Things are tough in the newspaper business. Well, actually, things have always been tough in the newspaper business, at least for the reporters, editors, pressmen, compositors, printers and back-office staff. Publishers maybe had to buy cheaper Cuban cigars, which was a sacrifice no doubt much admired by the grunts on the lower floors.
Newspapers have always poor-mouthed their situation when holding down, turning back or simply ignoring staff demands for more pay, whe mercilessly raising classified ad rates and when raising the newsstand price to keep up with the price of a grande Starbucks concoction. Actually, Craigslist took care of the classified ad problem, but we're getting ahead of ourselves.
We've all heard about the problems the poor publishers face -- the rising cost of newsprint, the rising cost of ink, the rising cost of diesel fuel, the exorbitant demands of the mailroom staff, the difficulty getting a good cigar. Never discussed, of course, was the protection from the anti-trust laws daily newspapers were awarded decades ago. After all, when you buy ink by the ton, you can pretty much get what you want out of Congress. Until recently, anyway.
By buying up and closing down their local competitors, daily newspapers aimed to sew their markets up tighter than a tomb, which turned out to be ghoulishly prescient. Being a monopoly nearly always turns out to be a bad long-term strategy. Companies get flabby, bureaucratic and set in their ways.
So when something new comes along -- like, oh, the Internet -- big autocratic newspapers tend to ignore it. After all, it worked with television, cable, radio and all those other new-fangled innovations.
But as we know, it hasn't worked out so well this time around and now we have the sorry spectacle of big, clumsy newspapers being eaten alive by all those nasty little Internet sites. Why, even The New York Times is feeling the heat.
The Times had no sooner built a monument to itself than business went south and it had to sell its brand-new building and lease it back. Then it sold a bunch of regional newspapers and television stations. Then it sold WQXR, the classical music stations that lulled generations of New Yorkers to sleep. Then its CEO, former school teacher Janet Robinson, quit. The Times felt bad and gave her a $23 million exit package. It's expensive to live in New York, after all.
But now, the Times has pulled itself together and hired what the board is convinced is just the right guy to turn things around. Some nimble entrepreneur fresh from Silicon Valley maybe? Or perhaps a hotshot journalist who's been running a successful Web start-up? Or an advertising whiz from Madison Avenue?
Well, no. Marissa Mayer had already been snagged by Yahoo. So the new Times CEO is one Mark Thompson, most recently the director general of the British Broadcasting Corp., a government entity that's supported largely by mandatory license fees levied on Her Majesty's subjects.
He's being paid $10.5 million for coming aboard and will get an annual salary of $1 million, which is only fitting. After all, who better to turn around what is arguably the flagship U.S. newspaper than a Brit from a government entity that is not supported by advertising and that is nearly as old and hidebound as the Times?
There's been some mention of Thompson leading an "international expansion" of the Times. After all, there are hardly any newspapers in Great Britian,
Australia, Canada or other English-speaking venues. The Times does own the International Herald Tribune so perhaps they could shut that down, hoping to aid sales of the Times?
OK, so he hasn't worked for an agile start-up that revolutionized the journalistic and advertising worlds. But at least Thompson has been a trailblazer on the Internet, which is arguably what the Times really needs. Right? Well, the Beeb has a Web site and runs video over the Web. They're not exactly Google, though, or even AOL.
This is all going over really well in the threadbare offices of the Newspaper Guild of New York, which represents almost 1,100 employees at the Times. They've been without a contract for more than a year.
An information company's primary assets, besides its brand, is its people but the industrial nature of the newspaper business leads to the same kind of cutthroat labor relations that typify industries that employ stevedores and teamsters. Employees get a free lunch at Google and Yahoo. They're lucky to get time off for lunch at most newspapers.
There are those who think it's too late -- that newspapers, like the global climate, have reached the tipping point and can't be saved. The Ford Foundation apparently buys into this view. It's started making grants to the likes of the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times.
So the next time you're tempted to give a few bucks to a street person, ask yourself -- would it be better to go stuff a few dollars into the nearest newspaper box instead? Those Cuban cigars aren't getting any cheaper, after all.