Allan Block, the chairman and CEO of Block Communications, recently caught our eye with a piece about e-delivery. We decided to query him on that subject, the future of local journalism and other trends he sees in the newspaper industry.
Toledo-based Block Communications has four divisions: broadband and cable, publishing, broadcast television and data services. The company owns the Blade (Toledo) and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The Blade and the Post-Gazette have both won a Pulitzer in the past 20 years.
For e-delivery, the company has been relying on its own front-end system, Libercus.
The company also offers a mobile news platform, NewsSlide.
With newspaper print work moving miles or a state away in some cases, among the advantages of e-delivery are longer deadlines, says Block. “With e-delivery, the deadline could be three, four, five in the morning,” he says.
E-commerce is also a benefit. “But let's face it, most e-commerce goes through Amazon and Walmart, and we haven't found a way to make e-commerce sell that well yet,” he says.
On the state of the newspaper industry, “I do think the government helped get us to where we are. They favored the internet every step of the way,” he says. “They interfered in the private sector and they interfered in the wrong way.”
“It's very late in the game, but it's still not too late if Washington wants to step in for local journalism,” says Block. “There's no shame in being bailed out either. The bankers were bailed out in fall of '08.” Any bailout would have to be done in way that doesn't interfere with the First Amendment, he says.
“I'm not guaranteeing it will happen, but I think there's a major chance. I think a couple more major cities going without a paper, and we're going to see some more change.”
“You've just got to hope it's not too little, too late, but we'll see.”
Here are more excerpts from the interview.
News & Tech: What tips do you have on effective e-delivery?
You need to have software that's good enough. And if it's good enough, it does not have to be perfect. But if it's not good enough, it's no good. A lot of the initial software was just awful.
Load time, load time, load time. Load time in a slow internet environment. You don't always get to have 100 megabits, 200 megabits or 300 megabits, in some cases a gigabit. You've got to have load time that is somewhat reasonable in 20 megabits, 10 megabits or less than 10 megabits.
But it's more than software: it's philosophy. First of all, everybody calls it an e-edition. We have trouble stopping our own people from calling it the e-edition. It's not an edition. It is a delivery. It's the actual newspaper, pages and sections, being delivered to a pad device. It can also work on a mobile device, but that isn't optimal, though I know people who say you can blow the type up without degradation, and they scan the newspaper with the mobile device. I don't recommend that, but it works. It can also work on a laptop, but the optimum device is a pad.
Once you get past that these pages and sections are on the screen and they're not something you're holding in your hand, everything is superior about e-delivery. It has advanced features: video, website, click-through. You can do e-commerce with a couple of clicks and probably other advanced features that we haven't even contemplated or implemented. It’s green, if someone cares about that.
The resistance has been very high. Older people just don't want any change. Younger people question why they need news at all. Certainly this hasn't been a home run to immediately solve all the problems with newspapers, but it has allowed us to have some cost cutting. What we're doing is absolutely necessary to imagine a new business model, because there is no business model with printing.
You cannot solve the newspaper business model problem by going website. If all you have is a website, you are out of business on that day. If you put out an actual newspaper, even if it's e-delivered only, you're not out of business that day. Digital and website are now interchangeable in some people's mind. No, digital is much broader than just the website.
I believe in having an advanced website. I want our website to be as good as anyone's, but it's just not the answer. It's just not going to save the newspaper industry. It's not going to support a news department.
News & Tech: What's your formula along with e-delivery?
I think having the very large digital companies pay for what they use for free. There have been people who roll their eyes in the U.S. when you say something like that. But Australia has just taken action against Facebook and Google.
There's a lawsuit in the U.S. Canada is moving there, the EU is moving there, France. And the U.S. will too. With the Democrats in control that's more likely, I think. But the rest of the democratic world isn't going to move against social media and search engines' media, and Amazon too, you can throw into this — they're not going to take action to preserve local journalism in all these Western countries and nothing will happen in the U.S. Common sense tells me a lot is going to happen.
And we're not talking, here's a penny rolling down the street. I think it's going to be enough to make a difference when it happens. A lot of owners of newspapers couldn't wait long enough to see the day. And we're still probably two years away — it's not tomorrow in the U.S., but I think it's going to happen because there's an understanding that local journalism needs to be preserved.
News & Tech: What's new with Block Communications?
We continue to be in the broadband cable business, commercial telecom, internet, connectivity business, television broadcasting. We're the leading broadcaster, revenue-wise and I would say audience-wise too, in Louisville with the Fox affiliate and CW and myNetworkTV. We continue to have other businesses. We're sort of small in everything we're in, but we're in more than one.
Newspaper has been a terrible business to be in. Terrible. But we didn't have an easy exit and it's our history and we have attempted to see a good outcome somehow. We've had to fight our unions. Our unions have not helped us in any way. Or let's put it this way: negotiations continue after four years.
News & Tech: What other trends do you see in the industry that are interesting you or that you want to highlight?
I think there's too much worry about woke and lack of accuracy in journalism or woke ideas to reduce the accuracy of journalism. Accurate journalism, just report, no opinion. I think that's been in decline all across American media.
The journalist should have no opinion, no partisanship; they should just report. And there's a lot of interpretation in reporting, but today to an extent that's unacceptable there's no real attempt to be unbiased. There's bias across mainstream American journalism.
And then of course on the opinionated channels, Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, they're all strong opinion. Two of them left, Fox News is on the right. Smaller channels like OAN and Newsmax are right wing, but it's very small audience.
I think the idea of neutral reporting is going out the window. And you can argue there have been other times in American history and American journalism when it's all been biased. But the Associated Press was always independent and unbiased, because it worked for different newspapers that had different political ideas historically, and the Associated Press isn't unbiased today.
Donald Trump kept attacking the New York Times. He should have been maybe pointing out that the Associated Press was biased, that a lot of their copy was like The New York Times. They moved far to the left.
The Associated Press years ago had language in their contract that said they were neutral. All of that language is long gone, as far as I know.