Background: Yesterday, I wrote something about how nostalgia blunted skeptical coverage of Aaron Kushner’s dumb — and now failing — plans to build a newspaper empire in southern California. I particularly singled out Ryan Chittum of Columbia Journalism Review and Ken Doctor of Nieman Labs as analysts who suspected that Kushner would fail, but waffled when it came time to tell their readers.
This morning brought this from Chittum.
— Ryan Chittum (@ryanchittum) June 18, 2014
Here’s my reply.
Before you pen that response, let me be very clear what I’m accusing you of: you knew that Kushner’s plan was terrible, and you knew why it was terrible, but you pulled your punches, because you didn’t like the implications of the things you knew, and because your readers would like them even less.
Here are the opening three grafs of a story you could have, and should have, written in 2013:
Aaron Kushner, a 40-year-old former greeting-card executive with zero experience in newspapers, believes that there’s money to be made in print. He’s determined to remake the OC Register with this strategy.
The odds are against his plan. The Register doesn’t have the benefit of an international audience or a financial-industry focus. It has installed a hard paywall, which has been unsuccessful most places it’s been tried. Meanwhile, readers have more sources for news and entertainment than ever, and print advertising is in an inexorable tailspin.
Despite this, Kushner, enamored with the idea of readers cutting out pictures from the paper and sticking them on the fridge, thinks he can get smartphone-obsessed teenagers to pick up an old-fashioned newspaper. “You can’t put an iPad on the refrigerator,” he says. “You can’t put it in a scrapbook. You can’t tape it to your locker.” But print-loving stalwarts are aging rapidly, and print isn’t picking up readers under 30.
Bracing, no? No doubt about where a piece like that is going.
You could have written that intro because you wrote every sentiment included here. You just spread them out and caveated them so much that only a careful reader could tell you actually assumed that Kushner’s plan was doomed.
And to write those grafs I just went through your piece and rescued those sentiments from their hiding places. (You didn’t tell your readers the odds favored failure ’til the 33rd of 34 paragraphs. You didn’t just bury the lede, you poured cement over the gravesite.)
And you should have written that piece because if you’d opened with those three grafs a year ago, you could have taken a victory lap today. You’d need no more than a tweet to deal with the recent implosion — “As I said a year ago…” Instead, you’re stuck explaining why a piece larded with skeptical asides nevertheless presented Kushner as someone conducting “the most interesting—and important—experiment in journalism right now.” Oops.
This is the key commonality between you and Ken Doctor, which is that you couldn’t stomach praising Freedom’s actual strategy, but you couldn’t bring yourself to criticize nostalgia as a business model either. (Reader uproar!) To get out of this bind you invented an alternate reality in which Kushner was using print as a kind of short-term revenue stream, while committed to a longer-term transition to digital. (Here Doctor was worse than you, fabricating a bunch of “virtuous circles” to make up for the fact that Step 1 of Kushner’s master plan was “Invest in the decaying parts of my business.”)
Even your skepticism about print was hedged. When it came time to say, straight out, that print advertising is in an inexorable tailspin, you could’t do it. Do you remember what you wrote instead?
Print advertising is—barring a miracle—in an inexorable tailspin.
“Barring a miracle”? What? All forward-looking statements are “barring a miracle”; you’d only use a construction like that to make the plain truth of print’s tailspin more palatable to your weepy old readers.
The bet on better journalism was always the key to success, not the emphasis on print itself.
Betting on journalism while de-emphasizing print sure sounds like an interesting plan. It does not, however, sound like Kushner’s plan. It’s not like there was sooper-seekrit Enron/Madoff stuff going on either; Kushner was stopping people on the street and telling them he was doubling down on print. This was a guy whose idea of sharing content involved fridge magnets.
And you knew. You knew a year ago. And you couldn’t bear to tell your readers without so much heming and hawing that you ended up shilling for Kushner instead of warning people away.
Aaron Kushner, CEO of Freedom Communications and the architect of a contrarian plan to expand southern California newspapers, began erecting hard paywalls for his digital properties while increasing newsroom and print outlay in the summer of 2012. That strategy imploded earlier this month, with layoffs, buy-outs, furloughs and the merger of two Freedom papers, essentially reversing the previous two years of investment.
There’s no nice way to say this, so I might just as well get to it: Kushner’s plan was always dumb and we should celebrate its demise, not because it failed (never much in doubt) but because it distracted people with the fantasy of an easy out for dealing with the gradual end of profits from print.
The most important fight in journalism today isn’t between short vs. long-form publications, or fast vs. thorough newsrooms, or even incumbents vs. start-ups. The most important fight is between realists and nostalgists. Kushner was running a revival meeting for nostalgists: “The internet’s not such a big deal! Digital readers will pay rather than leave! Investing in print is just plain good business!”
That was some old-time religion right there. It was fun while it lasted, for people who miss the good old days. For people who do not miss the good old days, it was not fun.
A year or so ago, I was a guest lecturer in NYU’s Intro to Journalism class, 200 or so sophomores interested in adding journalism as a second major. (We don’t allow students to major in journalism alone, for the obvious reason.) One of the students had been dispatched to interview me in front of the class, and two or three questions in, she asked “So how do we save print?”
I was speechless for a moment, then exploded, telling her that print was in terminal decline and that everyone in the class needed to understand this if they were thinking of journalism as a major or a profession.
The students were shocked — for many of them, it was the first time anyone had talked to them that way. Even a prompt from me to predict the date of Time magazine’s demise elicited a small gasp. This was a room full of people would would rather lick asphalt than subscribe to a paper publication; what on earth would make them think print was anything other than a wasting asset?
And the answer is “Adults lying to them.” Our students were persuaded to discount their own experience in favor of what the grownups who cover the media industry were saying, and those grownups were saying that strategies like Kushner’s might just work.
People who ought to have known better, like Ryan Chittum at Columbia Journalism Review and Ken Doctor at Nieman, wrote puff pieces for Kushner, because they couldn’t bear to treat him like the snake-oil salesman he is.
Last year, Chittum said:
Kushner, a 40-year-old former greeting-card executive with zero experience in newspapers, is running the most interesting—and important—experiment in journalism right now.
The bit of that sentence before the comma now looks prescient; the bit after somewhat less so. Doctor was even worse, penning little “Maybe this thing still has a chance!” mash notes about Freedom a month before the layoffs hit.
The really terrible thing is that both Chittum and Doctor understood from the beginning what made Kushner’s plan a disaster. They just couldn’t bring themselves to give it to their readers straight. In the same piece where he lauds Kushner, Chittum waits til 2/3rds of the way through to point out that the core of Freedom’s strategy “has been unsuccessful most places it’s been tried”, and buries his most important observation — it will probably fail — at the very end of the piece.
What happened to Chittum and Doctor is endemic to media reporting generally — an industry that prides itself on pitiless public scrutiny of politics and industry has largely lost the will to cover itself with any more skepticism than sports reporters rooting for the home team. (Here’s Doctor, writing during the implosion of Freedom’s strategy: “The enthusiasm of Kushner and [partner] Spitz is hard to dislike.” What’s this, a Pharrell profile?)
When you have an audience mostly made up of nostalgists, there’s not much market demand for unvarnished truth. This kind of boosterism wouldn’t matter so much if it were only reaching weepy journos whose careers started in the Reagan administration. But the toxic runoff from CJR and Nieman’s form of unpaid PR is poisoning the minds of 19-year-olds.
We don’t have much time left to manage the transition away from print. We are statistically closer to the next recession than to the last one, and another year or two of double-digit ad declines will push many papers into 3-day printing schedules, or bankruptcy, or both. If you want to cry in your beer about the good old days, go ahead. Just stay the hell away from the kids while you’re reminiscing; pretending that dumb business models might suddenly start working has crossed over from sentimentality to child abuse.