Monday, February 15, 2010

And Newspapers, and Their Archives, Can Disappear Without Notice

COMMENTARY

Today, the Hartford Courant placed another full-page ad urging readers to contact legislators to tell them not to repeal a law which requires state and municipal authorities to print "public notices" in newspapers.

If the 80-point type were not so alarmist, and the text accompanying the screaming headline not so earnest, one might dismiss the ad as satire, so skewed is its logic, so ironic its message.

Alarmed that yet another revenue source might be drying up, the Courant, and the Connecticut Daily Newspaper Association is panicked that new legislation would only require public notices to be posted on town and city websites.

If you're up for a laugh, follow, with me, the copy which, in the end, consumes itself with a specious argument.



The copy begins:

Pending legislation may remove your right to read public notices in newspapers, moving them from the public domain to the internet.

Strange, the internet, which has gotten the reputation for free content, is far more in the "public domain," than is any newspaper, which requires that you pay a fee to purchase it, and slaps a copyright on every printed word.

The ad goes on:

Public notices are an important tool in assuring an informed citizenry. They have helped develop American into a participatory democracy for hundreds of years and where it counts most: how your tax dollars are spent, how policy is made and how our futures are charted.

Ironically, those same public meetings, announced by public notices, have been abandoned by the publishers and editors of the dailies who still want to collect a fee for announcing these meetings.  I can't remember the last time I saw a Hartford Courant reporter at a town meeting here in Middletown, though they flocked to the town to cover a major disaster when they saw dollar signs in disaster headlines.

Continuing to read the ad we find:

They (public notices) are located in easy-to-find sections of your newspaper.  And they are fully accessible to everyone - unlike the internet, which is not accessible to everyone.

A recent report noted that Connecticut was among the five top states in residential broadband penetration.  At 20.7%, that's far from complete penetration, but the number does not include penetration via school, public sources like libraries, and the workplace.  Simple math tells you that the Courant's circulation (approx. 155,000) is 4.5% of the state's population (approx. 3,400,000).  That of course does not include pass-along readership, or use of Courant stories in unattributed radio and TV reports.   So if broadband penetration is 20% and newspaper penetration is 4.5%, information on the web seems likely to be much more "easy-to-find."


The ad also says:

Less than 10% of the U.S. population view a local, state or federal government website daily...This means that nine out of ten people may never see a given notice.

Of course, Connecticut seems to be ahead of total U.S. projections if the penetration stat noted above is true.  But I would agree with the ad that there's unlikely a reason for most citizens to access governmental websites, which by and large, are poorly designed, difficult to use, and notoriously badly maintained, unless they are looking for something like a "public notice."  Perhaps the Courant would be better advised to urge passage of a public notice law which requires state and municipal websites to be standardized, easy-to-use and access, and timely in their notifications.

In the end, however, the statement is a false syllogism ("All pine needles are green.  This frog is  green.  Hence this frog is a pine needle.")  Because 10% of the U.S. population visits a governmental website daily, does not mean that the other 90% won't see a given notice.  There are so many things wrong with the conclusion drawn from a non-connected set of statistics, that it would take a whole essay to explain why.  Using the Courant's logic,  if 10% of the U.S. population eats broccoli today, 90% of the public may never eat broccoli.

And another bedeviling statistic in the ad:

83% of adults read a community newspaper every week, according to the National Newspaper Associatiton.

First of all, if you're going to quote a statistic, don't derive it from a self-serving source funded by the very industry it purports to examine, uh, objectively. 

Second, the highest percent of readers I could find in a decidedly non-scientific survey of surveys on the web says that, "three-quarters of American adults (74%), or nearly 171 million people, read a newspaper  -- in print, or online (my emphasis) -- during the past week."  That's a heartening endorsement of news, but one wonders what the percentage would be minus the online readers.  In addition, the same survey says that readership is slowly and consistently dropping.

Another claim made in the ad is that a newspaper notice is a "permanent record...not subject to computer crashes and hackers."

Permanency is not something I associate with printed paper which I pile on the curb each week.  Granted, libraries have historically done a good job of keeping newspaper archives.  But, correct me if I'm wrong, that actual in-house print archives (morgues) have given way to the very computer data bases which, if we are to worry along with the ad, are "subject to computer crashes and hackers."  And BTW, what happens when a daily goes under?  Likely, the print archives end up with the worn out chairs and desks, in the dumpster.  Permanent indeed.

The ad winds up its pitch claiming that "Newspapers are easily verifiable, fully transparent and represent a secure third party who has nothing to gain from any notice."  This sentence is corporate gibberish until it gets to the final hilarious clause.  "Nothing to gain?"  Then what's the point of the ad in the first place?  Of course newspapers profit from publishing notices, otherwise they wouldn't be so nervous about another income stream disappearing.

The final irony is the claim that "every public notice which runs in a Connecticut daily newspaper, is automatically upoaded to that newspaper's website and to CTPublicNotices.org."  Sound of palm slapping forhead.  So, the very medium which the bold-faced ad has railed against - the mercurial, unreliable, inaccessible web - is the penultimate argument for keeping public notices in print?  Hello, you just wrapped your argument in a ribbon, tied it in a bow, and untied it again.

One final word.  Have any of you dear readers, lawyers and government employees exempted, ever read, or tried to read one of these public notices? 

Pick up the malnourished classified section of any daily and you're bound to find one of these notices, that I would bet, you have never set eyes on before.  Printed in a crabbed and tiny typeface, and written by lawyers, for lawyers, these notices are a legal requirement based on a CYA principle, that allows bureaucracies to explain to regular citizens that "we published notification of that" when you discover something happening in your town which mystifies you.

The truth is, that regular, clear notification on town websites ought to be legislated, and publicized as the first, and most logical way all municipal and state notifications are made available to citizens.  And to take it a step further, every citizen who would like to receive all notifications should be able to sign onto an email list which guarantees the delivery of said notices to their email boxes.  The sooner the better.

And the cities and states should be freed from the burden of spending thousands of dollars to prop up unprofitable entities which refuse to do the work of in-depth, day-to-day journalism.

These ads are a pathetic display of desperation by daily print newspapers which are trying to preserve income streams that are drying in the heat of internet competition.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm confused. Is this a news blog or an opinion blog? Newspapers have editorial pages.

Middletown Eye (Ed McKeon) said...

I'm sorry. Did the word "Commentary" escape your attention?

The big daily has abandoned day-to-day coverage in Middletown, but they still want the municipal bucks for publishing public notices, which rightfully and economically are better distributed via the web and email.

That's irony worth commenting on.

Yes, newspapers have editorial pages, and usually print their "opinions" without attribution.

My name is on this commentary because I feel strongly about the failure of the dailies to do the job that this modest, no-budget, intrepid newblog has inherited.

Any more questions?

Doug Hardy said...

Hi Ed,

I largely agree with your sentiment here and I actually think you've nailed some of the inherent conflicts built into the language of that ad.

I would challenge, however, some of the information that denigrates the value of print. The world has not switched over to the Internet entirely. It's easy to think so once you've become an online reader. But it's just not the case yet. I don't have a study to cite here, but I know the majority of older folks tend to dislike reading online and those folks are the bulk of our print readers. Do they read the public notices? I don't know. The goal of that law is to ensure municipalities are transparent in their plans. You're absolutely right that the notices read like legalese.

As for the math on the reach of print newspapers, it's important to note that the Courant says its circulation is 155,000, but those are subscriptions and would be better described as "households." Take the average number of people in a household (3 maybe?) and maybe adjust upward for all the businesses and multiple readers on copies left around in restaurants and such, you might get to 4 or more readers per copy. So that's a conservative estimate of 620,000 daily readers in Connecticut, and we're only talking about one publication.

Your argument also indicates that all newspapers have abandoned the mission of local news, and that's not the case. It may very well be the case in Middletown, and I respect your observation on that entirely. But newspapers are facing some serious problems with their business model while the value of the mission is more important than ever.

But the concept of giving away a product for free online is killing newspapers. There is nowhere near enough revenue arriving online to offset the loss of paid circulation. Nowhere near. People need to realize that it isn't cheaper to provide news online - it actually costs more. Why? Because there is no Daily World & Gazette online without the Daily World & Gazette print edition. The news gathering organization simply won't exist without the print revenue.

Bottom line? Cutting that revenue stream is going to mean less reporters. Unfortunately it won't mean less editors or bean counters. The industry needs less editors for sure, but it needs FAR fewer bean counters.

If I was a newspaper publisher and was to be forced to accept the repeal of the public notice requirement, I'd like to see it passed hand-in-hand with a state version of the federal bill that seeks to rescue faltering newspapers.

Middletown Eye (Ed McKeon) said...

Somehow Doug, I knew that you would be the one to make a cogent rebuttal to my argument. Thanks for keeping me honest.

Doug Hardy said...

LOL right back at you.

I mean, come on, the language in that ad is well beyond the iffy side of honesty.

I'm glad you pointed it out, frankly, because there's a lot of folks in the print industry who are clinging to old rationales that aren't going to help us transition to more sustainable business models. My whole role in print right now is to maintain a status quo so that my supervisors can stay until they retire in another 10 years. Beyond that (and if we make it that far) there is no future.

Gordon said...

Yes, the taxpayers MUST rescue faltering newspapers (read:New York Times) or else how are we going to know what a great job our young President is doing.This can be filed under either saving or creating jobs.Our economy is circling the bowl and we want to bail out the Messiah's top cheerleader?
November 2,2010 cannot arrive fast enough.

Doug Hardy said...

Well... not to diminish the role of the media in the ascension of Obama to the post of world leader - it was obviously part of our master plan to build a liberal empire - but it's worth pointing out here that the nonprofit model would make newspapers' finances transparent and certainly more accountable. It's a much better business model for democracy.

RICK said...

Thank you Gordie for a good laugh. Somehow I knew you would interject your John Birch style nonsense into an otherwise interesting dialogue. Run along,it's almost time for a Glen Beck rerun on Fox "News".

Gordie said...

rick- If you put down your dog-eared copy of "Audacity of Hope" long enough to watch Fox, you would know Glenn is spelled with two n's.
Your turn.

Middletown Eye (Ed McKeon) said...

Doug, I am a news junkie (I hope that's not a copyright infringement), and I read three newspapers on most days. I travel a bit and always favor the local daily over the USA Today left at the hotel doorstep.

I think journalism is essential to our democracy, though I think the actual thing -- the newspaper - likely is not.

That they are inextricably linked is a problem. Readers are abandoning newspapers as quickly as newspapers are abandoning reporters and reporting (and yes, Stephen, The Hartford Courant has all but abandoned Middletown).

I've got my own theories about what caused the problem, and corporate, absentee ownership is a big, big issue. But even well-reported and well-written privately-owned locals dailies and weeklies are having their troubles.

I don't want newspapers to disappear. I like them. More importantly I don''t want journalism to disappear.

Believe me, I don't have the answer (and I'm not sure the public broadcasting model is it).

But I do resent a money-making, corporately-owned entity printing an ad in which they pretend to be concerned about the public good. That's just hogwash plain and simple.

I like newspapers. I really do. I just don't think there are many good ones left.

But the power a daily has, to assemble the forces to explore an important story (Kleen Energy for example) is unparalleled. And it would be a real shame for me, you and democracy, if an entity didn't exist which could marshal those forces in a meaningful way.

I just don't think that ten years from now its going to be a newspaper.

And I hope, like you, that another model will be discovered, or invented, that will work.

Doug Hardy said...

I can't disagree with you on any of that, Ed. I know someone created the ad, but I don't know who it was. At best it's disingenuous. At worst it's dishonest. But I do believe the spirit of the law is good - public notices should be published in a place that isn't simply available to most people, but rather in the place where people are most likely to see them. Today's media marketplace is making that difficult to determine.

The only way newspapers are going to save themselves is through drastic change. Whole management teams need to transition out to make way for new ideas. Absentee journalism, IMHO, is unethical and counterproductive.

In many cases this transition may mean giving up the printing press - of course that's the bulk of the original investment. I think the one we use at my place cost $5 million (and that was a long time ago). When people suggest that newspapers need to just give up and go online, they need to realize the true cost ... total abandonment of the main investment.

On the management side, one guy has told me that we "are a publishing company," and that the press needs to run all the time, and that - and this is a big one - "this 'news habit' is killing us." That's just one school of thought, but it's a lousy one.

In some cases papers may find a way to keep the presses running. By doing so a lot of jobs will be saved and that's really the key in the short run.

As for me, I'm ready to go. I'm tired of working to support the old guard. Believe it or not, in one conversation about the web site and our transition, a manager said to me directly, "I'm not going to help you." Should have just written that into a resignation letter as far as I'm concerned.

That said, to be fair, that guy doesn't even help us with the print edition so he was just letting me know he planned to be consistent.

;-)

RICK said...

Sorry to disappoint you Gordie, didn't read it and don't plan on it. Don't really care how the one time KC-101 D.J. spells his name either. It's obvious by your rants that he is your primary source of talking points.

Gordie said...

You have cut me to the quick, Rick.I guess if you were a former disk jockey that was all you were meant to be (Sorry, Dan Rather).