Another year older and what go we get? A little bit wiser and deeper in debt.
At U.S. 1 and at lots of other media outlets across the land, there’s a little bit of truth in a rewrite of the old Depression era lyrics. Founded back in the warm and fuzzy days of the Reagan era in 1984, U.S. 1 has always tried to be frank and candid with its readership. The first issue, circulated November 1, 1984, featured a question and answer interview with its founding editor and publisher, Richard K. Rein.
Since then we have marked most every anniversary with a similar exchange, aimed at sharing whatever wisdom we can muster and revealing our indebtedness as best we can.
This year, as is our custom, we again summoned our youngest (and therefore most fearless) reporter and dispatched him to the editor’s cluttered den, to exchange some anniversary banter that might yield some insight into the state of the enterprise’s health and wealth. Herewith a lightly edited transcript:
Q: I hope I’m not prying but I couldn’t help seeing that letter on your desk, the one that says “Now more than ever, your 25 years of experience are a valuable business asset. Why? Because a recent NBC poll showed that over 70 percent of Americans are losing their trust in business. And as bad as that may sound for most businesses, companies like yours — with a 25-year track record of success — are suddenly at a tremendous advantage.” Is that something we can leverage in the next year?
A: Kid, that letter came from a company selling embossed seals proclaiming your business anniversary — they have another letter just like it for companies that are turning five. The fact is — in this business environment — you might be better off being 25 days old rather than 25 years.
Q: How so?
A: If this business were 25 days old right now, it would be just me and a part-time salesperson and I would be trying to become the Matt Drudge of Princeton and central New Jersey.
Lucky for you, kid, that’s not going to happen. But maybe instead of reading junk mail on my desk you should have picked up the October 29 issue of the New York Times and read David Carr’s article on “Mourning Old Media’s Decline.” Here’s a cheerful excerpt:
“It’s been an especially rotten few days for people who type on deadline. On Tuesday the Christian Science Monitor announced that, after a century, it would cease publishing a weekday paper. Time Inc. [where I spent a lot of time in the 1970s] announced that it was cutting 600 jobs and reorganizing its staff. And Gannett [where I got my very first paid job in journalism in the summer of 1965] compounded the grimness by announcing it was laying off 10 percent of its work force — up to 3,000 people.
“Clearly, the sky is falling. The question now is how many people will be left to cover it.”
Q: So what’s killing our business — is it the Internet or the economy?
A: We aren’t all being killed but we all are being forced to change. The economy is part of it — most newspapers could have told the Treasury secretary over a year ago that the country was in a recession. But why trust us when you can hear it first hand from Lehman Brothers.
But the economy will probably cycle back to a more stable position. The Internet is another matter. As another media expert [Philip Meyer, author of the ominously titled “The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age] wrote in the October/November Issue of the American Journalism Review: “It is now clear that [the Internet] is as disruptive to today’s newspaper as Gutenberg’s invention of movable type was to town criers, the journalists of the 15th century.”
Q: So shouldn’t we just start selling ads on the website?
A: We could, and we could probably rake in some money from retailers and restaurants eager to cash in on what they perceive is a new audience for them. But it all reminds me of the early days of desktop publishing. All you needed was a PC and a laser printer and you were a player. Now it’s just a PC.
Back then a guy who ran a grocery store over in Bucks County had a flair for design and published a pretty good flyer promoting his food. The next thing you knew he was converting it into a monthly newspaper serving the “triangle” of New Hope, Newtown, PA, and Princeton. And it lasted for awhile, or at least until people figured out that the triangle didn’t constitute much of a community. In fact that publication spawned my “rule of reason.”
Q: What’s that?
A: That any publishing venture has to have a reasonable editorial focussed, delivered to a reasonable audience at a reasonable cost. I used that law to rein in the boundaries of our circulation. I made it a circle with a radius eight to ten miles from the corner of Alexander Road and Route 1. I figured that a person at one end could meet a person from the other end somewhere in the middle for lunch and neither one would kill the entire day.
On the Internet I’m seeing a lot of sites that are made up of either a.) advertisers talking to other advertisers; or b.) anonymous citizens ranting with like-minded anonymous citizens.
What’s scary is that lots of news websites still cling to the belief that somehow the Internet will transform our business and that the readers will become the writers, and all we will do is gather their thoughts, sort it into like-minded piles, and stick some headlines on top. Just this week I read about a service called Helium that licenses a “widget” to enable newspaper websites to solicit stories from their readers. A paper in Springfield, Illinois, has signed on. It’s like telling readers we don’t have any reporting of our own, but we have a lot of opinions from the readers. It’s working for a guy named Kevin Rose, founder of the website digg.com. But how many successful imitators can there be?
Closer to home a consortium of East Coast papers, including the Star-Ledger and New York Daily News, are considering a content-sharing arrangement for both stories and photos.
Q: Since we still have a lot of original content, why not just dress it up and move it to the web?
A: It’s that rule of reason. I’m not sure that what works in the paper will also work online. Here’s what Philip Meyer has to say:
“A newspaper’s most important product, the product least vulnerable to substitution [by a competing technology], is community influence. It gains this influence by being the trusted source for locally produced news, analysis, and investigative reporting.”
“The newspapers that survive will probably do so with some kind of hybrid content: analysis, interpretation, and investigative reporting in a print product combined with constant updating and reader interaction on the Web.”
Q: But we don’t do much investigative reporting, do we?
A: No, and we probably won’t start now. But I do think we have some other community influence that we can parlay into an effective web presence. And given the pace of website development we might even have it in place by our 25th anniversary.
Q: Are we too late getting into the Internet market?
A: No. In fact, I’d rather be a 25-day-old web company than a five-year-old web company. When you look at it that way we all have a lot to look forward to, as well as 24 years to look back at. Keep reading U.S. 1, kid, and keep an eye on www.princetoninfo.com.