May 8, 2012

MEANWHILE, BACK IN OLD MEDIA: Stacy McCain and Forbes have “Grim News in WaPoVille:”

Washington Post, it sucks to be you:

The Washington Post Co. reported its first-quarter earnings on Friday, and the news coming out of the newspaper division was mostly grim. The unit lost $22.6 million in the quarter, with revenue down 8% and revenue from print advertising specifically falling 17%.
Meanwhile, the Post just reported one of the biggest circulation drops of any major newspaper with the lucrative Sunday edition selling 5.2% fewer copies and the daily edition skidding almost 10%. Oh, and newsroom leaders are so distressed about the way the business decline is affecting them, they held a secret meeting with the paper’s president, Steve Hills — without inviting executive editor Marcus Brauchli.

Click over to Stacy’s blog for details of that “secret meeting,” and some thoughts on the future of journalism (more on the latter in a moment).

There’s equally grim news coming out of the other end of the Northeast Corridor, where New York Times journalists “fight for [their] pensions, paper be damned,” an editorial at the Washington Examiner notes, with an embedded video that’s a series of cris de coeur from veteran Timespeople, a video that Walter Russell Mead quipped watching could cause the rest of us to have “Uncontrollable gales of laughter stemming from excessive levels of schadenfreude [that] may cause spilling and staining.”

Here’s more from the Examiner:

“What am I gonna do? Am I gonna eat cat food? Am I gonna move in with my kids? Am I gonna commit suicide?”

These complaints come not from a laid-off auto worker or a victim of foreclosure, but from longtime New York Times reporter Donald McNeil. His alarming quote expresses his fears that the New York Times Co. will freeze its defined-benefit employee pension plan and make the transition to a defined-contribution system. The Newspaper Guild, the union, which represents McNeil and other Times journalists, released his complaints and others in an Internet video as a protest against the 401(k) plans used by nearly every new worker in America who has retirement benefits.

We’ll leave it to the Times, its employees and its shareholders to settle the dispute. As spectators, we find it mind-boggling that journalists from a leading national newspaper would vigorously resist a trend they have been chronicling for years. What’s good for the rest of us is evidently not good enough for toplofty Timesmen.

In the real world of the private sector, defined-benefit pension plans have been going the way of the dinosaurs for decades. The Social Security Administration reports that between 1980 and 2008, the share of private sector workers in defined-benefit pension plans fell from 38 percent to 20 percent. By some estimates it stands at just 15 percent today. In 1985, 89 of the companies in the Fortune 100 offered traditional defined benefit plans. In 2011, only 13 did so. In the same period, the number of Fortune 100 companies offering only defined-contribution plans increased from just 10 to 70.

When not haggling over retirement plans, Stacy McCain’s post concludes with a reminder to journalists to endeavor to “write for the reader:”

This seems so obvious to non-journalists that it feels stupid saying it so simply, but too many people in the news business completely lose sight of the fact that the reader is their customer, and is under no obligation to consume your product. You must try to write something that people actually want to read, and try to keep the readership in mind. Your boss is ultimately not the editor, but rather the guy who drops 50 cents in the newspaper box.

But that can be awfully hard to remember, let alone take to heart, if you’re like so many in the MSM who “loathes the public,” as the Wall Street Journal’s David Gelernter wrote, in a snapshot that perfectly sums up the insular nature of the MSM  vis-à-vis their customers in 1996, just before first Matt Drudge and then the Blogosphere broke open the formerly closed feedback loop that was old media:

Today’s elite loathes the public. Nothing personal, just a fundamental difference in world view, but the hatred is unmistakable. Occasionally it escapes in scorching geysers. Michael Lewis reports in the New Republic on the ’96 Dole presidential campaign: ‘The crowd flips the finger at the busloads of journalists and chant rude things at them as they enter each arena. The journalists, for their part, wear buttons that say ‘yeah, I’m the Media. Screw You.’ The crowd hates the reporters, the reporters hate the crowd– an even matchup, except that the reporters wield power and the crowed (in effect) wields none.

The balance of power has shifted considerably in the years since, but that underlying attitude — “Yeah, I’m the Media. Screw You” — hasn’t changed. At the base of Bill Keller’s rants about Fox News is his anger that millions of viewers enjoy the channel (especially in middle America, which another prominent Timesman publicly referred to last year as “the dance of the low-sloping foreheads”), and have written the Gray Lady off as hopelessly out of touch with their day-to-day lives. (See also, video referenced above.)

Similarly, a recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review, the house organ of what Hugh Hewitt once dubbed “The Media’s Ancien Régime,” spends its time instructing old media journalists on “the right way to cover Joe the Plumber,” a man the MSM itself empowered by spending more time in the fall of 2008 vetting than they did the winner of the presidential race.

Finally, back in 2005, I once wrote that in the wake of RatherGate, Dan Rather had morphed into his bête noire, Richard Nixon.  (Whom the Gods Destroy, They First Render Nixonian.) Today, as he makes the rounds promoting his autobiography, Rather is reduced to sounding like a stock Scooby Do villain — I would have gotten away with it, if it hadn’t been for all you meddling bloggers!

UPDATE: Michael Malone emails in a rather prescient Silicon Valley Insider column he wrote in 2005: “Newspapers Nearing Death?”

I can’t precisely place the moment when I stopped reading newspapers, but it was sometime during the dot-com boom. My family went off to Africa for a couple months one summer, cancelled our newspaper subscriptions, and when we got home never really got around to re-subscribing. Eventually, perhaps three months later, we did start again — but by then the bloom was off.

First to go was the Times. That one was easy. I didn’t write for it anymore. The kids kept me too busy on the weekend to read it. My colleagues always pointed out the interesting articles. And, most of all, because I didn’t trust the Gray Lady’s reporting anymore.

Next was the Merc. I found that the only thing I even looked at in the paper was the headlines in the business section — and I could get those stories in other places. That, and the movie listings — and when I needed those I could just drop four bits into a local newspaper rack. A few weeks ago, when the paper reprinted a column of mine in its Sunday Perspective section, I had to depend upon my 85-year-old mother to cut out the article. Otherwise, I wouldn’t even have a hard copy.

Then came the Chron. Of all of them, that was the one I noticed most. I missed the arts section, especially the old Sunday pink section, and the columnists. But after a month or so, I didn’t even notice.

That last paper, the San Francisco Chronicle, had the opportunity to break real news in early 2008, and chose to bury it instead. Try and guess why.

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