The late great Paul Prudhomme, who died last year, brought Cajun cookery to national attention with his 1984 classic Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen. His most iconic recipe was “blackened redfish.” Redfish was a humble fish that suddenly was in high demand. His recipe called for scorching high heat. I made it several times and it was delicious, but set off the fire alarms. Continue reading
I’d like to thank you for inviting me to be with you today. I have great respect for ministry as a high and holy calling, and I enjoy the company of ministers. I am proud to be a minister, and this year is the 40th anniversary of my ordination. And it is good to be in the Connecticut Conference. I never served here, but my daughter, Rebecca Floyd Marshall, is an ordained minister here in CT, serving in Westport. If you bump into her at a Conference meeting introduce yourself.
My talk today is entitled “Taking the Long View” which was the title of a UCC STILL SPEAKING Daily Devotional I wrote for March 14 of last year. I see it was re-printed in your newsletter. I’m going to share with you some of my personal back-story behind the writing of this particular devotional.
I began the devotional with an anecdote about Ralph, a congregant of mine in my first church, who owned an apple orchard: “I drove over to see Ralph at his hilltop orchard a week after I had presided over his wife’s funeral and burial. He was well into his nineties and they had been married for seven decades. I was all of twenty-seven. It took me awhile to find him, because he was out planting apple trees. He seemed glad to see me and said, “You may wonder why I am planting trees that I will never live to see bear fruit. But it’s what I have always done, and I am not going to stop now. There were apple trees in this orchard when I came here that somebody else had planted, and there will be apple trees here after I’m gone.”
I’ve held onto Ralph’s words for forty years, and lately they have helped me as I think about what it means to be a retired minister. That hasn’t been easy for me. Because when I left my role as a pastor it seemed, at first, and for a long while, like the loss of my calling as a minister. Now I have come to realize that, although I am no longer a pastor of a congregation, I am still a minister. When I turned 65 the UCC Pension Boards mailed me a good little book by Paul Clayton entitled Called for Life (Perhaps you all got one, too). I love the play on words in the title, and I do believe we are “called for life” in both senses of the phrase. Continue reading
Just a year ago I blogged an interview with Martin Langeveld called “The Future of Newspapers.” Martin, a former newspaper publisher, had recently given a paper by that name to the Monday Evening Club, a group we both belong to. Martin has been tracking this story for several years with regular dispatches from the front on his blog at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard. He also comments on this story on his personal blog, News after Newspapers. I thought it would be interesting to see what developments have taken place in the year since that interview, and Martin has kindly consented to another interview.
RF: Thanks for taking the time to do this, Martin. Your interview a year ago was among my most visited posts. You seem to be the go-to guy on this story, with your extensive background in the newspaper business. Any chance your reporting will become a book someday? Or is that just another dying medium?
ML: I have a feeling that books will be around a lot longer than newspapers, because people want them for their permanence — they’ve never regarded newspapers that way. Printed text and graphics in books is a data storage medium, and one that has proven extremely durable (in contrast to various electronic media that are already obsolete, like 8-tracks and video discs). Printed news on newsprint is not data storage, but simply a convenient delivery mechanism that can be replaced if something better comes along, like digital delivery in one format or another. So can books, and that’s indeed happening — but for many people and many purposes, the user interface as well as the permanence of the printed book won’t be improved enough in a digital format. I don’t imagine church liturgists reading the scripture lesson from an iPad, for example (although come to think of it, why not, really?). As for me writing a book, it could happen, but I’m not working on anything. I think there is an overarching story to be told about the decline of American newspapers that has been going on for the last 50 years, but that’s a pretty big project.
RF: One of the things I took away from our discussions last year was that the “crisis” in the newspaper business was actually not a new event so much as a continuation of a declining trend going back to the 1960’s. What has happened since last year?
ML: More of the same. The industry has still not had a calendar quarter with growth in total ad revenue, and paid circulation continues to fall at a pretty disastrous pace. Late last year industry execs began to tout an improving picture in the form of “moderating declines” — that is, a reduction in the annualized rate of loss from more than 20 percent to something in the teens. This is good news only if you’re Dilbert’s “pointy-headed boss,” who said in a recent strip, “We’ve been doing great since we redefined success as a slowing of failure.” The figure for first quarter of 2010 which just came out is a loss of 10 percent. (It was a loss of 11.4 percent in print, a gain of 4.9 percent in online advertising — the first in two years, combining for a loss of 9.7 percent overall and the 15th losing quarter in a row.) It’s possible that the second quarter will show just a single digit decline, with some companies reporting gains. But remember that this is on top of four years with a cumulative loss of about half (46 percent) of total newspaper ad revenue, and the recession officially ended six months earlier. And of course there is absolutely no indication of an end or reversal of those 50-year trendlines (lower household penetration on the circulation side, and smaller share of total U.S. ad spending on the advertising side).
RF: On your Nieman blog you have been making and tracking your predictions on this story. How have your predictions panned out this past year, and what do you see taking place by this time next year when we do our third annual interview?
ML: I posted the results of my 2009 predictions back in December, along with a new set of predictions for 2010. As it turns out, I was right that the stock market would be up about 15 percent during 2009, and that newspaper stocks would beat the market. (Basically, they had nowhere to go but up or out.) The rest of it was a mixed bag, with more wrongs than rights. I was most wrong in thinking that newspaper revenue would stabilize by the end of the year — as noted above, the losses were still well into the double digits at year-end. So for next year I’m being more cautious. My first-quarter ad revenue prediction was actually very close; I predicted a loss of 11 percent, it came in at 10 percent. I predicted online revenue would break eight consecutive losing quarters with a break-even result; it came in with a 4.9 percent gain, as noted above. I predicted a 7.5 percent circulation loss for the six-month period ending March 31; it came in at 8.7 percent weekdays and 6.5 percent Sundays. I also made a prediction regarding tablets — this is back in December before iPad mania began. I expected Apple’s tablet to hit later in the year, but I predicted a price point of $500 plus the data plan; it’s actually $499. Beyond that, I predicted there would be a wave of consolidation in the newspaper industry, which hasn’t happened yet, but the year’s not over. I also said that there will be big growth in the consumption of news on mobile devices, which includes tablets. And my bet on the Dow for 2010 is that it will be up 8 percent. So far it’s down 2.5 percent, so I guess I’m looking for a bounce. And I said that newspaper companies would lag the market as revenue continues to decline — that’s true of the New York Times Company and a few others, but not of Gannett, McClatchy and Scripps.
RF: Electronic readers existed this time last year, but it would have been hard to predict their burgeoning popularity, especially Apple’s iPad. How does this new technology impact the newspaper?
ML: Right, the iPad is just huge, with more than 2 million units sold so far. I posted a set of strategic suggestions to publishers with respect to the iPad and other tablets, which has gotten a pretty good response. Here’s the original post at NiemanLab; I refined this into a white paper at “News After Newspapers.” To put it in a nutshell, I think that publishers need to take tablets seriously, especially the iPad. Tablets will be much bigger as leisure-time devices than as workplace tools; they’ll be used at home and on vacation; they’ll be used in conjunction with other media (like surfing the web while watching TV). As confirmation, there’s already data showing that iPad share of web browsing peaks on weekends. And because of their leisure-time utility, tablets will power a major increase in online shopping, which has been kind of stuck in neutral for a few years. All of those are good reasons for publishers to explore how to use them. Nobody really knows yet what kinds of news and advertising formats will work best on tablets, but the experimentation has begun.
RF: I read the New York Times for free on-line most weekdays (I buy the print version on Sundays). The Times has announced it will begin charging for on-line content next year. There are some successful pay-for-content periodicals (I pay for both the Economist and The New Yorker, for example), but when Newsday put its on-line content behind a pay wall last October they only attracted thirty-five paid subscribers. What’s your best guess about the Times experiment?
ML: I’m reluctantly coming around to the idea that the Times might make this work, just as the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and others have done for some time already. You might still be able to read a lot of Times stuff for free, because they’ll be setting the threshold before the meter starts to run pretty high. This is counterintuitive — they believe that their most loyal, most intensive readers are will be willing to pay, so they’ll charge them and not the casual browsers. And they may be right. But I think that a year from now when we do this again, while the Times pay system might be working, most content at most newspaper sites around the country will still be freely available, because the kind of content that most papers can offer, relative to the richness of the Times, simply doesn’t give them any pricing power. If they try “paywalls” of any kind, most newspapers will be disappointed.
RF: I first heard the anecdote from you about the student in the focus group who said, “If the news is that important, it will find me.” When you told that to the Monday Evening Club, several of us were dismayed by the story, as if it depicted an uninterested and disengaged youth. But this past year I find it to be more and more true. In a media-saturated culture where we are all plugged in, the news more and more does seem to seek us out. And part of what that means is that by the time my wife asks me if I know about something she is reading in the daily newspaper, I have usually known it already for a day. Clearly the role of the daily in dispensing the breaking stories is changed. Is there a new role for them?
ML: Yes, but many of them don’t really understand it, unfortunately. The right role for a local news organization (let’s start by not calling it a news “paper”) is to be a platform-independent generator of news content. That means gathering news and distributing by whatever means are most appropriate, in a continuous cycle. That might include sending out Tweets about breaking news, as well as using Twitter and text-messaging to source information from readers; doing the same on Facebook and on reporters blogs; building multiple versions of a story that can go out as an email alert, a web site story, or via a tablet or smartphone app; and participating in and moderating reader comment discussion of it. The printed newspaper becomes a niche product with content pulled out of that stream every 24 hours for distribution to those who prefer that format, but it should no longer be the organization’s core, driving product.
RF: Last year you mentioned the loss of classified ads to the internet as another piece of the crisis. I notice that my kids and their young adult friends buy and sell everything on-line, from apartments to cars and pets. What has happened to that trend in the past year, and what does it mean for newspapers?
ML: That trend has continued unabated; classified advertising revenue was down 38 percent during 2009 and another 14 percent in the first quarter of 2010. It’s running at about one-third the pace it was five years ago, still sliding, and it’s never coming back. What newspapers should worry about now is whether retail advertising and shopping on iPad and other tablets can take a similar bite out of what’s left of newspaper display advertising and insert advertising. That’s a real danger. There are no retail marketers or advertising agencies trying to figure out how to spend more money in newspapers. They’re all interested in how to do more advertising and selling on mobile devices of all kinds.
RF: Thanks, Martin. We’ll see if newspapers survive long enough for us to have another interview next year.
>I started this blog back on March 23 and, frankly, I didn’t know what I was doing. My friend Martin Langeveld, who has a popular blog at Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, encouraged me to give it a try. He told me how easy it was to set up a blog on Blogger as indeed it is.
Martin had just created a blog for The Monday Evening Club, a group you could call an old boy’s club, except none of us are boys anymore. The club goes back to 1869, and Martin was lamenting that the papers club members had delivered over the years were mostly lost. He had suggested that we start archiving them on-line, and he began doing that as members made current and older papers available to him.
So archiving was part of my first model for blogging, and since I have written quite a lot over the years, I began to archive some of my writings, mostly on theology and ministry, onto my blog. None of these have been very popular, but they get a steady stream of hits, and it feels gratifying to have them available in this new format. Since my retirement in 2004 I have been casting about for something that feels like ministry, and blogging seems like it may be that. Since I have a disability (Traumatic Brain Injury) that limits my activity, blogging is good for me in that I can do it when I feel like it, and not do it when I don’t.
Due to the wonders of Google Analytics one can see how many hits each post gets, along with way more information than anybody needs to know about it. Its fun to begin the day with a visit to Analytics to see how many hits you’ve got, and where from all over the world they have come. There is a map of the world that shows you where and how many hits you get. Most of my hits come from the USA, with a number of others from English-speaking countries such as Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand.
I have to confess that watching Analytics brings out the competitor in me, and some days watching my blog’s progress feels less like a ministry and more like a game, like World of Warcraft without the killing part.
So my blog has a heavy theology/ministry focus, but Analytics reminds me this is not a world-beating formula to get a popular blog. My most popular single post was an interview of Martin I did on the future of newspapers. He referred to it on his NiemanLab blog, and the traffic spiked up, as well as the international diversity of the hits, including many from Europe. Of course, not everybody who is interested in the future of newspapers is interested in theology (the soteriology of P.T. Forsyth, for example). And so I wonder if some of these visitors wonder if they had landed on the blog of some strange Christian cult.
Likewise, my Facebook “friends,” many of whom are not Christian or even religious, and who get a notice of any new posts on their wall, must wonder just what Floyd is up to. Now that Facebook has put us back in touch with friends from High School and University that we may not have seen in thirty or forty years, I sometimes get messages such as, “You’re a minister?” Yup, for 34 years! And they may have trouble equating that with the basketball player, beer-guzzling frat boy, or hippie mystic they remember, depending on when they knew me.
So the blog is there each day to post or not to post, and some days it feels good to do it and other days it feels like a job.
And then some days I feel constrained by the theology focus and want to post about other interests in my life, such as cycling, food and wine, music, TBI, and the like.
One of my more popular posts was one I did on my first trip to Scotland and my first taste of single malt whisky. Why that one is more popular than my one on eschatology is anybody’s guess.
So it’s been fun blogging and I’m going to keep at it. It has put me in touch with some people around the world. The coolest connection was when I blogged on my love of books, and mentioned that my mother, who died in 1967, had been a middle school librarian, and one of her former students made this comment: “If your mother was the Mrs. Floyd who was the Wandell (Middle School) librarian in the ’60s, I remember her! She was wonderful. In fact, I use FLOYD as a password on book-related websites (what greater homage?)” That comment means a lot to me.
So if anybody is actually reading this, I hope to continue the theology and ministry focus, and archive some more of my published and unpublished articles, book reviews, hymn texts, lectures, etc. But I also hope to blog some recipes (I’ve been working on a cookbook for several decades), and touch on wine and whisky, Van Morrison, traumatic brain injury, and other various and sundry topics. As one of my friends likes to say about some preachers: “When you don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t know when you’ve done it!”
Martin Langeveld writes a regular blog for the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. He is a former publisher of several New England newspapers, including my hometown daily, the Berkshire Eagle. A few weeks ago I heard him deliver a paper entitled “Out of Print” to the Monday Evening Club. The following interview focuses on that paper and the ensuing conversation about it.
RF: The piece of information that most surprised me was that newspaper circulation has been in decline for decades, long before the proliferation of cable TV and the Internet. Why is that?
ML: Well, of course TV did start to eat into people’s time as early as the late 1940s. In absolute numbers, newspaper circulation peaked in 1984, but as a percentage of households (ie., how many households out of 100 take a newspaper), it has been dropping since since shortly after World War II, and more precipitously since 1969.
In 1940, there were 118 papers sold per 100 households. By 1947, this had actually risen to 132, but it has declined ever since. In 1969, there were still 100 newspapers sold for every 100 households, a 1-to-1 ratio, although obviously some households read no paper and others read several. By 1980, the rate had dropped to 77 per 100; in1990 it was 66 per 100; in 2000, it was 51 per 100, and in 2008 it was 42 per 100.
Clearly, this is a long-term trend that pre-dates the internet. It’s age-related: each successive age cohort reads newspapers less, and as it ages, it decreases its readership. Today even the prime newspaper-reading age groups of people in their 50s and 60s read newspapers less than those same people did 10, 20 and 30 years ago. The average newspaper reader today is about 60 years old, and that average continues to rise.
RF: Why did this happen?
ML: My feeling is that it relates to the proliferation of interests we have experienced since the first half of the 20th century. During most of the period from World War I right through Vietnam, the country had a lot of concerns in common: wars and the depression. We were all in the same boat together, we all talked about the same things, we had little disposable income for frivolous purchases and pursuits. So we all read the same newspapers to know what was going on, and newspapers could cover most of our common concerns and interests. But since the late 1960s, our interests have gone in a million different directions; generally increasing prosperity and discretionary income turned us into a nation of niche interests; and we just don’t want, or need, the common ground of a newspaper everyone in a community reads.
RF: You describe the current economic downturn, and the advent of Internet classifieds (such as Craigslist) as creating the conditions for “a perfect storm” that is accelerating the decline of an already faltering industry. Where do you see things headed?
ML: There has been no slowdown at all in the rate of decline. In fact, it’s accelerating. In the first quarter of 2009, the total advertising revenue drop for daily newspapers was almost 29 percent, following a drop of 17 percent for all of 2008 vs. 2007. And circulation for the 6 months ending March 31, 2009 dropped 7 percent versus the year-earlier period, which was the largest decline on record. So it’s hard to be optimistic.
On top of this, many newspaper owners have onerous debt loads they can’t handle any more; they have no access to credit or capital, and they’ve been cutting resources and talent for years. So it is hard to see how, as an industry, they can pull themselves out of this tailspin. That said, there are many individual newspapers, especially smaller ones, that are still profitable on an operating basis and probably have some life left in them. Eventually, however, I think the daily newspaper will be a thing of the past. But I do see a longer-term opportunity the dailies to morph into weeklies or twice-weeklies — my thought would be a Sunday-style weekend paper printed and distributed on Friday, with no breaking news, just features, analysis, and the traditional Sunday-paper function of being a guide to all other media.
RF: Some of the responders to your paper expressed concern that the loss of traditional journalism would mean less public and political accountability. What are your thoughts about that?
ML: For a long time already, newspapers have not been the sole watchdogs and trustees of accountability. Most people by far get their news from television (for better or worse, but there’s certainly good journalism on TV and cable), and late last year for the first time, news online moved into second place ahead of newspapers, which are now the third most-cited source for news. But beyond newspapers, there are plenty of other watchdogs organizations including various public-interest non-profits, and there is a fast-growing sector of for-profit and non-profit online news sites. What they cover is still spotty, but they’ll soon cover the spectrum from local to national including a lot of niches never really addressed by newspapers. This conjures up the notion of your neighborhood blogger working in pajamas, and those are around, but there will be plenty of individuals and organizations with a real journalism ethic and motivation. For example, there’s now a network of regional investigative journalism non-profits. The Associated Press has just announced a trial run to distribute their material. And there are numerous examples over the last decade when bloggers, not traditional media, have been the first to uncover something and blow the whistle (starting, for example, with the famous discrediting of Dan Rather’s 60 Minutes reporting about documents purporting to relate to George Bush’s military record; CBS fired a number of staffers in the aftermath and Rather’s reputation never really recovered).
RF: Although newspapers have on-line sites, they aren’t getting much share of the eyeballs. Why is that?
ML: Although newspapers were pioneers on the Web in the mid-1990s, they haven’t worked hard enough at keeping up with what it takes to attract eyeballs and to engage Web users (meaning, keep them longer on their sites). There’s any number of reasons for this. One is the chronic revenue problems of the last few years, which have meant that the online operations of newspapers haven’t gotten enough resources in manpower, hardware, or software. As result, for example, many newspapers still don’t put hyperlinks in their stories — something that’s just a basic and expected features of the Web. But their print-oriented content management systems don’t let reporters enter hyperlinks into stories, so the online versions have no links. Even the papers that do hyperlink often have reservations about linking to pages outside their own site — again, that’s a pretty basic Web practice and user expectation, but site editors have had a walled-garden mentality. Even The New York Times only introduced outside linking within the last year or so.
But the biggest reason newspapers don’t enjoy much visibility online is that they have not realized, at highest levels, that they need to become digital enterprises. Because of the demographic reasons I cited, as well as for environmental reasons and because of the sheer complexity and cost of the supply chain from trees in Canadian forests to your front stoop, nobody would invent the newspaper business model today if it didn’t already exist. The future for news and information delivery is just inevitably moving to the digital realm, including desktops, laptops, smartphones and e-readers. But to this day, newspaper editors and publishers are writing columns declaring that print is here to stay. The work flow of most newspapers is oriented around the press start time, not around a 24/7 online publishing culture. So all these things conspire to limit the usefulness and visibility of newspaper content on the Web, and as a result, newspapers do not have much standing in the top online news destinations. They get only about one percent of the total page views of U.S. Web users and a little more than one percent of the total time spent online. With the right practices, that could be dramatically better.
RF: Do you worry that a city without a daily newspaper will lose a common source that created community as the new sources of information fragment into niches?
ML: Not really. Communities have been breaking up into niche interest pockets on their own, it didn’t take the diminishment of the central position of newspapers to do that. “Community” stops being meaningful in larger cities, so in in terms of residential groupings I think we’re talking about villages, towns, small cities, and neighborhoods here. At this level, weekly newspapers may still be viable for a long time. But community web sites have good potential to fulfill that “community glue” role, as well.
Also, if you expand “community” to mean interests other than residential groupings, social networks like Facebook, and even unstructured messaging on cellphones and Twitter creates communities. On Facebook, and elsewhere on the Web, you can find interest groups to join on just about any subject that strikes your fancy. Before the Web came along in the early 1990s, there were “news groups” on the internet serving a lot of niche communities, but before that, it was a lot harder to meet up with, say, your fellow counted cross stitch enthusiasts. The whole concept of “Red Sox Nation” didn’t exist before the Internet enabled it.
And as bloggers, you and I both have the ability to attract our own niche community that’s focused on what we have to say. They interact with us by commenting, they recommend (or not) our ruminations to their friends, and they point us to interesting material to explore. And we interact with other bloggers to form a larger community centered on our interests.
RF: As a pastor for thirty years I always had an eye on how the newspaper served the community. You have described newspapers as local monopolies whose purpose was to get readers to attract advertisers. At the same time you described a tradition where publishers felt a mission to the betterment of the community. I’m thinking about how the Eagle back in the day had free obits, and a staffer who put them into a standard form. That is all gone. Now you pay and the family writes it and we get to hear about Fluffy the cat and Dad’s love of the Red Sox. And obits of community leaders often had a feature. I am thinking of our two recently deceased MEC members, Robert Newman, who was head of the Pittsfield Public Library for decades, and Tomas F. Plunkett, a former city counselor. Once upon a time there would have been a feature on the first page of the local section. That is an example of a community service that will go, but will anything take its place if its all about advertising?
ML: I think we’re in the middle of a transition from newspapers of record to something else of record, and during the transition, some things are getting lost. Not having front-page obits for community leaders like Bob or Tom is more a function of lack of institutional memory at The Eagle than it is about the changing business model for news.
And actually, I kind of like the content of some of the obits that are now printed just as the family submitted them. To me, they’re often more interesting than the editor-curated cut-and-dried ones. Remember that at First Church, in Pittsfield, only male deacons served communion until sometime in the 1960s, and they did so wearing tails. The deaconesses cleaned up afterward. Some traditions are not particularly missed.
So as we move through the transition, the newspaper’s role as the intermediary for obits may disappear entirely. There are already several national networks that publish obits tastefully and allow friends to record words of condolence in “guest books” (with a good approval system for those comments, by the way). The business model for these goes through newspapers right now, and newspapers are raking off an exorbitant fee while they still can, but there’s no reason the obit sites couldn’t work directly with funeral homes. And, while it may seem a little sacriligious to suggest this, there’s no reason Facebook couldn’t serve as a general conduit for people to learn about deaths in a community, as it already is beginning to do for births, weddings, birthdays and other lifecycle events.
RF: So in what other ways will people get their information where and when newspapers go away?
ML: Nobody really knows exactly, at this point. The Web is young, the transition from legacy media to the digital environment is not complete. But we’re starting to see where things might be going. Journalists that once had to be part of an infrastructure of bricks, mortar, machinery and trucks are creating a new ecosystem for news online. As I mentioned earlier, this includes a wide variety of sites ranging from local blogs to regional investigative sites to national political sites. On sites like Politico and RealClearPolitics, politics and especially elections are being covered with an intensity that no newspaper ever sustained. And on neighborhood blogs like WestSeattleBlog, communities are being covered in greater detail than radio, newspapers or television stations possibly could. We don’t have these in all communities yet, but I think we will.
Plus, new tools are coming along to connect us with news. A student in a focus group, whose name is not known as far as I can tell, is famous for having said, in response to the question of why he didn’t read newspapers: “If the news is that important, it will find me.” When newspapers were the principal source of news, we had to pick them up and read them. It was somewhere between a chore and a pleasure. On the Web, so far, we’ve had to use search and bookmarking or visit news aggregation sites to find news. In a way this is work, also, and has its frustrations. But increasingly, news just finds us — you get an email, a Tweet, you notice a Facebook post, something shows up in your RSS feed. And the Web is now developing user-centric tools that use semantic technology to connect people with news and information based on interests, preferences and demographics.