Saturday, December 12, 2009

E&P folds after 125 years

My past life as a business writer makes me believe in the tortoise, not the hare. I've seen people who don't have the patience for long-term marketing efforts, preferring to make giant strides in a short time. They give great breakfast speeches and they earn a lot of plaques, but most crash and burn, or leave town in a blaze of glory just before the house of cards they've built collapses behind them.
I think it's time for our industry to decide which approach we want: Short-term numbers to prop up a hurting industry, or long-term investment in a medium that can remain vital and prosperous?

-- Mike Peterson
Editor and Publisher, January, 2005

Thursday's announcement that Editor & Publisher, long the bible of the newspaper industry, would cease publication set off a lot of pontification on What It All Means.

Never one to be left out of a good bloviation, here's What It All Means:

A magazine has gone out of business, in part because of bad decisions, in part because of the economy, in part because that's the way it goes.

Here's what Virtually None of It Means: E&P went out of business because print is dead.

Print isn't dead. It's just different than it was.  E&P didn't adapt.

In 2007, I reprinted a cartoon and news item from 1923, about the struggle to adapt the new medium of radio into a viable business model. The situation closely mirrored that which would come along three-quarters of a century later as the Internet flails to master the same transition from geek hobby to mass medium.

But there are significant differences. While radio got news out faster than newspapers, it wasn't all that much more efficient, and, certainly, newspapers continued to offer more depth. However, the bigger factor was that communities and their media continued to be tightly linked. The local paper used wire services, but was still the local paper. Local radio stations might have network news and entertainment, but they continued to maintain a strong local identity.

As chains built over the years, they continued to be chains of newspapers or radio stations. The people running them, while certainly out to make a buck, were in the business their chain was about. At the local level or at the chain level, you had newspaper people or radio people, who made decisions based in part on the idea that they were building something worth passing along at some point.

That is, of course, no longer true. Today, owners are looking to maximize profits and are neither knowledgeable about the actual business of the businesses they own, nor are they terribly interested. A company that owns newspapers can bring in a CEO from a soap manufacturer because the "job" is to look at spreadsheets and figure out how to change the numbers. You don't have to know or care about newspapers or soap.

Last month, Warren Buffett purchased Burlington Northern Railroad amid much media confetti about how it meant railroads are a wonderfully viable business. I didn't hear anyone say, "Railroads next industry to be gutted by profiteers." It would be like going to someone's fourth wedding and saying, "I wonder how long this poor bastard will last." Not exactly in the spirit of the celebration.

But why ignore the obvious? Buffett bought the railroad because it was cheap and he saw ways to increase its profit margins. There's no "til death do us part" about it. He's planning to get out before they collapse, whenever that may happen. And with his thumb in the pie, you know he'll leave with most of the plums.

Newspapers were vulnerable to takeover artists because they were in a slump. And they were in a slump because of some factors that could have been controlled -- like old owners who couldn't adapt to changes in the media universe, who continued to have their email printed out and put on their desks so they could read it. But Rupert Murdoch has his email printed out and put on his desk so he can read it. That's obviously not a fatal flaw in the news trade.

What's frustrating about the death of Editor & Publisher is that it was so unnecessary. The magazine was owned and run by Robert U. Brown for nearly half a century, until 1999. It was on the desk of every editor and senior reporter in the trade, as well as those of their bosses and all department heads at every paper. It wasn't sparkly, but it was how you kept up with the newspaper business. It was necessary to subscribe, and everyone did.

Brown picked a good time to sell, because the changes were in the air. The first nail in the coffin may have been the ability of newspaper people to communicate directly with each other. It was no longer a choice of going to a convention or reading about it in E&P. You didn't need either, because editors and ad directors and circulation managers each had their own listservs and newsgroups where they could swap ideas and keep up on trends.

Today, there are places for syndicated cartoonists to swap news, places for press operators to keep up with trends, places for editors to gather. That doesn't mean E&P couldn't still be vital and even necessary. But, as with many print vehicles, including many newspapers, it sat on the sideline and watched the erosion of its basic mission without acting to make itself necessary.

And, as with the newspapers they covered, E&P lost the classifieds. The magazine was once the primary place to look for work, to the point where, if a reporter were seen looking at E&P, it was a sign of restlessness. Better to sneak it into the bathroom or go read the copy at the library than be seen thumbing through it in the newsroom. But my last two jobs came from, not from the back pages of E&P.

There are other on-line sources for jobs, including at the web sites of the various corporations. But what really hurts is that is not free, and, while it was building itself up, E&P's on-line classifieds were being turned into a new-and-improved mishmash that was clumsy and unpleasant to try to work with. They didn't lose their franchise to the free ads. They lost to a competitor who focused on quality performance in a well-understood core business.

Conservative observers have made much of Editor Greg Mitchell's somewhat relentless flogging of leftwing politics, a very sharp contrast to the staid, three-piece-suit conservativism of Robert Brown. But it's not Mitchell's politics that created a content problem for the magazine. Rather, it was that he led the journal away from coverage of the business side and the production department and focused on the newsroom. In many ways, he duplicated what Columbia Journalism Review and American Journalism Review were doing.

On the one hand, then, he was making the magazine less interesting to a large segment of the industry, while, on the other, he pursued a type of coverage that has those two non-profit magazines seeking infusions of cash. If you're going to refocus the mission, focus it on something that can be self-sustaining.

Unfortunately, the journal became much like the rest of the industry -- being led by newsroom types who have never sold ads, never run a press, never thrown a route and don't understand what happens elsewhere in the building. At least the seven blind men each had a grasp of a different part of the elephant -- in this case, they were all grouped around the trunk, making pronouncements about the maintenance of a fire hose.

My final observation is this: For all the loss of focus, for all that people were able to get industry news elsewhere, for all the money lost to and similar sites, E&P could have survived if they had looked at the Wall Street Journal, which chugs along despite the fact than anybody with a computer can track their own portfolio in real time.

The WSJ is often held up as a newspaper that has a pay wall for its core on-line information and that survives in print as well. But it's not a real newspaper. It's an industry journal, and most of its subscribers are vouchering their subscriptions, whether on-line, print or both.

Editor & Publisher was in a position to do the same. The demise of the magazine is not a failure of the medium. It's a failure of a specific magazine that didn't have to die.

But that is, sadly, a pretty good summary of the newspaper industry in general: Failing because of their own lack of vision rather than all the outside factors being cited. Most of what E&P did wrong is being echoed at newspapers throughout the country.

But I'll save that rant for another day. This is already too long.

If you'd like to see the context of the quote at the top, click on this illustration for a larger version. It's a lot of inside baseball, but if you've read this far, you've obviously got a taste for that sort of thing.

1 comment:

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

I was kind of stunned to read about E&P, and also the related demise of Kirkus Reviews. There are other review sources, but what's happening to E&P and newspapers bodes very ill.

I sure wouldn't call this too long a piece! We outsiders don't understand any of this, and need to hear the full treatment from someone who does.