The Real Paul Jones

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Newspapers and Department Stores – those 50s things

Really newspaper and department stores go way back and further forward, but some place I picked up a quote that seemed to explain so much more than appears on the face of the quote:

“The rise of metro newspapers followed the rise of the downtown dept store; the fall will follow the same trajectory.”

I’m not sure that that was the language but it was the sense. But who said it? And was it said based on intuition, observation or research?

I asked my colleagues in the J-School and I got some answers:

Andy Bechtel, a copyeditor, cited a newspaper and department store loving copyeditor:

You may have read it at David Sullivan’s blog, which is about those two very things and how they are connected.

Frank Fee had a great anecdote from Rochester, NY:

It’s also a theme I mentioned in a recent interview with a reporter from Connecticut who was writing a story for the 125th anniversary of his paper. In Rochester, N.Y., the acquisition of the locally owned department stores brought economies of scale that drastically curtailed advertising and contributed to the demise of the evening newspaper. In fact, it was said that only because Mrs. McCurdy had a fondness for the evening Times-Union that the McCurdy & Co. ad budget always included the T-U until May Department Stores acquired McCurdy & Co. in 1994. Overnight, the plug was pulled.

Oddly, but sadly predictably, news researchers went to the web and found only recent cites:

A news researcher from the St. Pete Times came up with this citation:

I’m seeing the following:
” The 20th century rise of the advertising-dependent department store helped create the modern newspaper, and their decline paralleled that of the newspaper franchise.”
in an article from Slate Magazine January 22, 2008 Tuesday

Another researcher writes:

Here’s a snippet of an article from Forbes: “If the newspaper company is not to go the way of telegraph and microcomputer companies, it may have to learn a lesson from department-store retailers, an industry of similar fragmentation and vintage to many American newspapers.

Once the storied names of so many Main Streets, department stores were devastated by the arrival of technologically savvy discounters such as *Wal-Mart Stores* (nyse: WMTnews). So many failed to adapt to the disruptive innovations of the big-box superstores, despite wave after wave of consolidation and cost cutting.”

But colleague and sage Phil Meyer had it dead on and as always teaches me a lot:

That would have been sociologist Leo Bogart in a report to newspaper publishers ca. 1970. Their response: “What we need is less sociology and more selling.” Leo tells this story in one of his books.

BTW Phil wrote Bogart’s obit in Public Opinion Quarterly.

Sure enough, Leo Bogart didn’t stop talking about the business of and the relationship to department stores and newspapers. He goes on for several pages with great supporting in Commercial Culture: the media system and the public interest (found on Google Books or in your library) beginning page 120 in a chapter called “Advertising as the Driving Force.”

“Department stores — once newspapers’ mainstay — had undergone extensive restructuring as a result of acquisitions and mergers.” Some very telling listings of failures, mergers and the like follow. This is a later book than the one Phil quotes but Bogart was definitely on the case early.


  1. And Paul, for even more about the rise of department stores, _Land of Desire_ by William Leach (1993) is interesting. Nice to meet you in SF the other week–

  2. Paul

    8/2/2008 at 8:20 pm

    Thanks Kristen. It was a pleasure to met you and experience the four seasons of San Francisco taking place in only one hour there at Union Square.

    The questions in Bogart’s writing are: how much influence did the stores have on the papers? How will/can paper move beyond that relationship to something new for news? And we can add for ourselves what would Bogart say about papers now — if he were alive now three years after his death.

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