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Unpacking ‘Save The Plain Dealer’

2012 November 21

I should probably be composing something simple and earnest for Thanksgiving, and I’m tempted to just leave this. But, what the heck. Realistically: if anyone does stop by tomorrow, I’m guessing that they will be looking for something interesting to read like any other day. As I said yesterday, one can only watch so much NFL.

So then, having just returned from a couple of pre-holiday errands, a few comments on this billboard I encountered, which looked more or less like this:

'Save The Plain Dealer'

Somewhat wider in aspect. And much larger, obviously.

Somehow I completely missed this until today; apparently the campaign went public a couple of weeks ago and the billboards went up before Veteran’s Day. In any event, the short version seems to be that the local newspaper guild (mostly Plain Dealer employees) is, justifiably, concerned about the prospect of cuts to their organization and its concurrent ability to provide professional local journalism. Very justifiably given the well established fact that newspapers, generally, have seen shrinking revenue for quite some time now. Guild members have therefore launched this campaign “to get out ahead of this thing and give people a stake and a say in what happens.” Says another member, “We’re trying to preserve a seven-day-a-week paper and the staff that produces it and the quality journalism that is in it.” At present, they seem to have billboards, a Facebook page, and an online petition.

Where… to… begin.

I have already written on these issues, generally, a time or two or three. To recap, I’m a little conflicted because I like print media and sympathize with the newspaper industry, but, I’ve personally never subscribed to a print newspaper (and rarely to a print periodical of any sort) in my entire adult life, and beyond that the handwriting seems to be on the wall. Like it or don’t, reality is that things change, and just because something works well, just because there’s not necessarily anything on the horizon to take its place, doesn’t mean that it can be sustained indefinitely.

That’s where I’m coming from, generally. As regards “Save The Plain Dealer,” however… again, where to begin with how hopelessly, disastrously misguided and just plain generally screwed up this seems.

The biggest problem I have here is that this campaign just seems an absolute dog’s dinner of confusion. First of all, what’s the goal? This campaign, not uniquely, seems to conflate “a printed periodical” with “quality professional journalism on a significant scale.” As I’ve gone into before, however, even though these things have traditionally overlapped, they are not the same thing. And I really suspect that trying to promote both—and failing even to notice that one has thus taken on multiple distinct goals—only makes the odds of accomplishing either goal poorer. Per Napoleon, “he who defends everything, defends nothing.”

Even if we choose one goal and ignore the other, just for argument’s sake, the picture is still troubling. I think that the real primary goal here is local journalism, mixed up though it has been with outmoded conventional thinking and nostalgia for breakfast table scenes that may have existed primarily in the imagination in the first place. At any rate, adequately funded professional local journalism is certainly the goal I would consider more valuable than flooding the city with beefy and disposable paper documents 365 mornings per year. Even on that basis, however, I still see Save The Plain Dealer’s cause as inherently crippled by how indirect their approach seems to be.

Let’s review the actors involved, here. We have

  • the employees’ guild, which has a direct economic interest in keeping The Plain Dealer‘s operation robust
  • subscribers, who presumably assign some positive value to receiving a daily printed version of the above professionals’ product
  • the community at large which, journalists obviously believe and I’m inclined to agree, obtains a benefit from having robust local journalism regardless of whether an individual member thereof is a subscriber or not
  • The Plain Dealer organization itself, which as an organization presumably has an interest in maintaining its existence, with changes to it kept slow and otherwise limited enough that it doesn’t suddenly fail to recognize itself (an interest shared by most entities, really) and, finally
  • the owner of The Plain Dealer, Advance Publications, a privately-owned for-profit company based in New Jersey

I’m trying to map this out in my mind, and I’m not seeing anything resembling a single, direct line.

To some extent, this feels like a familiar problem, even beyond previous considerations of journalism’s woes. Basically, we have here yet another example of a community resource which provides “public goods” beyond what their billable products or services can capture a return on, which is however organized as a for-profit business whose owner either lacks any ties to the community or else is willing to sever them for the right price. This inherently complex and unstable situation or something like it seems to come up with some regularity. Despite which fact, no one seems to have managed to enact a reliable solution yet.

There are ideas. In this instance, some of the more useful might include, say, maintaining a corps of professional locally focused journalists via a non-profit organization which is locally based and has no single owner capable of shorting the community’s interests by moving away from them, either literally or figuratively. As with most such good ideas, however, there is the problem summed up by the old line “I wouldn’t start from here.” Institutions do not convert easily, particularly when many people with influence over them have greater or lesser financial incentive to prevent their conversion and there is by the same token no obvious person or organization lined up volunteering a reliable means of support for the new configuration.

I feel like noting that I believe this to be, to some extent, a self-fulfilling belief, and that with a different attitude, a large established organization could probably break up and reassemble itself considerably more readily than is generally assumed… But, aside from the fact that this is kind of a paradox, I will also acknowledge that the prospect would still certainly be difficult.

But, then, what’s the alternative? The best I can come up with is that a Save The Plain Dealer campaign could succeed through a combination of 1) making the ownership squeamish about the public relations risk of serious cuts in Cleveland, thereby shifting their revenue-maximization calculus slightly in The Plain Dealer‘s favor, and 2) boosting circulation. With the recent on-again-off-again-on-again doom of Hostess, I started thinking along the lines of other somewhat similar examples of this second phenomenon, and thoughtfully Megan McArdle has written an entire post on them for me. It’s possible that, like New Coke and the (inevitably temporary) disappearance of Hostess products, a public discussion about the potential loss of The Plain Dealer will also boost sales by reminding people that they like it. McArdle finds that, at least in Coca-Cola’s experience, this boost can even be more or less permanent.

So it’s possible that this, plus developing an added “value” for subscribers in the form of, more or less, a “warm fuzzy” about supporting their community, could boost up sagging sales and that the combination of these and a communal threatening glare in the direction of Advance Publications just might meaningfully further Save The Plain Dealer’s dual goals.

I have my doubts, however. I just don’t think that a newspaper is sufficiently like Coca-Cola, I suppose. For one thing, the actors and their relationship are a much simpler model in the case of Coke. Yes, there are distributors and bottlers and retailers and blah-blah-blah, but you can still draw a pretty direct line between end consumers’ attachment to Coke and Coca-Cola’s profit interest. Plus, the transaction is much more neat. If you spend money on Coke you capture nearly all of the value to be had from that serving of Coke, and if you don’t spend money on Coke you get nothing; there is neither a free-access Internet Coke as an alternative, nor much in the way of spillover “public good” value that you can enjoy simply by being a member of a community where just enough people purchase Coke to keep the company in business.

And then there’s the binary nature of Coke and not-Coke (famously incarnated as New Coke); I suppose that Coca-Cola could mess with the formula and water it down just a little to cut corners without prompting any immediate negative feedback, if they did it quietly (unlike with New Coke), but I think it’s much much easier to do something similar with a newspaper. And thereby much easier for it to die of slow asphyxiation.

All this said, the question is worth asking: do I have anything better? Not exactly. Not anything necessarily more likely to succeed if one factors in the social “friction” of, e.g., convincing people that it can succeed. In which case, what harm Save The Plain Dealer?

I suppose that the answer is “not much.” But I still feel like this is on the whole likely to be a negative effort, simply because it’s based on muddled, wishful thinking and delusion and I do not believe that, on average, delusion helps us. I do not believe that hardening the conviction that quality journalism = daily-fishwrapper-distribution does anything but make the preservation of the former more difficult. I do not believe that bringing together community spirit, energy, enthusiasm and the social capital held by local journalists’ collective banner (i.e. The Plain Dealer) and then blowing it all on trying to prop up a system of inherently conflicted interests will do anything but make the resources available for a genuinely workable and sustainable solution more limited.

And I do not believe that this is going to work.

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