If the kids just understood how the world used to work, life would be better

Earlier this month, the Corridor Business Journal reported that Iowa City was all but video store-less. Mr. Movies and others have closed, and That’s Rentertainment, a local independent shop, was soon to follow suit, leaving us with a just single Blockbuster. This is gets back to the news business, just stick with me.

That’s Rentertainment has clearly seen better days. When I was a kid — when you had to physically schlep to a store if you didn’t want to settle for the TV edit of National Lampoon’s Vacation — That’s Rentertainment had at least three locations and seemed to be doing well. Now, it has receded into a $250-a-month piece of the Hall Mall, an off-the-beaten-track home to tattoo parlors and head shops. (The Hall Mall has gone downhill since my childhood, too).

Netflix, Redbox, iTunes, Hulu and other online-stream services have got to be just killing That’s Rentertainment’s business. It’s more convenient to have movies show up in the mail and to browse the selection online. And cheaper two; That’s Rentertainment charges $4 to rent a new release for two days, $3 to rent anything else for three days. I pay Netflix $9 to have a single DVD out at a time and all the streaming I can handle through my laptop, wifi-enabled Blu-Ray player or my Nintendo Wii, and nothing to watch movies and television shows on Hulu.

The recent change of location probably didn’t help business since it’s now more inconveniently located for most movie-renters, but, here’s the interesting part: instead of saying “yeah, there’s just no way I can compete with that infrastructure and convenience,” the CBJ quotes That’s Rentertainment’s owner saying:

I’ve really noticed a generational shift during the past few years with incoming University of Iowa freshmen and sophomores, who grew up watching things on the Internet, where everything’s free, right? … It’s not just educating them about your new location, it’s educating them about the video industry.

Yes, blame the customer for being ignorant of what your older model has to offer. See, if the kids who grew up with free Internet stuff were educated in the ways of the video industry, they’d understand why they should pay more for less convenience. It strikes me as similar to the bitter old-school print guy’s lament about how the Internet is devaluing the core product by letting jerks take this stuff for free. But why adapt when you can complain that the young ’uns are ign’ant, and go out of business?

Metaphors: A wooing youngster, non-paying jerks, bike nerds

A young man a courtin’
Chuck Peters, quoted in John Kenyon in the Corridor Business Journal

Chuck Peters uses the analogy of a young man seeking the affections of an attractive woman when discussing the rather radical changes his media company is undergoing.

“It’s like saying, ‘I like that girl over there, I’ll just watch how somebody makes an approach and then will do it myself,’” he said. “But then, the relationship is gone.”

In this case, the tentative suitor is a typical media company, while the comely lass is the ever-eroding audience. Many in media, newspapers in particular, are waiting for someone else to come up with the model that will recover readers and viewers who have been fleeing in droves over the past decade.

Mr. Peters instead wants to be that bold young man who wins the maiden’s hand. The announcement last week that his company was rebranding itself from Gazette Communications to SourceMedia Group Inc. is the most public indication of an evolutionary process under way for a few years.

Non-paying jerks
Bill Cotterell in the Tallahassee Democrat‘s “There’s no more free ride for our online-only readers” (Now behind a paywall, free Google cache version here)

Just as an experiment, the next time you want to get to the mall, go to a car dealership and ask for a lift. When the salesperson asks if you mean a test drive, just say, “Oh, no, I don’t want a car, I just want a ride.”

Then go to a deli and ask what’s on the free lunch menu. Thinking you’re broke, someone might offer to buy you a sandwich, so you say, “Thanks, but I have money — I just choose not to pay.”

At the mall, go from store to store and don’t buy anything, just criticize the merchandise. Tell customers how ugly that tie is, what a lousy stereo they’re considering, how stupid they must be if they want that book. When shopkeepers tell you to leave their private property or be civil, yammer about “censorship.”

We don’t need such an experiment, because we know the results. But here at the Tallahassee Democrat, we’ve been competing with our own free alternative product for about 13 years — and we’ll soon find out what happens when you start charging for what you’ve given away.

and

President and Publisher Patrick Dorsey and Executive Editor Bob Gabordi on Wednesday wrote a front-page column, announcing our new “pay wall” content policy. Of the hundreds of comments that poured in, very few wished us well, but not all the critics were unhappy. Many were delighted to predict the end of the paper.

I have no way of knowing those commenters’ names and, if I did, I wouldn’t care enough to go over to circulation and see which, if any, are subscribers. But the greatest glee appeared to come from people who hate the Democrat, read it only online and regret that, come next Thursday, they won’t have us to kick around anymore.

We’ll miss them like Sears misses shoplifters.

and

Steve Hyatt, a Gannett executive from Reno who explained the new format to Democrat employees this week, used an interesting example. He said railroads started about 100 years before commercial aviation, but no airline today bears the name of a rail corporation.

That’s because the train tycoons thought they were in the railroad business, rather than the transit business. Well, we’re in the communication business. What worked when Gov. Napoleon Broward took office in 1905, the year the Democrat began publishing, doesn’t work now.

In his railroad analogy, Hyatt mentioned that the only trains you see now are freight lines or Amtrak passenger routes, heavily subsidized by the taxpayers. There won’t be any government bailout to keep print journalism going — as there certainly shouldn’t be — so our revenue model has to be either “all aboard” or “stop the presses.”

Elitist bike nerds
Scott Leadingham’s Why journalism should and should not copy bicycling culture

I’d become a hardcore bicyclist if it weren’t for hardcore bicyclists. In fact, I remarked to a friend recently that “the worst part about biking culture is biking culture.”

Forgive the gross generalization, but it’s been my experience that bicycling breeds an upper-crust crowd comparable to the snottiest fox-hunting, caviar-eating, polo-playing societal elitists out there. Go into any bicycle shop (not big box retailer) and ask about the lubrication benefits of using WD-40 on your chain.

“Eh. That’s a cleaner, not a lubricant. Don’t EVER use it to lube a chain!” is a likely response. “Here’s our selection of specialized lubricants – $10 per three oz. bottle.”

This notion of superiority, the kind coming from people on bikes that cost more than my car, keeps me away from becoming fully immersed and involved in biking culture.

Transfer that to journalism.

It’s not a new sentiment to say there’s a certain amount of arrogance in the profession. One doesn’t lead to the other, of course, but perhaps it’s more apparent in an industry that sees its practitioners’ names, faces and voices constantly before the public. As Linda Thomas aptly noted in a recent Quill piece on journalists to follow: “ … having the title of journalist doesn’t make you more interesting or important than anyone else.”

The Gazette’s reoganization

In Monday’s Corridor Business Journal is the first of what we plan to be a monthly media column that I will write with John Goodlove. In this installment, we wrote about the recent announcement that The Gazette is restructuring its newsroom, and the following staff uneasiness.

Mr. Goodlove is a grizzled newspaper veteran while I’m younger and more interested in multimedia and online news; co-writing the column forces us to question each other’s assumptions and temper our emotions, particularly important this time around considering John’s status as a former Gazetteer.

But while the column is the two of us, this blog is just me and  I want to expand a little.

First, some basic information: The Gazette is separating its content production — reporters, photographers and a few editors — from its product planning and production — copy editors, designers and, now, some business types to help focus products on audiences. (The jobs and titles will be different than they are right now and, Gazette Managing Editor Steve Buttry says, the roles will be different.) Reporters will be asked to break news and build audiences on their individual blogs and will have yet-to-be-defined incentives to do so, but pay might be based on metrics such as page views, Twitter followers and superusers recruited. The idea, it seems, is to transform the newsroom from one centered around print to one centered around the Web’s immediacy and audience interaction.

In the Journal piece, we suggest that these incentives could lead to sensationalism, link baiting and the ignoring of important-but-not-glamorous news if The Gazette isn’t careful. I still believe that, but I’m also very excited to see this newspaper take necessary steps to redefine itself.

News traditions need to change, and the only people who don’t believe that are in denial. Clearly there are problems with the traditional business model (it feels like I link to this depressing map, now up to 2,308 lost newspaper jobs, in every post). While the recession isn’t helping, the problems aren’t simply a cyclical thing that we need to weather.  The Internet has changed the way much of our audience gets information; news can no longer be a broadcast. News now requires real, meaningful interaction with, to use Jay Rosen’s phrase, the people formerly known as the audience.

Radio and television have the ability to interact with users in real-time. Print doesn’t. And while the death of print has been greatly exaggerated, this is a significant disadvantage for the medium. Newspapers that stick their heads in the sand and refuse to acknowledge their readers will perish.

Is The Gazette taking a risk? Sure. It’s angering its employees, it might produce worse journalism and it could end up killing the entire news organization. But it’s a choice between adopting a model that might not work and sticking with a model we know won’t.

I don’t think the organization is going to lose sight of its duty to serve a watchdog function in eastern Iowa; what I see are thoughtful, forward-thinking people throughout the organization. Others, with inside perspectives, may see if differently. This reorganization will allow the company to find ways to serve its audience and the community — beyond some it already has — by creating new outlets for its reporting while sustaining the newspaper that has been its focus for so long.