Arts Issues for Journalists: January 2008 Archives
Pretend for a moment that I'm the owner of a fine-dining establishment.
I've experienced a success that few would complain about. I have a very loyal customer base, including those who pay me weekly visits. I've enjoyed great profit margins, outperforming most other restaurants in the area.
My chefs have won awards for the quality and creativity of the dishes they create. One review even said that we've helped to change the culinary environment of our region because of our chef's artistry.
Food costs are high and it isn't cheap to produce and serve our food, but that's been more than made up for in profit and customer loyalty.
One day, I look about the food and beverage environment and read about the success of McDonald's. They have far more customers than I do and they make more money. Changes have to be made!
I call a staff meeting and tell my executive chef that he's going to have to start offering chicken fingers and fried burger patties. Also, he needs to reduce the amount of time it takes to prepare orders by pre-preparing the most popular dishes and getting rid of any dishes that take too long to prepare. I skillfully ignore the look of horror that comes across his face and hand him the statistics that point out people want fast food--it's obvious by how many people are buying it.
What will happen to my audience? Even if my chef doesn't immediately quit in a huff, it's pretty certain that I'll quickly drive away all of my loyal customer base. I'll lose the customers I have and will likely find myself unable to compete with the resources and processes of a McDonalds.
The story seems pretty foolish, and yet, sometimes it feels that it is precisely how newspapers today are being run. Rather than work at appealing to the readers that they have, they're chasing after television viewers, Internet junkies, and non-readers. The loyal readers are treated with almost contempt as editors and writers state with conviction that everything needs to be written in bullets and short little bites because, "No one reads anymore."
Newspapers slavishly cover pop culture in a pale imitation of entertainment networks while ignoring those readers who really want substance--those readers who have been the bread and butter of subscribers. Newspapers rabidly pursue the masses, seemingly blissfully ignorant of the Long Tail concept that reminds us that today's economy is swinging toward selling more for less rather than less for more.
It's almost a mantra in corporate America that it is more expensive to get a new customer than it is to keep and please a loyal customer--and loyal customers will earn you more revenue than new ones. They're also more likely to become advocates for you, doing some of your marketing work for you.
So why is it that newspapers have little interest in readers? Yes, growth is important, but there needs to be growth among people who want your product. It's an uphill battle to constantly remake yourself in an attempt to sell yourself to someone who really doesn't want you--especially if in the process you stop being what your loyal customers wanted from you.
What sparks this rant today? In part, it is this article. The vast majority of the article talks about the health of theater in Detroit--the creation of new companies, the expanded seasons, and the fact that despite financial hardships, not a single company shut its doors. Then in the final paragraph, Don Calamia reports that Marty Cohn retired from the Free Press--leaving not a single full-time arts critic at any of the dailies in the greater Detroit area.
It would be one thing if this were just a single incident. Yet, while the arts community continues to grow, flourish, and expand in surprising new directions, the coverage gets smaller and smaller. I've talked to far too many people in both the academic and arts community who say they don't bother to read the paper anymore because there is no longer anything compelling in its pages. There is no longer a reason to convince them to plop down their two quarters. They don't want something they can read in a 30-second glance. They want to read something that will provoke them, get them to think, evoke an emotion, or inspire them to do something.
How can you accomplish those things with three printed bullets?