June/July 2012
Volume 32 No. 4

June 2012
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My Two Cents

Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian of London, observed that the old world in which journalists were trusted to filter and prioritize the news is now in tension with “a world in which many readers want to have the ability to make their own judgments.”

This statement reminds me of the arguments I used to have in 1979 with my former boss, Sol J. Paul, one of the great U.S. radio and TV trade pioneers, publisher of TV/Radio Age.
Up until that time, Sol used to put out a fantastic twice-a-month issue (that, by the way is called biweekly, not bimonthly; the latter means every other month), in which interested readers could find everything: Broadcasting news, both local and national; program syndication; new hardware; radio reports; ad agencies’ new clients and campaigns; ratings; trade show reports; convention and seminar recaps. In other words, it was a real bible for the radio and television executive.

TV/Radio Age also had another distinguishing characteristic: Each story was a yarn. For our NAB Issues for example, he always pushed at least one 10-printed-page report from me.
Then, out of the blue and out of left field came Electronic Media (EM), a weekly tabloid published by the folks at Advertising Age. It was rather thin, compared to our bible-size magazine. Most of us at TV/Radio Age agreed that their journalists did not really know the business and little attention was paid to it. But I was troubled. Early on I realized that those “incompetent” folks provided an incredible editorial service: In less than 16 pages (excluding the classifieds), EM was able to give readers the full TV biz picture for the week. One did not even have to read the stories (they were rather superficial). Just by glimpsing the headlines, readers could in a matter of minutes find out what happened that week. In other words, the EM editors ably sifted through all the major news and events of the week, selected the most important ones and basically told the readers: “These are the significant issues that are most important to you.”

Their operation contrasted with Sol’s philosophy of putting everything out and letting the readers pick and choose what was important to them. It was a great service-oriented attitude, except for the fact that, at that time, readers had started having little time for in-depth reports.
In addition, such an avalanche of news reports further stimulated the indecision-making process that affected most of TV/Radio Age’s readers. What should one read first? What was most important? Which news mattered to them?

I remember going to TV executives’ offices and looking at piles of TV/Radio Age issues carefully saved. Each one had several dog-eared pages, indicating interesting articles to be read at some point or another. The problem was that, as more time passed, one had less time to read them and, even when one was finally able to get to those stories, they were obsolete. The paradox was that we put out the best publication ever, but that only a few people were actually able to read it.

That was the time I vigorously started arguing with my boss, who never failed to remind me that he was successful at what he did and that if the sink ain’t broken, don’t fix it.
But the concept really was broken and we began to sink, and that was when, in late 1980, I decided to venture out on my own with VideoAge (a title he suggested). However, I didn’t go without first giving Sol a chance to join me as a partner. He wished me a sarcastic good-luck and promptly refused.

This preamble serves as a closing comment to the recently published book, The Publisher by Alan Brinkley (Alfred A. Knopf, $35), about Henry Luce, the creator of Time, Life, Fortune and Sport Illustrated. All of them became successful because Luce was able to dig up news stories, sort through the news, identify what was important and make sense of it. This is something that print publications –– particularly trade business journals like VideoAge –– will have to remember, especially in the Internet era, when we all are inundated with an avalanche of news. Ultimately, like Luce first discovered, quality, not quantity, is what makes a publication successful.

Dom Serafini