Sunday, July 06, 2008

The Postmodern Sublime

The strum und drang around here and on our new wiki McClatchyNext might sound to some like an unruly chorus of confusion about editorial direction at McClatchy. It doesn’t sound that way to me.

As I’ve said many times here and elsewhere, our newsrooms are leading the way into the new media landscape -- growing audience, mastering new techniques, exploring new relationships with audiences. Yes, we have a lot to learn and some disagreement about how to go about it, but the simple, bedrock fact is that more people are reading our work and using our information than ever before.

By the most recent measurement -- first quarter, 2008 -- McClatchy’s online audience growth is up more than 40% from the previous year, which was itself a record. We learn and quickly embrace one new tool after another – most recently, rich, deep databases filled with local information began to appear across the McClatchy network. Yes, we’ve struggled with formats and had some failed communications, but video, alerts, mobile platforms and continuous news are all the norm nowadays. Our somewhat punctuated progress in applying social networking tools to news and community cohesion is about to get much better.

You are manifestly not failing.

Everybody recognizes the challenges we face. Most immediate, at the moment, is revenue. I’ve written a great deal about that in this blog of late and don’t want to rehearse it all again, but the short version is that the shifting competitive landscape (the web, mainly) and cyclical economic downturn (especially real estate, auto sales and hiring) are reducing newspaper company revenues dramatically. We’re making much less than we counted on, so we’re forced into dramatic cost savings, like layoffs.

That hurts, and it’s doubly painful when it also comes at a time when we need to be doing more, not less, for readers and other audiences. Shrink the newsroom staff while we demand more productivity? How can that be possible?

At the same time, enormous opportunity beckons. For the first time in my life, newspaper newsrooms can compete and win on breaking news. We’ve got video capabilities, access to vast realms of electronic research, pocket-sized cellphone cameras in every pocket. We can survey audiences, update stories continuously as events dictate, post reader comments seconds after articles have appeared.

We can’t go back – and I wouldn’t if we could. I’m not willing to give up what the internet, digital cameras, laptops and smart phones mean in my life. Nobody else will, either.

Utopian or distopian? At the moment, things feel precisely like the condition social theorist Fredric Jameson described as “the postmodern sublime” – the simultaneous apprehension of dread and ecstasy. Will CareerBuilder’s trustworthiness and value-added features be able to compete with the fraud-and-freebies world of Craigslist? Will readers value verified and edited stories more than group-sourced wikinews? Can somebody figure out how to pay for the professionalism we think these tasks demand?

And will somebody discover a cure for baldness and aging before the terrorist biologist brews up a virus that eats us all? Stay tuned for the conclusion in a future episode.

[Postmodern Sublime: get the t-shirt by clicking on this image.]


  1. Anonymous7:52 PM

    Geez, I believe you are playing the role of these online trolls who post off-the-wall comments in hopes of getting some response, any response. So I am already regretting biting at the bait, but adults who swing from apprehension and ecstasy are commonly diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia or some other mental disorder.
    I can well understand your dyspepsia as MNI prepares its 2nd quarter report. I am laying bets it shows an accelerating decline in revenues over the last three months, with a negative 13 percent revenue decline level, up from the 10 percent decline in the first quarter. That's not good for the future of MNI stock (already off 90 percent from its high, Howard), or for the future of MNI.
    Yet you tout a 40 percent increase in Web traffic, certainly a glimmer of hope in the midst of this unrelenting gloom. But how much of that traffic is just drive-by clicks, and how much of that increased traffic involves people stopping off and using the sites? What are the demographics of these clicks? Is MNI getting back any of the Generation X or Generation Y groups, who have gone eleswhere on the Web?
    I frankly think MNI is too late to this party. In 2005, the Carnegie Corp concluded in a study that the average age of a newspaper reader in that year was 55. So where was MNI as Gen. X, or Gen. Y were going somewhere else? Why it was greedily buying up KRI to add to its stable of newspapers, also read by people 55 years and older. That demographic might work with advertisers in Hilton Head's peculiar market, but it doesn't work in Sacramento, Modesto, or Miami. Do the new mommy sites attract Gen. X or Gen. Y readers?
    Enormous opportunity beckons, you say. Yes, indeed opportunity does that. But does MNI have the leadership today to take advantage of that opportunity anymore than MNI had the leadership acuity in 2005 to realize their reader audience was leaving, and advertisers were certain soon to also leave and chase after them? Is MNI's vision for its future just to sit back and wait for opportunity to strike, while giving lip service to the marvels of IPhones and other new technology?
    Finally, there is Craigslist, today the 11th most popular site in the United States. No news, just ads and a "best of" site that posts selected funny ads. Pure money-making business set up by someone who claims he is disinterested in business. MNI could have set up a similar site in 2005, when Craigslist was not so popular. But it didn't because there was no vision then, and the ad machine was still pumping out incedible profits. Maybe there is a lesson there.

  2. Anonymous8:19 PM

    Well, in five years I hope to be going strong at McClatchy, but keep it real. I KNOW my hair isn't coming back.

  3. Anonymous10:42 AM

    I'm not as cranky today as the last time I posted but Howard, can I have your job? I mean it doesn't seem to be that hard. You write this pablum about teamwork and the like:
    "Shrink the newsroom staff while we demand more productivity? How can that be possible?"
    Well Howard? Well? You don't have an answer. Surprise! What a great friggin job. And you get paid a LOT of dough to ask an important question but have no answer....hey I can do that too. and tell the stockholders I'll do it for HALF of what you get paid. I mean, shit that'll save a LOT of money and I know I can't do any worse than you....well at least I'm pretty sure I couldn't do any worse.

  4. It's a deal. Come on over and I'll introduce you around on my way out.


  5. Anonymous1:46 PM

    I'll be there in the morning. make sure you have my coffee waiting and the limo warmed up....

  6. Anonymous9:24 AM

    I don't work for McClatchy; I work for one of the newspapers McClatchy got rid of, but so be it. We're in the same fight, and it seems to me that Howard Weaver is telling it like it is. Our audiences are growing but our revenues aren't. So if newspapers are going to survive, they've got to do more with less, be more creative, take chances, and demand more of their people than ever before. Dean Baquet, the great former editor of the LA Times, believes that the key to our future is to be found in our newsrooms, not the publishers' suites, and that seeme to be what Howard is saying as well.

  7. Anonymous1:57 PM

    You can not to more with less, you will only do less with less and then you'll die.

    You have to do more with better. But you can't do better because you're too busy doing less with less.

    Someone (Howard?) needs to step back and take a look at what they have and start asking the really hard questions like "is this really the staff we can go forward with?" And if the answer is "No," (as it will be in many of the cases) start asking how to get there.

  8. Anonymous 157: "You can not to more with less, you will only do less with less and then you'll die." Well, this assumes you are already operating at perfect efficiency, doesn't it? If you're not, then you can indeed do more by optimizing operations. I *do* realize many McC newsrooms are working at very efficient levels, however, and your general point is well taken. It's about choices at this point.

    Anonymous 1042/146: I looked for you all day, but you didn't show up.

  9. Anonymous7:58 PM

    sorry howard. I decided there was more dignity in being one of the mcclatchy slaves than the "masser". you may continue with you lavish lifestyle and oh so clever quips while the rest of us try and make our house payments and fill the gas tank. I'm sure in the end you'll regret the silly things you folks have done in your "panic mode". I'm really curious. you and gary at one point HAD lots of respect from your you two are looked upon as pariah and robber barons...does that bother you. I mean to have all that respect and now none. not the way I want to go out my friend...

  10. Anonymous6:28 PM

    People, can we at least TRY to punctuate? Though I'm guessing that certain hatemongering bloggers who lurk here simply don't know how...

  11. Anonymous4:07 PM

    there is no punctuation on the web...only punks!

  12. Anonymous11:23 AM

    Our newsrooms - by and large - haven't historically been the ones leading our company into this new landscape.

    A legion of New Media professionals - those willing to venture into the uncharted territories of the online world years ago set the foundation for the business we are currently building. Many have been assimilated into other parts of the enterprise and are counted as newsroom or advertising employees, but their former contributions should not be overlooked.

    Had we not built the roads, even the nicest car would be pointless.

    McClatchy Road Worker