Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Minneapolis is Cheap

Minneapolis is becoming cheap. First Northwest Airlines, a local company legendary for its mean-spirited labor practices and do me a favor/screw you attitude toward the state of Minnesota has decided to start charging extra for certain seats on planes -- front row, exit row, etc. -- seats that passengers have long requested for their extra leg room.

Now, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, a newspaper that looks good only because it competes with the St. Paul Pioneer Press across the river, has decided to stop giving its employees access to free copies of the paper in the newsroom. The New Yorks Times reports:

"Instead, the staff was offered an electronic edition of the paper "an exact digital reproduction of the printed version," no less -- that they could access online. Those who insisted on seeing the fruits of the their labors in its physical form were told that they could purchase copies for 25 cents, half the retail cost, from boxes around the office. (This change in policy was first reported by City Pages in Minneapolis.)"

And the employees didn't like it. the Strib's circulation vp accused the staff of stealing papers and sent out a memo that said:

"During the first week that the additional on-site racks were in service, 43 percent of the Star Tribunes removed from those racks were not paid for. For the second week the rate was 41 percent. This is called 'pilferage' in our business; but put more plainly, it is theft, pure and simple.

Taking more than one newspaper from a rack when you have only inserted enough money for one paper is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Employees who steal newspapers will put their jobs at risk. There is zero tolerance when it comes to stealing from our company, even if it is a 25-cent newspaper." [read the whole memo here.]

Pow! Take that wageworker! But, as the Times reports, it got worse. The memo got leaked to the journalism website Romenesko,
and the Strib vowed to smite down the leaker.

The Times' David Carr thought the Strib's rationale -- that cutting out the free internal papers would cut costs significantly, thus saving job cuts -- was dubious:

"There is a tedious logic to all of this. People who make doughnuts or lattes or S.U.V.'s do not get to consume their products freely. But whacking the incremental costs of producing a few thousand extra copies of a newspaper seems not worth the profound statement it makes. Those free papers buy a huge amount of good will internally, a totem of a daily miracle that is produced and admired. They are also a reminder, amid all the bad headlines in the industry, that there is civic good under way."

But this part was the most delicious:

"Doug Grow, a Star Tribune columnist, recalled that The New York Times once called his paper 'the most ridiculed newspaper in the country' for its adoption of new-age policies, like banning 'Redskins' and other American Indian nicknames in sports stories. He said he felt the crown had passed to The Times after the Jayson Blair episode. 'I think this is our attempt to win it back,' he said. 'One of the benefits of getting older is that this becomes just another chapter in the ongoing comedy. Our stock is dropping and we have cost issues, so maybe we can take away reporter's notebooks while we are at it.'

But is this all so bad? The staff still gets the electronic version for
free. Carr noted that Slate's media columnist Jack Shafer says "I'm Canceling my Times Subscription". Why? Shafer says:

"I'm canceling because the redesign of your Web site, which you unveiled yesterday, bests the print edition by such a margin I've decided to pocket the annual $621.40 I currently spend on home delivery."

Yeah, that's right. Getting the newspaper everyday costs so much it's basically a luxury item. I looked into getting the Times delivered when I moved to New York and I was flabergasted when I found that a year of the paper would cost more than I paid for a month of rent in St. Paul. I thought of it as a thirteenth month of rent. Nasty. So as much as loathe reading online, I do it, and buy the paper most Sundays.

Shafer is saying that the web version (recently redesigned) of the Times has finally gotten good enough to match the print version. I voilently disagree, but I understand what he's saying. Why do I disagree? First, I'm a purist. I love paper. But more importantly, I cannot fold the web site, nor can I bring it on the train. If I like an article, I end up printing it anyway. Paper is superior because it's three dimensional. Websites, by nature will not be the equal of print for a long time.

As Shafer notes, the Wall Street madman James Cramer wrote in New York Magazine that the Times should go totally paperless. Cramer says Google is trouble for the Times, but:

"There's one way out of this mess for the Times. It is a bold, gutsy, and, some would say, foolish way, at least initially: The Times -- here's the irony -- should go all-digital. That's right. It should abandon newsprint and force everyone to the Web. It should make a stand against Google, using its division -- something with real growth, and which is actually working out despite the $410 million in debt taken down to buy the thing -- to lead the way. Maybe it should even take the revolutionary step of blocking Google from accessing its content, something no one else is willing to do. Or maybe it should at least say, 'This is the deal: You want our stuff, you must share much more with us than you are willing to share with others.' It is worth it to preserve value for the future, to make it so our kids don't think, Let me go to Google for all the news that's fit to print. Heck, in another couple of years they won't even know that the New York Times exists as anything but private-label news source for an Internet portal."

David Carr concludes:

"It is one thing to beaver away, building out a digital gallows. Given reader habits and industry trends, that kind of innovation is required. But at some point -- perhaps when reporters are denied access to newspapers -- publishers are saying something else to their employees and their readers: What you're holding has no value."


Blogger k said...

Stop baiting me!!
Comments to come...

10:12 AM  
Blogger k said...

Tough Industry Tightens Belt

It is very expensive to print a paper, so I fully understand why The Star Tribune took this step. They did not take away the publication because they gave all of the workers access to a digital version which is shockingly inferior to the printed edition. It is however, many times cheaper to distribute.

The funny thing is that advertising wise, the digital replica of the print edition counts just like a physical copy, so less expense same revenue. Excellent business decision. I've met a few people who work at the offending publication and they are genius enough to realize the opportunity. The quantity of papers is worth at least $1,800,000 in revenues each year. They probably reduced expenses by $175,000. It is 10% straight to the bottom line. They could have layed off two news staffers instead, you pick your poison.

Unfortunately the reality for the format is bleak and now exposed fully to those who create it. The content creators (writers, photographers, designers, etc) want a physical product. They see their craft as nearly equivalent to its format; the connotative is seductive. They got rid of their type writers and hot type, which were once seen as the heart and soul of the publication. Photolabs are digital - no more carcinogenic chemicals. They were just technologies that they could not truly have faith in because the limitations of the technology were easy to reveal. They have reached that point once again, but this time it is their namesake. Obsolecence is scary. I say find a new god or realize that you believed it to be in the wrong place for all these years. Either reality is devastating.

The world will never be without writers, designers or editors.

1:08 AM  

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