Transitionary Rant: Stuck In A Loop

So I’ve spent the past week thinking things through.  This is a transitionary period for me.  I’ve been working in print for so long that I’ve become too comfortable with it.  Unfortunately, the industry itself isn’t cooperating.  It would be nice to be able to go out and find another job within my comfort zone; something that takes advantage of my skills in ways that I’m used to.  One that pays well would be nice, too, or at least as well as I used to get paid.  Well, those jobs just don’t exist anymore.  Sure, there’s publishing work out there, but it’s few and far between, and getting fewer and even farther between with each passing day.  Plus, there are much safer choices than me out there for companies looking to hire.  To put it somewhat mildly, I can be difficult.  But I’m well worth it.  Besides, the safe choice is almost never the correct one.  Unless you happen to be one of those useless management types who eat up space and resources all the while standing between genuinely good people and the work they believe in.  The safe choice is the only one for them.  They get where they are by being constitutionally unable to stake their reputations, and jobs, on a risk.  In those cases, I’m a pain in the ass, as I’m sure there are a handful of people who can tell you.  If I don’t respect the people I work for, that will eventually show through, try as I might to mask my contempt.  Somewhere, subconsciously, I’ll find the buttons to push that I know will piss you off.  And by now, I’ve learned that I do that kind of stuff on purpose.  I just can’t stand stagnation, and I especially can’t stand people with authority who are useless as tits on a bull.

Unfortunately for me, and the industry itself, publishing is over-populated with useless people in authority.  It used to be that you could avoid those folks, or at the very least mitigate their negative impacts, but that’s become more and more difficult as revenue has continued to fall, and those authority types interject themselves more and more into areas where they have no business being; namely anything to do with actual work.  Just do everyone a favor, stay in your cushy office, file your pointless reports, and get the hell out of everyone else’s way.  There’s real work out here to be done.  But not anymore.  Far too many of these folks have transitioned from occasional oversight to absurd micro-management, and the work has suffered for it across the entire spectrum of publishing.  But for some reason, these people never get fired.  Maybe it’s because they don’t have the gravitas to actually tell the people that deserve it to kiss their ass regardless of the consequences.  Maybe it’s because keeping the paycheck at all costs is more important than the work itself.  Maybe it’s because sucking up really is the best way to get to the top.  Whatever the reason, these people never seem to go away.  They’re like herpes; sure you can go a while without having a problem, but inevitably, those sores will flare up again at the worst possible moment.  This isn’t a problem limited to publishing, either.  Rare is the person who hasn’t encountered one or more or these folks at various places they’ve worked over the years.  I think they’re actually self-perpetuating.  If you run into one of these people somewhere along the way and you don’t speak up or walk out, you eventually become one of them.  I’ve always considered them to be a test of sorts.  Do I really want to compromise myself, my work or my reputation conforming to the demands of someone I wouldn’t trust to clean my toilets?  As long as I’m still able to answer that question with an emphatic “No!” then I figure I’m doing all right, bank account be damned.

So, what’s next?  Well, there’s always the internet.  In fact, you’re only reading this right now because of the web’s amazing ability to allow virtually anyone to do anything their heart desires at little or no cost.  In fact, right this moment, I’m perched in a recliner in my living room, smoking some fine hand-rolled American Spirit tobacco jamming to a little Robert Randolph while writing.  I’m not religious by any stretch of the imagination, but I gotta tell you, if that man were to show up at a local Baptist church with his pedal steel, I’d be right there in the front pew bouncing around like I found the Lord.  He’s good.  But my point is that the manner in which we all communicate is very different from what it was when I first started working in publishing, and those differences have not only undermined the industry’s ability to sustain itself financially, but many other industries as well.  It’s a tectonic shift in the way we go about our lives, and we haven’t even begun to fully grasp how things have changed and will continue to change.  The only problem with internet versions of publishing is that there’s no money in it.

Of course, there’s very little money in anything at the moment.  Except health insurance.  The health insurance industry isn’t going to be hurting for cash any time soon thanks to the “reform” bill we’ve all been saddled with.  Thanks a lot, Mr. President.  We weren’t quite broke enough.  I think we just misunderstood his campaign slogan.  When he talked about change, we just assumed he meant doing things differently.  Actually, he meant change as in spare change as in all that we’ll have left over after we finish cashing the checks he’s been writing in our names.  But somehow, I don’t think I’m cut out to work in insurance.  It just seems a tad distasteful to me to earn my living eating up the savings of the sick and dying.

The sad part is that I genuinely love print.  It’s a great medium.  I love working in it, I love reading it, just about everything about it.  Well, except the before-mentioned useless folks, but I already covered that.  I’ve been talking to a lot of people this week, inside publishing and out, casting lines out there looking for work, or at the very least, trying to get a feel for what other people are thinking.  In the process, I came to a rather startling conclusion.  For the past few years of print work, I’ve been ripping people off.  Not literally, of course, but at least unknowingly complicit.  Let me explain.  I had a conversation with a salesman friend of mine the other day who will remain nameless.  He told me a little story.  He was in one of his long-time customer’s stores a few weeks back, trying to sell him an ad when the guy says, “We’ve gotten more feedback and response in two months from our Facebook page than the past two years of advertising.  We set up the Facebook page in an hour and it was free.  In the last two years, we’ve spent eight grand with you.”  My friend looked up at me and said, “How am I supposed to respond to that?”  I just shook my head and he went on: “I went through all the things I was supposed to say about the benefits of our paper, about the exposure, about how he could do things to track his response to the ads better like putting in a coupon, or a different phone line and track the calls to that number.  The whole time I was saying it, it just really felt like bullshit.”  Finally, I asked him, did the guy buy an ad?  “No, he didn’t.  He said ‘Can’t do it this time, try me again next week.”  Now I’ve been in publishing long enough to know that’s customer-speak for ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you.  And get the hell out.’  My friend knew it, too, which probably explains why he was drinking his third double scotch neat for lunch on a Tuesday.

But there lies the root of the problem.  I’ve always believed that we in publishing had a responsibility to the advertisers to try as hard as we could to make sure they were getting a return on the money they spent with us.  I hadn’t really been aware of it, but this creeping notion that we had, somewhere along the way, changed from selling an actual useful service to selling over-priced snake oil full of empty promises had been growing in me.  It didn’t stop me from collecting a paycheck, but it was there, nonetheless.  And most of the businesses the publications I’ve worked for sold to were of the small variety; the kind of people to whom a couple thousand dollar payout in advertising in a year was the difference in making mortgage payments or not.  They’re the kind of people who absolutely need to get positive response for their money.  I’ve always been aware that there are those in publishing who couldn’t give a rat’s ass if the advertisers got any response so long as we got their check, but I was never one of those.  Somewhere along the way, I’m not sure when, it began to dawn on me that we weren’t really a good buy for these people anymore, especially as expensive as print is and with money tight as it is today.  When my friend ran through his list of reasons why his customer should buy, a list that I’ve largely used myself in the past to justify what we as an industry do, I really did understand where he was coming from, seeing it clearly for perhaps the first time.  It was bullshit.  And his now-former customer knew it, too.

I had spent at least the past half-decade earning a living, paying my bills, enjoying my lifestyle helping to push a product that had, in general, slowly become a hollow shell of what it was five or ten years ago, without even really noticing.  The prices hadn’t come down any, but the effectiveness of what we were providing had certainly been tainted, alternately by increasing competition for audience with the internet, many more free or low-cost alternatives for businesses to promote themselves and self-inflicted cutbacks to staff, content and readership to protect our own financial houses.  But we had all been so focused on saving our own bacon that any thoughts about the service we were actually providing and whether or not our advertisers were still getting their money’s worth hadn’t even really been considered.  Well, I’m sure as hell considering it now because if they aren’t getting a return on their payouts, then I’m just another parasite sucking away their increasingly hard-earned life-blood.  And as just about everyone knows now, the world is chock full of parasites.  Whatever I choose to do from this point forward, I’m going to have to be certain that the sales pitch is the real deal, that the people paying for what I’m producing have at least a reasonable expectation of getting something useful in return.

No one can guarantee that any ads will provide a direct dollar figure in sales, but we should, at the very least, be acutely aware that when most of the folks ultimately paying our salaries cut us checks, they’re not giving us that money because they’re feeling generous.  They’re taking a risk when they buy an ad; a risk that they’re not wasting money that could be better spent elsewhere; a risk with resources that could be the difference between staying in business and losing everything; a risk that we’re providing the exposure we promise to the audience we claim we can deliver.  We need to respect that risk, appreciate that they chose to take it with us.  They’re not just account numbers on a ledger sheet, they’re people trying to make their lives all they can be.  The least we can do is everything we can to back up our claims, to see that they get a useful return.  And sadly, at this point in time, I’m not convinced print still has that capacity at the prices we have to charge.  How can we ask businesses to take that risk with us when we’re not willing to take any risks ourselves to make the products work as they should?  I may have been a bit willfully blind for a while there, but at least I’m not a hypocrite.

That’s not to say that print advertising is a complete waste of money, just that it’s effectiveness for the price has fallen to the point that it really doesn’t make sense for some of the folks we’ve been suckering into buying ads.  If the cost of the ads were to come down to account for the loss of audience, the declining ad sizes due to paper size cutbacks that are pretty prevalent nowadays (publishers everywhere have been trimming inches like a fat guy stranded in the desert with no donuts) declining page counts, less copies on the street, etc, etc, then maybe I would feel better.  But the dirty little not-so-secret is that we can’t drop the prices appreciably.  Publishing is expensive and most publishers have enormous infrastructures of manpower and equipment to maintain just to be able to stay in business.

“Print is a luxury,” another friend of mine said to me last week.  I think she meant that in comparison to reading on the internet (longer form material versus short snippets, for instance) but the thought holds any way.  It’s a luxury to be able to produce a magazine or a newspaper these days; a luxury to earn a comfortable living working for one; a luxury to be able to afford to advertise in one, but it’s never going to be cheap and quite frequently, as with all things, you end up paying a premium for life’s little luxuries.  And one other trait all luxuries have in common, they’re very rarely necessities.  Print advertising used to be a necessity if you wanted to promote your company on a wide-spread basis.  Not so much anymore as there are many other, infinitely cheaper alternatives that may actually work just as well or better.  How exactly do you go about selling a $500 ad that has an effective life of a week or so to a small business struggling to make ends meet when Facebook and like are infinite and free, and from a direct, tangible feedback point of view, at least appear similarly useful if not more so?  Until we can answer that question adequately enough that it doesn’t come off as bullshit, print’s got an increasingly serious problem.

So what to do?  The problem is that I don’t really know.  No one does, otherwise publishers wouldn’t still be charging head-long after the same shrinking pool of revenue.  I have lots and lots of ideas, but ultimately, I keep coming back to money.  Sure, I can pour all kinds of time and effort into producing material in any number of possible areas of coverage, but how do I get paid for it on a scale that makes sense and accounts even reasonably for those efforts?  It’s a conundrum wrapped up in a mystery.  And as eloquently as I can explain the problem, the people I owe money to aren’t terribly interested in well-thought out and presented excuses that don’t involve fat checks.  So a week’s worth of thinking and self-debate have led me right back where I was last week and the week before that and the week before that.

This is a transitionary period for me.  I’ve been working in print for so long that I’ve become too comfortable with it.  Unfortunately, the industry itself isn’t cooperating.  It would be nice to be able to go out and find another job within my comfort zone; something that takes advantage of my skills in ways that I’m used to.  One that pays well would be nice, too, or at least as well as I used to get paid.  Well, those jobs just don’t exist anymore.

Published in: on March 26, 2010 at 3:52 pm  Comments (5)  
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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Well, now, how about that!

  2. Your friend says “Print is a luxury,” and I think she was close. Maybe I would say, “Periodical print is a last resort.” My pile of unread newspapers has always made my wife nuts. If I subscribe to the paper (or read it free!) online, then it doesn’t pile up, I can read it at my leisure, and my relationship with my wife improves. Where periodical print excels is places where the computer and or the internet won’t go… my boat, outside in the sun, far from internet (although all of that is relentlessly changing for the better). So when I pick up one of those giveaway boating magazines, it’s perfect for sitting at anchor and flipping through while drinking a beer in the sun… who cares if it gets wet, who cares if it goes unread, who cares if the internet is non-ubiquitous in the beautiful spot we’ve chosen. This is a fight the periodical print media, free or not, can’t or doesn’t want to win.

    Non-periodical print has a better chance, although the publishers of recreational reading material could still screw this up. My wife bought me a Kindle for Christmas and after 3 months I’m still trying to figure out if I like it or not. Reading a book on the Kindle does not provide a satisfyingly different experience, and in fact it’s often less satisfying because of the lack of effort put into producing a book that looks good on the Kindle. And then there’s the pricing issue. I’ve been buying used books off of Amazon for years, and even with shipping it’s less expensive than buying a book on Kindle. And then there’s that whole publisher price fixing thing where most of the big publishers decided to force Amazon to raise prices. And you can’t yet buy a used Kindle book. But these things will change, slowly but surely. All considered, it’s not clear to me that Kindle or similar devices improve my life. I have shelves and boxes of books I’ve read and reread over the years, and they make me feel good. Looking at my Kindle laying on the table doesn’t really make me feel anything.

    There’s an old saying around the internet that “content wants to be free.” If you ignore the fact that content can’t want to be anything, what that statement really means is that efficiency will out… any expense that can be done away with will go away. It’s the nature of capitalism… creative destruction. It’s never good to be the last buggy whip maker in town.

    So what this means is that the only money left to be made in the publishing business is in writing. There’s no money left in printing, distribution, marketing, etc, all costs people would eliminate if they could. And it’s going to be up to the writers of that content to figure out how to sell it at a revenue maximizing price. Let’s hope writers can live off of that.

    Best luck.

    • I agree. I’ve been saying for quite a while now that content is all that matters, and publishers have been counter-productively cutting that area in order to continue to prop up the printing/distribution/advertising ends of their businesses that are collapsing around them. Advertising is dead in the water at this point. There are more than a few folks out there who seem to believe that the decline in sales is due to the economy and that it will rebound when things improve. Undoubtedly, the economy hasn’t helped, but the migration away from print advertising began almost two years before the economy tanked. The last time the newspaper/periodical industry posted a positive quarter in revenue was the first quarter of 2006. I personally saw the decline begin in the middle of 2005. This was at the very height of a booming stock market and the insane housing boom. To adapt an old political line, it’s not the economy, stupid.

      I haven’t been particularly impressed with the e-readers presentation value either, although I haven’t yet gotten the chance to check out Apple’s new baby. The Kindle, in particular, wasn’t designed for presentation, it’s set up specifically to allow flowing text in html format, which will soon be a thing of the past. I expect the presentation of these devices will improve dramatically over the next few years, as technology like flexible displays and pervasive wireless high speed internet become more common. Plus, Adobe, who makes most of the high end graphic design software most publishers use to produce their material, is developing software specifically to design material for these devices and that can’t be anything but a positive thing. That being said, I have a few bookshelves lining a room in my house, as well. Newspapers and magazines may well be replaced by these things in the long run, but books are a little different entity. I, for one, would be more than willing to pay a premium for an actual physical book, and I suspect there are a lot of others who would as well. The pricing is another matter entirely. I think it’s somewhat similar to how the music industry responded to the digital age, initially trying to price individual songs at a rate that ended up far in excess of the cost of buying the cd, even though there were little or no production and distribution costs involved with digital music. They eventually got dragged kicking and screaming into more reasonable pricing, and I expect the same thing will happen to electronic periodicals.

  3. Editor says: “I agree. I’ve been saying for quite a while now that content is all that matters, and publishers have been counter-productively cutting that area in order to continue to prop up the printing/distribution/advertising ends of their businesses that are collapsing around them.”

    I suppose there is a small market for general publications which are nothing but advertising, but I do think it is small. Other than that, your comments makes me realize that publishers have zero value for their people assets (which and who produce content) and all value for sunk costs (physical assets like printing and distribution) even though most of that can be had as variable cost (ie outsourced) these days rather than as capitalized asset. And who wants to work for a company whose business model screams, “We don’t value YOU!”?

    I identify / sympathize with so much of what you’ve written. I’m a computer network guy, and it used to be a great business to be in. Building networks is fun. I’ve built a couple over the years. Running them not so much. There’s been relentless downward pressure on salaries over the years as the internet boom has matured. My last network build was wireless, and I got laid off last year when the company lost one of its venture capital backers… they downshifted into “run what we’ve got” mode. Don’t need any expensive architects. Took 10 months to find a job as I was stuck in one of those “overqualified / underqualified” loops. I’m too senior to hire for a junior job, and there are so many senior people looking for work that those of use without credentials like college degrees or industry certifications are an easy first pass weedout when a recruiter has a thousand resumes in the inbox.

    I ended up getting the job I have now because of my soft skills… I interviewed extremely well for a job in which the technical demands were secondary to keeping the client happy. Requirement number one was showing up on time, and I got to the interview (a two hour drive) 45 minutes early. It’s not the greatest job in the world, but it’s a steady paycheck while I wait for a more challenging job to come along. My point is consider the entire package you are and consider your strengths outside of what you consider your primary skill.

    Again, best luck to you.

    • Thank you. I got some advice from my Dad years ago when I first came back from college. He told me to cultivate multiple skills because you never know what you might have to fall back on in a pinch to earn a buck. That was the best advice anyone’s ever given me, I’ve built up an interesting array of skills across a wide range of professions over the years, and I still do it today. I’m sure I’ll find something fitting eventually, it’s just kind of frustrating that the industry I thought I’d be working in forever is going down the tubes. I’m just glad I wasn’t one of those people that got the job they were looking for and stopped learning, instead using the opportunity to expose myself to every aspect I could, picking up useful skills all the way. The worst thing someone can do, in my mind, is get a job, let your employer train you in the things that only they need and stop there. That’s a sure-fire way to find yourself obsolete, especially nowadays with things changing so quickly. Best of luck to you in your better job search, too.

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