Thursday, January 03, 2008

Retiring WSJ Managing Editor Says High Profits Created Newspaper Industry’s “Golden Age”

Today is the last day on the job for Paul Steiger, who has been the managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, for the past 16 years. That’s an impressive run by any standard.

Last Saturday the Journal published his valedictory on the front page under the headline “Read All About It: How newspapers got into such a fix, and where they go from here.” (Sub. still required)

It is a marvelous recap of where we've been and a forthright how-we-got-here, a no-tears tree-top look at the newspaper industry. Having been writing about the industry and its love-hate relationship with technology and consolidation since 1973, I have found that journalists are often the least objective when writing about their own industry. He smartly captured the ebb and flow in a way that the vast majority of Journal readers-- who have not followed every wrinkle and trend -- would understand.

But in the midst of this guided tour guided, Steiger makes an observation that would surprise many media reformistas. First he describes what journalism was like when he started out:

As a kid reporter in the '60s, I heard tales from newsmen and photographers about how, just a few years earlier, they had sat in cars, engines running and radios tuned to police bands, trying to get an edge in covering the next murder. The national and international news would be handled by the wire services. Lurid local photographs on page one were what sold newspapers in that era.

A certain fast-and-loose, devil-may-care attitude often prevailed. I remember walking past a photographer's open car trunk and noticing that he carried a well-preserved but very dead bird among his cameras and lenses. The bird, he explained, was for feature shots on holidays like Memorial Day. He'd perch it on a gravestone or tree limb in a veterans' cemetery to get the right mood. Nowadays such a trick would get him fired, but in the 1950s, this guy said, there was no time to wait for a live bird to flutter into the frame.

But then, he says, something happened. Starting in the 1960s the industry “morphed into a series of mini-monopolies. This came about first as “mounting costs forced a shakeout -- mergers and newspaper closings that typically left one city paper preeminent in the morning market and another in the evening.’ Then the evening papers ran into troubles, “crushed by a phenomenon that can be summed up in two words: Walter Cronkite. More and more families gathered in front of the tube at the dinner hour.”

This is how Steiger characterizes the results of a newly prosperous newspaper industry:

Many of these information behemoths invested heavily in quality, expanding their reporting locally, nationally and internationally. This was good business as well as a boon to readers, because it raised barriers to entry for would-be competitors.

The result was a golden age of American journalism. In New York, Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles, of course, yet also in Boston, Philadelphia, Miami, Milwaukee, Atlanta, St. Louis, Des Moines, Louisville, St. Petersburg and more, daily papers were willing to send reporters far afield in pursuit of stories exposing corruption or explaining the world. Newspapers opened or expanded Washington bureaus and added reporters abroad. Some stationed them not just in London, Moscow and Tokyo but in places like Sydney and São Paulo.

As their financial strength and staff size increased, they became fearless in pursuing corruption.

The “golden age of journalism.” Profitable newspapers had the resources to invest more into their product. Intuitive? Or counterintuitive?

Isn't competition what we seek as the mechanism to ensure that the juices flow? Shouldn’t more competition – not less—be associated with the golden age of journalism?

Although he is not writing about competition per se, in his chronology Steiger provides some answers:

  • “The news operations of the three main television networks in those days followed a similar pattern. As profits grew, they added to staff and launched foreign bureaus and investigative projects. The Sunday-night magazine program CBS launched in 1968, "60 Minutes," set a new standard for expensively produced and deeply reported video journalism.”

  • “Cable TV added a new worry, because here was a medium that could target smaller, exclusive audiences and thus pose a greater challenge to print.”“Then in the 1990s came the digital networks and the Internet, unleashing forces that would ultimately undermine newspaper business models that had been so supportive of journalism.”

  • Finally: “The decisive blow may have been Google's, with its powerful search engine that would either give you a quick answer to a question you had or steer you to sites that could. The irony, of course, was that some of the most useful of those sites were newspapers’.”

More could be added to Mr. Steiger’s description of the forces and trends. But the basic pieces are there. So, what are the lessons learned?

First, that profitable organizations have the wherewithal to spend to maintain and improve their products or services. I've written about this before. Some may take the money and run—a short term maximization philosophy. But many—probably most judging by Steiger’s list of newspaper cities—will look for longer term profit “optimizing” strategies. And for two or three decades that worked well for the newspaper publishers and their millions of stockholders.

Second, competition works. But critics and regulators must recognize the shifting boundaries of the market. Competition for newspapers was coming not necessarily from other newspapers, but from media that were partial substitutes: broadcast television, then cable networks, then online providers. They were and are competing for advertiser revenue, consumer personal consumption expenditures—and consumers’ time. Cumulatively they have taken a toll.

(Paul Steiger is now editor in chief of Pro Publica, “an independent, non-profit newsroom that will produce investigative journalism in the public interest.”)

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