The Daily Melody

Turmoil continues in the daily newspaper business. The once-mighty Philadelphia Inquirer was sold last week for a paltry $55 million. The Denver Post decided to put its proprietary local news on the front page and move its commodified national items to the second section. And another hopped-up hedge fund operator explained to gullible Forbes readers why The New York Times “as we know it” would disappear by 2015. (How do I keep track of this stuff?  Like everyone else interested or involved in the industry, I read Jim Romenesko.)

Newspaper publishers should think a little harder about the distinction between searching and browsing.  Leon Wieseltier framed the distinction nicely the other day in Going to Melody, a poignant little essay in The New Republic about Melody Records, an old-fashioned music store near Dupont Circle in Washington.,D.C., that had gone out of business.

Wieseltier was bereft. For thirty years, he had regularly prowled Melody Record’s aisles, looking for new releases, schmoozing with its knowledgeable clerks, discovering items of chamber music and jazz he otherwise might not had known existed, defending his affection for Rihanna. His visits had been motivated not so much by acquisitiveness, he wrote, but by inquisitiveness.  He went “to engage in the time-honored intellectual and cultural activity known as browsing.”   He elaborated:

Browsing is not idleness; or rather, it is active idleness – an exploring capacity, a kind of questing non-instrumental behavior.  Browsing is the opposite of “search.” Search is precise, browsing is imprecise.  When you search, you find what you were looking for; when you browse, you find what you were not looking for.  Search corrects your knowledge; browsing corrects your ignorance. Search narrows, browsing enlarges. It does so by means of accidents, of unexpected adjacencies and improbable associations.

Any habitué of libraries, bookshops, stationers, hardware stores or, for that matter, frequenters of boutiques of any sort, will understand what Wieseltier means. It is true that anything these shops may contain can be found on the Web, often with only a few keystrokes, and usually for less than  the price of the item in the shop, but as Wieseltier suggests, searching is not the same as browsing; the element of serendipity is missing.

The same experience of browsing is even more characteristic of the act of turning the pages of a printed newspaper.  Its contents are unanticipated in selection and juxtaposition. Knowledge of what it contains – and what it doesn’t – is widely shared, not just with other purchasers, but in fact with many more; that is, its editors’ choices constitute a standard. The ads that keep the stories apart (or fail to!) also send a powerful signal about who it is  advertisers expect to read the paper. Stories may be clipped and kept, or shared.

All this is true, too, of a well-designed newspaper or magazine on the Web:  The Guardian, say,  BBC News, or, my favorite, TheBrowser, an aptly named online magazine assembled by a handful of editors from pieces sometimes assigned (Five Books) but otherwise gathered from around the Web. There is, however, a crucial difference between a daily newspaper and the essentially unbounded cornucopia of a web page or an RSS feed.  The printed edition of a newspaper is finite, conclusively bounded by time and space. It comes out once a day.  It has a beginning, middle and an end.  And it has a price instead of being free.

So are print newspapers doomed?  Probably not, though on the surface their economics don’t look appealing. Everyone understands about declining circulation:  more people get their news online for free, from social media, from radio, from television.

The advertising situation appears even more corrosive. Newsies talk endlessly among themselves about Craigslist, and others of their ilk, and how they curtailed classified and help-wanted advertising.  But such destination sites are not the biggest problem. A greater source of instability has been a series of innovations that turned the Web into a giant billboard for the ubiquitous ads that Google sells.

To this point, Google’s invention of its AdWords and AdSense programs has been treated mainly as a business story. Good accounts abound in books:  how Google discovered a business model that not only turned its search engine into a formidable money machine through advertising sales, but one which permitted countless websites to earn revenue through ad sales that it brokered as well.  But the broad account that you might expect from a good newspaper — how this enormous sphere of advertising blossomed practically overnight in the twenty- first century and with what consequences — has yet to be written.

Then again, the advertising industry is as prone to mood swings as anyone else – maybe more so, given the pace of technological change of the last thirty years. The world probably still has its share of readers who prefer browsing to search, much as it found fifty years ago there were those who preferred listening to radio to watching television. Those in the next generation who prefer newspapers will turn out to be another sort of audience that many advertisers will want to reach. Who will they be?  Not college students, that’s for sure.  People with good jobs and an itch for civic involvement.

Clearly, newspapers will never again see anything resembling the near-monopoly profits they enjoyed for more than a century.  To survive something more will be required than aggressively moving onto the Web. (Almost all newspapers have done that.) Publishers must also discern a point at which advertising and circulation revenues from print editions will stabilize, adjust their costs accordingly, and go on from there, perhaps even grow.

Newspapers do have one critical advantage.  Again,Wieseltier:

My father had furniture stores. I grew up with the pathos of retail: you throw all your money into a location and an inventory, you hang out a sign, you trick out a window, you unlock a door and (if you lack the resources to advertise formidably), you wait. If they come in, you use your skill; but they have to come in.

Newspapers – unlike sofas, books, records – go out. They bring the browsing experience to you:  the combination of stimulus and sanctuary that Wieseltier enjoyed in the aisles of Melody Records.  Newspapers are wedded to cities and their suburbs, where they may hope to penetrate deeply into offices and homes, but not to any one particular location. Thus mastery of their distribution system is one key to their survival.  (Much as I love buying the Times in the little Michigan town where I spend part of the summer, the national newspapers had better cede the wide open spaces of the country to the Web.) Another key is pricing.  Here there are many lessons left to learn. The great danger is that management will give up on newsprint prematurely. (The Financial Times let my home delivery subscription expire the other day and only wrote several days after the fact via postal mail to ask if I would like to renew.)

Successful newspapers will continue to set the agenda for many years to come. Their power is not as great as it was, now that there are so many other voices in the room.  But the value of those 240 inches on the front page is greater than ever as a means of organizing civic discourse. Take a case in point last week, when the Times led the Tuesday paper with a story about the Supreme Court’s decision to permit strip searches after minor arrests, while the WSJ led with Obama’s challenge to the justices of the Supreme Court (and played the strip-search decision on page six). Try figuring that out from the Web!

.                       xxxxx

The Royal Economic Society met for three days last month atCambridgeUniversity,RobinsonCollege. More than 670 economists, most of them young, many of them European, turned up to present some 500 papers and attend a series of lectures and panels given by various stars of the profession. (Lecturers were Elhanan Helpman and Ariel Pakes, of Harvard University and Nancy Stokey, of the University of Chicago.)

That’s pretty good for a meeting with no job market. It compares favorably with the regional associations in theUS: Eastern, Southern, Midwestern, and Western. Given the UK’s role as a global financial center (and the standing of the RES’s flagship Economic Journal), the gathering goes well beyond..

Charles Goodhart, of the London School of Economics, who for many years was adviser to the Bank of England, stole the show with a short talk about the ongoing effort to develop an integrated regulatory framework for the global financial system – controls more effective than the system of bank capital ratios improvised by the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision in 1987-88, “with no analytical back-up at all,” as financial deregulation in the US and Europe gained speed.

Some sort of ladder of sanctions would be required, Goodhart said. Central bankers, regulators and bank lobbyists are traipsing around the world, from conference to conference, in the hope that one can be devised before things overheat again.

7 responses to “The Daily Melody”

  1. I get the trouble newspapers are in. Still in The Netherlands (NRC Handelsblad) and Belgium (De Standaard and De Morgen) newspapers have growing number of readers.
    These newspapers al started to make a smaller newspaper with more to the point articles.

    Good luck!

    Pieter van Leeuwen

  2. Browsing is an interesting concept. One of the aspects of it that is not easily duplicated in online forums is that of a narrow constituency. When one browses, one wants to spend time with people from whom one might learn something about the specialty in question. So there is usually a mechanism, economic or social, to exclude participants who will not be contributors. Most web forums do not have this filtration, and so the density of useless input is high.

  3. Could you do a column on what success some papers have had as non-profits or not-for-profits? The Guardian in the UK is one — don’t know of any in the U.S.

    Is there a brighter future in that direction?

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