A journalism parable...
There's a chain store here called Marshall's that, (as best I can tell) operates by purchasing shipments of overstocked or otherwise devalued clothing and housewares at discount, and then retailing them at affordable prices. In fact there are two of them in town, one east of the Cooper, the other west of the Ashley.
The margins in such a business are going to be low, which is not to say there isn't profit to be made: I venture into these places about once a year, and business is invariably brisk.
I noticed details as I shopped the West Ashley store Wednesday: Jackets hung with collars turned up; a bin of travel kits in disarray; clothing packed tightly into racks. The fitting rooms spoke the silent language of Third World squalor, and the checkout area was manned by one poor guy who struggled to resolve problem after problem with mislabeled or untagged items, using the intercom to call for price checks and assistance.at the registers.
The instant he finally got help for a shopper with a persistent problem and turned to serve the next customer in the now-long line, his phone rang. It was his manager. We listened as he had to recount to the problem, how he had solved it, what was going on, whether he had called this person or located that person.
Then another employee arrived and attempted to open a second checkout station, causing new things to break down.Her log-in wouldn't work. There was a cash-tray question. She managed to get a different register to work, but then discovered that it was out of register tape, and once she loaded it, it still wouldn't print. She stared at the machine in befuddlement, punching the same key over and over.
And as I stood there, bemused by this classic example of cascading failure, it occurred to me that I was looking at a great analogy to the past decade in the American newspaper industry. I laughed out loud when this hit me, causing the clerk and my fellow shoppers to look up in alarm.
No one ever laughs in these places.
QUALITY VS. COST-SAVINGS
The pitch at a discount store is price, and you accept a certain amount of shoddiness as part of that bargain. The store will not be pretty. The employees will be overworked and under-trained. Things will be poorly organized and basic systems may not work like they do at the high-end retail stores.
As a shopper, I understand that in the low-margin trade-off between expensive quality and cost-saving shoddiness, shoddiness is going to win almost every time. In fact, you could argue that some level of shoddiness IS their business plan, and it's a perfectly legitimate offer: We'll give you less-than-top-quality products and experiences in exchange for a good price.
And if you think about it, that's become the contract between newspapers and readers. We give you news, information and entertainment for free (if you pay for your newspaper, you're paying for the physical object, not the content) in exchange for your attention, which we then rent to people who are selling things. Our contract with advertisers is a little different, but more on that shortly.
The big difference between the businesses is actually margin. Retail industries tend to run on very low profit margins, so low prices requires huge volume. But most newspapers have enjoyed local market monopolies for decades, producing profits that sometimes exceeded 20 and 30 percent even as their share of the advertising business declined.
Back in the early 1990s, Thomson Newspapers tried reversing that decline via a short-lived flirtation with the notion that improving the product might convince more people to buy it. I was hired at a Thomson paper under that quality initiative, along with a bunch of other good people.
Two years later the experiment ended. Yes, readers liked quality, but the returns weren't high enough for management's aspirations. After examining the value of quality, Thomson decided that its old policy of shoddiness was a better fit. And so a bunch of good people left for other newspapers.
Over the past decade, American newspapers have overwhelmingly followed that lead, responding to declining circulation and revenues by cutting their budgets. Result? Like discount chain stores, too many newspapers still speak the rhetoric of quality and value, yet offer squalid imitations of the real thing.
Scenes like yesterday's checkout line aren't anomalies. They're the inevitable result of one little compromise after another. Engineers call this a cascading failure. Low wages determine your applicant pool. Poor personnel policies hurt your ability to retain good workers and leaders. Poor management kills initiative and morale. The cycle of failure intensifies.
Newspaper people love to talk about how the Web is killing journalism. The better perspective is that a decade of rationalized shoddiness actually did the deed and the Web is merely revealing the truth. What makes matters worse is that by promoting the advocates and enablers of shoddiness, newspapers now find their management ranks are filled by the kinds of people who hassle overworked clerks over the phone rather than helping out and solving problems.
Shoddiness isn't a great option in a competitive environment, and the Web is hyper-competitive when it comes to news.
There are plenty of start-up Web companies trying to make money off the shoddy news formula, and many of them make newspaper shoddiness look like a Golden Age by comparison. Shoddy, I suspect, will always be with us.
But there is no way for newspapers to end their cascading failures without first ending their shoddy mentality.