The best thing about having to speak in public is being forced to say a few things off the top of your head. The worst thing about having to speak in public, of course, is having to speak in public.
I gutted it out a few weeks ago at the Nassau Club. The title of the talk: “Thirty Years Later — Still in Print.” The premise? That while everyone is talking about print being dead, about everything you need to know being on the Internet, and about how young people are now getting all the news they need from their cell phones, I was nevertheless soldiering on in my 30th year editing U.S. 1, with a weekly press run of 19,000, and in my second year in a partnership that produces another 150,000 issues or so per month.
In short: Am I missing something? Or am I on to something?
Needless to say, I think I am on to something, specifically that even if print is dying, it isn’t dead yet, and its demise is proceeding at a pace far slower than most people have realized. Fishing around for anecdotes to help carry me through the Nassau Club presentation, I recalled the line attributed to my boyhood idol, Mickey Mantle, whose father had died at the age of 39 and who grew up convinced he would never live much longer than that: “If I had known I was gonna live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.” (Mickey died in 1995 at age 63.)
By the time I got around to making that point at the Nassau Club I was pretty much out of time (speak beyond 18 to 20 minutes at a luncheon meeting at your peril), so I never did get a chance to spell out exactly what print should do to take better care of itself in the years or perhaps even decades before its ultimate demise. But thanks to the lingering power of print, I am able to collect my thoughts for you and the rest of my print audience.
What should print do to take better care of itself? My suggestions, now informed by some thinking at the keyboard, fall into three broad areas: Content, presentation, and community engagement. I will offer some thoughts this week about content, and take on the other two areas in subsequent weeks.
Content. Remember that the two hallmarks of any successful publication are 1.) reasonable content delivered to an appreciative (and economically viable) audience; and 2.) the reliable delivery of that content at a reasonable frequency.
Within those parameters print needs to exploit its competitive advantage over its online counterparts. One big opportunity: No one likes to read long articles online. Line up all the “next” buttons that you want, load your text with all sorts of hyperlinks, but you will always lose a substantial portion of readers when you ask them to read a 3,000-word article on a computer monitor or — worse yet — a cell phone display.
That same article can appear in two or three pages of any print publication, usually with graphics, pull quotes, and other typographical flourishes that tease your interest. You can start reading and peek ahead to the next page to see how much lies ahead before you commit yourself to reading the entire piece. If you are producing a print publication, don’t miss opportunities to offer in-depth articles. Not everyone will read every word, but those who do will be grateful, and may become loyal readers.
One of the limits of that print layout is that the story, no matter how long or short, has to begin and — especially — end in a logical place. This little essay is going to end at the bottom of that column on the far right-hand side of this page. It won’t be a line short or long.
It will end there only after it has been subjected to a little writing and re-writing, reading and re-reading, and editing. The more my first draft exceeds that last available line, the more I have to rewrite and re-edit.
To the extent that print forces us to perform those tasks we are operating at a great advantage over our online counterparts for whom the simple words — reading, writing, and editing — now have new meanings. As I have said before in this space, the act of reading can now mean nothing more than opening a document and looking at it. Writing may mean only that you have copied and pasted a block of copy from an Internet browser into another document. Editing? In the minds of some online authors that might be simply running spell check.
Creating reasonable content is only half of the challenge for a successful publication. The other half is delivering that content on a reasonable and reliable frequency. If you hear the ticking of a watch at 7 p.m. on a Sunday evening, you might think it’s time for 60 Minutes on CBS. If you hear your office door open on Wednesday, we hope you will think that the current issue of U.S. 1 has just been dropped off.
If you are putting out a print publication you consciously tailor your content according to your frequency. This week’s U.S. 1 won’t have any reports of which roads were flooded after the downpour of April 30. Some issue in the future might have a story or column on the infrastructure challenges facing us in this era of superstorms and extreme weather.
Some of the online news sources, in contrast, provided breaking news of road closings, flooding conditions, and emergency response. That’s a good use of the online media, but there’s one problem. How sustainable can your news enterprise be when the business model relies on disasters for its audience? Already we are seeing municipal police departments taking over this role. The police have a free and well established network of eager reporters — all of us ready to call 911 at the first sign of trouble — and a handy software system, such as Nixle, to send the information back to the public.
Thanks to the constraints of having to book time on an expensive printing press and then having to circulate those tons of newsprint throughout the community, print publications can’t afford to publish more often than their appointed frequency. That’s bad news when it comes to covering flash floods and traffic accidents. It’s good news when it comes to covering most everything else that matters in community journalism. Your town council is debating the need to upgrade your sewer — do you really want to know the details more than once a week?
In print, the editor is always asking “why now?” when a story idea is pitched. An online editor may say simply, “why not?”
Print journalism shouldn’t ignore online journalism; in fact, every print publication needs to have its own online presence and use it strategically. As media consultant Jeff Jarvis, author of “What Would Google Do?,” has said, “do what you do best, and link to all the rest.”
But resist the temptation to short change your print edition by foisting off long stories or last-minute stories to the online world. Trust me: Editors like to take the easy way out, especially as the deadline approaches. But telling readers they can get the full story on the ’net isn’t taking good care of your print enterprise. And the phrase “we can fix it online” is getting to be a tired excuse.
At the same time editors need to reach out to the online world and look for opportunities to give substantial online journalism a prominent place in their print publication. U.S. 1 has done this on several occasions, most recently with the cover story on “An Inconvenient Child.”
Give full credit to the online source. For some editors that will mean swallowing your pride. But that shouldn’t be so hard: You are on your death bed, after all.