Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Stability, dammit; do I miss newspapers? Nothing funny in here...

This has been the most tumultuous year of my life. It's been unbelievable. Relationships falling apart, the D-word, three job changes, successes and failures at business, a financial quagmire and lots of personal tragedy and disappointments. One WTF after another, man...
But hey, that which does not kill us, baby...Uncle Freddy doesn't whine. He makes fun of it. What else can you do? Besides, a lot of it was self-inflicted.
But it figures that right when things seem to be stabilizing, more weirdness.
Jerome Solomon is the reason I went to ESPN 97.5 The Ticket. We had lunch one day, and within a week I was on board.
Jerome and I go way back. I hired him, promoted him, worked with him for years at the Chron. I think he has the potential to be one of the biggest stars around. He's opinionated, smart, funny , arrogant. Good stuff on radio. Good stuff in print. A good friend and a good guy.
So it sucked to find out he wouldn't be doing his show at the station anymore. I understand the reasoning behind it; I really do. I'll miss working with him. More on that in a minute, but I have a long rambling tangent before we get to it.
I missed working with Jerome at the paper, too.
I left the newspaper for a lot of reasons. A couple people have asked me to write about why I left. They don't get it.
Sometimes, I don't either.
I know people want me to go all Hiroshima on the place, but I invested most of my life in it. That life is gone now, and we're on to a new, exciting one. So the trash job won't happen. Sorry.
But I do have one thought about the future of newspapers I will share. I fear that the people running most of the newspaper corporations in this country are missing one key understanding: A newspaper is not like any other business. It is not like selling widgets or wrenches.
A newspaper is indeed a business, but it has to be more than that. A paper is a public trust; much like our sports teams. The paper is willing to rip those teams for bad management; but they should turn the spotlight on themselves before they rip a team owner for a "money decision."
When you quit listening to your readers -- when you quit caring about them -- you will lose them. When the Astros quit caring about their fans, they lose them.
You can't run the Astros, Rockets or Texans like any other business. And you can't run a newspaper like that, either. Not if you want your readers to care so much they can't miss it. You don't let your best free agents go and not replace them. Those people create your connection to the readers. If you don't keep your talented folks happy, they become disenchanted and leave, and the quality dips even more.
Good businesses invest in good people. That's why they thrive. That's the secret. They care about their employees and they spend money in the right places. Jeff Bagwell was worth the 18 mil he got for doing nothing, because all he had done to build the team before that. Those players build the relationships with fans; you can't wait to watch those guys. You buy their jerseys, their autographs.
I watch so many talented people leaving the newspaper business, and it makes me sad. And I admit I feel some guilt for doing the same thing. I underestimated the impact it would have on the product. In retrospect, I should have stayed and fought. But I didn't. I had a lot going on and didn't deal with it very well.
It's funny, though. Being on the air has given me insight about that I didn't have when I worked there. I have a much better understanding of what people want to read about. As newspapers, we're not doing a great job with that anymore. We don't listen to the readers. They are still out there, and they want to love their team. (Did I say "we?" Whoops...)
Being in radio has given me another insight; newspapers should encourage their biggest stars to do radio. And they should allow them to do endorsements, as long as it is not for teams they cover. Radio makes journalists better. It connects them with the listeners in the way that fans connected with Bagwell. The listeners then read the paper because they heard John McClain or Richard Justice on radio.
Newspapers need radio and TV connections more than radio and TV needs newspapers now. Without endorsements, many stations simply can't afford to keep big stars on the air. Eventually, the stars will all leave newspapers. It's sad. The Jerome Solomons, John McClains, Richard Justices...those guys create loyal fans for the paper. You can't just replace them with any kid out of college; that doesn't work real well for the pro teams, either.
When I was at the Chron, I added Lance Zierlein to our blog lineup because Lance has loyal fans; he brought them to the Chron Web site. If he was off there tomorrow, they would go with him. Radio helps you connect; all the interaction we tried to create on the Web site and in print exists here on radio. Especially if you have personality. There is a reason Lance and John are popular; that Sean Pendergast is popular; they are talented, fun, personable. They connect with the listeners. That's what Matt and I try to do on our shows.
That's what John McClain and Richard Justice do.
That's what Jerome did.
I hate that he is gone, but in the end, I think it is on the newspapers to adjust.
I really hope they do. The fans are still out there.
Win them back, guys.


Bevotee said...

Wow ... I know this is a new blog, but no comments on that post speaks volumes about how little people care about the newspaper anymore. FM, I'm glad you mentioned the thing about the public trust. That's dead-on. And the thing about not being like selling widgets. Because widgets are, theoretically speaking, a product. I've been saying for 20 years that newspapers need to decide whether they are a product or a service. I believe that up until the 1970s sometime, newspapers were a service -- they gave people what the people wanted. Then came a sea change, and newspapers became products: "This is what we make; now buy it." It was right around that time -- *not* because of the Internet -- that circs began to decline. People were all of a sudden getting these huge newspapers on their lawn that nobody could navigate in a half hour, that their kids could no longer throw for their first job. The people who ran newspapers became more and more self-important, scheming up ever-longer features, grander multipart series, things that nobody outside of contest judges would ever read. Then came the Internet, and the decline intensified. It reached the point where the High Sheriffs said, "We have to cut back" -- and there began the whack-yourself-in-the-head strategy of trying to win back customers by giving them less. Now you have an unprecedented brain drain in the industry, with talented, creative people such as yourself leaving the business either out of frustration or to stay two steps ahead of the executioner. It *is* sad, and it sucks. I wish I had an answer, but it would be a nice start if the High Sheriffs would return to providing the service to the reader and the community that they once did.

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