The horse has escaped the barn, but almost all the discussions over the years as newspapers began their downward slide failed to acknowledge, or even seemed to grasp in some cases, that "newspapers" are, in essence, really TWO businesses – the "front half" and the "back half." The "front half" is the news operation, with reporters and photographers leaving the building to report and editors in the office who package that news, and the business office where ads and subscriptions are sold. The "back half" involves trade union workers – pressmen and such – who take the news operation's pictures and ads into a production facility not that far removed from the 19th-century "hot-type" era of linotype machines and newsprint rolls weighing a ton or more each, printing inks and giant presses, where they manufacture the actual "product" that gets trucked away by union drivers (some making six-figure salaries) to distribution points.
While everybody debates the current sad state of newspapers, the discussion only rarely considers the two separate and not equal halves that always made up the traditional "newspaper." Would the first half – the actual newsgathering and writing and editing – be in better shape today had newspaper management been more innovative and found some alternate delivery means that didn't involve the Industrial Revolution "back half" – the expensive and often inefficient production and delivery system?
The newspaper "back shop," as late as the 1990s, still melted lead and cast printing plates for "letterpress" presses.
Even after massive offset presses ended the hot-type era, hundreds of highly paid union folks – engravers, pressmen, drivers, and so on – in major markets work in gargantuan facilities far larger than the paper's newsroom, operating heavy equipment, wrestling with rolls of newsprint that first must be trucked in, warehoused, then handled by all manner of machines that got those rolls to the presses where the paper was printed and bundled and onto loading docks and trucked out by highly-paid Teamster drivers that dispatch the time-sensitive material to distribution points where it eventually reaches the kid who bikes past your home at dawn and tosses your morning's paper into the bushes.
Newspapers were their own worst enemies – at least The Philadelphia Inquirer was, where I spent 20 years after my UPI and New York Times days. They spent zero promotion dollars bragging about the unique qualities of our award-winning newspaper or trying to counter the idea that the paper delivered to your home wasn't needed anymore because it contained just "old news."
Thirteen years before I actually went to work at the Inquirer, United Press International sent me to Philadelphia in the early '60s where I had a desk and typewriter right IN the paper's photo department. The giant pressroom was phenomenal for its size – unusual in that the giant presses were on the FIFTH floor – and the staff talked openly about the Inquirer's printer's union contract that required three more union pressmen per press unit than were actually needed on identical presses used at other newspapers.
I'd never observed union shenanigans firsthand. The Inquirer had nine or so unions to deal with. In June 1958, a Teamster strike nearly shut it down, but a dozen Inquirer executives and about 70 non-striking members of the Newspaper Guild managed to produce about 17,000 copies of the paper each day, and people lined up at the paper's offices to buy copies. Enterprising young carriers bought bundles of the paper for a nickel a copy and went to the suburbs to sell them for 15 cents a copy – but the Teamsters began intercepting those kids, taking their bundles and dumping the papers into the Schuylkill River.
A union seniority system prevailed in the pressroom during the '60s. After punching in, the most senior three workers per shift would go to a "ready room," or more often, to "Westie's" bar just out back, or – and I found this scandalous – go across town and work a full-time shift at the Evening Bulletin, the Inquirer's competition. The Inquirer was paying full salary to three guys per shift per press who were working for another full salary over across town at the paper's competition. The guys would even brag (editorial folks would occasionally stop in at Westie's, too) that they gave their wife the Inquirer check and didn't tell her about the Bulletin's.
Knight Newspapers bought the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1969 and merged with Ridder Publications five years later. Gene Roberts became executive editor in 1972, turning the moribund newspaper around. Between 1975 and 1990 the Inquirer won 17 Pulitzers, six consecutively between 1975 and 1980, and more journalism awards than any other newspaper in the United States.
Time magazine chose the Inquirer as one of the 10 best daily newspapers in the United States, calling Roberts' changes to the paper "one of the most remarkable turnarounds, in quality and profitability, in the history of American journalism." The Inquirer became the dominant paper in Philadelphia; the Evening Bulletin shut down in 1982. Roberts promptly hired 17 Bulletin reporters and doubled its bureaus to attract former Bulletin readers, and by 1989 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.'s editorial staff had reached a peak of 721 employees.
The Inquirer had a great "product" in its newsgathering and information. Some key Knight-Ridder executives realized that their journalism powerhouse was still hitched to a horse-drawn carriage, and launched some experiments in the '80s with alternate delivery systems. In my view, they put too few people and too little money into doing it seriously. Hindsight is 20-20, they say.
Did Knight-Ridder foresee the Amazon Kindle and Kindle DX? Or perhaps the inevitable tablet renaissance that will be sparked by Apple's upcoming launch of a tablet device? As far back as the late 1970s, Roger Fidler, an astrophysicist-turned-newspaper consultant, began working on developing an electronic format for newspapers, and by 1981 he was the Director of Design for Knight-Ridder's Viewtron project, a consumer service designed to deliver the newspaper via television sets.
Viewtron didn't catch on – among other things you couldn't carry your TV around to read the paper on it – but Fidler continued his research. In 1981 he first described what newspapers might be like at the beginning of the 21st century: "While I firmly believed online media would be commonplace by the end of the century, I reasoned that to be successful, digital newspapers would need to be as portable and as easy to use as printed newspapers." Fidler made a prototype and in 1994, predicted that newspapers would be replaced by sleek black tablet devices that would allow people to consume media on the go.
The Philadelphia Inquirer was printed on "letterpress" in the main building's Center City Philadelphia presses until 1992, when the paper built a new 700,000 square foot offset plant in the suburbs, with nine multi-story Goss Colorliner Presses, each with 10 units, on a 46-acre site. Even larger than the pressroom itself was the mailing and distribution facility. It was an enormous investment in the status quo.
Why did the alternate electronic delivery project fail to get off the ground? Screen technology, Fidler says. At the time, screens were too heavy and sucked too much power. And, of course, there was the cupidity and stupidity and timidity on the part of some owners who failed to see the light, and who could only imagine "success" as stockholders kept happy with ever-increasing dividends and the imposition of ever-greater profit targets on its "properties."
E-newspapers would be a huge environmental win, eliminating the need to chop trees and burn fossil fuels, bringing raw materials into the traditional print facility and out as a finished product to the readers. Like many technologies, however, e-paper has been slow to take off. In the past year, since Amazon introduced its Kindle electronic reading device, thousands of Americans have experienced the pleasures of e-books—but for most people, e-newspapers aren't yet a reality.
Amazon does offer 24 newspapers on Kindle. For $6 to $15 a month. Even enthusiasts say the Kindle newspaper isn't satisfying. Kindle's black-and-white screen doesn't handle photographs or graphics well, and e-papers carry no advertising. Navigating between stories is cumbersome.
Publishers hope that readers will pay for e-subscriptions and advertisers for e-ads – new revenue streams that could help an ailing industry. And since e-newspapers do away with the "second half" – the actual production of the paper and ink newspaper – they'd typically save half or more of what they now spend to put out their newspapers.
The New York Times has since proved that folks are still interested in the front-end editorial product, and has a top-ranked Web site, ranking 59th by number of unique visitors. With more than 20 million in March 2009, the Times had more than twice the number of unique visitors as the next most popular site. As of May 2009, nytimes.com produced 22 of the 50 most popular newspaper blogs.
The Sulzberger family took the Times public in the 1960s, but wisely retained almost total control through family ownership – 88% of Class-B voting shares – ensuring that they can vote on all matters involving the company; the Class-A shareholders cannot. In the current downtown, the Sulzberger family has mortgaged just about everything else it owns but unlike almost all of America's other large papers, it has thus far protected the staff that produces the "newspaper," that part people are eager to read. There are about 1,200 editorial employees, and the Times has 16 news bureaus in New York State, 11 national news bureaus and 26 foreign news bureaus. Even the Times recently announced that the economy dictated 100 layoffs.
And so today's newspapers continue to gather the news, though the reporting staffs dwindle. Next, while the vast machine involving newsprint rolls, heavy equipment, presses and delivery trucks groan with the bundles, the cutting-edge content is being swiped and disseminated electronically for free.
We don't know where it may end. But does anyone doubt that if The New York Times ceased publication this very day, the information situation (and that includes TV) would be bleak if not kaput tomorrow?