Saturday, October 20, 2012

It Was Beauty Killed The Beast

I was watching a cable news network show today attempting to explain the inability of the mainstream media to discover the facts of the timeline on the Benghazi terrorist attack that saw Ambassador Chris Stevens killed along with three others.  (I found this particularly interesting, since it occurred on the same cable news network that had just aired an hour-long in depth report on the subject the night before.)  What was interesting about the statement however, is that this failure of discovery was in part blamed on the cutting of newspaper and wire service bureaus around the world.  

You see, for many years, television news for the most part was little more than a reporting of what had been previously reported in newspapers.  Many of televisions 'reports' are still mostly rehashing previously printed newspaper stories.  Even today's so-called 'online news' still largely consists if items that are re-sourced by Google, Yahoo, et al from newspaper web sites ... information that would be unavailable to them without newspapers.  In other words, the electronic entities which have supposedly replaced newspapers are themselves merely parasites capable of surviving off of its slowly dying flesh.  While it's often said that the Internet has killed the newspaper (a statement not entirely accurate); the truth of the matter is that newspapers have long been killing themselves through an ongoing process of Innocence and Arrogance.

I was there you see, when high percentage revenues from advertising began to move from being printed on the page to supplements which need to be put into the paper.  (Paid subscriptions and street sales actually cover very little of the cost of producing a newspaper.) Newspaper printing presses at the time were incapable of printing much in the way of color (especially the full or '4 color' ) advertisements, and advertisers were only able to get what they wanted by using commercial printers and printing presses with greater color capability.  Showing a complete innocence of where their market was going and an arrogance of their own importance, newspapers told themselves (and anyone else who would listen) that those advertisers would be back soon enough from this second class form of advertising, begging to go back to being printed in the paper.   

Of course it didn't happen, and in fact these supplements (now called free standing inserts or SFI's) grew at an astonishing annual rate.  Newspapers eventually (and only grudgingly) accepted these products as a necessary evil source of revenue instead of a tremendous opportunity. Even as the numbers of these inserts grew far beyond their capacity of newspapers to deal with, their arrogance had them sometimes refusing these inserts and all but refusing to take advantage of the technology that could assist them in increasing their revenue.  Their continued innocence had them often doing such work by hand at a ruinous cost, as they waited for the trend to reverse.  

By the time senior management reluctantly recognized (again, innocence) that their 'good old days' were gone forever, they were already falling behind the technology curve in a way they would never be able to recover from.  Restrictions on the days of the week that such material would be delivered, an 'all or nothing' attitude where distribution of such product was concerned, and a rejection of the concept of delivering such advertising to non-subscribers (an arrogance that was in each case, later recanted), led most down a path that was far from optimal.  Their business plan was in fact so poor where advertisers were concerned that even the US Post Office was able to compete with them; profiting thereby, and staving off their own demise.

This was not the only area where Innocence and Arrogance found their way into the mix however.  Other areas of advertising where newspapers once reigned supreme were likewise attacked.  Aggressive entrepreneurs sensing blood in the water began to compete with classified advertising on all sides.  Independently printed Real Estate guides garnered an increasing share of the newspaper's 'Home' section.  'Auto Trader Magazines' took a big bite out of the Automobile sections, supplying photography as well as descriptions for anyone selling a car, dealer or not.  Jobs publications soon followed, along with newsprint publications advertising garage and estate sales.  Newspapers however, refused to even attempt to compete with any of these new and profitable methods, their arrogance of position forbidding them to demean themselves by being 'commercial'.  And just like that, more of their revenue departed, never to return.

When the Internet finally did come along in a significant way, all of these new businesses were flexible enough to pick up stakes and take advantage of it, moving their print in large part to the new media.  Added to them were everything from car to real estate websites that could be updated daily.  Before you knew it, anyone could sell anything on Ebay, and anyone could find a job on Monster or Craig's List.  Without these classified revenues, newspapers became even more dependent on the Insert advertising that was still growing.  With such dependency grows desperation, and newspapers were becoming truly desperate, for a third scourge had been added to their future.

Somewhere in the Education process, a generation of students had been allowed to grow up without reading a newspaper.  No longer were grade school students required to cut articles out of the newspaper or magazine that would be discussed in current events class (if such classes were even held).  Instead when required, classes watch VCR tapes of news stories supplied by TV stations to serve the same function.  Unconcerned and Arrogant enough to believe that their audience would return, and innocent of the growing influence of an expanding Internet, they fell even further behind the curve and in even greater financial danger.  Through their own non-participation, newspapers soon found themselves with a generation or potential customers that no longer counted on reading a daily newspaper for their basic knowledge of current events.  Eventually they responded across the country with 'Newspapers in Education' programs, but the programs were limited; and besides, by then one generation was lost and the next could hardly be taught by those who had already abandoned newspapers.

Their market penetration now greatly diminished, they were further attacked by the rise of talk radio and 24-hour news networks on the information side.  Both had an immediacy that newspapers could never hope to compete with unless they substantially changed their business model, something that they were still far to arrogant to consider.  Struggling to retain the inserts that they had once disparaged, having finally admitted that they were the major source of revenue keeping the doors open, many were brought to further humiliation in the realization that it was largely for those once hated supplements that their products were now being purchased.  Enough of that arrogance remained however, that rather than living contentedly off their existing revenue stream, some began to instead cast aside their basic creeds of journalism in a twisted attempt to appeal to a wider audience. Sadly, many dailies turned to the very 'tabloid journalism' that they long decried in a forlorn hope to cling to their diminishing influence and circulation.

Like so many businesses doomed by faulty strategies, some newspapers also attempted to make a last stand by building monuments to their own past glory.  Massive investments in printing press technology that any sane business model had proved was no longer required now stand in mostly silent monument to a strategy designed for winning a war that was long since over.  Web sites that should have been their future and which had been created as a complimentary supplement to their printed page, are proving increasingly difficult to covert to revenue sources however by those innocent enough to have never understood that any audience will always resent any attempt to take away a free handout.

There's still a chance that some of these organizations will survive; and for the nation's sake, we better hope that they do.  Certainly none of the Internet giants have offered a fully functional alternative to them; and seem content to live their parasitic lives.  Weekly newspapers, long skilled at living within a budget of advertising revenue, seemed to have been able to take advantage of the changing market.  Once the poor relations of their daily cousins, most are far more likely to be profitable than their more arrogant relations.  It may well be that we must look to them for the future survival of the industry as a whole.  Based on what I saw and have brought out over a 30 plus year period however, I think that it's clear to see that it wasn't the Internet that has all but killed the daily newspaper, but their own innocence and arrogance of a changing market.  

This entire tale in fact, reminded of the last line of the 1933 classic "King Kong":

"Oh, no, it wasn't the airplanes. It was Beauty that killed the beast!"

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