Background: Yesterday, I wrote something about how nostalgia blunted skeptical coverage of Aaron Kushner’s dumb — and now failing — plans to build a newspaper empire in southern California. I particularly singled out Ryan Chittum of Columbia Journalism Review and Ken Doctor of Nieman Labs as analysts who suspected that Kushner would fail, but waffled when it came time to tell their readers.
This morning brought this from Chittum.
— Ryan Chittum (@ryanchittum) June 18, 2014
Here’s my reply.
Before you pen that response, let me be very clear what I’m accusing you of: you knew that Kushner’s plan was terrible, and you knew why it was terrible, but you pulled your punches, because you didn’t like the implications of the things you knew, and because your readers would like them even less.
Here are the opening three grafs of a story you could have, and should have, written in 2013:
Aaron Kushner, a 40-year-old former greeting-card executive with zero experience in newspapers, believes that there’s money to be made in print. He’s determined to remake the OC Register with this strategy.
The odds are against his plan. The Register doesn’t have the benefit of an international audience or a financial-industry focus. It has installed a hard paywall, which has been unsuccessful most places it’s been tried. Meanwhile, readers have more sources for news and entertainment than ever, and print advertising is in an inexorable tailspin.
Despite this, Kushner, enamored with the idea of readers cutting out pictures from the paper and sticking them on the fridge, thinks he can get smartphone-obsessed teenagers to pick up an old-fashioned newspaper. “You can’t put an iPad on the refrigerator,” he says. “You can’t put it in a scrapbook. You can’t tape it to your locker.” But print-loving stalwarts are aging rapidly, and print isn’t picking up readers under 30.
Bracing, no? No doubt about where a piece like that is going.
You could have written that intro because you wrote every sentiment included here. You just spread them out and caveated them so much that only a careful reader could tell you actually assumed that Kushner’s plan was doomed.
And to write those grafs I just went through your piece and rescued those sentiments from their hiding places. (You didn’t tell your readers the odds favored failure ’til the 33rd of 34 paragraphs. You didn’t just bury the lede, you poured cement over the gravesite.)
And you should have written that piece because if you’d opened with those three grafs a year ago, you could have taken a victory lap today. You’d need no more than a tweet to deal with the recent implosion — “As I said a year ago…” Instead, you’re stuck explaining why a piece larded with skeptical asides nevertheless presented Kushner as someone conducting “the most interesting—and important—experiment in journalism right now.” Oops.
This is the key commonality between you and Ken Doctor, which is that you couldn’t stomach praising Freedom’s actual strategy, but you couldn’t bring yourself to criticize nostalgia as a business model either. (Reader uproar!) To get out of this bind you invented an alternate reality in which Kushner was using print as a kind of short-term revenue stream, while committed to a longer-term transition to digital. (Here Doctor was worse than you, fabricating a bunch of “virtuous circles” to make up for the fact that Step 1 of Kushner’s master plan was “Invest in the decaying parts of my business.”)
Even your skepticism about print was hedged. When it came time to say, straight out, that print advertising is in an inexorable tailspin, you could’t do it. Do you remember what you wrote instead?
Print advertising is—barring a miracle—in an inexorable tailspin.
“Barring a miracle”? What? All forward-looking statements are “barring a miracle”; you’d only use a construction like that to make the plain truth of print’s tailspin more palatable to your weepy old readers.
The bet on better journalism was always the key to success, not the emphasis on print itself.
Betting on journalism while de-emphasizing print sure sounds like an interesting plan. It does not, however, sound like Kushner’s plan. It’s not like there was sooper-seekrit Enron/Madoff stuff going on either; Kushner was stopping people on the street and telling them he was doubling down on print. This was a guy whose idea of sharing content involved fridge magnets.
And you knew. You knew a year ago. And you couldn’t bear to tell your readers without so much heming and hawing that you ended up shilling for Kushner instead of warning people away.