Franklin Countys First News

The Countryman: Self-defeating

Bob Neal

Bob Neal

An affliction in our family is a fondness for things past. For our older son, it's '20s music and dress, old novels. For me, it's passenger trains and newspapers.

Changes in style have replaced the tunes, threads and words our son fancies. Changes in technology have muscled in where choo-choos and newspapers had ruled.

New technology threatened other things I like, too, such as movies and radio, and those industries fought back, with intelligence, and have survived in altered form. The question with trains and newspapers is whether the people in charge can learn from the movie and radio folks or whether they will just keep on keeping on until they can't.

In 1939, my father took his only airplane ride, from Madison, Wis., to Springfield, Mass., where his father lay on his deathbed. My father saved about half the time a train would have taken. That shows perfectly the disadvantage to which airlines put railroads.

Faced with flying machines, the "railroad mind," as my father called rail management's outlook, dived headfirst into the sand. Some chose to destroy their own business. For example, the Reading Railway rescheduled trains that had run from Philly to Reading, Pa., in 100 minutes so passengers had to change trains midway. Who's gonna wait hours for a connecting train to Reading? A traveler stranded by this sleight of schedule told me years ago that when he complained, the Reading agent handed him a bus schedule.

In general, passenger railroads responded by throwing up their hands and crying that they couldn't compete. Government subsidies to airlines were killing railroads (which had been built with government subsidies). It was true, but they didn't carry the day. Example. The feds paid airlines a dime to carry an air-mail letter the sender had mailed for seven cents. They paid railways a third of a cent to carry a letter the sender had mailed for three cents. Not to mention that the feds paid to build most airports, paid for air traffic control and subsidized aircraft builders with profit-heavy military contracts.

We who believe progress comes mostly in the private sector must admit that only when the feds took over in 1971 did passenger rail begin to find a niche. Amtrak focuses on short- and mid-length runs, where trains compete well with planes in these days of TSA drama. Amtrak runs 18 trains a day between Boston and DC, five a day between Chicago and St. Louis and between Seattle and the wrong Portland, 14 between LA and San Diego. It has increased riders to 30 million a year from 20 million in a decade or so.

Fuel costs and the parsimony of Congress will have a lot to do with whether Amtrak adds short- and middle-range runs. Amtrak hasn't convinced Congress that rails make financial sense. An engineering study in the '60s showed that one rail track can carry as many riders as 96 lanes of road. Highways and railways are mature technologies, so little has changed since that study, but the number of highway lanes poured has boomed.

The dead-tree era of journalism has shrunk drastically from its heyday. Perhaps fatally. The newspaper was the last omnibus news source, printed for everybody everywhere and every day. Television threatened, especially after local stations found in the '70s that they could make money by chasing ambulances and fire trucks. Newspapers answered fairly well, beefing up sports, analysis, opinion and lifestyle, all areas in which TV is weak (except for broadcasting games live). For the most part, newspapers didn't cut back on coverage of local spot news (cops, fires, meetings). That time.

Then the internet came along to fragment the news audience, TV included. Newspapers' first newspaper response was to post most articles online. Free. And to cut back print circulation. We must go online to read the Bangor Daily News or the New York Times.

A handful of newspapers put their eggs into the paywall basket, charging for online access. The Wall Street Journal pioneered these online subscriptions. You peek, you pay. The New York Times, to which I subscribe, the Lewiston Sun Journal, Portland Press Herald and others allow a few free peeks a month. Then, you pay. Or you can wait for Sun Journal articles to be posted free on the BDN website later in the day.

I pay $20 a month for The Times. Would I pay more? Yep. How much more? Try me. If The Times went to, say, $50 a month (still less than buying it in print, were print available here), would I still subscribe? Can't say. And newspapers haven't protected their online sales. A friend in DC sends me articles from the Washington Post, which is becoming a good newspaper, and another friend sends articles from the Wall Street Journal, for which they pay but I don't.

No newspaper has made online subscriptions pay the cost of doing good journalism. So most just don't do good journalism. Papers have adjusted, but largely in the wrong way. Reporters and copy editors alike have been tossed out on the street. If you beat the competition by being better, rather than cheaper or faster, then cutting what makes you better (reporting and editing) seems foolhardy. Copy editing has been reduced to little more than spell check. How many times has spell check uncorrected a word you had spelled correctly? For me, too. How many days since you've seen a headline misspelled or factually incorrect? Not many, I'll bet. Copy editors used to work hard at headlines.

When TV threatened movie going, Hollywood fought back with a new technology. Air conditioning. In the '50s in spots warmer than Maine, theaters put in air conditioning and invited us in for a summer matinee for 14 cents. And you didn't break a sweat while sitting still. Hollywood was thinking outside the hotbox.

Of course, Hollywood found other answers, too. It ended the star system, in which stars were paid not to work for other studios. It made fewer films, no longer hoping that folks would turn out week after week to see Esther Williams swim around, yet again. And, frankly, it started slowly sneaking in more and more skin, a threshold TV never crossed and which now, with online porn easy to find, TV may feel no pressure to cross.

Commercial radio went through similar pains when TV threatened. Radio stumbled and fumbled for a long while. Stations quit broadcasting news, or, after the fairness doctrine was scrapped, aired news with a political slant but no tip of the hat to opposing views. The result was that radio survived, though the days of full-service local radio, such as WKTJ and WFAU (Augusta) had offered, didn't. AM radio is heavy with sports and conservative talk. FM radio thrives on popular music, all-news, religion programs.

Public radio in 45 years has redeveloped as an important piece of radio. But that is a program for another column.

For now, the question is whether passenger trains, at the mercy of Congress, and newspapers, at the mercy of the internet, will find a new place as movies and radio did. Place your bets.

Bob Neal learned to write and edit on paper early in his newspapering career. It's easier with computers. He might say the computer can take the think out of writing.

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1 Responses »

  1. Bob...I'm with you on Trains. The good thing is that many things are still transported via rail simply because of the weight. So trains will likely be around for a long time. However, passenger trains will likely never come back with gusto. The good thing is that there are places we can still ride.
    But newspapers? Most these days are little more than good fire-starters. I hate to see them go, though. I've found old newspapers to be a valued resource for research. Our local Chronicle and Franklin Journal help fill in so many lost tidbits that help complete a historic picture of Farmington. But the news contained in today's papers are little more than useless words with little or no truth.