Publisher's Note — January 21, 2009, 9:21 am

The Catalog Factor: Why investors should buy newspaper stocks

John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the January 21, 2009 Providence Journal.

Noting the imminent death of newspapers is all the rage, fast becoming one of the reigning clichés of the day. I beg to differ, but not for the self-interested reasons one might imagine. To explain, I’d like to tell a story—a newspaper story.

Nearly 30 years ago, when I was a young reporter on the Chicago Sun-Times, the copy-desk chief was a brilliant and acerbic man named Tom Moffett. Moffett thought that reporters were lazy wimps—he said that the really hard work took place on “the desk”—and he dared me one day at the Billy Goat Tavern (of Saturday Night Live fame) to work for him. Was I man enough? Over my fourth Old Style I insisted I was. The next day my city-desk bosses agreed, and I was loaned to the copy desk for six weeks as a kind of career-broadening internship.

Moffett was right—his sink-or-swim boot camp for copy editing and headline writing was brutal, far more challenging than doing a typical newspaper story. In those days, the Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune, though morning papers, were fighting a savage circulation war, producing extra editions in the afternoon to capture readers orphaned when the two companies folded their evening papers, the Chicago Daily News and Chicago Today. Thus, the morning shift had to put out an entirely new edition in about 90 minutes, then start over for the next morning’s paper. All told, there were seven editions. Even with new computer technology automatically counting the spacing and length, this wasn’t easy.

Moffett had a decidedly cold demeanor in “the slot” and he was famous for rejecting headlines three and four times until you got it right. Worse was his withering look when you missed some obvious error in a story, for no news went to the composing room without Moffett’s approval, and he took his responsibilities very seriously. I was humbled, and frankly worried that I couldn’t cut it. Reporting and rewrite could be pressured, but the stress on the desk was on an altogether different level—something like being a short-order cook during the lunchtime rush.

One afternoon, about a month into my desk experiment, I was back in “the Goat,” where it always felt like nighttime because of its location, in perpetual shadow, under the elevated section of Michigan Avenue. Moffett was holding court with a group of us—critiquing the day’s paper, handing out praise and scorn in equal measure—when suddenly he made two pronouncements in my direction. First, I had passed his test with my mettle intact: I was capable of being an adequate copy editor. Then, as if anticipating my objection to a life on the desk, he smiled and remarked, “Someone’s got to keep the ads from bumping into each other.”

I laughed uneasily. I had gone into journalism for the romance and, I hoped, to have a political impact. I wanted to be a newspaperman in the mold of my great-uncle, Charles MacArthur (who co-wrote, with Ben Hecht, The Front Page), my father, Roderick, and my brother, Greg: lots of fun, lots of action, and maybe even a foreign assignment. Because of Vietnam and Watergate, I also dreamed of breaking a big, world-beating story, like something from Seymour Hersh or Woodward and Bernstein, that might do some good.

Of course, I knew that a newspaper was a business. But like many members of my generation, I pretentiously imagined that the journalism part of the daily press was inherently more important than the money side, even to the most jaded publisher. Only when I became a publisher myself did I fully understand the facts of business life, although money considerations never killed my sense of romance or my appreciation of the craft of journalism.

Nowadays, with all the doom and gloom, I find myself defending newspapers as moneymaking enterprises, rather than as tribunes of the truth (if only!). I’m at pains to point out to colleagues and customers alike that as a business model print newspapers are just fine. Plenty of them are still making money, just less than they did in the distorted boom years of the ’80s and ’90s when investment bankers and leveraged-buyout sharks discovered the joys of monopoly publishing.

True, shortsighted stock manipulators in search of easy money have (while piling up crushing amounts of debt) starved newsrooms and circulation departments of essential investments that would lead to more readers, ads and eventual profits. And the Internet has certainly seized the attention of many consumers of news, although I don’t see how anyone can stand to stare at a screen long enough to read anything at length. (A computer repairman tells me he craves downtime in the presence of good old tactile paper that permits him to lean back and relax without the buttons and eerie glow.)

But the reading experience is not necessarily what will keep newspapers alive. There’s another, quite prosaic reason that printed publications will survive and thrive, the one that Tom Moffett was alluding to back at the Goat. Ads on paper not only “bump into each other” when there’s no journalism in between, they also bump into readers — and I mean physically. What will save newspapers is the “unavoidability factor” — that no one, no matter how tech- and screen-oriented, can avoid the advertising printed on paper, at least not without unusual effort.

Consider the behavior of ordinary people after the letter carrier comes. Once they’ve collected the mail, including catalogs, junk mail and newspapers, even the most ad-resistant, Web-addicted individuals will glance at some of the printed matter on the way to the garbage can. If the advertising is any good, recipients usually slow down and place certain catalogs, envelopes, magazines or headlined articles aside while throwing the rest away.

Such mail-order companies as Land’s End have learned at great cost that replacing catalogs with the Internet just doesn’t work. Customers may order online, but most of them are responding to a mailing or an ad. No offense to my fellow journalists, but newspapers and magazines are first and foremost effective catalogs, which some people like to read. If the headline or cover line grabs you, there’s a good chance you’ll start turning the pages and bump into the ads. Advertising on the Internet and TV (with Tivo, muting, and zapping), is simply too easy to dodge.

Moreover, advertising itself can be fun to read. During World II, I’m told that American GIs overseas complained about the stripped-down “pony editions” of magazines that didn’t carry advertising. The soldiers wanted to know what was for sale back home.

It won’t be long before advertisers fully recognize the limits of the Internet and the inevitability of paper. If I were an investor, I’d be buying up newspaper stocks while they’re dirt cheap.

Share
Single Page

More from John R. MacArthur:

From the January 2018 issue

The Human Factor

How I learned the real meaning of dissent

Publisher's Note December 13, 2017, 7:25 pm

McCain’s War

“Although McCain participated in a morally unpardonable war in which the United Sates killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people, one can’t help sympathizing with him in his reduced state.”

Publisher's Note November 10, 2017, 5:29 pm

Industrial Tourism

NAFTA is an investment contract that protects American and Canadian goods and interests against Mexican expropriation, regulation, and pestering by local authorities.

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2018

The Bodies in The Forest

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Minds of Others

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Modern Despots

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Before the Deluge

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Notes to Self

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Within Reach

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Minds of Others·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Progress is impossible without change,” George Bernard Shaw wrote in 1944, “and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” But progress through persuasion has never seemed harder to achieve. Political segregation has made many Americans inaccessible, even unimaginable, to those on the other side of the partisan divide. On the rare occasions when we do come face-to-face, it is not clear what we could say to change each other’s minds or reach a worthwhile compromise. Psychological research has shown that humans often fail to process facts that conflict with our preexisting worldviews. The stakes are simply too high: our self-worth and identity are entangled with our beliefs — and with those who share them. The weakness of logic as a tool of persuasion, combined with the urgency of the political moment, can be paralyzing.

Yet we know that people do change their minds. We are constantly molded by our environment and our culture, by the events of the world, by the gossip we hear and the books we read. In the essays that follow, seven writers explore the ways that persuasion operates in our lives, from the intimate to the far-reaching. Some consider the ethics and mechanics of persuasion itself — in religion, politics, and foreign policy — and others turn their attention to the channels through which it acts, such as music, protest, and technology. How, they ask, can we persuade others to join our cause or see things the way we do? And when it comes to our own openness to change, how do we decide when to compromise and when to resist?

Illustration (detail) by Lincoln Agnew
Article
Within Reach·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a balmy day last spring, Connor Chase sat on a red couch in the waiting room of a medical clinic in Columbus, Ohio, and watched the traffic on the street. His bleached-blond hair fell into his eyes as he scrolled through his phone to distract himself. Waiting to see Mimi Rivard, a nurse practitioner, was making Chase nervous: it would be the first time he would tell a medical professional that he was transgender.

By the time he arrived at the Equitas Health clinic, Chase was eighteen, and had long since come to dread doctors and hospitals. As a child, he’d had asthma, migraines, two surgeries for a tumor that had caused deafness in one ear, and gangrene from an infected bug bite. Doctors had always assumed he was a girl. After puberty, Chase said, he avoided looking in the mirror because his chest and hips “didn’t feel like my body.” He liked it when strangers saw him as male, but his voice was high-pitched, so he rarely spoke in public. Then, when Chase was fourteen, he watched a video on YouTube in which a twentysomething trans man described taking testosterone to lower his voice and appear more masculine. Suddenly, Chase had an explanation for how he felt — and what he wanted.

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Before the Deluge·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the summer of 2016, when Congress installed a financial control board to address Puerto Rico’s crippling debt, I traveled to San Juan, the capital. The island owed some $120 billion, and Wall Street was demanding action. On the news, President Obama announced his appointments to the Junta de Supervisión y Administración Financiera. “The task ahead for Puerto Rico is not an easy one,” he said. “But I am confident Puerto Rico is up to the challenge of stabilizing the fiscal situation, restoring growth, and building a better future for all Puerto Ricans.” Among locals, however, the control board was widely viewed as a transparent effort to satisfy mainland creditors — just the latest tool of colonialist plundering that went back generations.

Photograph from Puerto Rico by Christopher Gregory
Article
Monumental Error·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1899, the art critic Layton Crippen complained in the New York Times that private donors and committees had been permitted to run amok, erecting all across the city a large number of “painfully ugly monuments.” The very worst statues had been dumped in Central Park. “The sculptures go as far toward spoiling the Park as it is possible to spoil it,” he wrote. Even worse, he lamented, no organization had “power of removal” to correct the damage that was being done.

Illustration by Steve Brodner
Post
CamperForce·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

After losing their savings in the stock market crash of 2008, seniors Barb and Chuck find seasonal employment at Amazon fulfillment centers.

Amount Arizona’s Red Feather Lodge offered to pay to reopen the Grand Canyon during the 2013 government shutdown:

$25,000

A Brazilian cat gave birth to a dog.

Trump’s former chief strategist, whom Trump said had “lost his mind,” issued a statement saying that Trump’s son did not commit treason; the US ambassador to the United Nations announced that “no one questions” Trump’s mental stability; and the director of the CIA said that Trump, who requested “killer graphics” in his intelligence briefings, is able to read.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today