If you haven’t heard, today I’m going to address the brief life and quick death of the new daily paper in Detroit, which lasted all of four days. Now, when I first read about this, my thoughts weren’t particularly optimistic. This is simply the wrong time in the wrong industry to try something so brazenly risky, but, hey, give ’em points for effort. Anyway, today I read this lament about the paper’s demise, which largely blamed dirty tricks on the part of Detroit’s other two long-standing major newspapers. You mean publishers actually engaged in dirty tricks against the competition? Call me shocked.
How can anyone at this point possibly be naive enough to have not expected this? Publishing is an industry built on dirty tricks. If there has ever been a manipulative, back-stabbing, sneaky, dirty trick played in the business world anywhere, it likely had its start in publishing. Just because you have a group of well-meaning people with good intentions and more money than sense doesn’t mean that everyone else will just step aside, congratulate you and say “welcome to the game.”
Publishing is, and always has been, a screw or be screwed industry. That doesn’t mean that you have to play dirty, but you do have to be prepared for it. Expect otherwise and you’ll get eaten alive. It’s part of what attracted me to publishing in the first place. You have to constantly be on your toes because the minute you let your guard down, people will be lining up to burn you. Everyone has an agenda, and part of the fun is in figuring out what that is, while keeping your own close to the vest. Reading between the lines, figuring out the real motivations behind people’s actions and words, those are essential skills. These dynamics exist everywhere in publishing; employee on employee within companies; company on company with markets, that’s simply how the game is played. Whining about dirty tricks after the fact just makes you look even more unprepared than closing up shop in four days does.
When I first heard about the shut down, which has been called temporary (yeah, sorta like death is temporary) it suggested a few things to me. The first is that they were either ill-prepared or seriously underfunded. It’s probably both. But to complain about printers charging you up front, and other competitors putting pressure on vendors to not do business with you? Exactly what industry did you think you were getting in to? First off, I wouldn’t trust a printer that didn’t try to charge you in advance for a new, start-up. There’s a long-standing tradition in printing, passed down through the generations, of getting small publishers in hock up to their eyeballs in print bills just so they could take them to court and strip them clean of any and all assets. Never, and I repeat, never allow your print bills to be secured debt and run up out of reach. You’re much better off paying up front and shutting down before that happens.
Secondly, it seems that these folks were counting on a massive influx of revenue right out of the gate. Apparently, they took the dissatisfaction of the community with the existing players to mean that just starting a new paper will bring them on board. It simply doesn’t work that way. It takes time to establish a solid revenue base, and if you don’t have the money to fund at least a year’s worth of production without earning back a dime, don’t even bother getting started. It doesn’t matter how pissed people seem, they’re not going to throw money at you until you can prove that you’re a better alternative. Four whole days isn’t even close to making that happen. Four months isn’t long enough.
That being said, I appreciate their initiative, misplaced as it was. The best we can do is learn from their mistakes. Even a weakened print industry isn’t an easy target, and they will not go quietly into that good night.
While I’m on the subject, here’s something to chew on. Most local American newspapers are still profitable. That’s a complete 180 from the end is near, death knell for print publishing that we’ve been inundated with the past couple years. The reality is not that newspapers are a failing enterprise, it’s that giant corporate chains are a failing enterprise. The massive profit margins that supported the infrastructure of those chains has been gutted by a combination of changes in advertisers’ behavior and the dour economy. But even with that, many newspapers still make more money than they spend.
This is a big reason why I don’t think we need any major bailouts in this industry. Money is still there to be made, even more so when the economy turns. So what’s the problem? This is the problem. Because so many small papers had been snapped up by giant chains, and the profit margins don’t support their stock values or management compensation, actual journalists are getting axed by the bushel.
It’s a short-sighted plan, if I ever saw one, but no one ever accused these guys of taking the long-view. How do we fix this? Simple. Get rid of the huge corporate overhead. That way, the local papers can keep the profit they earn (as it should be) and they will be able to afford to keep legitimate journalists on staff again. The internet, particularly with the mass-produced “information” websites that pay $20 per article, if you’re lucky, are just exploiting this giant out-of-work writer pool. Bring the real, decent-paying jobs back, and they’re left with a very shallow pool to take advantage of. But if we artificially prop up the failing major corporate chains, stemming off the inevitable complete restructuring necessary of the industry to one more sustainable (and viable), this problem will continue to get worse and we will suffer for lack of quality journalism.
Which brings me to the FTC’s workshop over the next two days, oddly titled “How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?” This promises to be yet another bitch-fest where guys like Rupert Murdoch will again spout off about how the internet is stealing from him, and more than a few people, I’m certain, will cry to Uncle Sam for bailouts, tax exemptions, anti-trust exemptions and legislative fixes that really belong under the header “How Will Big Publishers Survive the Internet Age?” I’m sure there will be lots to talk about coming from that in the next few days, but I’m pretty sure we’re not going to see many people stating the truth of the matter. Journalism will do just fine, thanks for asking. Corporate publishers, however, they’re just screwed.