Dear Walter Hussman (Gwen Moritz Editor's Note)

by Gwen Moritz  on Monday, Oct. 21, 2013 12:00 am  

Walter Hussman

Dear Mr. Hussman,

My husband worked for you for less than a year more than a decade ago. Otherwise, my only experience with you has been as a respectful competitor. I haven’t always agreed with some editorial decisions at your Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, but I have always respected your business acumen and, even more, your dedication to providing our state with a vibrant news product. People whose only experience with out-of-state daily newspapers consists of The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times truly do not know how good we have it here in Arkansas.

Even if you hadn’t beaten the Arkansas Gazette, both when it was locally owned and when Gannett Co. tried to figure out Arkansas, your foresight in refusing to give away much of your valuable news content online is prima facie evidence that you are one of the smartest operators in the industry. Unfortunately, the rest of our industry (including my own company) wasn’t as smart, and I imagine that it is beyond frustrating to realize that making the right call hasn’t protected your business from the mistakes of the pack.

When you raised the subscription price on the Democrat-Gazette here in central Arkansas awhile back, I grumbled but paid up. My biggest complaint was the fact that subscribers in some parts of the state were still getting the product for less than I had to pay. I also feared that such a big increase (about 75 percent) all at once would cost you a huge number of subscribers — much more than the 12 percent or so that you did lose — because I know that the quality of the product I’m buying depends on the total amount of revenue you are pulling in. Someday I’ll learn not to second-guess your business decisions.

Now you have extended the price increase to the northwest part of the state, a fact that I learned from Facebook. You are undoubtedly much too smart to waste as much time on Facebook as I do, so I’ll tell you what I saw there. A television news executive in that part of the state “translated” your announcement to his Facebook circle: “That newspaper, whose strategy for delivering instant news on mobile platforms is way behind the times, now is really struggling and soon will charge readers even more for old news in print.”

And folks started to pile on, which is the Facebook way and can sometimes be a guilty pleasure. But in this case, the ignorance on display was depressing. One man who said he had worked as a reporter for a while diagnosed the fundamental problem with newspapers as low salaries for reporters. (He also said that newspaper publishers haven’t figured out that their subscribers are getting old and dying off. Nor, I suppose, have you noticed that the sun rises in the East.)

Another said what newspapers need is more in-depth reporting. Yet another said that newspapers could make money by “going into an online format or a heavily video-centric format.”

Not one of the helpful Facebook experts seemed to understand that dollars vaporize — poof! — when advertising moves from print to the Web. It’s like suggesting that a car salesman improve his commissions by selling wheelbarrows rather than Mercedes. Until and unless something changes dramatically, embracing online and mobile news equals less revenue, not more. And fewer advertising dollars do not, it should be obvious, result in better-paid reporters and more in-depth reporting.

I tried to defend you — not because it’s my job or duty, but because I’m just hard-wired to try to correct factual errors whenever I can. But the comments just got sillier and sadder. A TV news producer (who may not have been born when you beat Gannett) told me that “paying for news sucks” and asked why newspapers insist on wasting so many resources covering boring things like the Legislature “when they could be writing stories and, you know, doing productive things?” I figure your higher rates aren’t going to cost you his subscription, if you get my drift. His journalism professors must be mighty proud.

The whole exchange made me want to say, personally and publicly, that I value the Democrat-Gazette even as my staff and I try every day to deliver a superior business niche product. There’s nothing easier than doing someone else’s job, unless it’s raising someone else’s children. Some problems — the federal budget, poverty, immigration policy, the Middle East and the financial collapse of the newspaper industry — are intractable specifically because they defy easy Facebook answers.

I wish you the very best.

Your faithful subscriber,

Gwen Moritz

Editor, Arkansas Business

GMoritz@ABPG.com

 

 

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