Opinion

Jack Shafer

The long, slow decline of alt-weeklies

Jack Shafer
Mar 15, 2013 23:41 UTC

Alternative weekly colossus Boston Phoenix cracked and fell yesterday, ceasing publication after 47 years. According to a Phoenix executive quoted in the obituary in today’s Boston Globe, the alternative weekly was losing more than $1 million a year, and a format switch last fall from newsprint to glossy had failed to attract the sort of national advertising it desired.

Once one of the leading alt-weeklies in the nation, the dead paper leaves behind $1.2 million in debt and roughly $500,000 in assets. The fact that its owner didn’t — or couldn’t — sell the publication to cover some of its debt signals the illness of the greater alternative weekly market.

Like its daily newspaper counterpart, the alt-weekly has enjoyed a terrible half-decade of plummeting revenues, circulation and page counts in the 100-plus markets currently served. One large chain that owned papers in Chicago, Washington, Atlanta, Charlotte and elsewhere filed for bankruptcy in 2008 and was eventually spun apart, but that financial disaster was as much about clueless proprietors overleveraging themselves as it was the decay of the alt-weekly business model.

The formula, pioneered by the Village Voice in the 1950s, finessed by the Phoenix in the 1960s and perfected by the Chicago Reader, the Phoenix New Times and others in the 1970s, became such a cinch that know-nothing bar owners and recent college graduates (or dropouts!) eventually made millions off it. Some papers, like the Phoenix New Times, built immense chains from the links they forged and acquired. The formula connected underserved readers with overcharged advertisers in both compact, urban settings like New York and Washington and sunbelt expanses like Phoenix and Dallas. In 2005, the two largest alt-weekly chains, anchored respectively by the Phoenix New Times and the Voice, combined to create a company valued by the participants at $400 million, with annual revenues of $180 million. Newspapers started in bar booths had become big business, but like many of the daily newspaper merger and acquisition deals going down during same period, this deal also proved too rich.

Many former alt-weekly editors would like to persuade you that their cutting take on city politics and the arts combined with their dedication to the feature form won readers. Actually, it was the whole gestalt that made the publications work. Comprehensive listings paired with club and concert ads to both entertain and help readers plan their week. Classified ads, especially the personals, often provided better reading than the journalistic fare in the front of the book. No better venue for apartment rentals existed; even people who had long-term leases used the housing ads to fantasize. Even the display ads, purchased mostly by local retailers and service providers, were useful to readers.

And now, a word against our sponsor

Jack Shafer
Mar 8, 2013 21:36 UTC

The Washington Post‘s website joined the sponsored-content stampede early this week with the introduction of its BrandConnect Web product, making it the first major U.S. newspaper to embrace sponsored content, according to Digiday. Other high-profile Web publishers selling sponsored content include Gawker, Huffington Post, Business Insider, Forbes, BuzzFeed, Slate, Cheezburger, Techmeme and The Atlantic. Meanwhile, Fortune magazine is creating Fortune-branded content “for marketers to distribute on their own platforms,” AdWeek reports.

Also known as native advertising, the current wave of sponsored content on the Web can resemble the advertorial sections you’re familiar with — the ponderous Russia Beyond the Headlines Today and China Daily pages in the print editions of the Post and the New York Times, which nobody reads, and those sections in glossy magazines you automatically skip. Or, it can look remarkably like the content the site already produces. BuzzFeed has created pages for Virgin Mobile, Pillsbury, Coca-Cola, Dell, the Nevada Commission on Tourism and General Electric that could pass for its standard pages as they use jokes to “subtly weave in the values of the brand,” as the Wall Street Journal reported last October. BuzzFeed sponsored content costs about $20,000 for five or six “articles,” reports Digiday.

If, as George Orwell once put it, “The public are swine; advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket,” then sponsored content is the meal so wretched that even pigs will reject unless sugar-frosted. The average sponsored-content page pits the advertiser against the publisher; the former attempts to make his copy and art look as much like conventional news or feature copy as powerfully as the latter pushes back as hard as he can to preserve “editorial integrity” without forfeiting the maximum fee. It’s common for both sides to come away from the transaction feeling soiled and swindled, but, hey, that’s the nature of most advertising.

Does anyone care about newspaper ombudsmen?

Jack Shafer
Mar 4, 2013 23:54 UTC

Last week, Washington Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth discontinued the ombudsman position, replacing it with an ambiguously defined “reader representative” to whom readers will be able to address their “concerns and questions,” as soon as the paper gets around to appointing one.

This “ombudsman lite” slot is a radical dilution of the old position. As conceived back in 1970, the ombudsman’s job was, in former Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee’s words, “to monitor the paper for fairness, accuracy, and relevance and to represent the public in whatever strains might arise from time to time between the newspaper and its readers.” (Emphasis added.) The Post ombudsman was “resolutely autonomous,” Bradlee wrote. Working on contract rather than staff, the ombudsman was given the independence to write about whatever he wanted to write about. He couldn’t be assigned. He couldn’t be edited. And he couldn’t be fired, Bradlee continued.

On paper, the power to write such a weekly column and dispatch internal memos of rebuke to the newsroom sounds like a job fit for a hanging judge. But the occupants of this perch have generally shied away from using their power to inflict public punishment or embarrassment on the Post. On some occasions the paper has filled the job with experienced government functionaries, such as Joseph Laitin, Bill Green, Sam Zagoria and Robert J. McCloskey, but usually the job has gone to journalistic veterans, such as Geneva Overholser, Andrew Alexander, Richard Harwood, E.R. Shipp, Michael Getler, Deborah Howell, Joann Byrd, Robert C. Maynard, Charles B. Seib, Patrick Pexton (who just completed a two-year tour of duty) and others. No matter what the ombudsman’s background, the tendency has been to pull punches whenever the Post erred. Instead of roasting the paper for its transgressions, the ombudsman could be relied on to sympathize with the hard job of newspapering and gently explain the newsroom’s mistakes to readers. Worse yet, some ombudsmen have played Monday morning quarterback with their columns, detailing from the safe remove from deadline pressure how they would have assigned, reported, written and edited a flawed story had they been in charge.

Goodbye Globe, hello global New York Times

Jack Shafer
Mar 1, 2013 01:13 UTC

The New York Times Co. has been shedding its non-core assets, smoothing its cost structure, strengthening its balance sheet and rebalancing its portfolio with such haste over the past two years that only a cruel and unusual press critic would urge it to quadruple those efforts.

I am that cruel and unusual press critic.

The company was a diversified media outfit 10 years ago, owning eight television stations; two radio stations; 16 newspapers in addition to the New York Times, the Boston Globe and the International Herald Tribune; and a slew of websites. It had a market cap of about $7 billion. Today, the emaciated operation is worth a notch over $1 billion on a good day.

The television stations were liquidated in 2006, but the most aggressive dismantling began 20 months ago, as piece by piece the Times Co. steadily broke off chunks of itself and put them up for sale. To Barry Diller’s IAC/InterActiveCorp went the About Group for $300 million and to Halifax Media Holdings its Regional Media group of newspapers for about $145 million. The company shed its stake in the Fenway Sport Group (Boston Red Sox) in two installments for a total of $180 million and sold off its share in the job-search engine Indeed.com for $164 million. The stripping of the old media conglomerate to its Times-ian essence—the Times itself and the rebranded International Herald Tribune as the International New York Times—will be complete when it finds a buyer for the Boston Globe and its allied properties. One research analyst predicts the Globe could go for $175 million provided the Times Co. covers the pension liabilities.

Unsolicited advice for Jeff Zucker, CNN’s new boss

Jack Shafer
Feb 22, 2013 22:53 UTC

After the bosses at Time Warner installed Jeff Zucker as president of the 23 news and information brands that constitute CNN Worldwide, the press (Ad Age, Marketwatch, Politico, Guardian, New York Times, et al.) speculated on which strategies he might employ to return the network to ratings and cultural primacy, positions it lost long ago to Fox News Channel and more recently to MSNBC.

As the auteur behind the Today show’s return in the 1990s to No. 1 in the ratings, Zucker knows all about network comebacks. As the former president and CEO of NBC Universal, who was pushed out in 2010 as Comcast purchased controlling interest in the operation, Zucker craves a personal comeback. Although he only took over a month ago, his first moves as CNN’s leader indicate a plan that plays to the network’s existing strengths and the competition’s inherent weaknesses.

CNN’s decline began in 1996 when Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch started Fox News Channel, acting on their hunch that conservative consumers of television news and talk were woefully underserved and would respond to a network that served as the Republican Party’s light infantry. MSNBC also arrived that year, but it didn’t make its mark in the cable news and talk racket until midway through the past decade, after positioning itself as the liberal mirror image of Fox. For all the talk of decline, CNN has remained hugely profitable, estimated to be making $600 million in operating profit in 2012, second only to Fox. So it’s not as though Zucker had been called on to rescue a failing enterprise.

Infrastructure rhetoric is a bridge to nowhere

Jack Shafer
Feb 15, 2013 19:08 UTC
Whenever the phrase “our crumbling infrastructure” passes the lips of a politician or appears in the pages of a newspaper, I change the password on my checking account and move my wallet to the front pocket of my jeans. So when President Barack Obama invoked our “aging infrastructure badly in need of repair” in his State of the Union address on Tuesday and Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria used his perch yesterday to complain that Obama wasn’t proposing near enough for infrastructure, I closed my bank accounts, canceled my credit cards, converted my liquid investments into gold bullion, dumped them into 55-gallon drums, rolled the drums into a backyard pit and poured a load of cement over the heap.

It’s not that infrastructure doesn’t crumble — everything turns to dust eventually. Obviously, useful bridges, ports, airports and highways need to be maintained, and as a country grows it needs new ones. It’s just that the press allows members of the civil engineering-industrial complex to bamboozle them into believing that all calls for building infrastructure are equal.

The bamboozling usually begins with a sweeping declaration about America’s shoddy highway bridges and the urgent need to repair them. Obama hit his mark in his State of the Union speech where he plugged his “Fix-It-First” program, which would mend the “nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country.” Zakaria finds Fix-It-First insufficient, calling it a mere “Band-Aid on America’s growing cancer of failing infrastructure.” Citing the 2009 report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), which gave the nation’s infrastructure a “D” and estimated the cost of repairing it at $2.2 trillion, Zakaria demands the dramatic expansion of American infrastructure. The ASCE recently upped its estimate of how much should be spend on infrastructure by 2020 to $2.7 trillion (pdf), which is two-thirds greater than the feds, the states and local governments are expected to spend on it by then. Zakaria expressed even greater enthusiasm for spending infrastructure trillions in a November piece for Time.

Horsemeat hysteria

Jack Shafer
Feb 12, 2013 23:22 UTC

Disgust, the gag reflex and flights to the vomitorium greeted this week’s news that horse flesh had breached the beef wall to contaminate burgers and frozen beef meals (lasagna, spaghetti Bolognese, shepherd’s pie, meatballs) all over Europe. Some of the “beef” products contained 100 percent horsemeat, and early forensic tests hinted that the contamination might go back as far as August 2012.

Both the British government and the European Union called for “horsemeat summits” to investigate the food scandal, with British officials surmising that a criminal conspiracy would be found responsible for adulterating beef products with cheaper horse. But for all the horsemeat hysteria recorded and amplified by the press, “no risk to consumer health” was posed by the products, as the Food Safety Authority of Ireland reported. The injuries from eating horsemeat were not physical, they were psychological, and where they were not psychological they were anthropological, or else simply nonexistent. According to the Ireland health authority, every beef-and-horse burger it analyzed tested negative for phenylbutazone, a common horse medicine that’s banned from the food chain.

Horsemeat — as those who have sampled its pleasures will attest — should not be feared. Looked at rationally, it’s merely the other, other red meat, as our French cousins are forever reminding us. It’s a domesticated and hooved grass and grain eater with a tail, big eyes and a tannable hide, just like the cattle that most of us consume. That’s not to suggest that the folks who were sold horse burgers when they paid for beef burgers have no right to gripe. They were defrauded and deserve refunds, a few pennies’ worth of damages and the satisfaction of seeing the defrauders (if the contamination was deliberate) sent to jail. But that’s about it.

The theater of economic sanctions

Jack Shafer
Feb 8, 2013 00:19 UTC

Today’s edition of the New York Times visits Tehran and reports on page one that the economic sanctions leveled against Iran by the United States are not working — if by working one means that the country shows any signs of ditching its nuclear program.

Oh, it’s not like the sanctions have completely flopped: Inflation is gargantuan, and the currency has melted. But the Times reporters find that Iran’s citizens have yet to riot over prices. New high-rises are rising high over Tehran and a Chinese-built highway interchange  is similarly soaring. Shops are filled with goods, and new eateries seem to be opening daily. In response, the Obama administration has decided to do the thing it does when sanctions don’t work (and not working is something sanctions frequently do): It’s adding more sanctions. (Print headline: “U.S. Ratchets Up an Economic War Against Tehran; Web headline: “U.S. Increases Pressure of Economic War on Tehran.”)

For all the clarity the Times brings to the subject, the piece could have been headlined “U.S. Doubles Down on Hopeless Initiative Against Iran.” Not only are the existing sanctions not working, the Times reports, but unnamed senior Obama administration officials doubt that the new sanctions will work. In detailing the mechanics of the sanctions, the piece leaves the reader to understand that just about the only positive thing about sanctions is that they’re not as nasty as war. But that might change, too. The Times‘ kicker reports an upcoming military exercise in the Persian Gulf in which the U.S. and its allies will practice intercepting banned weapons and technology bound for Iranian ports, which may result in the worst of both worlds — sanctions and war.

Obama’s dicey license to kill

Jack Shafer
Feb 5, 2013 22:46 UTC

Last night, NBC News investigative reporter Michael Isikoff published a revelatory article based on an undated 16-page Department of Justice “white paper,” representing the arguments contained in classified memos produced by the Obama administration that describe the criteria that must be met before the administration plans the killing of a U.S. citizen.

Who would have surrendered such a sensitive document about the president’s “kill list” to NBC News?

It’s a valid question, and a little bit silly at the same time. Not to diminish the intrepid reporting of Isikoff — who should be made the grand marshal of the next Tournament of Roses Parade for his scoop — but Washington often leaks in directions to further stoke policy fires that are already burning. (See this taxonomy of leaks compiled by Stephen Hess.) Such a Washington fire has been burning for many months, with Congress demanding that the Obama administration explain its targeted killings of U.S. citizens. Yesterday, before the Isikoff story broke, 11 senators sent the president a formal request that any and all legal opinions devised by the White House about the targeting of citizens be forwarded to the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees.

Unsolicited advice for New Republic owner Chris Hughes

Jack Shafer
Jan 29, 2013 23:01 UTC

For more than a century, rich guys who think they’re smarter than the rich guys who came before them have been buying money-losing publications under the impression that by spending more money than their deep-pocketed predecessors, they’ll turn the red ink black. This tradition, whose ranks include such modern vanity moguls as Mortimer Zuckerman (Atlantic, U.S. News & World Report), Sidney Harman (Newsweek), Arthur L. Carter (Nation, New York Observer), Philip Anschutz (San Francisco Examiner, Weekly Standard), David Bradley (Atlantic, National Journal), Michael Bloomberg (Bloomberg Businessweek), Richard Mellon Scaife (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review), and Martin Peretz (New Republic), gained a new adherent about a year ago when Chris Hughes, a Facebook co-founder whose net worth currently bounces around in the vicinity of the half-billion mark, purchased the New Republic.

Since then, Hughes has followed the century-old script to a T, wheel-barreling a load of cash into the magazine, replacing the top editor with the former top editor, adding staff, opening a New York office, making plans to move his Washington staff to a nicer home, and ordering a makeover of both the magazine and website. This week, those redesigns debuted, with the magazine getting slicker and thicker, and the website receiving a sumptuous transformation that makes the competition look like they’re squatting on GeoCities sites.

Like the rich guys who have come before, Hughes has also set the goal of making the magazine profitable in “a couple years.” Making money is a wonderful ambition for the New Republic, which was losing about $3 million a year several years before Hughes began the current expansion, according to Martin Peretz’s ex-wife, Ann Peretz. Everybody should make money! But the ambition is more loony than it is wonderful. In today’s publishing environment it’s almost impossible for a journal of opinion or national general-interest magazine that’s not part of a larger magazine group that handles ad sales and back-office matters (e.g., Time Warner and Time; Condé Nast and the New Yorker and Vanity Fair) to maintain profitability.

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