Restaurant critics dwindling

Just last week, the Times-Picayune in New Orleans laid off 200 employees. Brett Anderson, a James Beard Award winning critic was one of them. Eater has a pretty detailed round up of the remaining professional restaurant reviewers in some of the US’s more important food cities.

It all comes down to money: reviewing is an expensive operation. Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema once estimated he spends about $70,000 a year dining out on the paper’s dime. A full-time restaurant critic is also a position that’s considered more expendable than, say, political reporting, and a mighty attractive job for budget-slicing newspaper executives to cut.

Back in September, The Atlantic had a similar story a couple days after Sam Sifton left his position at the NY Times, and Pat Bruno was let go by the Chicago Sun-Times. This piece has more on the history of restaurant reviewers, which is worth at least a skim.

Fewer and fewer cities still have an Anton Ego-like personality dominating the food scene. As we noted here last month, Portland, Oregon lost its Ego analogue last year and has been surviving with a young, former crime writer on the restaurant beat (the food scene there flourishes). More and more, as newspapers shed their longstanding reviewers, those reviewers go on to write independently about food generally, and their jobs get folded into the paper’s general food-writing staff, such as when the SF Weekly replaced longform critic Meredith Brody with critic/blogger Jonathan Kauffman. The days of the all-powerful critic have already been declared over, but there will always be a need for smart people to write about food in a way that makes you want to eat it or not.

Restaurant critics dwindling

Mad vs Cracked

I clicked through on a Cracked list of 7 memes that went viral before the internet. I like stuff like that, sure. Seeing Alfred E. Neuman reminded me of a question I may have brought up before… If you had asked the kid me to predict 20 years down the line if Cracked would have a better brand than Mad, I never would have done it. Cracked seems to have figured out what the web wants, and has transitioned into a pretty sold web property. Compare that with Mad, which I just found out has a site on DC Comics with a lonely skyscraper ad down the side of the page.

Incidentally, I did not know Alfred E. Neuman came from bigoted anti-Irish propaganda. So there’s that.

Mad vs Cracked

A Month’s Worth of Links About Newspapers

I Read The News Today Exhibition, The British Library [120709]
Photo by Flickr user

It’s important to note when discussing the problems at newspapers that spending on advertising is down almost EVERYWHERE, not just in newspapers. Industries that are dependent on ad dollars, of which Big Newspaper is just one, are all hurting. Yes, circulation is down, but there aren’t less people reading the news necessarily, there are just less people subscribing to newspapers. If newspapers were able to charge higher fees for online advertising, they’d be in much better shape, obviously.

On that note, I noticed I had about a zillion tabs open related to the newspaper industry and I thought I’d collect them all here.

Via Daring Fireball, The Awl, demanding context from how bi-annual newspaper circulation numbers are typically reported, put together a chart showing newspaper circulation over the last 2 decades. It’s pretty if you like looking at line graphs with dramatically plummeting line graphs. The LA Times’ fall is breathtaking in its suddenness, and circulation is down 10% across the board.

In supporting Steve Coll’s idea that newspapers should be nonprofits and in attempting to determine the value of local newspapers, Clay Shirky decides to do a “news biopsy” on his hometown newspaper, the Columbia Daily Tribune. From his biopsy, he finds that only 1/6 of the newspaper is “created news” or content created by the newspaper’s 6 reporters and those 6 reporters work for a newspaper with 59 employees.

The city desk editors and the copy chief make the work…more valuable than it would otherwise be. But you can pick any multiplier you like for necessary editorial and support staff and that number, times six reporters, won’t be a big number. In particular, it won’t be 59, or anywhere near it.

His conclusion? “There are dozen or so reporters and editors in Columbia, Missouri, whose daily and public work is critical to the orderly functioning of that town, and those people are trapped inside a burning business model.”

Also commenting on the “the power and necessity of local reporting” uses the recent Samoan earthquake/tsunami as an example of the big guys besting the little guys.

Newsosaur looked into pay walls and found that paywalls might never come because publishers are realizing they can’t afford to lose the traffic a paywall would cost. Which is good news, because some columnists are quitting over paywalls. At the end of the Newsosaur’s piece, there is bleating from Stephen Brill that, “You are misinformed about folks being less inclined” to add paywalls. Stephen Brill, by the way, founded Journalism Online, a company dedicated to helping publishers charge consumers for content, so, you know, he might be biased. (Journalism Online has a funny section of their site called Why Readers Will Pay For Online News, which features several different newspapers talking about why people SHOULD pay for news, but not why they WILL. That’s a distinction worth making.)

Finally, via Kottke, Daniel Gross has a piece in Slate that says despite the falling circulations numbers, it’s not as bad as you think. Several publishers were able to raise subscription revenue by raising subscription costs enough to make up for canceled subscriptions. “This is the new emerging model—cutting costs, raising prices.”

I debated whether to include this last one because I kind of hate Megan McArdle’s writing. I figured since I had already read her post and linked it, I’d leave it there for you to decide if you want to read it or not. Here’s Megan McArdle doing what she does best, spewing confusing nonsense. She doesn’t add anything to the conversation, but wants you to know she’s very concerned about the future of journalism.

A Month’s Worth of Links About Newspapers

David Simon’s Senate Testimony on the Newspaper Business

Last week, David Simon was invited to testify in front of the Senate Commerce Committee and had some good stuff to say, along with some ridiculous. (Ridiculous stuff, thoroughly explored in this Gawker post.)

Simon’s testimony touches on what he sees as the reasons for the downfall of newspapers. He’s mostly right on why newspaper’s aren’t good anymore, but the lack of quality reporting (which Simon says is due to cuts by management) isn’t what keeps me from buying the paper. I doubt that’s why you don’t buy it, either. Simon has a little Buzz Bissinger in him, dismissing the idea and quality of news-gathering bloggers, but not hating on them in the same Buzzy way. I’ve heard Simon use snippets of this before in other places, but still worth skimming all the way.


What I say will likely conflict with what representatives of the newspaper industry will claim for themselves. And I can imagine little agreement with those who speak for new media. From the captains of the newspaper industry, you will hear a certain martyrology – a claim that they were heroically serving democracy to their utmost only to be undone by a cataclysmic shift in technology and the arrival of all things web-based. From those speaking on behalf of new media, weblogs and that which goes twitter, you will be treated to assurances that American journalism has a perfectly fine future online, and that a great democratization in newsgathering is taking place.


But when that same newspaper executive then goes on to claim that this predicament has occurred through no fault on the industry’s part, that they have merely been undone by new technologies, feel free to kick out his teeth. At that point, he’s as fraudulent as the most self-aggrandized blogger.


Similarly, there can be no serious consideration of public funding for newspapers. High-end journalism can and should bite any hand that tries to feed it, and it should bite a government hand most viciously. Moreover, it is the right of every American to despise his local newspaper – for being too liberal or too conservative, for covering X and not covering Y, for spelling your name wrong when you do something notable and spelling it correctly when you are seen as dishonorable. And it is the birthright of every healthy newspaper to hold itself indifferent to such constant disdain and be nonetheless read by all. Because in the end, despite all flaws, there is no better model for a comprehensive and independent review of society than a modern newspaper. As love-hate relationships go, this is a pretty intricate one. An exchange of public money would pull both sides from their comfort zone and prove unacceptable to all.

Be sure to read the whole thing so you can giggle aloud when Simon suggest (teehee!) collusion! (Thanks, Matt)

David Simon’s Senate Testimony on the Newspaper Business

The New York Times Kills Itself and Bacon Meme at Same Time

A couple weeks ago, The New York Times wisely introduced Article Skimmer as an additional way for readers to interact with the news. It’s fast, intuitive, and easy to use. I put this in the solidly innovative column that I’ve seen a bunch of from the Times over the last year or so.

But then let me introduce Skimmer’s Bacon topic. I’ve been trying to think of a way to kill the bacon meme since January or so, but the New York Times just did it for me. I’m tired of the internet that allows lazy marketers to layer whatever they want with bacon and score cheap internet traffic. That’s not an internet I want to live in, and I don’t think that’s the internet you want either.

I can’t help but think the bacon topic is aimed at this cheap internet traffic and by catering to it, the New York Times has debased itself. Who do they think they are, really? They could have maintained their stodgy standoffishness, but by rolling around the mud with the pigs…well, let’s just say that ‘arbiter of cool’ The New York Times is not. To say nothing of the fact that if you’re a meme, and people send around links about you, and then everyone on the internet is talking about you, and then The Paper of Record talks about you, you’re not a meme anymore. You’ve baconed the Times or some other cute play on jumping the shark. It should be noted for the record that, for the sake of my argument, I’ve ignored the likely scenario that the Topics on Skimmer are automatically created based on what the readers are searching for and reading. If that’s not how Topics get created, well that’s just sad. (Thanks, Aaron!)

Click image to enlarge.

The New York Times Kills Itself and Bacon Meme at Same Time

I Give Up – Why Publishing is in Trouble Redux

Last week, I flipped out a little at the news that the Hudson River Hero, Sully Sullenberger, was about to sign a book deal for 2 books and $2.5 Million. Well, it’s official and it’s worse than I thought. The deal is for $3.2 Million dollars! And the second book is a book of inspirational poems. Last week I wondered if Sully was a ‘pilot Hemingway’, not even having the balls for the terribly alliterative ‘pilot poet.’

Good for Sully. Publishers, you’re doing this to yourself.

Oh, and since we haven’t talked about it in a couple weeks, Clay Shirky says newspapers are still fucked, too.

Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving newspapers demanding to know “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.

I Give Up – Why Publishing is in Trouble Redux

Why Publishing is in Trouble, Part 35

Nothing against Sully, but this news that he, “Has already received at least one offer, a two-book deal worth $2.5 million” is wht publishing is in trouble: THEY KEEP PAYING A LOT OF MONEY TO PUBLISH BOOKS NOBODY WANTS TO BUY. Sure, Sullenberger could surprise everyone and be a pilot Hemingway, maybe he’s got a Marley inside of him, but who really knows and the idea that anyone would give him $2.5 million to find out is insane (a working definition of which is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result)! Further, he only landed one plane, what could he possibly write about in the second book? To be clear, Sully should get all the book deals and endorsements he can and then laugh all the way to his recliner. The man’s a hero, he landed his plane in a river surrounded by cities, but that doesn’t make him a writer, and the publisher who signs him will surely see remaindered copies of both books inside the entrance to a Barnes and Noble. /rant

Why Publishing is in Trouble, Part 35

Some Hope For Media?

A reader of Talking Points Memo writes in to suggest there may be hope yet for struggling newspapers. Essentially, quite a few of the troubled newspapers operate profitably, just not profitably enough to cover the interest payments of these over-leveraged corporations.

So, these bankruptcies may in the medium to long run be good for journalism (in the traditional sense). Assuming the new owners emerge from bankruptcy with limited debt, the papers have many positive attributes upon which to earn a reasonable profit while building new sources of revenue. They have an unparalleled local focus and understanding, they are the most efficient vehicle for several categories of advertising, and they have significant advertising sales forces that can be re-focused on lines of business that can sustain the papers over the long haul. This is particularly true if the surviving owners are people who believe in the public trust mission of their papers and news-oriented web channels.

Also, in an interview with Michael Lewis in The Atlantic, we learn that Lewis isn’t concerned about the magazine industry.

Well it makes it a little hard for me to prophesize doom. And I hate spinning theories to which I’m an exception. So my sense is, there’ll always be a hunger for long-form journalism, and that it’s just a question of how it’s packaged. And that people will always figure out how to make it sort of viable. It’s never going to be a hugely profitable business: it’s more like the movie business or the car business in that there are all sorts of good non-economic reasons to be involved in it. The economic returns will always probably be driven down by too many people wanting to be in it.

But I don’t feel gloomy about the magazine business at all.

Some Hope For Media?

The Business Of The New York Times

Here’s a New York Magazine article about the nerds at The New York Times who are doing extremely nifty things with their website. (The Year In Ideas 2008, the chart they put together for movie earnings, and to a lesser extent the galleries (like this one of Obama’s People) come to mind.)

What they’re doing isn’t earth shattering web design, but it does seem to be far and away above what other newspapers are doing and, frankly, how any other websites are presenting news.

I have little faith in web advertising as a sustainable revenue model capable of supporting a website (actually supporting an entire company, print media is circling the drain) like over the long term. The Times released earnings yesterday showing digital ad spending down (“Digital ad revenues, which grew at a rate of 15 percent in the year-earlier quarter, were down 3.5 percent in Q4 2008.”) (Then again, Twitter says media is thriving, so who knows.)

I was talking about this with friends and suggesting in the future we might see “ Presented by Apple” (or by Google, or by Microsoft, or by Coca Cola, you get the idea). It’s a destination on the web for people, but in order to keep presenting the news in new and innovative ways, they’re going to need CPMs that just aren’t attainable. Being owned and presented by a company not in the news business seems to me like a very viable option.

2 questions for you:
I’m more fascinated by the melting down of the traditional media than in the auto industry, am I alone on this?
Is the above paragraph completely crazy?

The Business Of The New York Times

Publishing is Changing

A couple weeks ago, there was a long article in New York Magazine about the end of publishing. It was interesting in the way that watching a car accident happen is interesting, only this is a car accident that you could have predicted was going to happen 20 years ago. You simply can’t keep paying a lot of money for something (in this case a book) that’s not going to make you a lot of money.

Last week, the author of that article tied it all together with another short blurb comparing Random House to General Motors, the only difference being Random House’s back list has some value.

It got me thinking a couple things:

It’s not that publishing is over, or banking, or auto manufacturers, or the music industry. This isn’t a coincidence. These are all businesses that haven’t evolved from where they were and they’re getting punished for it.

Why do e-books cost as much as an album? The article above has the price of ebooks for your Kindle at $9.99 similar to a price for an album on iTunes. Maybe iTunes has kept the price of an MP3 low, but a song or album you can listen to over and over and over again, while a book…how often do you read a book? Even your favorite book. If publishers agree to lower the cost of ebooks to $5, they’ll sell more than twice as many. Mark it, dude.

Oh, and the NY Times Magazine says journalism has to change, also, or they’ll be dead, too.

Oh, and James Surowiecki says Newspapers are toast, too.

Had the bosses realized that they were in the transportation business, rather than the railroad business, they could have moved into trucking and air transport, rather than letting other companies dominate. By extension, many argue that if newspapers had understood they were in the information business, rather than the print business, they would have adapted more quickly and more successfully to the Net.

Publishing is Changing