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July 4, 2010
David Warsh, Editor


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The Highest Form of Mention

The long-running comic strip Doonesbury recently spent a half-dozen strips chronicling one family’s return to newspapers. Even after Zonker explains their virtues to teenage Sam, she still doesn’t get it. “It costs money, the content’s old, there are no links, you have to turn pages and it’s heavy!  Why would I go offline for this?”

Zonker’s comeback (“Want to see me make a pirate hat?  Try this with your fancy computer!) exemplifies the despair that is standard among newsfolk of a certain age.

The alternative is to expect that Sam will become a newspaper subscriber herself, once she gets her first good job – especially if it has anything to do with her current ambition, which is getting “mentioned.” (“You have to want it, honey. No one’ll hand it to you,” her mother tells her.”) Precisely because paper is expensive, heavy, durable and, since it is costly, scarce, attention in print will remain the ultimate source of social currency for many decades to come.

A case in point, at least in the making, is Bloomberg’s Businessweek, which in the past few months has become the most interesting thing in my (postal) mailbox. Yes, it is a magazine, not a newspaper, but Bloomberg’s 2,000 staffers in 125 bureaus around the world make the company’s beachhead in print especially interesting.  That’s about as many as The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Financial Times put together..

You remember the story how investment banker Michael Bloomberg, exiled to the back office at Salomon Brothers in the 1970s, turned a bond-price data base into a fortune in the ’80s; how in the ’90s he added a news service to compete with Dow Jones; how in the ’00s, despite some significant innovations, Bloomberg News remained an obscure force  in journalism confined mainly to terminals on traders’ desks, while the founder left to become mayor of New York City.

Then the company bought McGraw-Hill’s 80-year-old Business Week, an icon of print journalism that, good as it was, had failed to make a successful transition to the digital age. Earlier this year Bloomberg hooked up its army of journalists and free-lancers to the faded old brand.

The result has been highly interesting.

There is no letter from the editor; not even the editor’s name, much less a masthead. Nor can you find that stuff online. Instead, each issue begins with what regularly seems to be its best piece, what newsmagaziness used to call a “violin,” here designated “Opening Remarks.” This week it was Hugo Lindgren’s turn, in Who Would Bet Against John Paulson?  New York Times columnist and Princeton professor “Paul Krugman would.  The hedge fund wizard is wildly bullish, while the economist is forecasting pain. The gods can only reward one.” 

Then comes a potpourri of forty or so short articles from around the Bloomberg empire, organized in various departments (“Global Economics,” “Technology,” “Companies and Industries,” “Politics and Policy,” “Markets and Finance,” “Etc.”), plus various other cross-platform odds and ends – perhaps a Charlie Rose interview (from Bloomberg Television); a Tom Keene podcast; or a  Michael Lewis column. Scattered between these items are three or four specimens of long–form high-quality magazine journalism, handsomely illustrated.  They include this week former Intel chief executive Andy Grove on How to Make an American Job; free-lancer Maureen Tkacik on The Pragmatic Rebels of Economics; and Bloomberg’s Tim Adams on The Amazing Adventures of Tyler Brûlé.

Is it an accident that Grove takes on Times columnist Thomas Friedman; that Tkacik’s piece about at the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Laboratory (J-PAL) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, built around Esther Duflo and Abhijit Bannerjee, of MIT, and Michael Kremer and  Sendhil Mullainathan, of Harvard, is the kind of article that the Times magazine doesn’t do much any more (Ian Parker profiled Duflo in The New Yorker in May);  or that Brûlé is a new media entrepreneur (Wallpaper, Monocle) whose Fast Lane column on the back page of the Weekend section of the Financial Times is the apogee of cool?  I don’t think so – and that is probably not bad for the Times. The formula is still uneven and hard to follow at Bloomberg’s Businessweek, but the experimental sensibility is exciting.

There’s an enormous amount of commotion around print media these days. Le Monde has been sold to three businessmen who are preparing to make over at least the operations of the most prestigious newspaper in France. Sam Zell, the real estate developer who bought Chicago’s Tribune Co. and its newspapers (the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore  Sun, Hartford Courant among them) at a fire-sale price, and who probably understands newspapering least of anyone in the business, last week told CNBC (as reported in PaidContent) that he was contemplating the elimination of home delivery and the replacement of print papers by PDFs.  Good luck to him!

To see what the newspaper of the future will look like, pick up a copy of the FT – distinctive, customer-focused and lean. Its publisher, Pearson Plc, which also owns most of The Economist, expects to gain more from subscriber income than from advertising revenues for the first time this year – all part of a general rebalancing described recently by The Economist as The Strange Survival of Ink.

Print newspapers will exist mainly for people who lives in cities and close suburbs, and who are willing to pay for them; everyone else will either read only a little (a glimpse of the front page) or pay to read more content online. And who exactly will be willing to pay? Not teenagers and college students, for sure.  For them the digital world is more than enough. Newspaper readers of the future will be people with good jobs, and up-and-comers who are looking for work – in short, those who are part of the social systems for which newspapers will continue to supply the highest form of Mention.

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