Unions cost more than they’re worth.

May 31, 2009

Read any story online today about companies shutting their doors and you’ll likely see it accompanied by a lively comments section debating the worth of unions. I’ve seen it several times in the past couple of days alone, most recently today on a newspaper story about a local UAW chapter voting down a new contract that asks members to make some concessions.

I don’t want to get too far into the particulars of that story, but I’ll say the union has now thrice voted down the contract, despite the fact that the company has said it will close the plant — which it loses money on — unless the union gives in a little.

Union members argue they are worth more, and they’d rather see the plant close than to have to accept anything less than a “fair wage.” Community members, fearing what the plant closure will mean for the region, argue that anything is better than nothing, and workers will get nothing if there’s no job to go to.

Anyone who disagrees with the union members’ decision is immediately labeled “anti-union” and told they should “thank unions for bringing them things like weekends.” I’m not afraid of being labeled anti-union. In fact, I’m increasingly convinced unions have long since outlived their usefulness, and are now merely bleeding every ounce possible from every government and company they’re entrenched in.

There was a time when we needed unions — when business owners forced workers to toil long hours in factories for little pay. Only by banding together could those workers be guaranteed a modicum of fair treatment. But today, we have government regulations to protect workers. And, more often than not, union workers are given perks far beyond what workers in the open market enjoy. Union members will tell you that’s what it’s all about — making sure they get their fair share.

But the truth is we all pay for that “fair share,” from the costs of our automobiles to the cost of our children’s education. I’d not argue against paying a bit more if it meant the highest quality cars or the best educated students, but we as we’ve seen in recent weeks, American cars are rated well below foreign cars in terms of quality. And our education system is a laughingstock.

Unions attack Wal-Mart as anti-union and hope to unionize Wal-Mart workers in the not-too-distant future. Wal-Mart employees, they say, make too little, while stockholders get fat and happy. But nowhere do they mention what unionizing workers will mean for the consumer — folks like you and me, who just might rely on Wal-Mart’s low prices to make ends meet.

I have seen unions destroy businesses time and again in the name of “workers’ rights.” A local cutlery went out of business after workers refused to pick up a higher portion of their health insurance premiums. A local trucking company shut down because it couldn’t afford the raises the union demanded, so the union workers walked out. The list goes on.

Interestingly, though, you hear stories in the free market — especially in today’s economy — where businesses are forced to ask employees to take salary cuts or contribute more to their health coverage packages. And those companies manage to stay in business because workers are smart enough to realize the best companies aren’t set up as “us against them” propositions; everyone must work together to keep any company viable.

I suppose now I should find a union member and thank them for making sure there’s a weekend. But instead I think they should thank those of us who keep the country humming by working anyway, by doing our part and by working as members of a team that sees the world beyond its own paycheck.


Yesterday’s Internet, printed today.

May 29, 2009

Newspapers are yesterday’s Internet, printed today. I should copyright that phrase or something. It came to me when I was driving to work today and I realized how succinctly gets the point across.

Every time I look at a newspaper — every time — I get this feeling of deja vu, like I already know everything I’m about to read. And then I realize that I read it all the day before. I quickly scan to make sure there’s nothing new and then I move on.

That phenomenon goes to the heart of the matter: The Internet isn’t killing newspapers, but newspapers are failing to adapt. Hell, 70 to 90 percent of what I read online comes from newspapers. So why are they printing it on paper a day after they’ve already published it?

As a newsroom manager, my mantra was always that newspaper journalists cannot just write about what happened, but about what it means. I always pushed for the idea that every story should be written twice: once for the web and once for print. The web story should be the “what happened” part of the story that deserves immediacy. The print version should be how readers are impacted — a forward-thinking enterprise piece that deserves some thought.

Of course, the print piece can make it to the web after it’s printed. But the web piece never makes it to print in my model. A smart newspaper man, however, may never put the print piece online. Here’s why:

Right now, newspapers complain that everyone else is stealing their content. That’s not entirely true. They give every bit of their content away, whether it’s 24-7 coverage of local issues or in-depth enterprise pieces. What the web offers newspapers is the immediacy to compete against TV and radio. But many newspaper stories don’t require immediacy. That big investigation you’ve spent six months on should run in the print edition. You put a teaser online for people to pick up the newspaper for the story. How hard is that?

Unfortunately, more and more, newspapers are either posting to their websites and reprinting the stories the next day or they’re printing stories and posting all the content from that day’s edition as soon as the press stops running. Either way, the paper loses.

Scary, but not new.

May 23, 2009

Jeff Jarvis today directed attention to a boston.com article about the fate of pressmen, many of whom thought their jobs would last forever and are facing the very real possibility that their may be no need for them at all in the near future. 

It was a nice article, clearly an attempt to gain sympathy for the other-than-reporter types who are losing jobs in the new information model. It doesn’t, of course, say why any of this is happening. Doesn’t  even question why. It just says it is so. And that’s okay, I suppose. It’s the same kind of protect-your-own “journalism” newspapers have been participating in for years. 

What it also doesn’t point out is that, as scary and sad as it might be to see folks losing their jobs, this isn’t a new thing in America or, indeed, the world. Just 150 years ago, every community had a wainwright, a wheelwright, a ferrier, a sawyer and a tinker. There aren’t many of those around today, are there? But in 1850, you’d have to look awfullyhard to find a television producer or an IT director. Heck, back then you couldn’t find an auto worker, an electrician or a cable installer either.

The point is that pressmen are an endangered species. In 20 years, they’ll likely be all but extinct, except for in boutique publications or perhaps printing greeting cards and such. 

All of this again goes back to the idea, though, that newspapers are no longer the cash cows they once were. It isn’t that they aren’t useful anymore; it’s that they don’t have the information monopoly they once enjoyed.

I have sat in board rooms trying to determine the right ad rate for a newspaper. The question is always “How much do we think they’ll pay?” And, frankly, the fact that newspapers charge outlandish prices for classifieds, obituaries and wedding announcements is just another reason the public sought to break the monopoly and create an alternative.

That alternative is soon to overtake the old media. The apple cart has officially been upset. And I cannot pretend to feel sorry for those who allowed greed to guide the hands that guided the news industry.

Yes, job loss is always sad. It’s always scary. But we’ve been through revolution before, and we can go through it again.

Fear of a free media.

May 22, 2009

It’s astounding that the congress is considering legislation to prop up the flagging newspaper industry.

Some of the ideas bandied about include providing tax breaks for businesses who choose to advertise in newspapers, and tax breaks for newspapers to help defray the costs associated with producing a printed product.

I suppose that in the absence of any alternative, saving newspapers would make sense. But if you take the newspapers’ arguments at face value, there is an alternative — an alternative newspaper companies claim is destroying their business.

Not only do people use newspaper websites, but they tend to read more of their news on newspaper websites than on independent blogs or other online sources. The problem newspapers have generating money, then, is that they haven’t found a way to move the advertising dollars they used to get for their print products into their online products, where the audience is migrating.

Why, then, would Congress provide tax breaks for people who advertise in a five-century-old medium, when a better result would likely come from providing tax breaks for those who advertise with online news services?

News organizations don’t need money to keep printing; they need money to employ journalists. If they cut out the physical plant costs, the presses, the ink and the paper, and publish purely online, they’d need a lot fewer ad dollars. It’s a question of changing your business model to better serve your audience.

Congress shows no concern about bloggers and indepenedent online news services. There are no tax incentives for advertising on my website. Wouldn’t Congress rather be on the leading edge, rather than prolonging the inevitable? Wouldn’t our elected representatives rather see the success of a fledgling industry? What about the environmental impact of printing newspapers? Paper doesn’t grow on trees, you know. And transporting all that paper and delivering the finished products means burning fossil fuels, right? 

Congress doesn’t want to prop up the Internet because, like advertising agencies, they haven’t quite figured it out yet. They still don’t know whether this thing is going to take off. And, frankly, I think they’re afraid of what happens when everyone — including guys like me — can blast their opinions and discoveries to the world. And I think they’re afraid of a world where they don’t have a set number of journalists they can control and sculpt their messages through.

But maybe that’s just my opinion. And all I can go by is their actions. And right now I’m learning a lot more by listening to the thing they aren’t talking about: a way to help news organizations make money online.

It isn’t the Internet. Really.

May 21, 2009

I left my newspaper job in November, after about a dozen years as a journalist. Before I go any further, I think it’s important to say that I loved being a newspaper reporter. I loved newspapers. Still do.

I didn’t leave the business because newspapers across the country — including the company I worked at — are faltering. Honestly, it was an industry I loved and believed in enough that I probably would have stuck with it until the very end, like captain of a sinking ship.

I also didn’t leave because I believe more strongly in the Internet than I do in newspapers. Well, sort of.

The reason I left is that I realized that I loved my idealized version of journalism, but I’d grown to despise what most newspaper journalism has become.

I read an interesting article yesterday that argued journalists don’t really earn their pay anymore because they’ve failed to differentiate themselves from one another. The idea is that journalists all write the same thing, and in an age where so much information is free, there can be no premium on information. Today’s newspaper journalists whine that they deserve better pay, and that the Internet is basically stealing their lunches. They warn us that when newspapers are gone, nobody will be left to mind the store. Government will run roughshod over the people, they say, if the people are unwilling to support journalists with high pay — and keep those presses running while they’re at it.

Journalists don’t get it. And that is why I left the newspaper industry. It’s why I’ll never go back. 

Journalism is not a job; it’s a privilege. It’s what some of us get to do while the rest of the world goes to real jobs. Jobs that suck. Jobs that require back-breaking, mind-numbing labor. Jobs that make the world keep chugging along. They build your cars. They cook your hamburgers. They clean your streets. They keep streets safe, they propose and pass legislation, they educate children. They do actual necessary work.

Journalists do what everyone else wishes they could do. They rub shoulders with bigshots. They get to ask tough questions of people in charge when things are going wrong. They get access to people and places most people will never dream of having. And journalists are granted that amazing privilege by the actual workers of the world — those who have the natural curiosity to crane their necks when they pass a wreck at the side of the road, but can’t stop to ask what happened because they have to get to their real jobs.

The privilege journalists have is to pull over, ask the questions, get the answers that everyone else would like. That is the reader’s gift to a journalist: Go out and see all the great and terrible things I wish I could see. The only thing journalists have to do at the end of the day is tell what happened. That’s a dream job. It’s the reason I woke up every morning — because I knew I’d been given this gift.

And so I wrote stories. A lot of them. Sometimes three, even four in a day. And I soaked up every little thing I could. I didn’t sleep much. I drank a lot of coffee and ate terrible food from a vending machine. But I loved it. The fact that I got paid at all? Bonus. And I wrote every story and every column in gratitude. I covered several murders, including a capital murder trial. I covered an Indian land-claim case that threatened to displace thousands of people. I covered human joy and agony every day. And I loved it.

Looking around in the newsrooms I worked in, I found too few people who shared that way of looking at it. Readers, to many of them, are ignorant cows, who desperately gnaw on whatever bits of wisdom the Journalists feel they’re ready to hear. The more the Journalists get paid, the higher they set themselves above their reader. And then, one day, the pay and the privilege and even the job itself become their right, dammit. And nobody better try to take it away.

Yes, newspapers are losing readers to the Internet. But it isn’t the Internet’s fault; the blame lies with journalists who have lost sight of their mission. They’re being replaced by people who may not be well sourced, who don’t have Newhouse master’s degrees and don’t expect a big paycheck at the end of each week. Those replacements — the hated bloggers — aren’t doing it for the pay or the glory. They’re doing it because they love it. And because they’ve been let down for too long.

Exhibit A: Maureen Dowd

May 19, 2009

I was at first shocked and dismayed when I heard about the brouhaha surrounding New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd over the weekend. It was disheartening to read that the ballsy baroness of the Old Gray Lady had stooped so low as to copy and paste the words of a lowly blogger into her own column. I mean, this is the same woman lauded for leading the charge against Joe Biden’s own plagiarism decades ago.

Now, after having a day to think it over, I’m not as disheartened about the level someone as respected as Dowd apparently sunk to as I am emboldened by the level the lowly blogoverse has risen to.

See, the mere fact that Dowd would steal from Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo shows that she acknowledges that she (a Pulitzer Prize winner) couldn’t have made Marshall’s point more elegantly than he did. And that is really saying something, especially at a time when politicians and lobbyists are struggling over whether and how to save the ailing newspaper industry — all while dragging the credibility of bloggers through the muck like worthless trash.

It’s easy for journalists to throw stones at bloggers as unprofessional and incapable because, well, most bloggers aren’t getting paid. But I’ve met a lot of journalists who didn’t deserve to be paid, and I’ve read a lot of bloggers who do.

If “real” journalists are trying to prove their worth, they ought not steal from the very bloggers they disparage publicly.

I’m here

May 18, 2009

I’ve got a lot to say. Hopefully you’ll start seeing it here shortly. For now, though, I’ll just be content with erasing the Hello World post. And then I’ll move on.