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Why Newspapers Are Failing

Posted by Geoff Edgers  February 24, 2008 01:47 PM

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I've been thinking a lot about Douglas McLennan's essay on the newspaper business, and how it relates to what I do.

He makes an excellent point about the advertising kinks the mainstreamers need to work out as they transition into the Tubes. With absolutely no inside knowledge, I'll speculate on why it is taking so long to come up with a solution.

I don't pay much attention to newspaper circulation figures. I mean, I note them when they're released, and wish they were increasing, not sliding. But I don't feel a connection to those numbers. It's not as if writing X number of stories about Y subject is going to shift the tides.

The Net, though, is a different story.

Take my own experience with the Exhibitionist. When I began this blog, I asked the Boston.com folks to send me daily page view figures. I wasn't just curious. I wanted to see how this blog beast worked. I can already hear the snooty, arts-coverage-is-being-dumbed-down lobby responding to the horror of a writer who cares about numbers.

To them, I say this. Newspapers are a business. If we truly care about making sure arts coverage remains a vital part of that business, we need to stay relevant. That means remembering that the stakes at the Boston Globe are different than in a creative writing group, or an independent blog. You can't hide when nobody's reading. Eventually, somebody in charge is going to notice. Then, you're cooked.

Back to the numbers.

It was depressing at first. The Red Sox and Patriots blogs had hundreds of thousands of built-in visitors. In the arts, pop music, TV and movies were the early leaders. The Exhibitionist - a blog about museums, classical music, etc.? Way down the line.

So I started to experiment.

There would be plenty of entries like this, where I dug for information, took on a somewhat complicated subject, and broke "news" on the blog BUT I would also post entries such as this.

I'd then watch the numbers.

The Paris Hilton post, for example, took all of 27 seconds to produce, and didn't even require a right brain warm-up. But it had legs. The Hilton post got linked on Drudge, and who knows how many google news alerts led to my url. In the end, Paris rolled up more than 100,000 page views. Barenboim? That number's hovering around 500, if I'm lucky.

Which doesn't mean the entry wasn't worthwhile, or that I wasted my time producing it. For me, it showed how this dramatic shift, from paper to virtual, is a work-in-progress. Maybe once in a while it pays to feed the numbers beast to potentially drive more traffic to the blog, and, in turn, the newspaper.

Loosening up - embracing both Sterns, Howard and Isaac - has certainly attracted more clicks. This blog has been praised, and it has been savaged.

In the end, it serves a series of functions for me. I can quickly address national and international arts news, even when the Globe's arts staff is smaller than that of the New York Times. I can (attempt) humor and a conversational tone that doesn't always fit into print. I can also experiment. Will the Paris Hilton post build more regular readers? Or will it merely convince my editors that we need more Paris Hilton posts? Hopefully, the former.

Which, in a roundabout fashion, gets me back to McLennan's post.

So if the Globe goes out to sell an ad for the Exhibitionist, what is it selling? An ad for a site that draws hundreds of thousands of TMZ.com-loving people? Or are they selling ads for a niche site that "breaks" news of an antiquities deal at the Museum of Fine Arts, or posts the on-line travel journal of a Boston Ballet dancer? Those are vastly different products, with vastly different reaches.

In my opinion, the problem isn't putting up a link to an ad buy. It is explaining to those advertisers, steeped in the traditional lingo that's been used by print for decades, why a successful blog might have a little bit of everything.

Don't blame only newspapers for the confusion. Last week, I visited a class at New York University taught by Arthur Cohen. During the discussion, I realized that even the leaders of one of the cultural world's leading marketing firms has questions about this new world. How are traditional journalists going to cover arts news? Where does the Internet come in? How can arts institutions better use the technology to directly reach out to their audiences?

Again, there were no magic bullets. But I didn't feel panic. Instead, I felt comforted listening to a group of intelligent, young, and ultimately interested future cultural leaders as they searched for the answers.

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About Exhibitionist Geoff Edgers covers arts news for The Boston Globe..
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