Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A Sad Morning Chat

A 36-year-old man and his 68-year-old father sit quietly on a bench waiting for the man’s train to take him off to the airport. After six days together, they’ve largely run out of things to talk about. Yet as the man’s mind starts thinking ahead to returning home to work, he’s revisited by the panic and fears that he tried to forget about during his break.

“I may have to find something else to do with my life,” the man said sadly. "This is all I've ever wanted to do, and I may have to find some other way to do it."

“What do you mean?” the father replied.

“My business is dying.”

“It’s that bad? You seem so busy.”

“Well, not my business exactly. My business is down, but my industry. My industry is dying.”

“Oh, yeah.”

“I listen to you talk about the old days when there were all these different newspapers in New York and all that and I wish I was around then. My colleagues that are your age, at least they got a whole career in the way it was. Everybody's terrified. Nobody has any idea what the media will look like in five years. I mean, it must’ve been a pain in the ass to write before computers, but…”

“Computers have killed a lot of jobs,” the retired printing company owner said. “They were supposed to create all these jobs, but now everything’s so efficient, they don't need all these people.”

“It’s true. I was watching some movie the other night on TV and they showed this office in the 1940s and there were these teams of people doing jobs that now take one person a couple of minutes to do.”

“We used to have typesetters, used to bang bang bang,” the father recalled. “That’s all gone now. There's no noise anymore. Just clickety clickety.”

“I know. And now, look around. They shut down the paper in Denver, that Seattle paper is online only now, Detroit is delivering a few days a week now…”

“I know,” the father interrupted. “I read all about it. I see it. So, what are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. Nobody knows what to do. A lot of reporters I know became publicists, but even the publicists in Vegas are having a hard time. They’ve got a big event to promote or something, who do they promote it to? The New York Times isn’t taking any freelance in their arts section. The L.A. Times is pretty much bankrupt, people I know can’t get paid. Newsweek isn’t even covering the news anymore. The travel sections around the country are mostly using wire.”

“Time to write the Big Book, huh?”

“Hah, yeah. But then who’s going to read it, how are you going to promote it? That’s the next shoe to fall, the book industry. I’ve never understood how they pay these writers these huge amounts to do their books. They have to sell so many books to make it make any sense and so few of them do. That model’s the next to collapse. It makes no sense.”


“Besides, I’ve got lots of ideas,” the man says, “but how do I find the time to do them when I’ve got to work twice as hard to make two-thirds of the money to pay the mortgage on a house that is worth half what we paid for it?”

“You speak to a lot of very powerful people all the time. What does Steve Wynn think is going to happen?”

“Oh, I don’t know, it’s never occurred to me to ask Steve Wynn what he thinks is going to happen to the media.”

“Well, you know what I hate? I hate those ads on the Internet.”

“Somebody’s gotta pay for that stuff somehow, Dad.”

“I know, but you think shoving an ad for a picture of a Honda over my email is going to make me buy a Honda?”

“I don’t know.”

“Can’t you write for some Web sites?”

“I do, but they pay less so I have to do more. People like Arianna Huffington don't pay anything, you're supposed to be satisfied with the exposure. Nobody pays much. You know, because you won’t buy the Honda off that Honda ad and all.”

“If I need to buy a car, I know how to find it.”

“I did get an interesting offer the other day."

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah. Someone wants to pay me to Tweet something for them.”


“Tweet. Like write messages for them on Twitter.”

Long silence.

“I have a question,” the father finally said.

“Sure, what?”

"I don't want you to think I'm stupid or behind the times or anything."

"I promise, I won't."

"OK," he said. "What’s Twitter?”

Sent from my iPod


Anonymous said...

ouch. Yrs., Richard

R-J Guy said...

this made me tear up. Sad.

Willie Watters said...

Here's what scares me: At a time when people in power need to be watched more closely than ever, when only the media can provide the check that can create some balance, good writers like Steve Friess fear that they can't make a living doing what is needed now more than ever.

I don't 'know' if every town needs a newspaper, but I think they do. I grew up on the LA Times, moved to LV and read both the R-J and Sun every morning prior to starting work. I look back and know that what I read and followed -up on was invalauble.

Maybe newspapers will continue to fail and fold but writers-good writers, people who give a damn to try and get it right, who are the first to correct themselves if they get it wrong, guys who see a story and can't rest until they get the facts out there, well, they will always be needed.

Today the best paid writing may be disseminated via Twitter. Who the hell knows what tomorrow may bring but, and this is what I 'know,' a good writer will get his voice out there, he'll not only find a way, but lead the way.

mike_ch said...

Losing newspapers seems to be equated with a loss of good journalism, but it's not the format that's responsible, it's the people. The people that make it go will always have a new place to set up shop. TV, web, and radio are the obvious new frontier.

I would wager that anything Steve Wynn says on Steve's podcast gets more attention among the right people than something he prints Wynn as saying in the NYT. Maybe it doesn't affect the stock price as much because it's got that tinge of the internet on it, where anybody can say anything. But if you're well invested in the LV casino businesses, you won't have to dig deep to find out that Wynn does interviews on The Strip.

In the print media, some people get columns. Like, say, NORM! gets a column. On the other hand, let's say the Sun's business writer Liz Benston since she breaks a lot of stories, she doesn't get a column. You just have to look for her name under the headlines. On the Internet, everybody can have a column.

So I imagine that what Wynn says in Steve's podcast, reaches more of the industry's ears than what Wynn says in Steve's NYT story buried somewhere on the second page of Business where I usually don't know who wrote it until I've read at least the headline and am curious to know who wrote it.

I could be wrong, though.

Anonymous said...

I have thought about this extensively in the last few months, and I see some things that are probably obvious, but I'll say them anyway.
1.I see the biggest problem as paying for the currnt dual distribution systems (Paper and the new electronic formats). The current paper system will soon be seen as being much like the guy going down the street in his horse drawn wagon selling ice. It was a very expensive way to get cold air into a box in your kitchen, and cheaper and more effecent ways of doing it were developed. The key today being eliminating as many of the production jobs and other costs as quickly and cheaply as possible. These challenges are not unlike the ones facing the domestic automakers.
2. I see the replacement delivery system as being something like a kindle, only it should be open to all import sources, and be deletable. I don't think that it needs to be super hi-tech, but it is critical that it be accessible and affordable. Advertising will be able to pay the vast majority of the costs of the content, and the ads will be much more tolerated than we currently think.
3. My point is that I see a lot brighter future for the people on the content side, but, I think relief is 5 years away.
And most importantly, there will always be jobs available for good people, like someone Mayor Goodman refers to as "Mr. Freeze".

Anonymous said...

The problem of a fragmented mainstream media is access. A reporter who works for a TV station or newspaper of note, even one the size of the R-J or a Channel 5, for example, carries a certain weight when he or she makes an inquiry.

Those who field the call don't view this reporter as a lone person but as one whose work is viewed by tens of thousands. It's easy to ignore one person, but not so easy to avoid the masses.

When reporters no longer have the weight of the masses behind their calls, suddenly those calls aren't returned as quickly. Sometimes they aren't returned at all.

I've seen this personally: when I worked for a weekly neighborhood paper, the responses I received were nowhere close to those I received when I was a writer for the state's largest newspaper. I had the same talents and skills, but the difference was the audience behind me. The CEO or elected leader wouldn't have time to chat with the guy with a few hundred readers. But when I had several hundred thousand readers, my calls were returned.

There are many great journalists out there who are using/may someday use new media as the means of sharing their information. But their jobs are made much more difficult without that critical mass of readers/viewers, and unfortunately all but a few blogs just don't carry that cache.

For those reasons, I share the fears Willie outlined above.

mike_ch said...

Except it's not the death of mainstream media, just dead tree media.

And I should point out that a lot of the new print journalists aren't that great either. The stories most worth reading in newspapers are written by journalists with many decades of experience. When they retire, the newspapers will become more sensationalist as a result.

Eli said...

Mike_ch, the part that you're not getting at is the economics of going to a non-dead tree form of media. Traditional newspaper worked because of the revenue generated by print advertising, which far exceeds that gained by online advertising (I'm a media buyer, I buy both and know the costs thereof). The costs of production aren't the "big cost" of printing a newspaper either- the cost of collecting the news is. So now you've got no print product which means no big source of ad revenue, and an online-only presence with the same news-gathering costs that the print paper had but drastically reduced ad revenue, which is not offset nearly enough by the lower production costs. The end result is a watered-down, less credible product. The solution to the problem is currently unknowable; most recipes put forth to solve this seem to miss at least one key ingredient.

I do hope to hell though that the solution doesn't involve Twitter, I f'ing hate that.

V.S. said...

Eli, What I don't understand is why online ad rates are so much less than print. I thought that with the ability to target ads to interested consumers, online advertising was going to be *more* valuable than print. Is it that people just don't pay attention to ads online, yet they do look at print ads? If that's so shouldn't there be a way to get people to look at online ads given the ingenuity of Madison Ave.?

For example, the NYT online once in a while redirects to a full page ad that won't go away for 15-30 seconds before serving a requested story. It's annoying, but if it's the only way to get people to watch the ads that pay for the content, I'm okay with it. How come that technique is so little used, or other inventive strategies that would make people look at ads, either by attracting them or compelling them?

GregoryZephyr said...

My personal opinion is that the press is upside down thinking--all chasing the "next big story" at the same time. How much resources does every city newspaper expend on chasing national and world news stories? Local papers think of themselves as all things to all people--the General Motors of news. Why don't they only devote resources to the local news and just use AP for national? I think that's actually happening more and more but it is a long time coming. But then they still use reporters to edit the AP stuff which seems wasteful to me. Just run the AP story as is. Let WSJ cover business, Washington Post cover national politics, etc. Why do we need 1,000 journalists all following the President around writing about the same exact thing? The era when readers got all of their news from one source is over. So, you either specialize in a niche you are good at or you'll slowly die.

For example, Hunter has carved out a neat little niche on casino design and development. I go to his site because he has stuff I'm interested in on that topic. I don't go there for election results or the latest on health care reform so it's fine by me that he doesn't include those type of stories on his site.

Pete said...

I hope you can make a living as a writer, but if you want to hedge your bet then start thinking about being a producer for radio and TV. Your skills in putting together a 2500 word story carry over quite nicely to NPR styled radio shows. Those skills are also similar to what producers of 60 Minutes, 20/20, and any other long form segment styled show do. Is there enough ad dollars in the Las Vegas media market to do investigative journalism stories? Some of your stories could translate to TV with the right shooter and talent. Your latest on Roger Thomas is a good example. That is a 60 Minutes profile except it is in print. You've done what the producers of that show and others like it do every week, except you don't have the video and the polished on-air talent.

Keep your head up Steve. You have the skills and talent to cross over into other media if you decide that you need to.

Eli said...

V.S. -

There is more limited capacity online than in print, and the rates that newspaper sites charge are already higher than your bigger portals, which means buyers will flinch even more if they rise again. Newspapers' competition for advertisers online are the Facebooks and Yahoos and the like who are charging a considerably lower CPM (because they're delivering an exponentially larger audience). Buyers are accustomed to paying certain rates for print ads and much lower rates for online, and on top of that (and somewhat because of that) the perceived value of online advertising is fairly low.

mike_ch said...

Eli: My point is that print isn't the beginning and end of media. In other nations where print is very trashy, broadcasting provides the national standard of journalism.

I mean, the BBC is the shining example of this, I suppose, since the UK has numerous papers but only the Guardian and occasionally the Telegraph has any kind of quality reporting (the Telegraph just published the latest scandal in the House of Commons, though it simply purchased a leak for tens of thousands of pounds rather than doing any of it's own dirty work.)

I'm a bit of a rare bird in this country, in that I want an independent state news agency, and while I'm dreaming maybe even a national broadcaster that you are obligated to fund through taxes so they don't have to go begging for money every month. So that we can have, you know, a media like every other nation has instead of one that's driven by making people view as many advertisements for as long as possible.

I suspect journalism will more and more become a less rewarding career fiscally (I've heard figures of around $90k annually being fairly normal), since even state broadcasters don't have unlimited money to play around (the BBC will is making drastic cutbacks with sometimes controversial news expansions from the past few years taking the hardest hit, and the Conservative government in Canada is telling the CBC to cut more and more millions.) However, I know that just because people aren't reading papers doesn't mean the end of journalism.

On a side note, I'd pay a modest subscription fee to read the NY Times on my iPhone if their damn app didn't crash and burn half the time I try and start it up. The slimmed down design with minimal advertising (even though they have a persistent ad at the bottom of the screen, which is usually just an in-house ad, I like how USA Today's appears immediately and then slides to the bottom of the article where it lives) is ideal for holding your attention, and being able to whip out my phone and read the paper in the Bellagio over lunch and email interesting articles to friends is worth it.

Anonymous said...

Mandatory profit margins are another culprit in the downfall of print media. For instance, when I was working in the offices of the LV Business Press/CityLife, improvement of the physical product always took a back seat to meeting the 20% profit margin dictated by the bean counters in Little Rock.

David McKee

David F. said...

Don't know if you saw the Testimony from David Simon, but it makes for interesting reading, especially his opinion that the Internet is not entirely to Blame for the decline of newspapers