I actually thought of the topic for this post before falling asleep around 11 p.m. That’s when I read the New York Times story about the Times and other news organizations considering and negotiating a deal to publish content on Facebook rather than on their own sites.
I have a busy day planned today (even if I am stuck in the hospital, I’m working and I have class today, plus many other chores awaiting me). So that post might have gone unwritten.
But something woke me up around 2 a.m. If you’ve spent much time in the hospital, you understand. And before trying to get back to sleep, I tried to answer a question on my iPad in a Facebook discussion. And Facebook’s iPad sucks so bad that I had to abandon the iPad, then redo and finish my answer on the laptop. And then, I had to blog about Facebook. Piss me off in the middle of the night when I’d rather be sleeping, and I will blog about you, even if I have to finish grumpy in the daylight.
Part of my initial response to skepticism about the wisdom of getting into bed with Facebook would have been to note that newspapers have been dependent on (at the mercy of?) other businesses my whole career. Other media are dependent, too, but I will focus here mostly on newspapers. Part of my argument would have noted that the dependency on Facebook was likely to cause problems (as it has before), but I was probably going to come down on the side of saying I might be exploring or testing such a relationship myself if I were the New York Times, BuzzFeed or National Geographic, the companies apparently in such discussions with Facebook.
But then I got pissed off at the Facebook app in the middle of the night, and thought of how dependence on external carriers was a bad decision for the Kansas City Star and Times decades ago, and I had to start blogging in the middle of the night about why publishers should be cautious about increasing their dependence on Facebook.
I’ll still address the many ways newspapers are dependent on other businesses (and even government) before we get to the Kansas City carriers and the Facebook app. But my point now in addressing them is that dependencies are critical to your business success, so you have to be really careful in managing and entering any dependent relationship.
So here are some thoughts on news media dependencies, eventually getting around to that Facebook app.
Ink and newsprint dependencies
First I must address the longtime dependence of news media on other publishing platforms. A beloved cliché of newspaper life used to be that you didn’t want to get in a fight with a man who bought ink by the barrel (and it was nearly all men, or their widows). It’s a lovely — and now nostalgic — cliché, demanding respect for the power of the press and proclaiming the independence of the press (even if today’s fact-checkers would point out that for much of my career we bought our ink by the tank car).
But the cliché also hinted at our dependence. As manufacturers, newspapers cared a lot more about the price and availability of newsprint than ink, but we were always deeply dependent on the suppliers of our raw materials.
For all of my newsroom career, the cost of newsprint not only determined the size of the newspaper but also frequently dictated cuts or caution in newsroom spending. I do remember staff cuts dictated by rising newsprint costs, reminiscent of today’s staff cuts dictated by falling ad revenues.
Tour a newspaper back then and the tour guide or production foreman would be able to tell you how many weeks’ (or months’) worth of newsprint rolls our storage area could hold. Maybe they still know, if a newspaper still exists with a press on site with the newsroom and corporate offices, or if people tour the consolidated printing plants that dominate today. We knew how long our newsprint supply would last because of the dependence. In case of paper-mill strikes, we needed to know, and the paper would get a lot smaller during the strike, to stretch that supply out a few more days or weeks. If newspaper publishers and corporate executives followed anything closer than newsprint costs, it was paper-mill labor negotiations.
I should note here that I do know of a newspaper with a printing facility on-site, or just a block away: the Omaha World-Herald. I worked there in 2001 when we opened the Freedom Center, housing a new press that was supposed to last for 50 years. (Someone younger than me, please fact-check that in about 36 years; I may not be around.)
We named the new printing plant the Freedom Center because of, you know, the First Amendment. The shiny, high-tech machines inside the building were written into the Constitution, so our publisher wanted to celebrate their and our freedom in the dedication and promotion of the new building.
Cynic that I was (am), I wondered if the name didn’t come in part from a second new building across the street from the press facility: a huge warehouse that increased our paper-storage capacity, connected to the press building by underground tunnels, with train tracks carrying rail cars with robot engineers and automated loading crews. I can’t remember the number of months worth of newsprint we claimed the warehouse would hold, but we would be less dependent on the paper mills and their labor contracts. Freedom!
Paper and ink weren’t newspapers’ only dependencies. Any editor who’s run news stories about odometer rollbacks (I have) knows how dependent publishers were on car dealers’ ads.
Other advertisers also carried huge dependency, sometimes held at bay by strong publishers (occasionally at high cost; I remember a seven-figure impact when a Des Moines Register story pissed off agricultural advertisers — pesticide manufacturers or dealers, I think). In some places, that dependency turned into influence when publishers were cowardly or corrupt.
As much as newspapers cherish their freedom, they also cling fiercely to their government dependencies: legal advertising, postal subsidies and sales tax exemptions (in some states).
But it was the carriers of the Kansas City Star and Times that kept me from falling back to sleep after I got pissed off about the Facebook app, so the it’s the carrier dependency I’ll examine in most detail (finally). The details come mostly from memory. Writing this at night and publishing in the morning while the topic is fresh, I’m not going to hunt up links, if any exist, to verify details. If you know of any or if I’m recalling any details inaccurately, please email me: stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) com. And please indulge some discussion of carriers in general before I get to the unique situation in Kansas City.
The most shameful of the newspaper dependencies on external providers was our relationship with carriers. I would call them paperboys, because I used to think they were all boys back then, but I learned recently that my Aunt Minda was a carrier in the 1930s. So I’m being accurate, not politically correct, to use the gender-neutral term carriers. If you never worked in the newspaper business or saw Newsies, you might have thought carriers were newspaper employees. You would be wrong. We (and I was one) were independent contractors. And they still are.
These contractors were mostly juveniles back in my day, but became adults more and more as the years went on. We were responsible not only for delivering the product, but for collecting circulation revenue. I went door-to-door a couple afternoons and evenings a month to collect for my Columbus Citizen-Journal route; only a few customers chose to pay at the office. I was OK with that duty; I provided good service and collected a lot of tips. Once a month or so, I needed to give my district manager the C-J’s majority share of what I collected. I took my cut out of the cash and turned the checks and any remaining cash over to the company.
Carriers also were responsible for selling the paper. The C-J would offer prizes such as new bikes for the carriers who rounded up the most new subscribers during repeated campaigns. So about once a week, I’d go door-to-door, stopping at the non-subscribing homes along my route, asking if they wanted to subscribe. I never got a damn bike (I knew early that I belonged in the newsroom, not in sales). But I rounded up some new customers and collected some lesser prize.
In newsrooms in my later years, we were keenly aware of our dependence on carriers. Sometimes people would call the newsroom, rather than circulation, if they didn’t get their paper. Some phone systems rolled calls over to the city desk when circulation was swamped. We would take messages for circ, but not happily.
If a journalist was out in the community, working a story or socializing in a context where you’d mention your job, you were just as likely to get a complaint (or occasional praise) about newspaper delivery as you were about a headline (OK, we never got praise for those).
I remember more than one veteran journalist, sometimes me, joking as we were working our tails off on a story in the newsroom that it didn’t really matter; some pimply-faced kid was going to screw up delivery anyway. Editors liked to say this as reporters were pushing deadline. I’m sure, though, that no C-J editor ever said it (accurately) about me.
Newspapers sold this relationship, mostly successfully, as providing business opportunities and valuable life experience for boys. And I treasure the experience and paid my way to some great camping experiences with earnings from my routes, even if I never won a damn bike.
But let’s be honest: This was blatant exploitation. Beyond the fact that boys would carry routes cheaper than adults, if a paper carrier got hit by a car in the dark, or worse (I covered stories of carriers who disappeared mysteriously and of one who was murdered), good luck collecting workers comp. That’s for employees, not independent contractors. I seriously remember a case where a press association that my newspaper belonged to fought in court to deny coverage to a seriously injured carrier. Not one of the prouder times of my career.
Kansas City carriers
Well, somehow, the history of newspaper carriers unfolded differently in Kansas City. The independent contractors there were adults, though the adults would recruit boys to run the routes, at least in the early days. A contractor would own multiple routes, making the kids subcontractors, though I doubt anyone signed actual contracts. Most famously, Walt and Roy Disney delivered papers in Kansas City for their father.
As I did in Columbus, the carriers in Kansas City were responsible for selling, servicing and collecting the routes. But they understood their power and the paper’s dependency better. They also controlled pricing, paying the Star and Times what they had contracted to pay for the paper, but determining the customer’s price themselves.
The contractors claimed that they owned the routes, not the Star and Times. So, if the company wanted to fire a bad carrier, it couldn’t. That may sound ridiculous, but the parties battled it out in court, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And the carriers won. The routes were their property, and the company depended on them to deliver the paper, as well as provide customer service. And they could charge what they wanted.
The situation deteriorated to the point where the Star and Times had no ability to promote subscriptions, provide service or offer bargain introductory rates. Some carriers would offer special rates or provide excellent service, but that was up to them and the rates varied. If you called up the newsroom to complain, we wouldn’t take a message for circulation; we’d tell you to call your carrier. How’s that for service?
The carriers preferred identical, or at least similar, routes morning and evening, so they packaged the two papers together, so that in the metro area, circulation was nearly identical. The morning Times distributed farther out into Missouri and Kansas, so it had more overall circulation.
It was as screwed-up an aspect of the business as I’ve seen at any time in my career. After the company lost in the Supreme Court (and paid big damages to the carriers), the Star turned around and bought the routes back from the carriers. Then it rehired the carriers who didn’t suck, again as independent contractors, but this time with the dependencies spelled out differently.
Here’s my point: Newspapers entered into their relationships with carriers for valid reasons, even in Kansas City. You could defend those relationships and we needed them and they helped make newspapers a lot of money.
News organizations need Facebook, too, and you can defend their growing dependence on Facebook, and we’re making good money from Facebook. (My most recent company, Digital First Media, had good success, and perhaps still does, selling ads on Facebook.) But the more dependent you grow on Facebook, and the more power Facebook has in the relationship, the more your product is at the mercy of Facebook’s crappy iPad app. And when I call your newsroom to complain (if I can find a number), you won’t be able to help me.
And even if Facebook finally fixes the iPad app, you’ll be dependent on some other flawed Facebook feature.
Other media dependencies
While I have focused on newspapers here, because of my deeper knowledge, similar dependencies have existed in all media:
- TV stations and networks were dependent on each other, and then on cable providers (the cable station affiliated with TBD was in tense and important negotiations/lobbying relating to its dependence on cable providers when I worked there), not to mention always dependent on federal regulation (much more so than newspapers).
- Ditto for radio stations and networks, though they never had cable and moved right into dependence on satellite services (also a dependency in the TV biz).
- Whatever Facebook relationship lies ahead, all digital media have had multiple layers of dependence throughout the digital age, at varying levels of mercy to content-management-system providers, advertising partnerships and any number of dependencies on digital giants such as Google, Microsoft, Apple and Yahoo! And, of course, Facebook, the source of a growing share of traffic for news organizations, but an unreliable share, as we’re reminded every time Facebook tweaks its news-feed algorithm, making us fight harder to maintain and grow that share of our traffic. We depend on Twitter, too, but its power (our dependence, too) pales compared to Facebook.
News org negotiations with Facebook
I’m not saying that news organizations shouldn’t be exploring deeper relationships with Facebook. In fact, I’ll repeat what was going to be my primary point before I got mad at the iPad app: Dependencies on other businesses are nothing new for the news business (and they exist in other businesses, too). I’m not going to get too excited about the principle of news organizations growing more reliant on Facebook.
Like billions of other people, I spend too much time on Facebook. I can see good arguments for news organizations to pursue deeper partnerships (that’s what we usually call dependencies) with Facebook. But those good arguments carry lots of ifs — if you can sell ads with your Facebook content, if you get a good share of ads sold by either party, if you get full access to excellent customer data, if you get some say in product-improvement decisions (like that crappy app).
If I were running a media company today, I would be exploring all those ifs. But I would be cautious about entering this dependent relationship. The carrier situation was a multi-million-dollar albatross for the Kansas City Star Company and harmed its business severely. News organizations today need to negotiate a better relationship with Facebook (or other digital partners) than what the Star allowed to evolve with its carriers.
If I were in negotiations with Facebook about publishing in its platform, I’d ask all the questions raised by John Battelle (called to my attention by Dan Gillmor, who I knew would be skeptical about the value of such a deal; Dan retweeted Battelle’s link to the post):
— John Battelle (@johnbattelle) March 24, 2015
The details that publishers work out with Facebook could be the most important thing for the news business that happens this year. We just don’t know whether it will be good or bad. Maybe both.
Source note: I shot the photo above of the newsboy a few years ago when I was visiting Toni Momberger’s office at the Redlands Daily Facts (one of my favorite newspaper names) in California. I wrote her asking the origin, because I wanted to credit it appropriately (and use with permission). Toni connected me with Al Hernandez, owner of Citrograph Printing Co. in Redlands, who provided this explanation:
The original crate label is from our archive of crate label images. If you notice the newsboy is carrying copies of the Citrograph Newspaper under his arm. The Citrograph is the oldest continuously operating Print shop in California and it was the original newspaper in Redlands.
As far as we know, the original label is now in the public domain. This piece was created in celebration of our 125th Anniversary in 2012.
Thanks to Toni and Al for that help in identifying an image I really enjoy.