economics of journamalism, 2

22 June 2008

By the time Bartley Hubbard found a place with Mr. Witherby on the Events, he had already learned something of the relationship between business and the press. Arriving in Boston newly married and unemployed, Bartley put his experience as a small town newspaper editor to work and began to write free-lance, developing a relationship with a number of papers, among them the Chronicle-Abstract. His first article was an account of life in a New England logging camp; his second – at his wife Marcia’s suggestion – a look at the world of Boston boarding-houses:

He had the true newspaper instinct, and went to work with a motive that was as different as possible from the literary motive. He wrote for the effect which he was to make, and not from any artistic pleasure in the treatment. He did not attempt to give it form,–to imagine a young couple like himself and Marcia coming down from the country to place themselves in the city; he made no effort to throw about it the poetry of their ignorance and their poverty, or the pathetic humor of their dismay at the disproportion of the prices to their means. He set about getting all the facts he could, and he priced a great many lodgings in different parts of the city; then he went to a number of real-estate agents, and, giving himself out as a reporter of the Chronicle-Abstract, he interviewed them as to house-rents, past and present. Upon these bottom facts, as he called them, he based a “spicy sketch, which had also largely the character of an exposé. There is nothing the public enjoys so much as an exposé: it seems to be made in the reader’s own interest; it somehow constitutes him a party to the attack upon the abuse, and its effectiveness redounds to the credit of all the newspaper’s subscribers. After a week’s stay in Boston, Bartley was able to assume the feelings of a native who sees his city falling into decay through the rapacity of its landladies. In the heading of ten or fifteen lines which he gave his sketch, the greater number were devoted to this feature of it; though the space actually allotted to it in the text was comparatively small. He called his report “Boston’s Boarding-Houses,” and he spent a paragraph upon the relation of boarding-houses to civilization, before detailing his own experience and observation. This part had many of those strokes of crude picturesqueness and humor which he knew how to give, and was really entertaining; but it was when he came to contrast the rates of house-rent and the cost of provisions with the landladies’

“PERPENDICULAR PRICES,”

that Bartley showed all the virtue of a born reporter. The sentences were vivid and telling; the ensemble was very alarming, and the conclusion was inevitable, that, unless this abuse could somehow be reached, we should lose a large and valuable portion of our population,–especially those young married people of small means with whom the city’s future prosperity so largely rested, and who must drift away to find homes in rival communities if the present exorbitant demands were maintained.

The success of this piece earned Bartley even more work and

As the spring advanced, Bartley conceived the plan of a local study, something in the manner of the boarding-house article, but on a much vaster scale: he proposed to Ricker [editor of the Chronicle-Abstract] a timely series on the easily accessible hot-weather resorts, to be called “Boston’s Breathing-Places,” and to relate mainly to the seaside hotels and their surroundings. His idea was encouraged, and he took Marcia with him on most of his expeditions for its realization. These were largely made before the regular season had well begun; but the boats were already running, and the hotels were open, and they were treated with the hospitality which a knowledge of Bartley’s mission must invoke. As he said, it was a matter of business, give and take on both sides, and the landlords took more than they gave in any such trade.

Mr. Ricker thought Bartley could make more money as a free-lance than as a regular reporter, but both Bartley and Marcia – who still harbored hopes that her husband would leave journalism for the law – preferred to have a more secure and steady source of income. Bartley had tried to sell his logging-camp sketch to Mr. Witherby before turning to the Chronicle-Abstract, but Witherby rejected it; they had never worked together. But now Witherby needed someone to run his paper, and though neither man was fond of the other, they had come to an understanding. Mr. Witherby just had one more request, which Bartley’s free-lance experience had rendered him more than capable of fulfilling:

“Oh, by the way,” said Witherby, “there is one little piece of outside work which I should like you to finish up for us; and we’ll agree upon something extra for it, if you wish. I mean our Solid Men series. I don’t know whether you’ve noticed the series in the Events?”

“Yes,” said Bartley, “I have.”

“Well, then, you know what they are. They consist of interviews–guarded and inoffensive as respects the sanctity-of private life–with our leading manufacturers and merchant princes at their places of business and their residences, and include a description of these, and some account of the lives of the different subjects.”

“Yes, I have seen them,” said Bartley. “I’ve noticed the general plan.”

“You know that Mr. Clayton has been doing them. He madethem a popular feature. The parties themselves were very much pleased with them.”

“Oh, people are always tickled to be interviewed,” said Bartley. “I know they put on airs about it, and go round complaining to each other about the violation of confidence, and so on; but they all like it. You know I reported that Indigent Surf-Bathing entertainment in June for the Chronicle-Abstract. I knew the lady who got it up, and I interviewed her after the entertainment.”

“Miss Kingsbury?”

“Yes.” Witherby made an inarticulate murmur of respect for Bartley in his throat, and involuntarily changed toward him, but not so subtly that Bartley’s finer instinct did not take note of the change. “She was a fresh subject, and she told me everything. Of course I printed it all. She was awfully shocked,–or pretended to be,–and wrote me a very O-dear-how-could-you note about it. But I went round to the office the next day, and I found that nearly every lady mentioned in the interview had ordered half a dozen copies of that issue sent to her seaside address, and the office had been full of Beacon Street swells all the morning buying Chronicle-Abstracts,–‘the one with the report of the Concert in it.'” These low views of high society, coupled with an apparent familiarity with it, modified Witherby more and more. He began to see that he had got a prize. “The way to do with such fellows as your Solid Men,” continued Bartley, “is to submit a proof to ’em. They never know exactly what to do about it, and so you print the interview with their approval, and make ’em particeps criminis. I’ll finish up the series for you, and I won’t make any very heavy extra charge.”

“I should wish to pay you whatever the work was worth,” said Witherby, not to be outdone in nobleness.

“All right; we sha’n’t quarrel about that, at any rate.”


the economics of journamalism, 1

19 June 2008

The future of journalism has attracted a lot of attention lately, what with all the pressure the online media have been putting on traditional print and broadcast organizations. But some kinds of pressure haven been around a lot longer. From William Dean Howells, A Modern Instance (1882):

[Bartley = Bartley Hubbard, a reporter who once had aspirations to becoming a lawyer; at the time of this conversation he has been working free-lance in Boston, but hoping to find a permanent position]

Witherby = Mr. Witherby, owner of The Boston Events, an evening newspaper]

“But of course my idea in starting the Events was to make money.”

“Of course.”

“I hold that the first duty of a public journal is to make money for the owner; all the rest follows naturally.”

“You’re quite right, Mr. Witherby,” said Bartley. “Unless it makes money, there can be no enterprise about it, no independence,–nothing. That was the way I did with my little paper down in Maine. The first thing–I told the committee when I took hold of the paper–is to keep it from losing money; the next is to make money with it. First peaceable, then pure: that’s what I told them.”

“Precisely so!” Witherby was now so much at his ease with Bartley that he left off tormenting the things on his desk, and used his hands in gesticulating. “Look at the churches themselves! No church can do any good till it’s on a paying basis. As long as a church is in debt, it can’t secure the best talent for the pulpit or the choir, and the members go about feeling discouraged and out of heart. It’s just so with a newspaper. I say that a paper does no good till it pays; it has no influence, its motives are always suspected, and you’ve got to make it pay by hook or by crook, before you can hope to–to–forward any good cause by it. That’s what I say. Of course,” he added, in a large, smooth way, “I’m not going to contend that a newspaper should be run solely in the interest of the counting-room. Not at all! But I do contend that, when the counting-room protests against a certain course the editorial room is taking, it ought to be respectfully listened to. There are always two sides to every question. Suppose all the newspapers pitch in–as they sometimes do–and denounce a certain public enterprise: a projected scheme of railroad legislation, or a peculiar system of banking, or a co-operative mining interest, and the counting-room sends up word that the company advertises heavily with us; shall we go and join indiscriminately in that hue and cry, or shall we give our friends the benefit of the doubt?”

“Give them the benefit of the doubt,” answered Bartley. “That’s what I say.”

“And so would any other practical man!” said Witherby. “And that’s just where Mr. Clayton and I differed. Well, I needn’t allude to him any more,” he added leniently. “What I wish to say is this, Mr. Hubbard. I am overworked, and I feel the need of some sort of relief. I know that I have started the Events in the right line at last,–the only line in which it can be made a great, useful, and respectable journal, efficient in every good cause,–and what I want now is some sort of assistant in the management who shall be in full sympathy with my own ideas. I don’t want a mere slave,–a tool; but I do want an independent, right-minded man, who shall be with me for the success of the paper the whole time and every time, and shall not be continually setting up his will against mine on all sorts of doctrinaire points. That was the trouble with Mr. Clayton. I have nothing against Mr. Clayton personally; he is an excellent young man in very many respects; but he was all wrong about journalism, all wrong, Mr. Hubbard. I talked with him a great deal, and tried to make him see where his interest lay. He had been on the paper as a reporter from the start, and I wished very much to promote him to this position; which he could have made the best position in the country. The Events is an evening paper; there is no night-work; and the whole thing is already thoroughly systematized. Mr. Clayton had plenty of talent, and all he had to do was to step in under my direction and put his hand on the helm. But, no! I should have been glad to keep him in a subordinate capacity; but I had to let him go. He said that he would not report the conflagration of a peanut-stand for a paper conducted on the principles I had developed to him. Now, that is no way to talk. It’s absurd.”

“Perfectly.” Bartley laughed his rich, caressing laugh, in which there was the insinuation of all worldly-wise contempt for Clayton and all worldly-wise sympathy with Witherby. It made Witherby feel good,–better perhaps than he had felt at any time since his talk with Clayton.

“Well, now, what do you say, Mr. Hubbard? Can’t we make some arrangement with you?” he asked, with a burst of frankness.

“I guess you can,” said Bartley.