I don’t get out much, but last Friday night I managed to squeeze out an hour of time to attend a remarkable event — the launch party of a reconstituted print publication. These days, with daily newspapers falling by the wayside every few weeks or so, you have to take notice when a print publication is the object of any celebration.
So I stopped by Labyrinth Books on Nassau Street to check out the scene at the grand opening party for Princeton Magazine, the slick publication recently acquired by my old friends at Town Topics, the weekly newspaper serving Princeton Borough and Township.
For someone like me who doesn’t get out very often, it was quite a scene: Guest list at the door (thank God I had RSVPed), butlered hors d’oeuvres, free flowing wine, life sized photographs of artists at work, taken from one of the features in the 73-page (that’s correct — the editorial flowed over to the inside back cover) first edition.
In addition to the food and drink, all the guests were treated to some hard charging rock ‘n’ roll from the band known as Rackett, the group headed by Princeton University poet Paul Muldoon. The band — not coincidentally — was also the subject of the new Princeton Magazine’s inaugural cover story.
And I got treated to a special little side show — the passing of two ships in the journalistic night. At one end of the room Bob Hillier, the architect who took on an ownership interest in Town Topics and who now serves as publisher of the new magazine, explained the genesis of Princeton Magazine. The publication had existed for years, produced by some out-of-towners who focussed more on ad sales than editorial, Hillier suggested. He and Town Topics had purchased it, he said, to add some creative editorial and photography to the mix, in addition to but definitely not in place of the ads.
Meanwhile, down at the other end of the crowded room, I ran into Sheldon Sturges, the head of the community planning group known as Princeton Future. Sturges, no stranger to publishing (he was formerly at Scholastic Magazine), was lamenting the decline in print journalism, specifically the kind that would send reporters out on a Saturday morning to cover Princeton Future community meetings on parking, zoning, affordable housing, and other planning issues from experts in the field as well as residents whose homes were being affected.
Now, said Sturges, if you have a public meeting on a serious issue, it can be like a tree falling in the forest — with no coverage people will never know if you had the meeting or not.
At the other end of the room Hillier noted how remarkable it is that little old Princeton has its own city magazine — normally you think of New York Magazine or Philadelphia Magazine. I think that Princeton advertisers will support it, as long as it doesn’t stray from its mission of reporting on the lifestyles of the rich and famous and get lured into the deep forest of complex issues such as Princeton’s downtown development.
And to me that was the journalistic lesson: Print publications may still be alive, but old fashioned journalists can probably make a better living by serving those hors d’oeuvres than by trying to sell articles on serious land-use issues.
Next Thursday, April 2, an old-fashioned journalist turned newspaper publisher will speak at the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce. Richard Bilotti, who retired last year after nearly a quarter century as publisher of the Times of Trenton, has been an eyewitness to the golden days of daily journalism as well as to its decline.
How did print journalism, and especially daily newspapers, get into this mess? One answer is that newspapers have been assaulted by the “new media,” especially the Internet, which has taken away both readers and advertising. In addition all media have been affected by the recession — advertising is an easy cost to cut in tough times. But there are other possibilities:
Up until recently daily newspapers were high yielding cash cows — 30 percent profits were not impossible. Did the publishers, in their effort to maintain those lofty margins, foolishly cut meat from the bone and compromise their ventures in the long term?
Did newspapers make a fatal error in giving away their content on the Internet?
In the print world some publications moved from paid to free circulation, and then assumed that they no longer had to worry about readership. Could there be a corollary to that in the online world?
Have daily newspapers missed an opportunity on the Internet, by failing to make their home pages “hyper local” to match or exceed the pinpoint coverage of their weekly print competitors and other online news services?
In some cities is there a future for a newspaper as a non-profit, affiliated with, say, a community development group that sees the paper as part of the social fabric that holds the community together?
All good questions and I should probably show up in person to ask Bilotti what he thinks and absorb the answers. But I am mired in some old-fashioned journalistic deadlines of my own. I just don’t get out much.