A few weeks ago, I had a very early flight and needed a ride to the airport. I checked my Uber app and didn't get any hits. Nobody was up and about. I called the cab company. They said they could have a cab at my door in 45 minutes. But my flight was in an hour, so, I woke my wife and she drove me to MEM, which was not how she planned to start her day.
Last week, I returned from another trip, and when I walked out of the lower level of the airport with my bag, I saw a cab, so I hailed him to get a ride home. He was a good guy, full of interesting conversation. I asked him about Uber and how it was affecting his work.
"It's killing me," he said. "I used to make good money at this. Now, I'm barely getting by." He went through the usual litany of warnings about Uber: You don't know what kind of driver you're getting, they aren't licensed, etc. During our conversation, I was having to give him directions to my house. When we arrived, I swiped my card in the backseat device. It didn't work. After several tries, the driver got it to work, but he couldn't find his pen for me to sign it. Irony, thy name is taxi.
Uber drivers have the route to your destination on a screen. When you get there, your credit card is automatically charged, and you just hop out. I like cabs and still take them when it's easy, but they're behind the technology curve and the public is moving in other directions. Taxi companies will have to adapt or die.
Same with a lot of businesses these days. As everyone knows by now, we're losing the Booksellers at Laurelwood, the city's largest independent bookstore. Yes, the space was too large and too expensive, but there's little doubt in my mind that the primary reason that store revenues were declining is Amazon. I'm guilty. If I'm lying in bed with my laptop and read about a book and decide I want it, I can order it with two keystrokes and have it delivered in two days. It's too easy.
I liked going to Booksellers and still love dropping in to Burke's books in Cooper-Young and browsing around. I love the smell of the place and the fun of finding a book you never heard of and never knew you wanted until you saw it on a shelf. That's a different experience — with different rewards. It's not like going to Kroger to buy eggs. You're there to wander and discover. But if we want local bookstores — or any local business — to survive, we have to patronize them. And they have to scale their operations to fit their revenues.
That's not unlike the business the Flyer's in — news media. The unrelenting cyber assault is changing everything. The Commercial Appeal announced this week that it would no longer use paid freelancers, which means long-familiar bylines — Jon Sparks, Fredric Koeppel, Mark Jordan, and others — are gone from the local daily. And what did those folks write about? The local art, theater, and music scene.
Gannett, the CA's corporate master, is using "economies of scale," which means you're often getting writing in the CA that's done by staffers at other papers in the USA Today chain. The CA is scaling its operations to match its revenues and is also caught in the corporate spiral of having to meet earnings numbers for stockholders. If that means fewer reviews of the latest show at David Lusk Gallery or the new Circuit Playhouse offering, so be it.
The Flyer is not immune to these financial pressures. While our 90-plus percent pickup rate remains one of the highest in the country for alt-weeklies, we've scaled back some over the years, as well — fewer full-time staffers, smaller page counts some weeks. That's why I'm always pitching to readers that they look at who's buying ads in the Flyer and patronize those businesses — and tell them you saw their ad. They're the ones making it possible for us to continue writing about Memphis — not just its politics and government, but also its arts, theater, and music.
There's no app for that. And no substitution for someone being there to write about it.