The Value of Higher Education

Today, I’d like to engage in an activity that I take no pleasure in.  Well, okay, I do take a little pleasure in it, but I feel kinda guilty about it.  I’m going to be taking to task comments from an ardent print supporter.  First off, read this. It’s kind of fitting that it appears on a website called The Maroon.  According to the Urban Dictionary, maroon is defined as “A term of derision often uttered by Bugs Bunny when referring to an interaction with a dopey adversary.”  Yup, that about covers it.  The truly frightening part is that this guy isn’t just a reporter or some other such hard-line  print fan. Then I could excuse his obvious ignorance of reality, but he actually teaches journalism at Loyola University.  You know the line; Those who can do,those who can’t, etc, etc.

First off, I appreciate his support for an industry that I’ve earned a few bucks working for over the years, but his logic here is fatally flawed.  Let’s just hit a few of the high spots.  I’ll begin with the notion that the physical costs of production for the industry aren’t an increasing problem.  Here’s a quote:

“In a typical newspaper, the actual paper and ink accounts for less than 15 percent of total expenses. The real cost is the people, the journalists who gather and deliver the news day in and day out.

Setting your focus on the ink and paper is short sighted and shows a lack of understanding in how the news industry operates.”

Upon reading this, I immediately had to wonder if this guy had been hanging out on campus for too long. Where exactly has he been working that the writers are the primary expense?  No place I’ve ever experienced.  Sure at one of the few major metro dailies that used to employ newsrooms of hundreds or even thousands, maybe that expense is a major payout, but at the vast majority of publications, the amounts spent on writers and content is far, far from the primary expense.  In fact it’s pretty low on the ladder.  I’ve worked in places where there are more sales managers than reporters.

Not to beat a dead horse, but when objectively looking at the competition for audience, how exactly is the massive expense in paper and ink not a problem when your competitors have none of that?  I have to wonder if he’s just including literally only paper and ink in his 15% calculation, as well.  Because then there’s the costs of operating and maintaining the printing press, the costs of employing all of the people who work in the press room, the cost of actually physically distributing all of those papers, etc, etc.  It’s the very print-centric infrastructure that is the primary thing that makes publishing such an expensive business in the first place, not the writers.

He goes on to blame Craigslist for the print industry’s woes.  Here’s another quote:

“From a consumer’s standpoint, Craigslist is great. It offers free classifieds — something that used to cost money for the typical landlord, or potential employer, or seller of used dishwashers. And how could getting that service for free be a bad thing?

Well, from the news industry’s perspective, those $30 ads used to add up to big money. They used to pay the top salaries for the experienced and best reporters — journalists who are now losing their jobs.”

Have you bought a print help wanted ad lately?  I did not that long ago, and I gotta tell you, I would have been thrilled if it was a $30 ad.  To get the smallest possible ad in the local paper for three days in just one week, the cost was more like $400-$500.  And I’m not even in a major metro area.  One reason why Craigslist became so popular so fast was because the publishers were openly and unapologetically screwing us on the rates.  They knew there were no other viable alternatives for help wanted ads and they systematically soaked those of us who needed it.  In fact, the last bastion of classified revenue left to publishers is legal ads, and just check out the rates on those things.  It won’t be long before the laws that require them to be in print go away, saving municipalities all over the country tons and tons of money they’ve been pouring into their only option, the local paper.

And really, all of that insane profit from classifieds and you honestly think that was what was paying for reporters and not getting sucked upstairs into cushy executive salaries?  Sure, when that money went away, the reporters were the ones who took the fall, but let me ask you, when legal ad revenue disappears a year or two from now, who’re they gonna cut this time?

Of course, he goes on to explain how all those cuts are actually a good thing.  Funny, I don’t think all of those students going into debt paying the exorbitant tuition that pay your salary are going to think it’s such a good thing when they’re working at Starbucks because there are no jobs to speak of in the industry you’re training them to go into, despite your positivity.  And I quote:

“Classifieds and traditional advertising fell a combined 30 percent over three years. In response, newspapers had to cut their expenses accordingly and slashed their staffs by a similar number.

By any measure, it hurts to see veteran news reporters leave their longtime posts. There is no denying that. But, with the dominance of Craigslist, there was also no avoiding it.

The reality, however, is that, far from being an ominous sign, those cuts are actually a healthy move for the industry.

With their leaner personnel roles, newsrooms can continue operating within their tighter post-Craigslist budgets.”

To begin, I would argue the 30% figure.  Industry revenue dropped nearly 30% last year alone, and that was well after Craigslist had already gutted classified revenue.  I have yet to fully understand how eliminating the very people you use to create the products you make money on can be deemed a healthy move, dumping more and more work on a smaller, lower paid group of survivors.  If anything, it’s these very deep cuts in content production that will further expedite their fall.  The internet is quickly making content the only marketable thing they have left.  Advertising and distribution are falling steadily by leaps and bounds, yet publishers are behaving as if this is a temporary blip instead of the major, world-alterting change that it is.  He’s correct in saying that classified revenue isn’t coming back, but the assumption that advertising revenue will come back is simply flat wrong.  The cost of advertising is shrinking by the day, there are more outlets than ever before to promote anything anyone’s heart desires completely independent of print advertising and that’s a problem that’s just going to get worse for publishers.

I’ve saved the best for last.  Here’s another quote:

“And the best news is that advertising traditionally follows the overall economy, and both the economy and advertising are looking up for this year.”

Really?  Again, where are you living?  The only reason there are any positive economic indicators at all are because some businesses are getting a temporary bounce from massive expense cuts and huge government bailouts.  Revenue is flat to negative in virtually all sectors.  The job market is non-existent, and the salaries being paid to the available jobs out there are far from sustainable living wages.  And the notion that advertising is looking up for this year is flat-out wrong.   Read this collection of stats from Alan Mutter, who does a great job compiling data on the industry’s performance.

He suggests that we’re likely looking at drop-offs in the mid-teens so far this year.  Sure, that’s not as bad as last year, but keep in mind, these are year-to-year stats.  We’re talking about a mid-teen drop-off in the first quarter after a 28% decline in the same quarter last year.  If that’s what passes for looking up, I’m glad I’m not a pessimist.  By the way, according to Mutter, since 2005, we’re actually looking at an industry-wide drop of 43% of total business, including 36% in retail advertising and 44% in national advertising.  That’s more than a little bit worse than the 30% quoted by this guy.

Sure, it’s great that he’s being positive, and that he plans to keep reading his print newspaper far into the future.  Of course, that’s assuming anyone can still afford to print one for very much longer.  I understand where here’s coming from, but let’s not be naive.  Print is in serious trouble, and it’s getting worse every day.  If someone who’s supposed to be preparing the next generation of journalists for the future is spewing this unrealistic, rose-colored point of view, that’s just setting some folks up to be seriously disappointed, not to mention perpetually broke.

I’ll end this with one final quote, this one from Paul Gillin, who operates Newspapaer Death Watch, where I ran across this guy’s article in the first place:

“We addressed a class of public relations seniors at a major university last week and asked our usual question: How many of you have read a print newspaper in the last week? Out of a room of 25 students, one hand went up. This is par for the course in our experience with young communicators…”

Out of touch, out of mind, I suppose.


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Published in: on March 27, 2010 at 3:48 pm  Leave a Comment  
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