NEWSPAPERS, newsmagazines, TV networks, cable news—everywhere you look, media-makers are beating themselves and their employees up over shrinking readership/audience share, while those sought-after young eyeballs migrate to the Internet, video games, the WWF, and other meta-media. So forget all of them, and consider the truly universal media that everyone still sees—like bumper stickers and (in cities that have them) subway signs.
Bumper stickers, the vox pop, have sadly declined since ordinary cars started costing $20,000-plus and their owners feared defacing them with cheesy slogans. It's been years since I saw my favorite: "Honk if you are Jesus."
But a whole new genre still waits to be exploited: stickers made for sticking on other people's bumpers as well as your own. A San Francisco curmudgeon recently got his 15 minutes by printing up derisive anti-SUV stickers and slapping them on deserving SUVs. Now an entrepreneurial-minded Minneapolis greenie is trying to make an honest buck with stickers that suit anyone's car, the more gas-greedy and deadly the better:
The address on the sticker is Northern Sun Merchandising, Minneapolis, MN 55406. But the 800 number printed with it has been disconnected. If that outfit's no longer printing them, somebody should.
TRAIN TO NOWHERE
And in New York, where millions of commuters stare at subway signs rather than car bumpers, a mysterious letter has appeared, designating a new train on the Broadway line. It's out of alphabetical sequence with the old A, B, C, D, E, F, and Q trains, and it's marked only on platform signs, not system maps. No one has any idea where, if anywhere, this mystery train goes. What's it called? The W Train, of course.
Enough fun, now back to the designated Media. Frank Blethen, The Seattle Times' ever-interesting publisher, shared his thoughts on doom, gloom, and good-bye to the boom in a long midyear staff memo. Highlights: "Even before today's recession, newspaper observers have increasingly expressed concern about the homogenization and blandness of today's newspapers, as concentration of newspaper and media ownership has steadily increased. Many feel that we are in danger of repeating industry mistakes made in response to the newspaper recession of the early '90s.
"In that down cycle, we collectively cut content and service while increasing prices. The inevitable result was more readership loss and advertising market share loss." But after warning against "cutting content," Blethen warned not to expect more resources for it: "We're not just dealing with the recession but also with the damage of the strike and ongoing areas of contentiousness in our labor environment. If our unions do not quickly appreciate the economic challenges we face and support our competitiveness rather than fighting to turn back the clock or preserve the status quo, we may be faced with even more severe downsizing across the company than we are already experiencing."
Blethen's memo includes one historical eye-opener. In 1981, the Times and P-I sought a federal antitrust exemption for their joint operating agreement on the grounds that the P-I was failing in competition with the Times. Now Blethen boasts the Times "in 1980 was on the verge of failure," but has "grown significantly."
Times managing editor Alex MacLeod sent out his own pep-talk response to "this-recession-that-everyone-refuses-to-call-a-recession" last week. He even quoted the stirring line about how "that which doesn't kill you makes you stronger," noting that it referred to the Great Depression—maybe not what Nietzsche had in mind, but a nice thought. MacLeod announced one "clear measure of the challenges we face and the hard decisions that have to be made": The management team's "already-halved 'bonuses' will be delayed four months" and incentive bonuses eliminated for next year. This will doubtless reassure other employees who've been wondering which executives drive the high-end Audi, Mercedes convertible, and Lexus SC430 roadsters that have lately appeared in the Times parking lot.
Newspapers are forever casting about for names for what they used to call the "Women's Section." MacLeod announced that the Times' "Scene" will soon become "Northwest Life"—not to be confused with its "Pacific Northwest" magazine or the P-I's "Living" and "Seattle and the Northwest" sections. Next the Times could change its "Local News" to "Northwest Death," especially if murder and mayhem come to dominate it as they started to four years ago, and as they do local TV news.
The Times is taking another lead from television: a "partnership" with KING 5 weatherman Jeff Renner, who will provide forecasts and faster updates. Whatever the merits, there's an irony in newspapers turning to TV for material: Through all the onslaughts of electronic and online media, daily newspapers continue to be the primary setters of the news agenda and gatherers of news, as transmitted by AP and other wire services. If the papers dried up and blew away, their readers wouldn't be the only losers.