I had to rain on someone’s parade the other day — not a happy day for me or for the other person, an enthusiastic woman who had called to pitch a story. The subject: a group of Princeton-area professionals who had quickly mobilized in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, partnered with an existing nonprofit organization to solicit tax-deductible contributions, spread the word through their online connections and social media (but nary a word in the print media, as far as I could tell), and ultimately raised some $75,000 in relief funds.
It’s an uplifting story, she concluded, and you should tell our story in the pages of U.S. 1.
But there were problems. First was a matter of timing: By the time we assigned a reporter and interviewed the key players, the fundraising effort would be over. Covering the event after the fact is not an approach that works for U.S. 1. But it might work for one of our community papers. The people involved, however, were from several different towns — Princeton, Hopewell, West Windsor, and so on.
I suggested that the organization write a letter to the editor. No, my caller responded, they believed their story was worth a full write-up in U.S. 1. She was sorry that I didn’t place the same value on their effort.
I resisted the temptation to ask why an organization that was so proud of its online, social media-powered operation would care whether or not a print publication acknowledged its effort. Instead I assured her that my decision had nothing to with the merits of her meritorious effort. But I clearly didn’t succeed. The parade had run into a little rain.
In fact my decision had nothing to do with the merits of the relief organization’s efforts. It had a lot to do with the tough choices imposed on print journalism by the constraints of serving a distinct physical community and the time demands of a regular and reliable publication schedule. And it may also have had something to do with the reason why print publications continue to survive in this digital age.
That survival subject was where we left off in this space in the issue of May 8, when I was recounting my appearance at the Trenton Rotary Club and the challenge of presenting a coherent 18 to 20-minute talk on my subject: “If print is dead, then I’m in big trouble.”
The underlying subtitle was that maybe print journalism isn’t dead at all, and that in fact in the decades since I first heard that it was (on the day in 1972 that the first iteration of Life magazine was closed down) I have worked for several dozen publications that have been born after that first and exaggerated report of print’s demise. Moreover, today I am working on two print publications that I have founded myself, and eight others that were founded by my new partners after I got done bearing my two.
Journalists, as some of you may realize, are disaster mongers of the highest order. So it comes as no great surprise that print journalists are the biggest believers in their own demise. But in the two short weeks since I wrote that “print is dead — not!” column, we have received word that the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which had cut back its print edition to three days a week, had restored its publication to seven days a week.
At about the same time the Philadelphia Inquirer announced it was resuscitating its Saturday edition.
Meanwhile, the online media that are supposed to be the print-killers are struggling. At the Trenton Rotary meeting, I made the point that some of us in the print media would welcome a commercially viable online news and information enterprise. We would gladly trade in our early mornings in the rain and snow unloading tons of newsprint from gas-guzzling trucks and instead spend our time hitting the send button on our desktop publishing platform.
As I told the Rotarians I had been a veritable acolyte of the new media, dragging my staff and myself through one electronic venture after another: FaxBack, where you call a phone number, follow some voice prompts, and have the Princeton Junction to New York train schedule faxed back to your office or home (to name just one of our many free faxable offerings — advertising, we imagined, would soon follow).
Then came the U.S. 1 E-mail newsletter, a similar newsletter for the West Windsor-Plainsboro News, an expanded and interactive website for both papers, and then Twitter. All along the way, we continued to imagine, we would build it and somehow they would come. They never did in any kind of number that would support anyone without either a day job or a generous family.
After I delivered this litany of online duds at the Trenton Rotary, however, one of the members asked an interesting question. Because of my print background, maybe I was approaching online media from the wrong angle. He cited the writing of Clayton M. Christensen, a professor at the Harvard Business School and the author of “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” a book that suggests established industries can be taken over by disruptive challengers because the old liners never really see them coming.
Good point, I thought. I may not have had the right karma to make an online publication work. And it is certainly true that I never gave one of my online initiatives the all-or-nothing effort that I gave U.S. 1 in the early days (when it really was a make-or-break deal for me).
Maybe online the definition of “community” is different, and what works in print has to be transported to a different and much larger scale (since delivery costs are free, why not?). I looked at AOL’s Patch, a consortium of hundreds of local sites, including several in our area. It’s been almost four years since Jeff Jarvis sounded the call that became the basis for the Patch news sites. But overall the story on Patch is a succession of reports speculating on when it might make money and when the next round of layoffs will occur.
Patch in Princeton is nice enough and might even make a few dollars. But the truth in central New Jersey is that, since Patch was announced in 2009, more new print publications have been created than new Patch sites.
And it’s still a sorry day when the print newspaper doesn’t accept your story. And it’s equally sorry for the editor who has to say no. The fact is that someone wanting to be in your paper is almost as good as someone wanting to read what you put in your paper.
For that reason I lifted a letter from the Facebook page of the group that sought publicity about its venture. It’s on page 2 of this issue and it gives the web address. For this Memorial Day weekend I have two wishes: 1.) That some people will go to that website and donate money for relief efforts on the Shore; and 2.) that Memorial Day is bright and sunny, and no parades are rained on.