Uh-Oh, Schutze is Optimistic About the Word Biz. (His Editor Wonders if It's Résumé Time.)

Categories: Schutze

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You'll have to forgive us veterans of the newspaper business, but certain days -- especially Mondays for some reason -- are just self-referential days. Something in us wants to say to readers, "But enough about you."

We wake up way more concerned with ourselves than anybody else out there. And as I say, please forgive us. We work in a dying industry. Well, OK, if it's not dying, it sure as hell is suffering some major amputations.

This morning's New York Times has a story on the business front about how great it is to work for a daily newspaper owned by Warren Buffet, offering what I guess somebody thinks is encouraging news about how Buffet's newspapers aren't dead yet. But then I turn the page. Here is a photo of the morning news meeting at The Buffalo News, and ... yikes! I count seven people at the table.

To me, that's the kind of news meeting you might have at a major daily if the Black Plague had broken out in the building. I never saw a news meeting in my own years working for dailies with fewer than than 20 people either at the table or in second-tier chairs against the wall.

But that's the point, is it not? The Black Plague did break out. Only it's called the Plague of Nobody Wants to Read It Any More.

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You write 18 posts, and what do you get?
In the same section of the same newspaper, media columnist David Carr has a truly upbeat story about print journalism, only not the print kind.

Carr's piece is about the stunning growth of digital media. Carr, by the way, by the way, comes from our neck of the woods -- the news weekly business -- not the dailies. It's no accident that he often offers sharper insights than you get from media critics who are traditional daily print newspaper people. He writes about what's going on in what I guess we should by now call word journalism, print and digital.

My own kvetch about the dailies is this: I worked for a guy in the dailies in the early '70s who predicted every single thing that has happened to dailies since. This was at The Detroit Free Press, which was really a great newspaper then and a model for experiments elsewhere.

Kurt Luedtke was executive editor when he was still in his early 30s -- a baby by the standards of the industry then. He was the first person I ever knew who was a student of readership, at a time when most people in the business thought, "What's to say about readers? They read, right?"

Wrong. Not for long, Luedtke said.

This was a time when newspaper people still insisted smugly that television was dumb and watching it made people dumber. Since then the lesson of time has been the contrary. More news, more pictures, more sounds, more nuance: All of that is more information, and more information makes people smarter, not dumber -- more sophisticated and less easily amused.

Luedtke was a great two-fisted journalist -- a Pulitzer Prize winner -- but he also insisted that the industry was locked in a 1950s writing template that was boring the audience. Our problem was that we were dumber than our readers, not smugly smarter.

He was serious about reporting, but he was more serious about writing. The way you get readers, he said, was by giving them a very good read. And a very good read comes only from very good writing.

By the way, he got tired of the daily newspaper business and went to Hollywood eventually, where he won an Oscar for his first screenplay, a movie called Absence of Malice, about a dumb daily newspaper.

His formula in the newspaper business was extremely successful in the marketplace in Detroit. But I don't even want to talk about what the corporate owners of the Freep did with that paper. They were more interested in getting into a monopoly printing and advertising deal with the competing paper than they were in competing. Long sad tale of decline.

In fact, since then every single thing I have seen the dailies do has been basically some new iteration of the same old post-World War II culture of daily newspapers: more government coverage written in an industrial argot so dense that a newcomer needs a pocket translation dictionary.

"SOLONS SAY NTTA/NCTCOG AD VALOREM PROJECTIONS SKEWED. Blame Regression Algorithm."

Say what?

I read an interesting book a few years ago about why young people don't read dailies. The author interviewed a college student who said he tried to read the dailies but it was always like a starting a real hard math class in which he had already missed the first three weeks.

This is an audience business. That's not a good way to sell tickets.

As for the digital thing, I find it very interesting. I know it's very important. Hey, here I am, doin' it, OK? But I think of it as an extremely significant shake-up in the circulation department.

I used to crank out these words, and they sent them to the back-shop, set them in type, printed them with ink on paper, folded up the papers, loaded them onto pie-wagon trucks and shipped them out to people's lawns. Now they ship them out as electrical impulses. I would find all of that even more fascinating if I worked in the circulation department.

But I don't. I work on the word production line. And here it's all a question of coming up with words that readers want to read.

Now I'm going to get revoltingly self-referential and tell you I find it ironic, hilarious and infuriating that people in the daily business who are supposed to think about this stuff almost never turn their heads a quarter crank to look at the cadre within the word journalism business that does seem to have a handle on it.

Us. The weeklies. Right now as far as I can tell, we are the daylight. People read us. We know how to write for the new audience.

Carr's piece today about the big digital buzz is all about Huff Post, a topic fully worthy of notice. But, c'mon. They're aggregators.

In all of this I have learned one big thing. An industry cannot escape its culture, even to save its life. An industrial culture is a solipsistic universe, and apparently nobody inside ever has a telescope that can see outside.

There. I feel all better. Why better? Hey, let me ask you something. If you were in the word business, and every single indication was that people out there want more and better words, why would you be anything but optimistic?

It's like shoes. They don't want the black buckle-ups any more, but they do want the hell out of the slip-ons. So what are we gonna crank out today, people? (Daily newspaper answer: "Uh. ... Wait, I'm thinkin' here. More buckle-ups?")

All done. Tomorrow, it'll be all about you, all day long.

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14 comments
LMAO
LMAO

Given what passes for journalism at the Dallas Observer I say Good Riddance to print journalism in general and the Observer in particular. Face it, your rag is supported by the ads you let whores post in print and online, with a bit of support from the booze companies.

Bmarvel
Bmarvel

Michael, The culture, in the broad sense, is driven by the owners and also by its own logic and momentum. The News was always been a top-down paper. But while we were aware of the politics of and social standing at the top, when it came to day-to-day newsgathering, we ignored those politics. That said, there were very rare occasions in which the top interfered with our job. One instance while I was at the news concerned a project called, if I remember right, "Abuse of Power."  This was a series of stories on local law enforcement authorities. Somehow this rubbed our then publisher the wrong way, and in the interest of "balance" he demanded the series be renamed and certain changes be made. There was an outcry among the reporters involved and a lot of angry muttering by all of us. One or two reporters went elsewhere. The series ran, but in somewhat mutilated form. One lesson is that on those rare occasions when ownership's politics and social standing attempt to assert themselves, reporters resist (the late David Dillon successfully fought off one such attempt), and resistance is usually at least partly successful. The other, more important lesson is that things in the media are never as simple as those who natter on about the media's supposed bias like to claim.       

Michael MacNaughton
Michael MacNaughton

Thanks for your perspective.  I get the vertical silos of editorial and news but isn't culture driven by owners and their political and social relationships?   Surely Bob Decherd and Jim Moroney's influence is felt downstream?

Bmarvel
Bmarvel

Michael, This is why it's important to understand the culture of a newspaper before you criticize it. To begin with, Bill McKenzie works on the editorial side of the News. Reporters work for the news side. Never the twain shall meet, except possibly in the cafeteria, and then by accident. They might smile and nod, but probably not. Traditionally in newspapers, there is a firewall between editorial, which deals in opinion and adheres pretty strictly to the publisher's and owner's political agenda, and news, which is more or less free to go its own way. News, of course, is expected to maintain at least the appearance of fairness; editorial is not. Newsies stubbornly resist incursions and instruction from editorial (I could tell you stories), and editorial just as stubbornly resists advice and counsel from those actually covering the news. This probably accounts for the "self-delusion"  you describe. If this leads to Ivory Tower syndrome, you can probably guess which side lives in the tower. This separation between editorial and news, so poorly understood by so many blog-commenters here, is not just desirable but necessary if we are to have anything like a free and reliable press. Most newspaper publishers honor it. More or less. I know there will be commenters here who will insist that reporters at the DMN take their marching orders from editorial. They are either (1) ignorant, or (2) liars, and in either case not to be trusted. I think all anonymous blogs are to be taken with a heaping spoonfull of salt. The reader can never gauge who is speaking, from what motive or perspective, and how accurate the speaker is likely to be. I understand that folks don't want to put their jobs on the line by blogging under a real name, but there is a price to be paid in credibility. Which is probably a it should be.          

Michael MacNaughton
Michael MacNaughton

I was somewhat surprised to find that even with shrinking staff the daily beat reporters still do not interact much with senior editors.  The Ivory Tower syndrome is alive and well at Dallas' only daily paper. Why DMN editors like Bill McKenzie continue with their self-delusion that they have their fingers on the pulse of us great unwashed and disdainfully pontificate from upon high is a mystery to me.  I do not really understand the undercurrents of journalistic organizations although I can imagine that there is a constant nagging little fear that their whole world is drying up and blowing away.  I make an attempt to stay informed from a wide variety of printed news sources and find niche bloggers very interesting.  A group of DISD teachers started this blog - www.disdblog.com - about a month ago in response to the DMN requiring posters to use Facebook to log in. Since anonymous postings are just about the only way to safely spread the word from inside an institution like DISD this is an insider, if biased, news source.  But bias due to company and personal culture is the norm - it oftentimes requires an astute reader to detect the bias and for a whole lot of people that is just too much friggin' work.  Better crappy food served on a platter than having to dig in the garden oneself?

Bmarvel
Bmarvel

Nice analysis, Michael. That "culture of their organizations" you refer to is not so much dictated by advertisers, as some here prefer to believe, as by the limitations of bureaucratic organizations generally -- and newspapers are VERY bureaucratic --  and the sheer inertia that afflicts   every organization. And it is not all one culture. The culture of the old Times Herald was quite different from the culture of the Morning News. Both cultures were vastly different from that of the current Observer, which nevertheless is swimming in its own bureaucratic inertias and foibles. This is the mistake that the blockheads who keep whining about  "The Media this...and 'The Media that..." make over and over. Unless you have a clear understanding of a paper's culture (or a network news operation or a blogsite or whatever) it's really difficult to criticise it intelligently. (Jim understands the culture of the DMN, say three decades ago; he has a very shaky grasp of its culture today.) These differences in culture make for big differences in news coverage. Big, established city papers will hedge their bets on important issues because of a desire to appear "balanced" and will cover issues conservatively (in the cultural, not the political sense). On matters that are seen as of real importance this often leads to writing that is stupifyingly dull and mystifying to the reader, as the story passes from editor to editor, each more cautious than the one before. (The same sort of process is at work in textbooks selected for Texas schools, by the way.) Advertisers pay only a very oblique roll in all this. Generally they're just happy to have readers eyes on their adds. In four decades working for as many newspapers, I had to deal directly with complaints or demands by advertisers only three times.)  As i said, the Observer swims in its own currents, largely invisible (but not unfelt) to those who write for it and to most of its readers. But those currents are no less strong. If the Observer is sometimes bolder and more clear about some kinds of news, it's because the bureaucratic chain is shorter and the links younger. (It will be a very, very slow news week indeed when the Observer does a rigorous front-pager on the sex trade in Dallas.) It's also far less comprehensive than the big daily paper; it casts with a narrow net. An intelligent, well-informed reader would keep an eye on both the News and the Observer (and many other news sources). But judging from these blogs, you don't see much of that here, where the rule seems to be, Read, if at all, only only what you agree with. Complain about the rest.                      

Bmarvel
Bmarvel

What you mean, daGama, is that you want to see a chorus of voices agreeing with scott. That "fine thinking" you're looking for would accept his scattershot criticisms as sophisticated commentary. How can any one who's paying attention to anything besides his own ideas make the claim "There are no journalist [sic]. Journalism is dead."? Which think tanks does he have in mind? All of them? Does he even know all of them? He can't find serious, and thoughtful, opposition to the death penalty? The prison system? Our foreign policy? Where in the world is he looking? scottindallas is the Great Oversimplifier. Anyone who's hung around this blog long enough has seen it over and over. It's that easy reactive libertarianism that these days passes in certain places -- mainly the blogs -- for deep analysis. Fire off enough arrows and one of them might stick to something. Dare to disagree with him and he lapses into nastiness. Looking for smart, informed commentary? A blog ain't the place to find it, daGama. Blogs are places for shoot-from-the-lip reactions, yelps of pain, snarky put-downs. They're mental junk-food. That doesn't mean they're not good for a quick snack now and then. But for nourishment, let me suggest some of that journalism that scott wants us to believe is dead. Serious Journal-ism. Read, don't blog.     

Bmarvel
Bmarvel

That' okay, Paul. Those that Peppard writes about don't get the joke, either. They think he's actually writing good things about them. As for Maurstad, I'll take a weasel with wit and teeth any day to being gummed to death.         

Bmarvel
Bmarvel

Letting Maurstad go was really dumb, though.

Bmarvel
Bmarvel

Uh,Paul: Alan Peppard still writes for the News. 

SlamminSammySnead
SlamminSammySnead

You mean if you don't count the $250K just spent by the Chamber and other north Dallas white PACs to purchase the last Trustee election.  But yes, many charters and their glued-to-the-hip pipline of TFA kids have tried very hard to control the narraive.  Members of the recently formed PACs have also stated that they now "control the dialogue"...or at least they think they do.

Paul Riddell
Paul Riddell

I won't disagree that the biggest sin of daily newspapers is being boring. It goes a little deeper than that, though. When I was a high schooler in the Eighties, the Dallas Morning News would try outreach programs to get high schoolers to read the paper. This usually consisted of dropping off free papers (which, of course, counted toward the total circulation numbers) and a teacher's guide recommending possible study plans. Well, you could call it that if the teachers didn't look at it as a babysitting service so they could take it a little easier on Friday afternoons. In my case, I was on the school newspaper staff, and I had been a Dallas Times Herald partisan since being a paperboy in the summer of 1980, so I'd buy my own Times Herald and compare notes. The problem with the Morning News back then was that its hatred for anybody in the Metroplex under the age of 50 and worth less than $50k per year was obvious. If you didn't have William Murchison and Marilyn Schwartz bitching about those damn kids and their vile rock music, you had editorials where Burl Osborne was practically masturbating like a caged ape about shopping malls playing classical music outside to drive off loitering high schoolers on Saturday night. After I got out of school, it got even worse, with the Morning News diatribes against the Deep Ellum area and how the police should go in to clean out the "undesirables" (i.e., anyone but SMU brats) by any means necessary. Oh, we learned from the paper. We learned that the Morning News was not a friend, and definitely wasn't dependable, and we had it as a habit only because it was there. As soon as it wasn't necessary, when Osborne was openly telling everyone dumb enough to listen that "the Internet is nothing but a fad," all of us taught that the Morning News had nothing but contempt for us ran like hell, and we didn't come back. And so now it's 2012. The only thing hiring Robert Wilonsky did for the Morning News was get control over a potential critic. A paper that notoriously pissed all over potential stars among its writers isn't going to fix anything by bringing Wilonsky on board, because far too many of us remember years and years of his incessant comic book and Star Trek wankage in the Observer. (Well, that and the fact that most people in local music would trust him about as far as they could throw him: I was covering a music festival in Carl's Corner in 2000 where I was introduced to the bands, and I was nearly stomped by several members who thought I worked for the Observer. There's STILL a lot of hate out there.) Anybody worth reading was encouraged to leave during the layoffs and voluntary terminations, leaving the paper with Tom Maurstad and Alan Peppard. The occasional hiring of some out-of-town dweeb, such as hiring Michael Corcoran for music reviews (before everyone realized that he knew about as much about music as Tim Rogers knows about tact and humility), wasn't going to fix this: as was noted back when the Times Herald died, the factors that led to the Morning News's crash had been building up for decades. As to what will change? I'm not betting on a thing. Even if the paper hosted a party where it hung Robert Dechard from a pole and offered the populace chance to use him as a Viking pinata, it's too late. The editors are too calcified and too terrified of trying to find work in this market. The writers and photographers already laid off aren't stupid enough to come back and get caught up again every time Belo decides to save a few more bucks. Passing out free copies all through North Dallas only got the paper a class-action suit from advertisers, and both DFW Quick and DMN Briefing were junk that only got read because it was dumped unbidden on its potential consumers. (I remember when Belo was literally begging employers to take on stacks of DFW Quick circa 2005 and leave it in break rooms, because my boss at the time got a grand laugh over how only Belo would crap in the break room and expect everyone else to clean it up.) Yes, we're missing out on local news coverage, but what the hell is the alternative?

Paul Riddell
Paul Riddell

Now, that's funny. I thought Maurstad was still there: all I had to do was see his weasel photo on a page, and I'd blank out the whole thing, so I had no clue he was gone. (I got so tired of his strolling into various Dallas events, sneering for a while, leaving because nobody came up to him and told him how much they loved him, and then giving negative coverage that he wasn't recognized that it's a mental block at this point.) Peppard, though, confirms the old saw about how the person described by staff as "the heart and soul of [publication]" is also always the person most hated by the readership. He'll be there, still blathering away, when the Morning News building is demolished.

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