James Lileks and Hugh discuss why newspapers are broken and bleeding, and provide a little free advice on how to fix them.
HH: Joining me early this week because I’ll be in Simi Valley for the big debate on Thursday is James Lileks, he of the Minneapolis Star Tribune and of www.lileks.com. He got mad at me. I read that web entry about your dog. I mean, that’s terrible, James.
JL: What did I say? I read that. I couldn’t figure out if you thought that I was describing your world…
HH: That’s what I thought. I mean, that’s…
JL: Yes, well, that was a little unfortunate pronoun problem there.
HH: Pronoun trouble.
JL: I did not mean to say you or any of your associates mark your territory in the same fashion as the canine.
HH: It was terrible, awful. Was it the Hummels?
JL: Yes, of course.
HH: Okay, listen, I’ve got two journalism stories that I really want to go over with you. The first is ABC News’ decision to follow…it’s occasionally, we’ll see some sheriff somewhere publish the list of the johns, and it lasts about a month, because then, everyone in town gets creeped out, and hates it, and doesn’t want to know. ABC News is going to do this with who knows how many of 12,000 phone numbers. What do you think?
JL: Well, it does shake your faith in the Madame-American community, doesn’t it?
HH: Yes, it does (laughing).
JL: You know, hell, it’s been led to believe this sort of thing would be kept between consenting adults, but apparently not. I can see why she’s doing what she’s doing. And is it germane generally? No. But a couple of issues do surface. One, if we don’t get all of the names, then we can just assume that they’re cherry-picking.
JL: And I don’t see why we would be stupid to realize otherwise. But two, there…I don’t think the names should be released, except, and I hate to say this, but it has to be said, if somebody, a politician, was engaged in a 30 year career against legalization of prostitution, I think it would be germane to know whether or not that person actually…
HH: I actually…broader. I will go to public figures.
JL: And I will go to public figures, too, especially if somebody’s been out there preaching abstinence, for example, and drawing down a hefty salary, and spending $500 million dollars of government money to promote it here and abroad, and that person shows themselves incapable of having demonstrated restraint in their own life on a regular basis. That’s germane.
HH: And because when you ask for someone’s vote, you’re making an implied contract about character.
HH: And my guess is that everyone who’s an elected official, or wanted to be one, or in the government, probably has a problem here. But what about ABC News?
JL: Well, hold on a second. But it is a slippery slope, because then you can say that anybody who has held themselves up as a moral character, or even said that we need to have certain set of morals to be prominent in the society, now is that person going to be…
HH: Well, no, here’s how I have a firewall there. A) if you’re elected, you’ve asked for votes, and B) if you’re a senior political official at any time, you have signed a statement saying there’s nothing else in your background to embarrass the president who appointed you.
JL: And I generally agree.
HH: And so that…
JL: The unfortunate thing, however, is that this will be used by people who will attempt to discredit the very notion of there being moral standards…
JL: …by showing the feet of clay of the people who proclaim these ideas, as if somehow the hypocrisy and the crooked timber of which men are made somehow invalidates the general idea itself.
HH: But here’s the issue. These are not necessarily crimes, and I don’t know if they’ve checked it out yet with everyone who’s on this list. And I, the idea that ABC has turned into kind of a Stasi, and that’s what it is. Have you seen the movie yet, The Lives of Others?
JL: No, but it’s more of a…yeah, I know what you mean. It’s the be caught in an Increase Mather approach to public life.
HH: Exactly, and I just think it’s creepy as can be. Now, does ABC…
JL: Well, as I was telling your screener, and I love to say that, because it’s the thing people love to here on talk radio, as I was telling Duane, I think it’s entirely possible that a lot of these people actually just ponied up a hundred dollars an hour to talk about their jobs, because they’re so self-obsessed with the things, and nobody else wants to hear about the particulars of the policy. You might actually have to pay some guy to listen, and ooh and ah, and pretend to be bothered and hot by the fact that you’re talking about marginal tax rate tables.
HH: You know, there’s a movie somewhere with that device in it. I can’t remember what it is. Hey, now, tell me about the second story, the Armenian genocide story.
JL: Yeah, that interests me a lot, because it’s like listening to, it’s like listening to the cardinals of Rome debate a high, moral issue, the self-seriousness and the importance is just choking.
HH: Wait a second. Adam corrected me. I have to find out if you are Armenian before I invite your opinion on it.
JL: (laughing) I am not…it’s Lileks, not Lileksian.
HH: Okay, it could have been. Many of those are shortened.
JL: Yeah, but I had Armenian friends, you know, and I learned…I knew nothing about the genocide until they told me about it. And the idea that you’d have to disbar somebody because they have an actual knowledge of a historical fact, I find amusing. But again, as you were saying, it’s the self-satisfied nature and the importance of it, that our calling is somehow going to be called into account when anybody who reads the paper with a mindset that is outside the bubble in which they live, is able to detect the ways in which they are unaware of their biases on a regular, daily basis. So it’s just, the idea that they’re Simon pure, and that the tincture of taint into their precious waters cannot go unchecked, I think is ridiculous.
HH: Well now, there is another story over at L.A. Observed, that people are calling into question whether or not, I think it’s from L.A. Observed, the editor who killed it had lived in Turkey.
HH: And that therefore was pro-Turk.
HH: And it’s possible, but again, it doesn’t really matter. It’s just so silly. Everyone should answer every question. Let me ask you, James, about these circulation numbers that are out today. Your newspaper took another hit, the Dallas Morning News went down 15%.
JL: I know, I know.
HH: What is that…14.3, I want to be accurate, the Minneapolis Star Tribune down 4.9, the L.A. Times, 4.2, the Washington Post 3.5, Newsday 6.9. Only the New York Post went up. What…are they running around the newsroom trying to figure out what to do?
JL: Well, I was there today, and people were not curled up in a little fetal ball. They were just worried about getting the paper out for the next day. But if I was to intuit anything from what I feel, and I’m not sitting around in the high level meetings, I think there’s a certain amount of inability to grasp exactly how to stanch the bleeding. I don’t think they know. I don’t think they know how to do it, because it’s…what they’re up against is demographic…it’s a double whammy. They’re up against a demographic loss, and they’re up against a competing technology. So you either have to come up with a way to fix the demographic gap, and our paper is doing that by coming out with a tabloid that’s designed specifically in a particular market, and we’ve got a pretty popular website that makes money, so they’ve got that going for them. And the more they try to shift to the website, the happier, frankly, I am, because that’s going to be the future, period.
HH: And they can’t keep doing, though, what they have been doing, can they?
JL: Well, the thing is, they don’t know what it is that they’re doing that’s driving people away, and I’m not exactly sure that it is. I mean, there are things in my daily paper that drive me nuts, too, but the idea of not subscribing would be like the idea of sawing off my hand. I’m still going to subscribe to the daily paper, because I need to know what goes on in my town.
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HH: All right, James, number one, I want to hear your three big fixes for newspapers which are bleeding out.
JL: Number one is to go intensely local, and I’ve said this before and before again. When I want to know what’s going on in the world, for example, in the Middle East, I’m going to go read the Michaels…I’m going to read Michael Yon, I’m going to read Michael Ledeen, I’m going to read Michael Totten. And if you go to our editorial page in our paper, you know, we’ve got Garrison Keillor talking about how much he hates the current occupant. A little more heat than light, exactly.
JL: So I would just stop trying to be a lesser edited down version of the New York Times, and assume that canny news consumers know where to get it. And frankly, if you’re going to lose a certain portion of the demographic that does know how to get news on the web, you’re just going to have to cut them loose. And you’re going to get far more people to stick with the paper if you go intensely local. In the old days, and I hate to hold up the 30’s as a model for anything, but in the 1930’s, the Minneapolis Star was a tabloid, and it was hard hitting, and it had big, huge, screaming headlines, and it was a joy to read. What they did was they just simply blanketed the city. They sent a lot of people out, and guys came back with a couple of stories every day, and banged them out. They weren’t worried about journalism as art. They weren’t worried about the first draft of history. They were worried about telling the story of the town, of the people who lived there. And there’s no real other media organization that has that ability. A television can’t do it. Television is sensational, and they don’t have the time. Bloggers can do it, but they have too diffuse an audience. We’ve got newspapers, people who can write, people who know how to put stories together, and photographers and vehicles, and all the infrastructure to disseminate this story of the city. So why try to be the New York Times and tell us exactly what’s going on elsewhere? Put a little page of national and world briefs if you like, but flip the A and the B section, and make the front part of the paper the front part of the town. That’s the first thing. The second thing I would do, and it’s just purely personal, I would eliminate the unsigned editorial positions.
JL: Because even though people can say that well, they’re, they don’t represent the paper, of course they represent the paper. And it’s almost impossible for the opinions that they have not to bleed into every single, into the reputation of everybody else who works there, because otherwise, people safely assume you hired them, you print them, you must agree with them. It just doesn’t work. And the day has come, and it’s so Olympian, the idea of this brain trust set off somewhere in some rarified room, where they steeple their fingers together and cogitate on the great matters, and then come down from the mount with their tablets. That’s…never mind. Have a bunch of syndicated columnists, run as many as you like, balance them, make sure that you’ve got one of one, and one of the other side, but eliminate the unsigned editorial position.
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HH: I want to throw a few at you now, James.
JL: All right, shoot.
HH: One, these newspapers have archives. They charge for them.
HH: In fact, it’s a secret weapon to bring readers to their website, but they’ve got to learn how to use them, not only making them easily available for people who stay on the website to peruse them, thus adding page views for advertisers, but organizing them in a way that makes it fun for people to live in the past when they want to, not paying three bucks a throw to get to a particular story. Your thoughts?
JL: It’s an amazing historical artifact, our archives. As a matter of fact, I’ve done a little bit about that myself. I’ve for many years now, have been taking some photographs of the old Minneapolis downtown for my website, with their permission, mind you, and putting together a historical record. Nobody else has though to do that. As a matter of fact, back in the 80’s, I believe, a huge amount of old, historical photographs were thrown out for space considerations, and it just makes you weep. But there’s still so much of the history of the city back in those things. I would love to see that stuff. Of course, it’s incredibly labor intensive, because the morgues, the clips downstairs, would have to be scanned and filed. But you know, that’s a heck of a job that you can get a college intern to do for pennies on the dollar.
HH: Yes, number two…so A) I was telling my friend who works at the L.A. Times that if they really want to capture high repeat usage, they’ll put every story every written about USC football in one place, and make it easy to manipulate, so that all the USC nutters will go there. My other…I said, you know, I would love to be able to see the contemporaneous reviews of every movie ever done, so that if I want to see what they thought of the Godfather when it came out, I’d go to L.A. Times.com, and click on the original Godfather review. There’s stuff like that in every newspaper archive, which is unique to it, that no one’s exploiting to bring people and eyes, and keep them there for long periods of time.
JL: Well, you’d have to break people’s…right now, people’s patterns take them to IMDB or to Amazon to see reviews. I mean, that’s where I go sometimes when I want to see what people are saying about movies. But I would love to see, you’re right, what somebody had said about the movie when it first came out, if only for historical interest, to hear somebody panning 2001 as long and bloated and boring. You know, you could have a good chuckle over that. There’s just so much good stuff back there. That’s just it. And every time that I take out the microfiche reels at the paper, and thread them through the machine, and I have to cut off another inch because they’ve chipped, and they can’t quite fit in the machinery, I feel this small, little piece of history in my hand that’s flaking away, literally, and wondering exactly whether or not anyone’s going to get to it and save it and digitize it, and put it all online. Now those are good value added things. But there’s something else fundamental, since you forced me to come up with three reasons, as opposed to my usual two. I thought what might that be, and unfortunately, it’s something I don’t think they’ll ever do. But, I would take either anonymously or otherwise, a comprehensive survey of the attitudes of people who work in newspapers, in every single aspect of newspaper production, from the editors to the writers to the people who lay it out, etc. And I would learn exactly what they thought almost about everything.
JL: And then I would compare that to what we know about the community in which we live, and find out whether or not we have a mindset that accurately reflects the community we’re trying to serve, because I talk to people all the time, and they detect an anti-suburban bias. They detect an anti-car bias, an anti-sprawl. I mean, the very fact that the world sprawl is now a pejorative, as opposed to growth, how do these things affect what we say? Because it’s not what…I’ve said this time and again, it’s not as though anyone ever sits down and says how do we do Lenin’s bidding today? That’s not now it works. It’s just…as Rumsfeld put it, there are the knowns, and there are the unknowns that they don’t know. And when you don’t know, sometimes, the assumptions that other people have, you make mistakes. You say things that betray a position which may not be as widely held as you believe. And I’m sure the left and the right can hammer the paper for the same reason. And as a publication put together by fallible human beings, that’s only wise and fair. But I would still like to see whether or not it’s true that the actual ideology that dominates the newsroom is that of the city. And by the city, I mean not just the important core city, but the far flung sprawl, which is actually the market that we’ve got to be nailing down.
HH: Let me ask you about a couple of other…I agree with that. This goes to it. At the Festival of Books, I also argued that every single article online should have a counter with it, because the data of who reads what would tell you an enormous amount, and maybe they’ve got that inside the newsroom, and they’re hiding it to keep their bad and terrible stories from being written, but customers would respond to it as well. Now we see the most e-mailed lists all over the place.
HH: But I think all of that data matters.
JL: Yeah, I do, too. Most e-mailed, I’m convinced that people e-mail stories to other people to tweak them, that most of it consists of mailing, you’re e-mailing your brother-in-law, and saying see? See?
HH: Yeah. Now I want to get to my most important one, see what you think about this. There’s a bell curve in every organization, including a newsroom, correct?
HH: Would you, if you were the managing editor, or the editor of the Strib, identify your top ten percent, and assign them to write on the web exclusively?
JL: That’s interesting. No, because that would diminish the core brand, and the brand right now is still the newspaper. And that, unfortunately, is going to be the case until they are forced to do things that they don’t want to do, because newspapers right now have these legacy things that they can’t dump. They take out huge amounts of space, like television grids. Explain to me why, for example, a newspaper is obligated to run the television grid, but you know, you take that thing out, and the phones will ring more than if you had dumped Cathy, for example. And it’s the same thing with the movie grid. These things are so instantly available online…
JL: …you’d think that we could just say you know what, folks? We’re in an era of diminishing resources. We would like to take this huge amount of space and devote it to something that’s a little bit more useful. You’re going to have to get it elsewhere, because we’re no longer the sole provider of this information. Those days are over. But unfortunately, there’s so much legacy built into the newspapers of what we’re obligated to provide by social contract, that it’s hard to do that. So if they take 10% of the top then writers, and stick them on the web, then A) those writers might not want to go, B) the paper might feel well, okay, what does that make us then, the bottom 90, I guess. And you would just be diminishing what is still…
HH: You could repurpose, you can repurpose a lot of their content, though. If you’re writing something for the web, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t show up in the newspaper. It might show up in the newspaper. But I also think, James, if it was the car industry in the 70’s, when it was dying, the last thing you do is take your best engineers and design artists, and put them on tweaking the Dodge Dart sport. You have them go out and create new products to save your market share while you get, you know, all the good, solid engineers to tweak the existing products. But if you’re not, if the future’s the web, and it is, they’ve got to put their best people there, or you’ll never get the chance again.
JL: Or at least incentivize it, to use a horrible word, for them to go there. I agree. I mean, shock therapy is what’s needed, incremental steps aren’t going to do it. Incremental steps will just slow the bleeding, and the newspaper is still stuck in an old idea of what it was, partially because that image is valid. We are the major producer of detailed news about the community to the community. But the means of transmission of information have changed so much, and it’s like I say, they’re sort of caught between having to do what they’ve always done, and knowing they’ve got to adjust to this new thing. But if you look at any newspaper website, is it a pleasant thing to behold?
HH: No. It’s horrible.
JL: No, and none of them are. And even though ours is very clean and very nice and has a unified graphic look that’s the product of many talented people, I still find most newspaper websites to be an eye-bleeding, unpleasant experience, as opposed to the average blog, which for some reason, is just simply much more easy to read. Why is that?
HH: Have you been following Homicide Blog of the L.A. Times?
JL: No, I haven’t. I will now.
HH: They have assigned a reporter, an experienced homicide reporter, to write about every single homicide that occurs.
JL: And that’s brilliant.
HH: It is brilliant.
JL: That’s absolutely brilliant.
HH: It will spread all over the country. She’s already had calls from like Houston, et cetera, because it’s something that no one has ever been able to do, but now they have the space to do it, and people are obsessing over it. It’s very sad.
JL: When people get their local newspaper around here, the little community paper, everybody, you know, will check to see what’s on the front cover, maybe look at the letters, but the real meat is the crime reports.
JL: And there’s no reason why we just can’t put every single piece of crime report up on the web.
JL: I mean, there’s all these things that we can do, and there’s eyeballs waiting to go to them, and there’s advertisers waiting to go for those pages.
HH: And there’s no reason why every city council meeting in every city that a paper touches, doesn’t have a stringer, who will probably do it for free…
HH: …and could be trained to do it the right way.
JL: But you’re also taking resources away from the main product, and people will tell you that when you do that, then what happens when your circulation goes down another five, six, seven percent? Then you have to pull people off, and put them back into the main product. I mean, it literally, it’s like trying to put out a car and a horse. I mean, they both get you someplace, but they’re completely different creatures.
HH: Yeah, but let me ask you. Has anyone at your paper talked to you about what to do?
JL: (laughing) No, I’ve been sort of trying to get some sort of cross-brand synergy going for about ten years or so, and one of these days, maybe we will. But www.lileks.com has worked out so well for me. It spun off four books, now, and the readership and all the other joys of it, that I’m sort of wondering exactly why I would want to move.
HH: No, I’m just thinking to myself that here in their midst, that part of the problem is they don’t know the questions to ask, and they don’t know who to ask them of. And if…I mean, you’re a very successful presence on the internet. I can’t believe they haven’t asked you. Now I have two more quick questions that have nothing to do with anything. Do you read Bill Bryson?
JL: Time and again, yes. I’ve read some of his stuff. I know the book you’re referring to, the memoir of growing up in the 50’s.
HH: Yeah, do you think he’ll be good on the radio?
JL: I have no idea.
HH: All right, number two. Who should replace Rosie O’Donnell?
JL: Who should…oh, well, not Roseanne Barr, actually.
HH: No, I agree with that.
JL: Although they won’t have to…no, I’m going to stop. Nobody. No, I take that back. Michelle Malkin would actually flay these people alive. To see her in a cage match with Joy Behar would end up with Behar chunks scattered about the room, because I think that Michelle Malkin is enough of a firebrand and a smart, quick wit…
HH: I agree completely.
JL: …that she could have a great time on the show.
HH: And she’s on O’Reilly as we speak. Thank you very much, James Lileks. www.lileks.com.
End of interview.