Farewell, Editor & Publisher (We all knew this day would come)

7 min read
By Steve Outing

Writing a column (“Stop The Presses!“) for Editor & Publisher Online, where I’ve covered the intersection (perhaps I should call it a collision) of the Internet and newspapers since 1995, is the longest-running professional gig I’ve ever had. The only things in my life that have lasted longer are my marriage (21 years) and being a parent (17 years).

So it’s with sadness that I learned this morning that the Nielsen Co. is shutting down E&P after being unable to sell it along with its other publications. E&P’s roots go back to 1884 and it long was considered “the bible of the newspaper industry.” I can’t say that I’m surprised; indeed, the only surprise was that the magazine and website lasted this long, as did my monthly column. (Many other E&P columns by non-staff members were cut earlier on for budgetary reasons.)

E&P shutting down

If you’re expecting details from me, I don’t have many, since I am not nor ever have I been an E&P or Nielsen employee; my column has always been a freelance or contract arrangement, one of many things that I do around the digital-news space. So based here in Boulder, Colorado, I’ve seldom known the “inside dope” about what was happening in the New York office, and didn’t know in advance that this was coming. (Indeed, just yesterday I’d been faxed my contract to sign for next year, so my editors at E&P didn’t know, either. That’s one item to delete from my to-do list for today.)

I can tell you that things are up in the air in terms of what happens to the “Editor & Publisher” brand, but that its staff will be out of their offices by the end of the year. (“Happy Holidays, E&P gang! -Love, Nielsen Co.”)

I kept writing my E&P column for so long, I guess, because I came out of the newspaper business (from 1978 to 1993 I worked mostly at newspapers in Colorado and California) and maintained an affinity for newspapers and the brand of journalism they produce. In late 1993 when the Internet came onto the scene (that’s when the first web browser was introduced to the world), I viewed it as transformational — and expected that it could transform the newspaper industry; and with my prior experience and enthusiasm for the new online world I surmised that I might be able to help, by closing watching new online trends that could affect newspapers and identifying new technologies and trends that could be leveraged by newspapers.

Ah, if I’d only known then. … If only I’d realized that the newspaper culture was too mired in the muck of its own long history, and that its leaders would, for the most part, resist-resist-resist the rapid changes required by the evolving digital culture to do what needed to be done to survive. I might have taken the new route rather than trying to repave the old one with new materials, transforming a sleepy two-lane into a sleek new super-highway.

That’s not meant as a criticism of the digital-media folks that have toiled in the newspaper industry this last decade and a half, with the same mission as I had. Those fine and smart people on the inside, and people like me on the outside offering advice and ideas for surviving the digital revolution, generally saw the direction things should go. Alas, so often it was the top leaders who held back the digital pioneers and their crazy ideas for fear of hurting the cash cow that was the printed newspaper.

Indeed, that attitude still holds true at the top of many companies, it seems. A profound moment of disappointment — when I think my mind finally lost the last tiny shread of hope for the newspaper industry — was this summer, when during a reinveinting-news conference I had a few minutes for a private conversation with the CEO of one of the largest U.S. newspaper companies. He told me that his firm’s intention of putting up pay-walls at most of its newspaper websites was meant primarily as a strategy to drive more print revenues. He said he didn’t expect to earn much from the web side with the pay-wall strategy.

That same company (I’ll be polite and refrain from naming it) early this year had me do a small consulting job, to do some research on social-media directors at other news companies and determine if it was worth it for the company to create such a position at the corporate level. I came back with estimates of how other news companies had fared with a person in that position, including estimates of increased website traffic and additional revenues from increased social-media activity and initiatives. I also made the case that ignoring social media would be a huge mistake, because it is a huge part of the future of news.

You guessed it. I later heard from the interactive-division VP who hired me that it was decided (above his level) that the social-media position would not be created, because management couldn’t see enough of a ROI in the short term, and of course money was tight for creating new positions. I just shook my head in disbelief. But, again, I wasn’t surprised.

Writing my E&P column for so long, I’ve received plenty of accolades for identifying breaking trends and alerting newspaper digital managers of technologies that they should deploy and business models they should investigate. I’ve also gotten plenty of criticisms from journalists and publishers who I describe as “old school,” who thought that my ideas would hurt the industry by hurting print revenues.

I’ve also been asked, a lot lately, why I continue to “preach to people who obviously won’t listen to what you have to say?” That’s crossed my mind for quite a while, and in that respect it’s a bit of a relief to stop writing a column that’s targeted to newspaper leaders to offer them ideas for evolving into digital creatures. This “opportunity” of losing my column aimed at a newspaper-industry audience will allow me to write more broadly about the future of news and journalism, and the new news eco-system that is evolving to fill in the gaps left by dwindling old news media.

As many others have said, journalism isn’t in danger of extinction, but newspaper print editions are. That the industry could lose its dominant and oldest trade journal is another signal itself of many more newspapers’ demise or slide into irrelevancy.

I’ll keep covering the news industry and news digital trends in this blog. But you’ll see less of me cheerleading a newspaper industry that seems bent on self-destruction. If every newspaper would take digital opportunities as seriously as does the New York Times, which has a large technology staff to go along with its still-large editorial staff, then there’d be hope. But it’s the rare few newspapers in larger markets that will survive long term because they will adapt and innovate sufficiently, like the NYT. (Small-town papers have much more of a cushion against extinction.)

Finally, lest I appear to put all the blame on newspaper industry CEOs for their myopic vision, I feel that I let the newspaper industry down, as did E&P. I and they were not strident enough with our criticisms, apparently, or strong enough with our arguments, to convince newspapers’ top leaders that they needed to get on the digital path more quickly and more solidly. I end my E&P column thinking that I could and should have done more. But at the same time, I thoroughly enjoyed the many people I met in the newspaper industry, many of them innovators and visionaries.

I’ll be continuing to guide the news industry with my latest project, which is founding the Digital Media Test Kitchen at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I don’t even have a finished website to point you to yet, but we’ll debut soon.

15 Responses to "Farewell, Editor & Publisher (We all knew this day would come)"

  1. Allan Hoving
    Allan Hoving 5 years ago .Reply

    Great piece, Steve. btw, I predict E&P will survive online.

  2. Adam Levy
    Adam Levy 5 years ago .Reply

    Steve, I’m not sure that your fault was not being strident enough in your criticism of news media CEOs. You can tell someone something they don’t want to hear a million different ways, and they still won’t listen.

  3. Jennifer
    Jennifer 5 years ago .Reply

    Nicely said. And if you ever need a chef in that test kitchen, let me know.

  4. DBH / Talking New Media

    A sad day.

    I agree with Allan, the brand will live on simply because it benefits everyone that it does: Nielsen can get a few bucks for the archives and url; the newspaper industry needs a voice, doesn’t it?; and maybe one or two jobs can be saved.

  5. Tom Johnson
    Tom Johnson 5 years ago .Reply

    Steve:
    I guess we each have our “screw ‘em” moments. Yours was the conversation with the CEO and then the VP. Mine came earlier this year. We were about to launch a fund-raising/data mining effort to try and determine why some newspapers survived, others failed and a third group sorta kept moving along with respectable profits. The day a meeting with potential funders and advisors was scheduled, the Atlanta C-J totally shut down its new research dept. I thanked the attendees for coming, but told them “Forget it, folks. The newspaper industry just doesn’t understand the process of making quality news and never will. This project is canceled, and from now on, the IAJ is looking totally to the future instead of trying to assist the industry by learning from the past.”

    Good luck with your cookin’ in the CU kitchen.
    -tom

  6. Roger Plothow
    Roger Plothow 5 years ago .Reply

    My I humbly submit, Steve, that the sad demise of E&P is yet another example of why you’re wrong. Didn’t they essentially follow your proposed model of free access, unique content and advertising? And yet, it failed.

    As a friend of mine (an ad director in Texas) noted, he used to be a faithful subscriber to E&P until they provided it for free. How many thousand times did that scenario play out?

    Your loyal opposition,

    Roger Plothow
    Editor and Publisher
    Post Register
    Idaho Falls, Idaho

  7. Bruce Wood
    Bruce Wood 5 years ago .Reply

    I’m sorry to read of E&P’s folding. I’m surprised it didn’t go quarterly instead.
    While I don’t believe newspapers should continue to do things the way they’ve always done them, I’m more inclined to agree with Roger when it comes to paying for news on the web.
    While we’re only a weekly, we’ve flipped the usual format and deliver the newspaper for free in the target market area and just recently started charging for online access. Since it’s the printed newspaper that generates the lion’s share of our revenue, it makes no sense to spend dollars chasing the nickels of online revenue.
    According to independent surveys, our newspaper readership has held steady over the past four years at over 60% of adults naming us as their number one source for local news.
    And while you’re correct to claim that we’re “protecting” the printed newspaper, why shouldn’t we? That’s what is paying the salaries of the reporters writing the news.
    Since readers are price sensitive, let them read the printed paper for free and pay for the electronic version with all its bells and whistles.

  8. Mike Peterson
    Mike Peterson 5 years ago .Reply

    I’ve respected your work, Steve. You don’t get into the Jeff Jarvis mode of “It’ll be groovy and we’ll all live in domes” cosmic idealism. But it’s inexcusable for a trade journal like E&P to fail, while another trade journal, the Wall Street Journal, has made the online/print thing work for them. I think there has been considerable mission drift under Greg Mitchell, not in a liberal/conservative mode but in the slant towards the newsroom at the expense of circ, advertising and production coverage. I agree to some extent with Roger in that there is a question of why you should buy the cow when the milk is free, but I also think more and more segments of the paper found their interests minimized while the newsroom segment of the magazine swelled. I would also suggest that a better on-line product — starting with comments at each article and email addresses for contacting the authors — would have changed the tone of “do we want to keep paying for all these subscriptions?” around the conference table. If I’m in the pressroom or advertising, my answer is, “I can live without it.” And you can’t succeed if your target audience doesn’t need you.

    As noted on my own blog, E&P could have retreated behind the same pay wall that protects the WSJ — but only by remaining vital. Which, I’m sorry to say, it did not manage to do.

  9. Allan Hoving
    Allan Hoving 5 years ago .Reply

    Or E&P could have actually helped pioneer a viable method of online monetization (like, oh, i don’t know… maybe… PayCheckr.com)

  10. [...] Steve Outing: Farewell, Editor & Publisher (We all knew this day would come) [...]

  11. [...] few went deeper, though, on what E&P stood for and what killed it. Longtime E&P columnist Steve Outing reflected on the newspaper industry’s resistance to change, adding that “I let the newspaper [...]

  12. Steve Outing
    Steve Outing 5 years ago .Reply

    Apologies for being slow to respond to the comments on this item! …

    DBH: As a (physically distant) contractor and not an employee of E&P/Nielsen, I probably have a different perspective. I don’t know that the E&P brand will live on necessarily, because there are so many other online venues that do a good job of tracking news-industry news and trends. I say this in part because I really thought the Rocky Mountain News brand would live on in some way in Denver. But while owner Scripps gave the archives to the Denver Public Library, at this point I still don’t think the brand name has been released by the company, even though it supposedly was on the market. (I know because I tried to get it for a higher-ed project.) Guess they’d rather see it die than someone else carry it on and maybe not live up to the quality of the brand when it was alive. That makes me feel less than confident that E&P will live on in some way. (Though I hope it does.)

    Roger: A trade magazine model is very different indeed than for a newspaper in the digital age. I did not advise them on their model, and would have wanted to see E&P do things differently than it did (and felt that way for a long time). They *had a pay-wall model*, but it was with older content; you had to be a member to search the archives for my older columns, for example. You also paid if you wanted the monthly print magazine. Had they put their current web news behind a pay-wall, I don’t think it would have worked well because of the competition from other free sources. Nieman Media Lab, for example, does a great job covering the news and media space on the digital side; had E&P locked down its newest coverage, outfits like that would have taken advantage and grabbed a bunch of E&P traffic. Ditto for Poynter.org, which could have stepped in to cover newspapers more broadly and not just focus on digital as with Nieman’s blog. And of course Romenesko had a big impact, I believe; E&P should have hired him long ago when he was shopping his media blog around.

    So no, I don’t think they followed my advice. If they had, there would be a strong community on the site and every article would have at least had comment threads; they’d have had more blogs earlier; they’d have created premium web and mobile services that offered better value and a better experience (including perhaps communities limited to paying subscribers) rather than try to charge for content that’s not unique. They’d be the top aggregator/curator of newspaper-industry news.

    Personally, I think the deck was simply stacked against E&P. I’m not the first to say that they operated in a troubled industry (magazines) reporting on an industry in serious decline (newspapers). Just as with many newspapers, I don’t get the sense that Nielsen gave them enough resources to develop a forward strategy. (E.g., they were burdened by a corporate CMS that wouldn’t even allow them to have comments on articles! I complained about that for many years and multiple editors before Mitchell.) That’s why I wasn’t surprised at the news of Nielsen’s decision to kill it.

    Bruce: Protecting the newspaper is fine by me, as long as you’re also planning and building for the digital future. Your strategy sounds like it could work short-term, but what then when advertiser and audience behavior has flipped in your market? (Admittedly I don’t know much about your specific market.) I advocate for planning and building for the future that we know is coming — some places sooner than others.

  13. Tom Johnson
    Tom Johnson 5 years ago .Reply

    What will happen to the E&P Yearbook, both the archived data and who will pick up the banner to collect that data in the future?
    -tj

  14. [...] Steve Outing: Farewell, Editor & Publisher (We all knew this day would come) [...]

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