Reinventing the Newsroom

Dean Singleton’s Metaphor

Posted in Cultural Change, Fun With Metaphors by reinventingthenewsroom on April 7, 2009

At PaidContent.org, Staci D. Kramer chats with Associated Press chairman (and MediaNews CEO) Dean Singleton about the AP’s Monday announcement that it’s going to … do something. (Seriously, that’s pretty much all the AP said.) What really jumped out at me from the back-and-forth was this Singleton quote: “I think print’s going to be important for a long time. Print is still the meat. Online’s the salt and pepper.”

Really?

Returns tend to diminish quickly in games of No, It’s More Like This Metaphor, but I can’t let that one go by, because it seems really off to me. Print is not the meat, and online is neither the salt nor the pepper. The news is the meat — print vs. online is a discussion of how the meat is raised, prepared, delivered and packaged, which is something totally different.

With that new starting point, let’s try the metaphor again and see where it gets us. (Please note: I’m not using butcher as a charged metaphor — I’m just going with what I was given.)

Meat used to be obtained directly from butchers who knew an enormous amount about cattle and had served long apprenticeships that gave them expertise in cutting and preparing meat — and who were also pretty much your only source if you wanted to put steaks or burgers on the table. Now consumers overwhelmingly want to go to the big new shiny supermarkets that have moved into town. They like not having to go from store to store for everything they need and they’ve become infatuated with all these extra choices. And the way they obtain meat is now very different: They want it waiting for them packaged in an assortment of cuts, and they no longer spend an enormous amount of time chatting with the butchers who work for the supermarkets and making use of their training and their advice.

A lot of butchers complain that this new way of doing things isn’t as good as the old way. They’re working harder for less — and tragically, fewer of them are working at all. They argue that customers will no longer pay what the best cuts of meat really cost, and are going home with inferior steaks and chops. Some customers are even buying their meat outside the supermarket, at delis and convenience stores and from guys setting up little roadside smokehouses. Whereever they’re getting it, a lot of customers seem like they no longer really understand how that meat gets to their table, going through life completely ignorant of all the time and care and money it takes to make a good steak.

And you know what? The butchers may well be right about all this. They are working harder for less money, and there is reason to worry that their skills will be lost, and that we will be lessened for not understanding how food gets to our tables. And it’s not the butchers’ fault — it was their bosses who responded to the rise of supermarkets by opening lackluster ones when they bothered opening them at all.

But the customers have spoken. Right or wrong, they aren’t going to the neighborhood butchers in sufficient numbers to support all the ones who used to have shops. And despite the campaigns of some in the Butchers Guild, no one is going to order the supermarkets closed or give butcher shops extra money to do things they old way or succeed in taking the meat out of supermarkets or cajole supermarkets into paying far more for meat.

If you’re a butcher or responsible for the livelihood of butchers, what do you do? Well, you could gulp and open your own shop anyway — some entrepreneurial butchers still do pretty well, even today. You could try an approach nobody’s tried before — maybe there are customers who will pay a premium for you to deliver meat to their homes and prepare it in front of them, with an explanation of how it was raised and how best to cook it.

Or while trying these things, you could work at translating a butcher’s skills to the new setting of the supermarket, figuring out which tried-and-true skills still have value and which new skills butchers need to learn. Because we all have to eat.

3 Responses

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  1. Megan said, on April 7, 2009 at 4:45 pm

    Yeah, he totally misses the mark. Print and online are each a medium for delivery of the meat.

    This is a similar problem to that which we see in government — with the “Cyber Czar” position (all have resigned in frustration). Talk about an all encompassing area of responsibility. And I don’t know that anyone can control “cyber” anyway. It’s kind of like being an “Air Czar.” It’s everywhere and it just a means of transferring information.

  2. Michael said, on April 8, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    This is an interesting subject – it reminds me of the hardware store phenomenon. It used to be that people went to the hardware store and the staff were very knowledgeable and helpful when it came to fixing/improving things in your home. Growing up, my Dad (a tax accountant) did most of the simple projects, and many of the medium-sized ones, by himself, or sometimes with the grudging cooperation of his wife or son.

    Now, in the age of Home Depot and Lowe’s, we go to superstores, where the staff *sometimes* know what to tell us, and sometimes just point us to Aisle 23 to fend for ourselves. And, truth be told, I have little idea of how to fix most stuff in my house. And I am, based on observation, probably better off than most of my friends. The hardware stores still exist, but they’ve been pushed to the fringes. I go to them when I know I need help and/or can afford to wait for something to be ordered. I go to HD when I think I know what I’m doing or want the immediate satisfaction promised by their vast stock.

    What this means for news writers/editors/producers? I don’t know, but I suspect the answer isn’t particularly good.

  3. […] This has been a long-running drama in the newspaper industry, one that took a dramatic turn last week, when the Associated Press began muttering darkly and vaguely that it was going to do … something vis-a-vis its relationship with aggregators such as Google. (Witness Dean Singleton, whose chosen metaphor I found distressingly off the mark.) […]


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