Friday, March 07, 2014

Warren Buffet's gamble on community papers a loser — and other stupidities

Warren Buffett doubled down on community newspapers a couple years back, and it's a loser, so far. Hell, I could have told Bloomberg that. First, despite Buffett allegedly supporting paywalls, here in Central Texas, his two small 7-day dailies only paywall the PDF e-edition, which means bupkis, especially as nobody reads PDFs on mobile devices. And, the HTML news stories on site are all free. Given that most non-daily community papers still think this is what a paywall means, it's no wonder that community newspapers are basically, with some differences in detail, about at the same spot in the financial stupidity curve as larger newspapers were a decade ago.

Linked to this is that smaller metropolitan areas, at least here in Tejas, aren't fully sharing in the economic recovery of the big cities.

Take Waco, where the Tribune-Herald is one of the two papers I'm talking about. On Saturdays, which should be a big day, the paper struggles to hit the 30 percent mark on ads, and that's counting the inches of paid obits as straight ad space. I don't know about Bryan-College Station, but I venture to guess the Eagle's in somewhat similar boat, though maybe not as bad.

Beyond that, whether his investments in the biz are small or not, Buffett knows nothing special about newspapers, other than fairly typical slash-and-burn. At the Buffalo News, early on, he was strong on union-busting as part of reducing costs.

Back to the main point, though. PDFing an e-edition while posting in HTML all your main news stories for free is NOT a paywall.

What it is, is stupidity and a waste of time even as newspapers try to do more with less on staff time as well as money.

And this isn't likely to get better in the near future.

Meanwhile, per Editor & Publisher, "winning stratetegies" of small and middle sized dailies include:
1. Publishers using the C-word. Any time a publisher mentions "content," I reach for my revolver.
2. Newspapers "rediscovering" special sections. Problem? If you're hosting the event for which the special section is about, and "hosting" as in paying costs to put it on, having staff on the ground, etc., aren't you losing at least part of your profit? If so, how much? Are you trying to minimize this by having only salaried and not hourly people do this? If so, how much, if any , comp time are you giving them?
3. Newspapers "partnering" with folks like chambers of commerce for tourism guides, etc. Sounds good — until your chamber of commerce does ill-advised spending of hotel-motel tax money, or the equivalent in your state, and, you have to write a story about it. What if the chamber, the economic development board, etc., then "un-partner" with you?
4. A newspaper saying that its expanded database of email addresses for discount blasts have helped ward off Groupon. If you're that worried about Groupon, a company more and more despised by merchants, and you're that worried in part because you've not read NEWS STORIES and not CONTENT that has reported exactly this about Groupon, then [sigh].

What can you expect from such stupidity, though? Per Poynter, back with the big boys, the Boston Globe is now going to a metered paywall, with 10 freebies per month, vs none before. But, it refuses to call it a paywall, just using the term "meter." It's unclear if the totally free Boston.com is staying around. If it is, then the Globe is as stupid as the Chron in San Francisco and the Snooze in Dallas.

That said, the stupidity isn't limited to the U.S.

The Guardian is getting a pretty penny for selling its majority stake in Auto Trader, but, without a paywall, Alan Rusbridger and gang will continue to burn through Scott Trust money, and this "infusion," like money's going out of style.

The company, which has divested of non-core newspaper assets such as GMG Radio – the third largest radio group in the UK which owned brands including Real and Smooth – for £70m has revealed that the sale of its majority stake in AutoTrader has secured the financial future of the newspaper portfolio for a minimum of 30 years.
Yeah, we'll see if this last for 30 years. Meanwhile, how much profit were these other assets making? Maybe you should have kept them and done more to fix the Guardian's bottom line at the same time.

I mean, you can chase the allegedly "lucrative U.S. market" all you want, but since that market, for newspapers, is expected to have another 8 percent ad revenue decline this year, it gets less lucrative all the time. And, new numbers on digital circulation aren't doing a lot more than offsetting print subscription declines, in many cases.
There is essentially now an infinity of digital inventory, very different than scarcity in print, so you can buy digital advertising anywhere and everywhere,” (Ken Doctor) said.
This is something I've been hammering myself, as the flip side of the Gnu Media gurus talking about how the digital world offers an infinity of room for news stories, length of news stories, etc. Throw in programmatic advertising, which is further driving down rates, primarily in print, but surely in digital, too.

Add in that digital dimes are likely to be replaced by mobile nickels, especially per my note above about PDFs and mobile devices, and, Rusbridger can chase diminishing returns all he wants.

Unfortunately, the only real hope Doctor sees is from points 2 and 3 under the "best practices" above:
Growth may come, he suggested, as companies expand into “third, fourth, and fifth” businesses, in addition to the first two, advertising and circulation. Newer revenue sources include digital marketing services, sponsoring events and conferences, and in-house publishing activities to help other papers looking for publishing services.
So, let's look once again at this.

Digital marketing services? In small towns, papers may have a partial edge on this. But, big cities? Nahhh. That's what public relations companies do, Ken. Thousands of them, both newer and older, flood Monster, Indeed, and other job sites with "SEO specialist wanted" ads all the time.

So, scratch No. 3.

No. 4? I've already poo-poohed this on conflict of interest grounds. Or worse, on sponsored conferences? We've already seen this backfire with the NYT and WaPost. And Politico.

No. 5? Given that more media companies are already consolidating printing services, and the long-term future points digital only, how can you even offer this one?

Shows that outside stereotypical Jarvis, Rosen, Shirky, and other Gnu Media gurus, other analysts aren't so brilliant all the time, either.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A 'home office' is not a 'corporate office'? Uhh ....

The president of the newspaper company for whom I work said that on this week's weekly conference call with publishers.

This just underscores other things I'm learning at my first publisher's job, and why I don't feel totally sorry for newspaper owners.

That's beyond Internet-related wounds, newspaper takeover overbuying 20 years ago and other wounds, at smaller groups as well as larger ones, being largely self-inflicted.

Look, I understand why you incorporate all the newspapers separately: It's for tax reasons. It's not to give us some magical extra degree of independence. Why this is of more benefit to the local newspaper than the local Wal-Mart, I'm not sure overall, other than most smaller and mid-sized newspaper chains are not publicly traded and incorporated in a stock-share sense; they're still privately held. So, we're in the world of LPs, LLCs, and other incorporation alphabet soup.

(As a starting point, add in that I'm speaking from one of the poorest counties in Texas outside the Rio Grande Valley, and one, that unlike those counties, has a declining population, but that's another thing altogether.)

But, please, that doesn't mean that the corporate office is a "home office" and not a "corporate office."

Otherwise, why am I part of a group within our company, with a group manager?

Or, if I tried to look outside our one daily newspaper for another place to get us printed, what would happen to me?

Or, if I decided to stop participating in these Friday conference calls, what would happen to me?

Or, if I absolutely refused to complete an audit that the "home office" signed up all newspapers in the group to do, that's probably a waste of money as well as time, and with smaller newspapers in the group is likely to hurt us more than help in trying to sell national advertising?

Or, I decide not to "get" to run a column, at a few bucks a pop, by a retired community newspaper editor and publisher, without the hassle of any decision-making on my part? Even though I'm being billed for it, not the "home office," which didn't offer me input as to whether or not I wanted it.

(And, said column is, by columnist's latest missive, apparently being used by just about zero newspapers outside my newspaper company. In other words, a $200 per week backscratching of some sort for an old buddy or something.)

Answer to rhetorical questions above? I'd no longer be working here. That simple.

Or, one to which I already know the answer. Can I sign a contract for a new level of service with a phone company , without "home office" approval? Nyet.

Can I not run a "self-syndicated" columnist whom the "home office" that is not a "corporate office" signed us up to run isn't doing it totally for his health? Probably not.

Can I skip out on "home office" meetings? I kind of doubt it.

If I talk about how previous salespeople "sold" stuff without always asking individuals, businesses or organizations if they wanted the ads or not, and therefore, billed revenue isn't always accurate, will my "special pleading" be given any credence? Probably not, and I already have examples to the contrary.

No, things aren't perfect here. That said, this is my first newspaper to be publisher. I'm learning things, including how much, and how little, the title means.

As for budgeting for the future year? When my current year, a political "off year," is compared to the year before? Sure, political ads weren't a huge amount of last year's budget, but they weren't insignificant by any means.

Add in that the company president says, now, that if we didn't think we could make last year's revenue without political ad money this year, we should have said so. Then, in the same conference call, he says that we shouldn't talking about "missing political revenue" when comparing last year to this year.

Again add in that sometimes, the accounting, or specific billing issues, for my mini-group of two small newspapers, gets screwed up. 

That's just crazy, and crazy-making if you let it be. I'm trying not to.

I'm frustrated and anxious at the same time. Is it any wonder why?

Anyway, the mishmash of types of incorporation by which newspaper corporations and their corporate offices try to pretend they're not corporate offices is laughable. And, while I'm not a tax attorney, maybe tax issues are part of why "home offices" that are really corporate offices don't want to be called stuff. It may jeopardize how they're incorporated and what tax status is available to them.

And, no, it's not just my newspaper company.

Take Advance, which continues to make metropolitan daily newspapers into nondailies, at least for home delivery. (And, I don't get the three/four-day-a-week for home but still printing daily for racks. If you really want to save money, just print 3x a week period and lay off a bunch of additional press people.)

Anyway, as it shows again, with going to non-daily home delivery at the Oregonian, every time Advance "converts" a paper like this, it creates new shell companies. And, if it's not doing that for tax purposes, then I'm a Republican.

And, beyond the world of newspapers, and on to the larger world of politics.

This is further proof of how laughable the GOP wingers' claim is that we have such high corporate income tax rates. Rather, it's proof positive of how our effective rates are so low. But, this will never make the cut for legitimate tax reform issues.

I briefly wrote some earlier thoughts about this here. And, an issue about vacation time with same company here.

Finally, this is also more proof of how, not just in the newspaper business, but in general, titles are a crock of shit.

And, in the newspaper business, to be honest, between ad sales ideas that are often pitched to clients with overly generous assumptions and circulation numbers that are audited with a wink and a nod, we shouldn't be surprised if Stephen Colbert's "truthiness" is in abundance even when actual truth is not.

==

Nor, if that's the ultimate goal of this company starting to move to centralized pagination, am I interested in becoming more of a salesperson.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

But MY column is different!

Dear thousands of people who email newspapers every day with "Here's my column, run it": Run it yourself. It's called a blog. It's the 21st century. As for $15 a week, join Google Ads when you start the blog. If you're lucky, maybe you'll hit $15 a year, and thus understand why a small newspaper ain't paying you $15 a week.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

National Newspaper Week: Symbolic of a problem?

I just got done going to the website for National Newspaper Week, which is Oct. 6-12.

First, the cartoons.

Two of them specifically talk about the sports section, which is arguably one of the more problematic spots in hardcopy in daily papers, especially larger ones. There's that massive amount of space demanded for agate for box scores. Then, most papers continue to have a page 2 box that lists sports on TV and radio, something that's not done for science programs, either classical or modern music programs or anything else. And, the biggest dailies, like the Dallas Morning News, have dumped almost all of their high school stuff on paywalled websites now, for that reason, on issue No. 1.

It's also funny in another way, and sad in yet another.

Funny? All the ads that show a newspaper still show the old hardcopy; not a one has a person at a computer, tablet, etc.

Sad? All the ones that have people in them? All white folks.

Nostalgia dies hard. (Of course, a certain newspaper editor in Manchester, Conn., might like those cartoons. No, he didn't mention race, just single moms, but ... )

Especially when the week concludes with Newspaper Carrier Day, as if we're still celebrating kids throwing newspapers out of bags, and collecting the monthly dues later in the month.

The columns and op-eds?

Lamar Alexander? Puhleese. ANY U.S. elected official who has not robustly opposed the Patriot Act, NSA spying, etc., has no fucking business writing a column for this. Even worse, he explicitly mentions the First Amendment in his column.

I am officially disgusted, and appalled that the National Newspaper Association gave him this platform. And, I counted at least halfway to 10, then emailed relevant officials. (And as of yet, have not heard back from them.)

Beyond that, the rest of the op-eds are kind of fun. They do talk about what newspapers can and often do still do write. But, they're sad in another way, namely in the amount of "spinning" they do about financial-related issues.

The suburban Dallas dailies I was at for years didn't promote National Newspaper Week a lot. If we did anything out in Odessa, it was purely ad-driven, so I didn't built any pages for it. I wonder if other politicos have, sadly, been given column space like this before?

I mean, the whole thing is another "sign of the times."

It's not ironic, it's hypocritical in extremis to have cartoons, and maybe other columns, talking about newspapers as watchdogs, and as purveyors of public information, then this.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

If centralized pagination stations are like centralized ad-building ....

This trend of newspaper consolidation of operations is not going to be perfect.

I work for a chain of about 20 papers, as editor and publisher of a small weekly and a very small weekly. We have a single ad-building department for all papers at the "home office" that isn't the "corporate headquarters," according to powers that be.

Given the volume of stuff they do, the error level probably isn't horrible. But, it's an issue of communication, when you're dealing with that many newspapers. Just like with consolidated pagination sites for that many papers, you're going to have an increased error level. Plus, because things aren't "local" any more, it's easier for stuff to kind of fall through the cracks.

And because a lot of these consolidation efforts are based on small, community-type dailies, and even more community non-dailies, don't think that the decline in ad revenue, circulation or both will be an issue just for big papers.

I don't have an answer for it, and I do know that it saves money. At least in the short term. But, if quality concerns in the longer term get serious enough, it may not be a long-term money saver.

At least the ad side isn't as bad as the pagination side, if you're doing multiple daily papers on deadline, and breaking AP news demands a change in front page and jumps at multiple newspapers at the same time.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Are journalists psychopaths?

So says a British psychologist. He ranks journalism as the sixth-highest profession, in terms of percentage of psychopaths.

His overall take:

Although people tend to think of psychopaths as killers—indeed about 15-25% of people in prison are psychopaths—in fact many people with psychopathic tendencies are not criminals.
Here are some of the traits of psychopaths:
  • Self-confident
  • Cold-hearted
  • Manipulative
  • Fearless
  • Charming
  • Cool under pressure
  • Egocentric
  • Carefree
He also notes that the idea of a "successful psychopath is largely not true, saying they earn less money than average.

Hey, there's a newspaper trait!

More seriously, I can think of three former bosses who fit at least the cold-hearted, manipulative, egocentric and carefree portions of the description.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

I hate papers that readvertise jobs

I know it happens in other job fields, too, but with a declining industry like newspapers, I'm sure more and more publishers and HR offices are more and more tempted to do it, simply because they can.

It's not the first time it's happened to me.

What I really don't like, as in the current case, is when the company does initial interviews with people it indicates it has culled down from the resumes to at least a semi-finalist list, with hints that the next step is in-person interviews for the last couple of candidates, then kind of says nothing on the first query or two about the "process," then finally, oh, about a month after that set of interviews, says ...

"Oh, hey, we went out for more resumes."

If I should actually make the cut for an in-person interview, I'll ask questions related to this.

Update, July 23: I didn't make the cut. The Cortez Journal hired somebody else.

Note to self: Next time a paper "readvertises," don't only mentally remove yourself from the running. Actually do so with the newspaper, especially if it's not only after an initial interview, but after some sort of dangling hint that I might make the cut for the next round, or whatever.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Adobe, cloudy reasoning, and the local paper

If you've heard the recent news about how Adobe is going to move all future releases of its Creative Suite software program bundle to the cloud, and you're also a newspaper fan, especially of smaller community newspapers, you should be concerned.

This will be an additional price burden for said community newspapers, and it's not yet clear how much.

Meanwhile, Adobe's InDesign desktop publishing program took off as quickly as it did, even though its predecessor, Pagemaker, was A: Pretty crappy; B: Designed to work best on PCs, not Macs, because the competition, Quark XPress, rightfully got a bad reputation, mainly in the customer service field. It didn't respond well, or quickly, to queries or complaints, first. Second, its updates didn't generally offer all new services customers wanted, even after InDesign started gaining ground. And today, Quark appears content to rest on its legacy background along with "trapped overhead costs" of many newspapers, hoping they don't want to spend the money to switch, if they haven't.

First, if you're a smaller newspaper, and you haven't switched, you shouldn't.

Second, if you're still running pre-Intel Macs, and you're realizing you're eventually going to have to face the upgrade wall, you have options.

That includes buying Windows 7 PCs while they're still around, but dirt-cheap. Quark 7 or 8 on Windoze works well. Depending on the size of your paper, you may be able to buy a couple of copies of older versions of Photoshop as a stand-alone and work with them.

Or, look at Photoshop Elements. Or a non-Adobe photo-editing program. Anything up to the size of a 7-day daily of less than 25K circ doesn't have to go hog-wild on the latest and greatest version of Photoshop. (Or the same for either Quark or InDesign.)

The latest edition of Publishers' Auxiliary, the monthly newspaper for the community newspaper industry from the National Newspaper Association, goes into this issue with a lot of detail. Here's their lede piece.

Anyway, if you have a small newspaper or small mag, explore your options.

And, this could lead more to consider other options.

Like finally making the transition to digital only. Of course, that will be digital in an HTML sense. Not an e-edition, as without either InDesign or Quark, you're not creating PDFs, unless you want to try to creatively downgrade to Microsoft Publisher. .

Seriously, this is another option for newspapers and magazines. Depending on what version of Creative Suite you have, how likely it is to get continued Abode debug support and for how long, and how long it's going to be able to handle files (like until Abode gets dickish and creates extensions like "tifx" or "inddx" to force your hand) you have a few years to plan details of a move to digital only.

And, if you have to have creative tools, there's alternatives. If not Photoshop Elements, there's GIMP,  the German photo editing program Photoscape and more. Anything halfway like Photoshop that has good work with layers and a decent filter set is an option. Illustrator? Corel Draw's the easy alternative. And, on InDesign? You can go back to Quark, or suck it up enough to figure out a way to do something with Publisher if you have to.

And, then, at some point, go web-only.

Plus, there's Abode's lie, I believe, of saying they're doing this for a more steady revenue stream. No, it's an anti-piracy measure, which will probably just up the piracy wars.

Meanwhile, if it's smart, Corel bundles PaintShop, Draw, and Word Perfect, and looks at creating its own desktop publishing program to bundle with that. It could aim at the lower end of the market, say something about as bells-and-whistles as Quark version 3. A lot of non-daily papers would find that whole suite fine if they've not upgraded to Office 2007 or later on the Windoze side. Add in that Corel has basic-level video editing software and more, per its Wiki page and its home page,  and there's potential indeed. Or it could buy Quark; after all, Corel itself is a "built-up" company; all of its main products were acquired by acquiring companies.

In short, Corel could become a new "player" in multiple software games, and also give a lot of people a new way to say "Eff you" to Adobe (and a bit of sideswipe "eff you" to Microsoft in the process, and to Apple in a way, as well).

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Do you really want to work for for People Newspapers in Dallas?

Creative help wanted ad in the newspaper biz, or a ME who's stuck on himself? Could be some of both, but you rookie reporters, beyond doing the research for the application, I'd also research WHY somebody left this guy a profane voicemail. Here's the ad:

People Newspapers, an affiliate of D Magazine, is looking for a reporter to join its team covering Dallas' most affluent neighborhoods. This is a great opportunity for a recent college graduate or a rookie reporter who's itching to move up to the big city. Prove your reporting chops to managing editor Dan Koller by telling him in your cover letter where he went to high school, what TV show he once appeared on, and the name of the maniac who recently left him a profane voicemail. Your cover letter should be written in the body of an email sent to editor@peoplenewspapers.com. Your resume should be attached as a Word document, and your three best clips should be attached as PDFs. If you can't follow these simple instructions, you will have taken yourself out of the running.
Teh Google tells me the profane voicemail was not at all deserved. But, that's besides the point.

And teh Google also tells me that, two weeks ago, Koller was listed as a reporter at D Mag, not ME at People Newspapers. So, rookie would-be reporters, you're working for somebody new.

As for high school, who cares? But it probably was Highland Park. And, hellz yes, teh Google tells me I'm right. Lucky guess? No. Having lived in Dallas long enough, and already having a feeling about this guy, it was a well-intuitioned guess.

So, we're batting 2-for-2 on snobby and stuck up on himself, even if the voicemail he got from Sheridan was undeserved.
And, the first two took about 30 secs of Google time. 

Three minutes didn't give me a hit on what TV gig he did, but I'm sure it's at least as self-centered as the first two. The whole announcement drips with a fine drizzle of condescension.

Anyway, he was AME at People Snoozepapers before going to D. So, he won't be totally new.

That said, he will be new to a new level of power, authority and control, and stuck on himself. And, that AME title at People didn't mean a whole lot, I'm venturing, based on my own experience in suburban weekly newspaper groups. And, I'm venturing you'll be underpaid at People, compared to the $$$ of the most affluent neighborhoods" you'll cover.

Maybe you can commute from ... Cowtown!!!

So, "rooks," here's your real research.

Find out why the previous ME left People Newspapers.

Find out why Koller was hired as the replacement.

Find out why he's so stuck on himself. (Other than him being bred and born in Highland Park.)




Monday, May 06, 2013

Will established newspaper owners be as honest as Buffett?

Warren Buffet said he expects the group of smaller daily and weekly papers he bought recently to have a 10 percent profit margin.

Sounds fair enough, doesn't it? After all, before the rise of the Net, smaller papers had smaller margins than the big dailies, but many still ran at 20 percent.

Of course, 10 percent may not sound like enough for owners of other smaller newspapers. Like a CNHI, still under a mound of debt but not declaring Chapter 11.

That said, that's only half of his honesty.

Buffett added that he expects those profit margins to continue to decline. (And, let's not forget, he's indicated paywalls are coming to most of these newspapers.)

And, one larger Australian chain expect to trump Advance and be out of print papers entirely within 10 years. If not sooner.

“Print revenues have been going down and are going down faster now,” Greg Hywood recently told the annual World Congress of the International News Media Association in New York. To the extent print newspapers have a future, he said, they will be “expensive, bespoke and narrowly distributed.”
That said, Hywood says papers need to cut, cut, cut further on "legacy" costs before making this move. And, since his Fairfax Media owns Australia's flagship paper, the Sydney Morning Herald, Hywood probably has some background whence he speaks.

So, are established newspaper owners willing to practice some degree of "acceptance"?

Meanwhile, while going digital first means cutting legacy costs, Internet readers' continually-growing expectations means expanding digital costs on a regular basis, if larger daily papers are serious about this.