Thursday, July 30, 2009

July 2009: Newspapers

Maybe I should be writing about Armené and Michael’s wedding in this letter. But, it is too soon. I am basking, yet, in the glow but it is too soon. Plus, we have another wedding in September. I should wait until after Aram and Anoush’s wedding in September. Maybe I will write about the weddings in my December letter.

It was, however, on the way home, on the plane, from Armené’s wedding weekend that the idea for this month’s letter came to me. I was reading an interesting profile on Carlos Slim Helú in the June 1, 2009 issue of The New Yorker. The wealthy Mexican investor, it seems is in position to take ownership of the venerable New York Times.

Back in January of this year, Slim lent the newspaper $250 million. The paper needed cash desperately as they were over $1 billion in debt. Carlos Slim negotiated some very tough terms as he usually does which included getting warrants on 15.9 million shares of the Times Company. So with the stroke of a few pens and the electronic transfer of funds, Carlos Slim Helú became the New York Times’ “largest creditor and was poised to become one its largest stockholders – after members of the Ochs-Sulzberger clan, which has controlled the Times since 1896.”

Whoa… back up. The New York Times was over $1 billion in debt and in such dire straits that they agreed to loan from what some consider a Mexican robber baron of Lebanese descent. How could this institution, a national newspaper, the definitive source of news, the unofficial newspaper of record, be on the verge of going under? How can that happen?

Well it is happening to newspapers all across the country. Readership and subscriptions are down. Advertising revenues are down. Literally, the physical dimension of the paper has shrunk. On the other hand, the prices of newspapers are going up but not nearly at the rate that loses and debt are multiplying.

The reasons for this are not hard to figure out. Electronic media are eating into market share of print media if not making them outright obsolete. There are several 24/7 all news channels on television. Almost every cell phone can access Google, Yahoo, or something equivalent. It is incredibly easy and convenient to look things up on a whim. It is even easier with an iPhone or Blackberry.

I am not immune to the convenience of the Internet: I was in St. Louis playing music the weekend of July 18-19. On the drive back on Sunday the 19th, we were discussing how dangerous the use of cell phones was while driving. In a matter of seconds, I had a New York Times article on the subject on my Blackberry and was quoting statistics to my friends. The article was very current. It was from that day’s paper.

Ironically that day’s New York Times was waiting for me at home. I never saw the print article. I got home around 6 pm, had other things to do, and I was tired. I only read the Week in Review section of the paper. The next day the paper went into the recycling bin 90% unread. I hate when that happens, it seems like such a waste. On Tuesday, trash pick-up day, the Sunday paper, the only day I have home delivery was on its way to being recycled.

On that same Tuesday, I read an email from my cousin David Gavoor. He forwarded a link to the cover story of the Sunday New York Times Magazine entitled “This Boy’s Appetite” by Frank Bruni the restaurant critic for the paper. The article, which I have yet to read, is an excerpt from his forthcoming book and outlines his lifelong battle with his love of overeating. In this case I copy/pasted the entire article and saved it to read at my leisure as the hard copy magazine was already gone.

I love the convenience of the internet. Information, news, opinions, statistics are at the tip of my fingers via my laptop or Blackberry. These were cases from the past two days. By providing the link, anyone reading this can be reading the same articles in a matter of seconds and few clicks. In the old days, David would have had to cut out the article, or photocopy it, and mail it to me. I would have gotten the information a week or so later versus the few minutes the scenario I described took.

Newspaper Memories: There is something iconic about reading a real newspaper. As a young boy, I recall my Mother’s father Levon reading the Hairenik, the Armenian Daily newspaper that has since become a weekly. I recall my parents reading the Detroit Free Press. We had home delivery of the Free Press. So there was always a newspaper in our home. The tradition of seven day home delivery continued when I got married and moved into first an apartment and then our home. It stopped when we moved to Connecticut. I bought my daily papers at the train station and had weekend home delivery.

I recall there being three major newspapers in Detroit: the Detroit News, the Detroit Free Press, and the Detroit Times. I never read the Detroit Times. It closed when I was in grade school. The Detroit Times was sold to the Detroit News. For a short period, the News had both mastheads but only to provide some comfort and ease the rebranding to the readers and subscribers of the Times.

The Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News were the two papers I remembered most. The Free Press was a morning paper. The Detroit News was an evening paper. I believe the News was the more popular paper. Men used to come home, have dinner and then read the paper. During my youth, television news which was primarily an evening event made the evening newspaper obsolete. The print news was always older than what was being broadcast on the television at 6 pm. The News continued as an evening paper but eventually succumbed to reality and became a morning paper. It had to do that to stay both relevant and viable.

I remember the era of paperboys. Some of my classmates were making $10-20 a week delivering anywhere from 25 to 50+ newspapers by bicycle. That was pretty big money for teenagers back then. They had rugged bicycles that would be called cruisers today with big baskets to carry their newspapers. They would meet at a central location where a truck would drop off bundles of papers. The newsboys in the district would unbundle the papers, take their allotment, and fold them to facilitate throwing them onto or somewhere near the front porches of their customers as they would ride by. Once a week or fortnight, they would have to collect from their customers.

The Free Press boys were up and out at five in the morning. The Detroit News boys were busy from the time school let out until dinner. They did this seven days a week, year round, no matter what the weather. They were out in the rain and frigid cold of the Detroit winters. I often thought about trying to do the job, there was some allure to it. But, honestly, it was a more demanding job than I wanted to tackle.

Newspapers today are delivered by adults in cars. I am not sure the last time I saw newspapers delivered by a teenager on a bicycle.

When I began working at Ford Motor Company in 1976, everyone seemed to bring a newspaper to work with them. I did the same. I remember my boss would sit at his desk at lunch with his sack lunch and read the Detroit Free Press for the full lunch hour. He would peruse every page.
When I was in Connecticut and took the train into Manhattan, the newspaper was part of the ritual both ways. I read New York Times or the Wall Street Journal in the morning and the Daily News or New York Post on the way home. I was amazed by how the real seasoned pros would fold the Wall Street Journal in half lengthwise and read the entire paper that way turning each page, in essence twice. It was an art form. It made it so you never had to intrude into your seat mates space when you turned the page. The column layout of the paper actually facilitated this.

Shrinking Size, Rising Prices: Over the past few years as this newspaper crisis has developed two things have happened. Almost every paper, certainly all of the papers I know of, have shrunk in size and doubled in newsstand prices.

Literally the USA Today and New York Times are smaller. The page size is smaller; I am guessing 10 to 15% smaller in terms of length and width. The Boston Globe was 75¢ on weekdays. In April, the price was hiked to $1 in the city zone and $1.50 further out. The USA Today started off at 50¢ and stayed that way for many years. It went up to 75¢ a few years ago and this past October, it went to $1. Just recently, the New York Times jacked up prices from $1.50 to $2 for the weekday paper no matter what region. On Sundays, the New York Times now costs a whopping $5 in and around New York City and $6 elsewhere. On May 8, 2009, the Wall Street Journal put it quite simply: “These days, newspapers are scrambling to remain relevant - and solvent. The Times is betting that people will be willing to pay more money to read the editions.”

It is a simply a sign of the changing times. Circulation is down. Advertising is down. Prices therefore have to go up. Because advertising is down, the papers simply have less pages. They are not as thick. The Sunday New York Times used to be three inches thick and laden with full color advertising supplements. The Sunday Times is now about the thickness the weekday papers used to be.

Early some morning, go and buy a paper from a newspaper box, the kind you have to put coins in and open the door to get a paper. First, it may be harder to find than you might imagine. If you do find one, you will be surprised at the very small number of papers in the stack. I remember when these boxes used to be full in the morning. Now, they only load them with four or five papers… even at train stations!

As Detroit is the experiencing the worst of this recession, it is no surprise that the Detroit newspapers are feeling the crunch the hardest. The two newspapers have a joint operating agreement i.e. use the same print plant to reduce costs. They print a joint Sunday paper. On December 18, 2008, much to the consternation of my parents, the Detroit Free Press announced it was going to only provide home delivery on Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays. These are the heaviest advertising days. This move was made with the expressed intent of encouraging more internet delivery.

The Detroit Times was sold to the Detroit News on November 8, 1960 and ceased publication immediately. The reasons given for the sale of the paper ring hauntingly true today: “The sale was necessary because costs such as labor, newsprint, supplies, and equipment have risen far more rapidly than revenues.” It would have even been more relevant to today’s situation if they had mentioned that television was part of the cause for lower revenues.

July 29, 2008: Today the August 3, 2009 issue of The New Yorker arrived. The June 1 issue was responsible for the topic of this letter. The August 3 issue motivated the inclusion of this section.

There was an article entitled “A New Page: Can the Kindle really improve on the book?” by Nicholson Baker. The article explored the wonders and woes of the Kindle ( which is’s e-book. It is connected to the internet and can download books, newspapers, and magazines. The device is on its second generation which seems to have much more appeal than the first generation Kindle. The Kindle costs $299. At a mere 10 ounces and 8” x 5.3” x .36”, it is a sleek compact device and seems to be gaining traction in the marketplace.

Every time I see someone with them, I ask them what they think of the product. On my very unscientific sample of four, the reviews have been stellar. They love it. They say it was a great purchase. In The New Yorker article, there were similar glowing quotes from devoted users taken from the website e.g. “If I dropped my Kindle down a sewer, I would buy another one immediately.”

The cost to subscribe to the New York Times on the Kindle is $13.99 per month. The monthly cost for the Wall Street Journal is $14.99 and the USA Today is $9.99 a month. The monthly cost for The New Yorker magazine is $2.99 or 75¢. The cover price for the weekly magazine is $4.99 and the subscription price is 82¢. So, the Kindle media subscription prices are low but not as free as the internet.

The Kindle can hold 1,500 books. There are more than 300,000 books in the Kindle store. Amazing! I could amass more books, newspapers, and magazines at bargain prices. I would probably not read anymore than I do now but I would avoid the clutter. I would also forego the guilt of physically seeing unread books piling up in my library, bed stand, and other flat surfaces around the house.

The last thing I want to do is carry another electronic gadget and corresponding cords around in my briefcase. But, the Kindle takes up less space than a magazine and often I have a few magazines and a book that I am lugging around. The Kindle certainly has some advantages plus it has a bigger screen than my Blackberry. The product has a compelling value proposition.
What it is missing though, is the physical look, feel, and sound effects of a newspaper. I could and would probably read things on the Kindle. Heck, I read them on the itsy bitsy Blackberry screen and on my laptop. It is the feel of the paper, the crinkly sound of turning the pages, the need to re-assemble a section when you fall asleep and the paper slides off of your lap.

The physical paper and ink of books, newspapers, and magazines are tactile and comforting in a way rooted in my earliest memories. If they go away or are minimized, I will feel bad and miss them but they will be replaced by something better and cheaper.

I recall the nostalgic reminisces of my Mother regarding the heyday of radio broadcasts. Television made radio change to music and talk. It survived but in a new format. Television provided moving pictures and was in many ways superior. Yet, the nostalgia remains.
When the downtown Hudson’s Department Store closed in Detroit people were in an uproar. They had great memories of the place and were indignant to see the venue close down. Yet, not enough people shopped there to sustain the business. The corporation did what it had to do. The memories survive.

We love our icons. They provide great memories and root us. Any change can be unsettling but the change usually happens after we have already changed our habits. I call this blog/e-mail, a monthly letter because it evokes a memory more personal and handwritten.

I do not read newspapers as much as I did just five years ago. I have gravitated to the internet for convenience, timeliness, and the very low cost of getting what I want when I want it. But, I love the option of poring over the Sunday paper… when I can.

I may buy a Kindle someday, but probably not until the sound of newspaper being handled and manipulated can be mimicked. I also wonder, especially as I age, if the device is robust enough to survive falling to floor when I fall asleep reading it.

1 comment:

  1. From my old friend and long time reader George Mouradian:

    Dear Mark,

    You certainly brought back some nostalgia in your last letter. I remember being a Detroit Times carrier when the paper was three cents. We got a penny of that. The Sunday paper was ten cents, but we got three cents of that. If there were any ad inserts, we usually got one cent for each insert. The work wasn’t hard but it had to done (like a mail carrier). No goofing off. We weren’t especially glad about the Sunday paper because it was really heavy. I had to get the frame on my bike welded several times. The Thursday paper was heavy also because it usually was loaded with all kinds of ads for weekend sales. Delivery in the winter was really bad, especially when we had deep snow and cold temperatures. However, it was really a good deal for a young teenager making a few bucks and to learn a little about business procedures.