And besides, he actually seems like a pretty interesting guy. I agree with 75- or 80% of what he’s arguing and I’d love to have a guy who writes with his verve working for my newspaper. (Oh yeah; I did. Several of them.)
But I read so much ill-informed, sloppy criticism of the newspaper industry that I have to get this stuff out of my system once in a while or explode. What’s more, NYU prof Jay Rosen has cited this analysis approvingly; he said that it “explains very well why I'm not horrified that some daily newspapers may expire.”
Is this kind of analysis the alternative, Jay? If so, you’d better get your horrified on again.
As I said at the top, most of Wyman’s criticism is appropriate and largely correct. It’s a bit threadbare by now, more or less conventional wisdom. What Wyman has done is write it a bit nastier and with more bite than usual.
Please hear this: I am not rejecting criticism or even a lot of Wyman’s criticism. Lots of it is right. But we don’t need to concentrate on what’s right; let’s look at the rest of it.
Much of it is shockingly superficial, and some of the rest is wrong in ways that would have easy to check. It sure doesn’t add up to the kind of thing I’d expect a smart journalism professor to praise.
Wyman's main point is that newspaper companies failed to see or prepare for the epic transformation as it came. Well, who did? Salon? Microsoft? Yahoo?
I hear this all the time. Why didn’t newspapers start Craigslist? Why didn’t newspapers invent Google?
Well, Christ. For the same reason almost no established, highly profitable business ever makes radical changes in its business until it has to. That’s about the best-known truism in the disruption narrative. Why does Wyman figure it happened to airlines and car makers and steel mills and mainframe computer manufacturers? What about film and camera companies, or sailing ships? Why didn’t Western Union buy Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone patents when they had a chance?
More to the point, perhaps: Why did Google stumble along unprofitably until AdWords, a technology invented elsewhere for which they had to pay Yahoo to settle a patent-infringement case?
Wymnan wryly acknowledges his career has been marked by coming in after the battles to shoot the wounded; this analysis of what went wrong at news companies shows he hasn’t stopped that yet.
The central point Wyman and many others miss is that the fate of newspaper companies is far from decided. They get written off every day by careless or ignorant or mean-spirited critics, but the fat lady certainly has not sung.
For those wondering whether an industry beset by disruptive technology can stumble and yet recover, I offer two words: IBM and Kodak.
As you may know, I’ve offered several times in the last year to bet $1,000 on McClatchy’s prospects. None of the doomsayers has put up yet.
Indulge me, please, with just a few specifics from Wyman’s piece so I can get this cathartic purge over with.
David Carr offers a public serrvice by summarizing the main points of Wyman’s 9,000 words here. One of the five main points was “Newspapers were monopolists who cravenly serviced advertisers and failed to remember their fundamental mission to be of service and use to readers.”
Here’s a specific Wyman cheapshot on that theme:
... vast swaths of a typical American daily is [sic] filled with news whose primary source is a press release of one form or another, from entities governmental, political, or corporate. It was part of an unspoken but implicit agreement the papers had with advertisers—that the vast majority of what the paper printed would be complementary with the advertising. (It would be complimentary too, of course.)
I’ve been directly enagged in newspapers for 40 years, Bill. You’re full of shit.
He also suggests that circulation revenue doesn’t mean anything to news companies. He’s right that advertising accounts for the lion’s share of revenue, but ignorant about the percentages. You could have checked, Bill: at McClatchy, for instance, circulation revenues will be something like $280 million dollars, extrapolating crudely from first-quarter reports. Paid circulation newspapers are not, as he claims, “high end shoppers.” Indeed, a key differentiation between newspapers and shoppers is that people want one of them enough to pay to have it delivered. That matters to advertisers.
After proving that he doesn’t grasp all the history, Wyman proceeds to offer his prescription for success. I can’t imagine why anybody would care, but in case somebody does, please take care with his first recommendation: “Go hyper local,” basically, go all-in on a single strategy.
Well, okay. Maybe. But to be clear, this is the one well-tested prescription in the list that has been repeatedly proven to be a loser. Just saying.