to the general public. In my view, the way for the business to thrive again is by taking the good reporters and having them focus on the advocate aspect of the job. Perfect example: Ken Ard. The State should be digging into that story every day and making it impossible for him to stay in office based on the facts already known.

  5. Steven Davis

    “But you know what? If more people would just stop being so cautious, and speak out about what they know, South Carolina would be a better place.”

    You mean like Will Folks?

  6. Brad

    Bud, I checked with Larry Hembree at the Nick, and he says, “We plan on moving in early 2011.”

    And I know they still have quite a way to go on fund-raising, in case you’d like to contribute…

  7. Brad

    Doug, as you said back on a previous thread, you “spent the past 30 years as a programmer/consultant working around the country for all sorts of companies and government agencies,” so we definitely need to listen to you on such matters.

    But I have to tell you that your “outsider” perspective on newspapers is terribly off.

    The basic thing you miss — and, as I told the crowd at the theater the other night, the film largely misses also — is what actually happened to newspapers. And TV and radio.

    What happened is that their business model collapsed. Not because they weren’t innovative. Not because they didn’t adapt. But because the marketplace was no longer as interested in mass media, particularly on the metropolitan or state market level. People with goods or a service to sell turned more and more toward directly reaching individual consumers.

    As for the internet — the one bad thing that the Web has done to newspapers is that the market simply doesn’t support the ad rates that are necessary to support a newsroom. The free model predominates on the Web, and getting people to pay much at all for those ads is difficult. If you’re Google, with billions of transactions, you can make billions of dollars. But if you’re trying to provide an informed electorate in a city or a state, you just don’t have the revenue stream to pay reporters and editors.

    There are LOTS of little side stories to the way the marketplace has shifted. I remember having my eyes opened (because I’d never thought of it that way) by something a publisher pointed out about 15 years ago. At the time, Walmart was just beginning to dominate the selling of groceries, after having run Mom and Pop out of business on Main Street. As you probably remember, grocery stores were a huge newspaper advertiser back in the day. The publisher pointed out that not only did Walmart undercut the more traditional stores on price, but that they didn’t have the need to advertise “specials” or anything like that, because their things was “everyday low prices.” And the folks who had customarily swollen the size of the Wednesday newspaper with sale ads on rump roasts and the like were having to COMPETE with a dominating new presence that did not have the expense of advertising. So they advertised less as well, trying to cut their costs.

    That’s just a small thing, relatively speaking, but it’s another sidelight on the market shifts that there was little newspapers could do anything about. On the business side, you saw a lot of desperate efforts to come up with new products and new services for customers to try to keep their dollars flowing, but it’s been a losing battle from the start.

    Bottom line, it has very little to do with newspapers as a product for readers. It has almost everything to do with the collapse of the relationship with advertisers.

    Oh, a side comment… you say the industry “applied all the same rules and traditions to a completely different model for disseminating information.”

    Not really. Some of the problems that you, and many others, point to are the results of decisions made by people who did not respect the core mission of newspapers. In fact, you make the point yourself that newspapers no longer do what they did best. Your example is Ken Ard. Newspapers DON’T report stories with the kind of persistence and depth and breadth that they did. Part of that is that they simply lack the resources now. Part of it is that a lot of the people who were the most persistent journalists, who kept pushing the institution, are gone.

    But it’s funny how “innovation” works. There was a cool moment in the film the other night. A lot of hullabaloo about the iPad coming out. A lot of chatter about how maybe this could save journalism. Rupert Murdoch was quoted to that effect.

    Then you see David Carr trying out a newspaper app (probably the NYT; I forget), and being impressed. He said it made for a really good reader interface. The experience reminded him of something… oh, yeah, it reminded him of reading a NEWSPAPER.

    You may or may not have noticed the same thing. For years, newspaper websites tried so hard to be something different from a newspaper. These new apps are more popular in part because you interact with them much the same way as you could with a paper.

    All of that stuff is cool, and I love exploring it. But the bottom line is, someone has to figure a new way to pay for it all. And no one has yet.

  8. Doug Ross

    Just so I have this straight – the collapse of the newspaper industry is due to advertisers being able to pay less to reach more people in what they felt was a more effective manner.

    The most eye-opening thing I have learned from you about the newspaper business is that it really doesn’t care how many people read the paper as long as it can sell ads. I was naive enough to think that content was more important than profits.

  9. Doug Ross


    As for Ken Ard, near as I can tell The State is still publishing articles on the front page every day. Unless they are being written by robotic software then maybe some of those resources used to create a report card on Nikki Haley, for example, could do something, you know, meaningful??

  10. bud

    People with goods or a service to sell turned more and more toward directly reaching individual consumers.

    Just curious, how does the Free Times and other weeklies manage to stay relevant? I’m sure the cost of a weekly can’t compare to a daily paper but somehow these outfits seem to be thriving with plenty of advertising and some darn good journalism. And they don’t even cost anything.

  11. Brad

    No, Doug, that’s not quite it. The collapse of the newspaper industry is NOT due to advertisers being able to pay less to reach more people.

    It’s about advertisers wanting to reach people in a more targeted way, not to “reach more people.” Newspapers were for years, and may still, offering a product called TMC, for Total Market Coverage. You got the newspaper’s subscribers and everybody else — the paper would throw your ads all up and down the street.

    But advertisers didn’t WANT everybody anymore. Which is why they lost interest, to a great degree, on MASS media.

    They like more targeted, more niche markets — such as (to some extent) the Free Times, to answer Bud’s question. Another reason smaller pubs like that have not been hit as hard is because they never had the huge labor costs to start with. I think Dan Cook said the other night their newsroom consists of four people.

    Basically, really small operations (say, both urban and rural weeklies) and really big, national pubs, do not seem to have been hit as hard as the metro-sized, general circulation papers. Somebody who understands the flow of money, and scale, and such could probably explain that better than I.

    And when they get done, I’d like them to explain to me why the newspaper industry seems to be thriving in England…

    Finally, Doug: You’re talking to a guy who believes a lot more powerfully than you do that CONTENT is what matters. But if you don’t have a means of paying people to generate the content, you don’t have content.

  12. bud

    Not to beat a dead horse but seriously 4 people are all that the Free Times employs in it’s newsroom. Amazing the amount of content those four folks generate.

    Perhaps the State should just drop back to what they do best, obituaries and sports. No offense to Cindi but the op-ed page is pretty ho-hum. Same ole stuff about restructuring and tax reform. Heard all that about a million times.

  13. Steven Davis

    “And when they get done, I’d like them to explain to me why the newspaper industry seems to be thriving in England…”

    As you know Brad, in SC we don’t care how you did things up North… err England.

    Is “content” what The State used to publish? Must be a new word for liberalism.

  14. Herb Brasher

    Thanks for the insights, Brad. My brother just recently lost his job at the Des Moines Register, and several comments in the press were that we are losing too many journalists who can give us an independent view of food policy. If that is happening in agriculture, I suspect it is happening in too many other areas as well.

  15. Burl Burlingame

    My review of “Page One” linked above covers much of the same bases.

    The “decline” of newspapers isn’t a one-thing symptom. Many things have changed and evolved. A primary thing is that in the ’80s and ’90s many traditional, one-owner newspapers were sold to conglomerates who were more interested in instant high profits than in producing newspapers built on a stable business model. So they made cuts in areas they considered superficial — which happened to be areas in which newspapers and newsrooms provided a unique product. How many editorial cartoonists do you see working today? It was like a car company being sold to an outfit that promised consumers they’d add iPod connections in their cars, but got rid of the wheels.

  16. Brad

    It’s about being publicly traded.

    Here’s the thing: There’s no one to blame, really. Reporters want to blame their editors, but the editors are helpless to bring in the revenue to save the situation. The editors blame the publishers (and other business-side types), but the publishers have zero choice in the matter; they must meet the budgets assigned them by corporate.

    So the thing is to blame corporate, right? Not really. They have no choice, either. If they don’t meet shareholders’ expectations, they will be replaced. Or, as happened with Knight Ridder, the company will be sold. The stock, in that case at least, was largely held by people who had nothing to do with the newspaper business and cared nothing about it; they just wanted the kinds of returns they used to get from holding that kind of stock.

    In that case — the one I’m most familiar with — the best thing that could have happened at that point did happen: McClatchy, a company that at least took pride in running reasonably profitable papers and caring about the journalism, bought KR.

    And then, the bottom fell out of the retail advertising market. And McClatchy was left holding all that debt without enough revenue to serve it. So McClatchy found itself doing what it had sworn (quite sincerely, I believe) it would never do — slashing expenses, including layoffs (something the company had never done in its history, and took great pride in never having done).

    How bad was it? Well, a couple of months after I got laid off, the McClatchy vice president who was my publisher’s boss ALSO got laid off.

    We’re talking huge market forces here. There’s no one to blame. Are there individual decisions I would have made differently? Sure. But I have no way of knowing such differences would have made things better.

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