March 29, 2005
Laying the Newspaper Gently Down to Die
And keeping the spirit of journalism alive. Craig Newmark says: "My guess is that either me, personally, or my craigslist team, will promote work which merges professional and citizen journalism, along with more fact checking and more investigative journalism."
In his recent essay for CJR, “Saving Journalism,” the scholar and researcher Philip Meyer has some advice. “If we are to preserve journalism and its social-service functions, maybe we would be wise not to focus too much on traditional media. The death spiral might be irreversible.” Therefore:
We should look for ways to keep the spirit and tradition of socially responsible journalism alive until it finds a home in some new media form whose nature we can only guess at today.
Later he returns to that point:
We need to keep genuine journalism alive long enough for the successful media entrepreneurs of the future to find a way to capture and sell the influence that traditional media are abandoning through their cost-cutting strategies.
But who is “we?”
It would certainly have to include Craig Newmark of craigslist, which is causing so much trouble for the newspaper business by grabbing the classified ad market online. Here is Newmark at his weblog March 3: “I don’t really know what I’m doing, but I really think a tipping point in journalism is happening, and I think it’s time to get involved.”
We don’t know what craigslist will be doing with journalism, and neither does Newmark— yet. I asked him yesterday if what he had in mind was anything like “keep the spirit and tradition of socially responsible journalism alive until it finds a home,” as Meyer put it. He wrote back:
I realize I’m no newsguy, not an activist; just like everyone else, tired of news that I can’t trust. My favorite irony is that Jon Stewart produces fake news that’s honest; and the White House produces allegedly honest news that’s really fake.
My guess is that either me, personally, or my craigslist team, will
promote work which merges professional and citizen journalism, along with more fact checking and more investigative journalism. We’re relying on people who really know this stuff to advise, and can’t predict what me or craigslist will do. However, it’s really important to us that we help newspeople and newspapers survive the big transition, and thrive.
The big transition has been baffling news people. Merrill Brown, the editor-in-chief of MSNBC.com when that operation got off the ground, now a consultant and thinker (see my interview with him from ‘03) recently wrote about the gap between the old economy of news and the new:
Many of the news organizations that make most Web site journalism possible, either through their dollars or the work of the journalists reporting for their traditional products, are in some combination of strategic, journalistic and financial peril. It is those organizations that make large-scale Internet news sites viable. In a world of dwindling resources, a world of falling daily newspaper readership and fragmented television news audiences, who will produce the journalism of scale and importance that informs citizens about national political campaigns and international conflict? Bloggers? Citizen journalists? The software developers who produce RSS? (See also Brown’s new report for the Carnegie Corporation, Abandoning the News.)
Yes, who? Michael S. Malone made a career in newspaper commentary. In his latest column for ABCNews.com he said it isn’t gonna be daily newspapers, caught between platforms:
This is the last great divide, and my sense is that few newspapers will be able to make the crossing. If they kill their print editions now, they won’t have the revenues to make a smooth transition to cyberspace; but if they keep wearing their paper albatrosses, they’ll have less of a chance of succeeding in the new world. Thus, if all of the old-fashioned newspapers are going to die, nearly all of the forward-looking ones will too.
“So, let’s finally come out and say: Newspapers are dead,” Malone writes, trying to wake some people up. “They will never come back.”
Dead, more or less. But curiously profitable. In fact, it’s stranger than that. The newspaper industry is basically dead— in “strategic peril” at a minimum—and the fact that it’s still (highly) profitable is one of the signs of this death. Meyer explains how that is possible. Since the existing business model has been “irreversibly undermined” by new technology, “the only way to save journalism,” he says, “is to develop a new model that finds profit in truth, vigilance, and social responsibility.”
It is a big rainbow to get over, and where the pot of gold is no one can presently say. But an industry that won’t move until it is certain of days as good as its golden past is effectively dead, from a strategic point of view. Besides, there is an alternative if you don’t have the faith or will or courage needed to accept reality and deal. The alternative is to drive the property to a profitable demise. Meyer explains:
A Harvard professor, Michael E. Porter [has] a last-resort business model for companies undermined by substitute technology. He calls it “harvesting market position.” Managers do it by raising prices and reducing quality so they can shell out the money and run. I know of no newspaper companies that are doing this consciously, but the behavior of most points in this direction: smaller newshole, lighter staffing, and reduced community service, leading, of course, to fading readership, declining circulation, and lost advertising. Plot it on a graph, and it looks like a death spiral.
This is not theoretical. It is not a drill. The kinds of things we would expect to see if the newspaper industry had consciously chosen the profitable demise route are starting to show up in behavior. (I know from my own correspondence that some newspaper journalists fear this is the path their own employer is taking— without telling them so. They don’t know it’s happening, but they suspect it.)
The Project for Excellence in Journalism, in its invaluable report on the state of the news media today, puts it this way: “If older media sectors focus on profit-taking and stock price, they may do so at the expense of building the new technologies that are vital to the future. There are signs that that may be occurring.”
Newspapers in 2004, for instance, increased their profits at double the rate (8%) that their revenues grew (less than 4%), according to the Newspaper Association of America, a distinct sign of profit-taking. The industry remains highly profitable. Margins averaged 22.9% in 2004, according to the analyst Lauren Fine, and are expected to rise in 2005. The investment in online publications, though, where the size of the profits is still fairly modest, remains by most evidence cautious.
No R & D rush. No large investment in the future. No siren call to find the new model. And yet the Project for Excellence in Journalism report says that in 2004, daily newspapers (the ones still making money) employed fewer reporters and editors. They also squeezed in more ads per page, and less news. Not only are we not seeing the big investment in an online alternative, there are signs of a withdrawal before the great divide.
“There is more evidence than ever that the mainstream media are investing only cautiously in building new audiences,” the report states. “That is true even online, where audiences are growing. Our data suggest that news organizations have imposed more cutbacks in their Internet operations than in their old media.”
Getting it yet? Growing audiences, lower budgets. Pulling back when you should be stepping forward. The harvesting of the newspaper’s monopoly position has apparently begun. The assisted suicide is underway. But not in every company, or every town, which kind of makes it interesting. It could be a great nonfiction book someday: Laying the Newspaper Gently Down to Die. (Does Kurt Eichenwald have a new project?)
The reasons are obvious why it will never be announced as such. Stated publicly, the laying down would be a scandal. But it does not have to be a wholly conscious choice for the enterprises that are going down that road. They can just continue with business-as-usual, obeying the incentive system as it stands, and the demise will “happen.”
“There is no way to overstate the complacency or arrogance of the greater newspaper industry,” writes Slate’s Jack Shafer in his recent column on billionaire Philip Anschutz’s plan to introduce free newspapers across America. (Which could morph into a new Internet model, he suggests.) For a prosaic example from the industry’s files, here’s what the Wall Street Journal reported in 2001:
Some advertisers are upset that the Kansas City Star, which in the 1950s said it reached 90% of local homes, today reaches fewer than 40%. Circulation is now about 268,000 daily. The Star raises its ad rates every year, but advertisers say they don’t have a viable alternative. “We’d love to get away from advertising in the Star altogether — if we could,” says James Sheehan, president of the Retail Grocers Association of Greater Kansas City.
During the 1990s economic boom, many advertisers accepted ad-rate increases unquestioningly. Now that the economy has weakened, however, some advertisers are starting to grumble at Knight Ridder’s annual increases of 3% or more. It isn’t lost on them that their own profit margins are nowhere near the 20% that [CEO Anthony] Ridder has achieved at Knight Ridder, let alone the 25% that he vows to reach by the end of 2003.
“We deliver you less and charge you more.” That is not the attitude of an industry that wants to survive. As to how it happened (the death spiral) Malone says: “One answer is that most newspapers are unbelievably retrograde. They grew up in a world of newsprint and that’s where they intend to stay. They cannot believe an institution as venerable as the newspaper can ever go away.”
It’s a case of legacy costs. The people who are in a position to make the key decisions cannot see decisions to be made until they admit they lost the trail a while back. The disincentives to do that are quite high.
Equally a problem is the complacency of the semi-informed view among rank and file newspaper people. That’s when a journalist says, “I’ve checked it out, this Web future of yours, and I am sorry to burst your bubble, but…” It’s the gadfly conceit, the crumudgeon’s voice, the glib de-exciter who hasn’t delved far enough to see why people were excited in the first place, and thus cannot offer a usable critique. As in this from the Chicago Tribune’s Maureen Ryan:
Regarding Michael Malone’s thought-provoking piece predicting the demise of newspapers … weren’t we all supposed to be working in paperless offices by now? And isn’t Broadway supposed to be dead too?
This debate — are newspapers dead, on life support, do they just have bad head colds, etc — reminds me of the whole “Are bloggers journalists?” debate. It’s a discussion that’s never going to have a definitive answer, it seems to me. And, well, does it matter?
As if definitive answers were the way of the world, and we await them. David Shaw’s latest column in the Los Angeles Times, which finds him rooting for bloggers to be denied standing as co-members of the press, isn’t about crossing the divide. But it’s a fine example of the semi-informed view: I’ve checked it out, and sorry to burst your bubble, Internet people, but bloggers ain’t press!
Shaw didn’t check far enough into that increasingly empty term “blogger” to find the more relevant category for his column’s purposes, which is the stand alone journalist, as Chris Nolan puts it. Are bloggers journalists? the question Shaw wants to ask, is a tired one for all involved. What’s the difference between a stand alone and a corporate journalist? is the relevant question, but Shaw didn’t learn enough about his subject to ask it. And check this part out:
Shield laws (and the 1st Amendment guarantee of freedom of the press, the philosophical progenitor of these laws) were created to enable the media as an institution to inform the citizenry, without government interference.
Maybe that’s true for shield laws. Among First Amendment scholars Shaw would find very few takers for the view that the free press clause was specifically created to “enable the media as an institution”— as against anyone who got his hands on a press and wanted to speak to fellow citizens. (See Matt Welch, who has written the proper reply to Shaw. Also see this earlier exchange among Shaw, Welch and myself.)
Shaw’s stingy and insular view—we’re the ones the founders were talking about when they said press, so back off amateurs—is actually part of the “death spiral” Meyer referred to. It was always a newsroom delusion that “journalists are the only profession mentioned in the First Amendment.” But now it’s more deadly, for as Jeff Jarvis puts it, “The barrier to entry to media is demolished. Media, always a one-way pipe, now becomes an open pool.” The First Amendment is not about the pipe; it’s about the pool.
Brave would be the media columnist who took a few months to investigate the unannounced liquidation of newspaper properties— what former editor of the Des Moines Register Geneva Overholser calls “the long, steady suffocation of America’s newspapers.” (See her overview here, showing how long the trail of warnings has been.)
This suffocation could not be carried out without some people in the industry knowing, or guessing the truth, and then confirming it for themselves. There, I think, is the nonfiction book someone will write— it would be about those people, and what they did, when they figured out that the patient was being led to a profitable death. Alas, it cannot be said out loud (until someone does it.)
“The only way to save journalism is to develop a new model that finds profit in truth, vigilance, and social responsibility,” Phil Meyer said.
That dull phrase, “new model,” includes stuff that is not dull at all. Like a different kind of company to work for, a better sense of how journalists can create value on the Web, a new and deeper commitment to interactivity with users as a way to do more kick-ass reporting.
By now we could make a list of projects where these things are starting to happen. The infrastructure is emerging too. So it’s not like the new model is nowhere to be found. There are people to ask. Places to start. Site visits to make.
But getting newspaper journalism across the divide means a big investment now in the Net and its emerging forms. It requires a wave of Research & Development. It means re-training your people, and taking on “newsroom cultures that discourage innovation, don’t reward risk-taking and drive out many of the best and brightest younger journalists, all of whom entered the profession aware of the paltry pay scale.” (From Tim Porter.)
Newspapers, in the words of Mark Malone, would have to “accept reality and metamorphize into real Web presences rather than merely online downloads of their print copy.” This, of course, is what happened in Greensboro, NC at the News & Record. (See this and this for background.) Lex Alexander, the editor spearheading the online efforts at the N & R, recently told the AP, “I don’t know for a fact that what we’re doing is going to get us to the goals we have, but continuing what we were doing certainly wasn’t an option.”
Notice: They don’t know that they can bring the News & Record across the divide this way. But they are going ahead.
Not in Greensboro, but for most of the industry continuing down the same path is the sane option. Charlie Madigan, editor and columnist for the Chicago Tribune explains why: “The short answer to the question of why we’re not all trashing the presses, selling the trucks to Mexico and going full digital is because it’s not making money yet and newspapers are.”
But the fateful decision isn’t, as Madigan suggested, between going full digital and sticking with print and paper. Tom Curley, CEO of the Associated Press, identified the key choice in his November 2004 speech: “When the Web was born as a commercial content enterprise back in the mid-’90s, we thought it was about replicating—that is, ‘repurposing’—our news and information franchises online.”
That’s what I meant by losing the trail. The big decision today is to go back and fix that error from the mid-90s, to junk “re-purposing of content” as an organizing idea, and organize Web efforts around a new purpose, a new idea. The organizations that want to live will do that. Those that don’t will harvest their profits and give out.
The rest of us, meanwhile, have to do what Meyer said: “Look for ways to keep the spirit and tradition of socially responsible journalism alive until it finds a home in some new media form whose nature we can only guess at today.” (And what Newmark said: “promote work which merges professional and citizen journalism.”) What I like best about this is a distinction Meyer builds in. Journalism is one thing. The media another.
In specific cases, yes, but in general we have no reason to trust the media to bring serious journalism across the great divide, into a new and democratic life on the Web. And so we have to do it ourselves, whatever that means.
After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…
See also a later post on the same theme: The Migration (April 27, 2005)
“While people in the old press pack up, and tell stories about giants they knew in the era when… they are also asking each other: where headed? As in: How are your people planning to make it across?”
Jeff Jarvis thinks it over. This post and the ones it links to. He says journalism is not a noun, not a “thing,” but an activity, which he breaks down into a series of actions. And the action has changed because distribution is no longer available only to professionals. “We won’t save journalism the way it was. We shouldn’t if we could. The business must change.” (Plus, see Tim Oren on Jarvis’s post.)
Dan Gillmor responds: A Dying Craft, or a Dying Business? He takes issue with my term “gently,” arguing that it will be anything but.
The notion of driving a property to a profitable demise is pernicious, and impossible to pull off in a coherent way. It assumes that newspaper companies can milk the properties gently into their good night. No way.
What will happen, if newspaper companies don’t start working right now, is the following: Profits will dwindle to a point where Wall Street demands higher profits (or kills the stock price, making even a good newspaper company vulnerable to takeover by one of the real sharks out there). This will set off a death spiral of firing staff, losing readers and advertisers, firing more staff and so on. It will not be a slow process once it starts.
Gillmor hits the main point:
If the newspaper business does turn out to be dying, we need to make sure that journalism does not. I apologize to my blogging friends for saying this, but the free for all in the blogging world, however valuable (and I love it), is not sufficient to replace what we’ll be missing.
We need ways to combine the best of the old and the new. That’s what I’m working on.
Read the rest.
Is the notion of “letting the newspaper die” a crock?
I asked Alan D. Mutter, an industry insider, and former assistant managing editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, who now blogs as Newsosaur, what he thought of the gently down to die thesis. Here is his reply:
Thomson sold all 60 of its newspapers in 2000-01 to focus strictly on electronic media. Scripps substantially has redeployed its assets into its cable channels and associated online media (see this).
Gannett, Tribune, Cox and Hearst all have significant broadcast and/or cable TV operations and I think Hearst has the most ABC affiliates of anyone. In addition, many family companies have sold their newspapers (Louisville Courier Journal, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Sun-Times, Baltimore Sun, Boston Globe, S.F. Chronicle) so they could allocate their assets among multiple generations of heirs.
Apart from the notable strategic decisions by Scripps and Thomson, however, I can’t think of any major newspaper companies that have taken overt acts to exit the business. Further, I don’t think many , if any, senior newspaper executives are consciously pursuing the sort of “liquidation” strategy you hypothesize. Rather, I believe senior industry executives are responding rationally to compensation programs that reward them for delivering steady, predictable, near-term earnings growth that will support their target stock prices. To quote myself:
“In light of the significant competitive threats to the long-term health of their business, why would newspaper companies emphasize profit growth instead of further investment in building new audiences through new media? Because a company’s success in the stock market, as Bernie Ebbers or Ken Lay will tell you, is a significant factor — maybe the significant factor — in a senior executive’s compensation package, as discussed previously here. Unless compensation plans are changed, publishing companies will continue to prize short-term profits over the long-term health of their enterprises.”
Unless institutional investors change the incentive structure, the executives will continue to emphasize profits at the expense of the enterprises they manage. If nothing changes, the business will be (unconsciously?) strip-mined to death and a vital public trust will be vitiated or destroyed.
Otherwise, everything is going real good.
That’s an apt description of what’s in store— “the business will be (unconsciously?) strip-mined to death.”
Don’t miss Umair Haque’s one-graph summary of newspaper economics. Newspapers are cash cows, he says. “But they’re cash cows that can hide massive strategy decay.”
Precisely what I am saying.
Stirling Newberry comments on this post: “Once one is part of a media machine that sucks in money, then that process, and not the information itself, dominates thinking…. Generally the rules keep the money flowing in—that is why they exist—however, often they force decisions which are bad decisions, even from the point of view of making money.”
That’s part of it too.
Meanwhile, Philip Meyer e-mails:
We in journalism education are starting to feel like those Irish monks who kept the wisdom of western civilization and Christianity alive through the Dark Ages. We can preserve the ideas and keep passing them along, but the rank-and-file journalists have to help us out. In the final chapter of The Vanishing Newspaper, I propose organizing to set measurable standards for both journalistic competence and moral behavior.
Have you noticed how the criticism of the administration’s video news release program has been directed mainly at the government? Why aren’t the legitimate journalists among us going after the stations and their news directors that put the fake news on the air? Why aren’t we organizing ourselves to do that?
Hmmm. See PressThink, Boston University J-School Faculty Takes a Stand on Video News Releases. Here’s more about Meyer’s new book, The Vanishing Newspaper. (Highly recommended.) Also see Tim Porter’s chapter-by-chapter outline.
Matt Welch tells David Shaw a few things:
In case you didn’t notice, Shaw thinks he and his colleagues are “accurate and fair”…. This, I believe, is the nut of his real objection — that the weird, ahistorical 1960-2000 period of newspaper consolidation, and the “professionalization” that came with it, produced a monochromatic culture of trying-to-be-fair newsgathering that Shaw believes is basically the only legitimate form of journalism. It’s an incredibly conservative and arrogant view…
Jack Shafer: Will somebody please help the Los Angeles Times’ David Shaw get a grip?
Joe Gandelman: “Strip it all away and there seems underlying resentment: how can bloggers get their readership without having to do what we had to do?… We had to jump through more hoops than a dog act at a circus; they just wrote, pressed a button and got read.”
As for the line between bloggers and Big Media? That’s not as deep a moat as David Shaw wants to think. Blogging – like file-sharing, on-line fundraising – is a tool; it’s what you do with it that matters.
This new world of instant and instantly available choice isn’t easy – remember when there was only one phone company? – but it’s pretty exciting. It’s new. It’s different. And we all get to be in charge.
We all get to be in charge. Very different from: no one in charge.
See Doc Searls on pushing rocks up the hill (old way) vs. rolling snowballs down it (new). Alerting the newspaper industry to its fate— that’s rock pushing. But citizen journalism is like rolling snowballs.
But see Suw Charman, who argues back. “The problem I have with Doc’s post is this - in order to get ideas rolling downhill, you need to already be uphill.”
Rebecca MacKinnon on March 3: “The question of whether ‘mainstream media’ will survive, or whether it should survive, or in what form, or how, is irrelevant. I don’t care. I’m sick of arguments about that. What I care about is whether journalism—the process of hunting down factual information and verifying it—survives and thrives somewhere, somehow.”
Editors Weblog weighs in with a pair of posts (here and here.)
American Journalism Review on the circulation problems of the Washington Post.
The Chicago Tribune on the trials of the Tribune Company:
Since the Times Mirror deal closed, the Los Angeles Times has been Tribune’s biggest-circulation paper. But even though Tribune has squeezed $130 million in annual costs out of the Times, the crown jewel of the Times Mirror empire hasn’t lived up to expectations.
The paper’s advertising revenue has been about flat since the takeover, and last year the troubles deepened when the paper suffered a surprisingly sharp 5.6 percent falloff in circulation, to a 902,164 weekday average.
Ken Auletta in the New Yorker: Do ads still work? “In many ways, the advertising business in the early twenty-first century would be unrecognizable to the generation that once thrived on Madison Avenue. The traditional assumption, as Keith Reinhard says, was that advertisers chose the time and place of a ‘one-way show-and-tell’ ad. The consumer was a captive audience. Today, advertisers chase consumers with a certain air of desperation.”
Eric Black Star-Tribune, March 26, quoted me:
The reaction journalism Prof. Jay Rosen of New York University had to the Columbine-Red Lake comparison turned the whole premise on its head. “Columbine was a media frenzy,” he said. “It was overdone. Red Lake is a media frenzy. If this is a smaller media frenzy, I’m not going to get too upset about it, and I think activists who are asking for a bigger media frenzy have found a strange way of advancing the interests of their group.”
Posted by Jay Rosen at March 29, 2005 1:03 AM
Blather be gone! Journalism is not the talking about it. It's getting into the trenches to f***ing do it! Then it's f***ing trying to do it better the next day.
The Malone's of the world aren't worth the free packets to carry their message. Their signal to noise ratio is zero, and to spend time analyzing noise only adds more noise. You cannot amplify what isn't there.
I am a journalist who is better than most because my waking hours both at work and at home are spent not just serving the community in the transitory traditional means, but also dreaming into reality something more effective, more complete, more affordable, and more socially sensitive. Why? Because community is civilization and my family's safety depends on it.
This is not our newspaper. We may "own" it, but we hold it in stewardship for the community. We always have. More importantly, in this Middle Age of oppressive taxation throttling local economic engines and misguided educationism choking schools, the press is the only independent institution with sufficient agility to interconnect the community to help them recognize the drag, label it for what it is, and create a vortex of willpower, organized to make due with very little money, to pull ourselves into a renaissance.
Meanwhile, on the periphery, in the clatter of blog comment threads, celebration of the renaissance is already underway. Their celebration is premature, because underneath the comment ferment, there is precious little difference between this internet generation and the passive boomer/boomer-baby TV-watchers. They just watch different screens, engaged in the casual luxury of a tea party serving style, abstraction, conjecture, and entertainment.
What one needs lay gently down to die is not the newspaper, but the the silly culture where having an idea is reason enough to believe it to be true, where our team counts and theirs does not, where shouting louder must be true, were organization counts more than understanding, and where perceptions must be real.
[This reply is permanently posted at "Blather be gone!"]
Eric Baerren from the Morning Sun newspaper in Mt Pleasant, Michigan e-mails:
I read your column "Laying the newspaper gently down to die," today. As you might expect, from a guy working at a newspaper, I've got some thoughts.
The discussion on whether newspapers are dead always seems to focus on the bigger papers, while smaller papers that focus on community news, community events, and community people, seem to thrive. You can't get the information anywhere else, and very few people in the global market want to read about how Billy Smith hit for the cycle in a local Little League game. And, as much as people like our local news, they also like the lists of names we run ... birth announcements, who got convicted of drunken driving, who got divorced, our sports agate, etc...
So, it seems to me that there's a niche to fill there, a product that local papers can offer that's unique from the bigger dailies.
Will we eventually go the way of the dinosaur? I'm not so closed minded to think that we won't, but I'll bet that your small, local dailies will live longer than the big ones that offer news product you can get almost anywhere.
There's another issue worth addressing ... whether bloggers are journalists, or just guys in their pajamas.
To me, the question seems to miss the point.
The question isn't really about the subculture, but the product. The question should be, phrased in the same spirit of anarchy that empowers bloggers, is whether the product is journalism.
It would be fair to treat a blogger who treats an anonymous tip like a journalist should -- carefully vets it, weighs its importance in relation to the story he's telling -- as a journalist. But, I doubt most bloggers would, or even could, do that. Most, I think, would be more inclined to slap an anonymous tip up on their site, thump their chests over their scoop, and call themselves journalists. Shield laws weren't written with the intention of protecting irresponsible work like that.
Despite my belief that smaller, local dailies aren't quite dead yet, I think online is where the industry is eventually headed (you've got plenty of evidence for that in your column). People who are there now, the folks doing it for free (well, most of them), will eventually have to be acknowledged, and protections will have to extend to cover them. At the same time, the blogging community also needs to make some concessions, and make some self-admissions, the chief of which is that if it walks, talks, and swims like a journalist, it's a journalist. If not, it's just a guy in his pajamas. --Eric Baerren
I have an unusual perspective on the David Shaw flap because 21 years ago, I sat at a newsroom desk about four feet from David. He and I remain cordial, which is more than I can say about some of my other former colleagues. In the 70s and 80s, David was more than a bit of a newsroom and news industry heretic, which makes his column on bloggers are the more surprising. The young Turk has become a defender of journalistic orthodoxy.
I left the LA Times newsroom, and newsrooms in general, in 1984, though I maintain a three-a-day broadsheet reading habit, plus an online and blog regime that is admirable because it killls far fewer trees than do newspapers. But I will never forget an experience I had shortly after becoming a civilian that bears, I think, on the questions David tried to address in his column.
I had undertaken a freelance assignment that required covering a Federal court hearing in downtown Los Angeles. The case attracted lots of spectators and I tried to jump the line and find a spot in the press gallery, only to be bounced higher than hell by an armed bailiff.
"You got a press card, bud? You know, one of them pink things the Los Angeles Police Department issues?"
I didn't, since it was against LAPD policy to issue such ducats to freelancers. I was outraged, and hurt, and confused. I felt like I had been stripped of my identity. In truth, I probably had. A few weeks previous, I would have waltzed through without a word. Now I had to stand with the riffraff and wait. I damn near cried.
It was a cruel lesson, the object of which is this: The press card stuck in the brim of the fedora is not issued by the newspaper. It is granted, more often than not, by some branch of government. It bestows special privilege and access. Yes, it may impose special responsibility. Indeed, orthodox journalists like David Shaw would say that the journalistic calling is somehow holy, something like becoming a priest. But there is no ordination for reporters; there are no standards for admission, no objective means by which the rest of the world can identify a genuine reporter.
The closest thing there is to a reporter's badge is a press card but that card is granted by some exterior institution. It is, in effect, a license. David jumped right over that issue in his rant. He never says who is going to regulate the journalistic licensing process. Will it be the police department? The mayor's office? The White House? The LATimes, CBS, or Newsweek magazine? Someone must sanction the orthodoxy. Maybe the Pope could do it. That would be the final step in creating a MSM religion, something that is implicit, it seems to me, in David's arguement.
The new media, with its low cost-of-entry, has revolutionized the world, and there will be new rules for that world, since I can't imagine as a practical matter that any blogger who wishes will be allowed to crash police lines or sit in on Pentagon briefings. But David's contention, that there is to be a special class of legitimate journalists is a dangerous one. It seems to beg for licensing, which is, after all, the first step to controlling. It fails to tell us how legitimacy is acquired, how it is recognized, how it is contained and controlled.
On the other hand, maybe Dave does want to establish some badge of office, like a sheriff's tin star, for reporters. I'd just like him to explain to me the criteria he will use in deputizing men and women in his posse.
Cash Cows don't become "stars".
But they provide the cash for those who can follow the pioneers and do it right, the SECOND time.
A lot like Microsoft seems to do (always following -- learning from other mistakes).
R. Murdoch will, undoubtably, try to jump in, BIG, when a profitable business model is shown for "journalistic excellence", whatever that is. The cash cow caretakers will NOT jump in before it is profitable. More profitable than investing in US T-bills (or Chinese?)
An important issue is the reporters "on the ground". But looking at the too-many microphones stuck into the faces of the few folk getting air time makes me think that half or 3/4 are redundant. AP yes; maybe UPI; and Reuters. BBC? Nah-- just copy... ABC/ CBS? Nah.
MSNBC? almost certainly not -- find an interested blogger who can "report" on the event, for free (fame?). Become a hub, like the new Blogger Network News (I've done a couple reports there), but edit the best.
Yeah, and put it out on paper "for free", and use the ad revenue to pay for the editors. Those who decide which stories are good enough to kill trees for. Maybe depend mostly on technorati, or K5/ Slashdot type comment rankings (or both?).
Heck, why not a few different editions? And customize to the recipient?
The "profitable" business model hasn't been found yet for Open Journalism (not just source).
I'm using Firefox (free). You can call me in Slovakia, for FREE, with Skype.com (tomgrey in Slovakia). People want information to be free -- if it's good (thanks Jay, for PressThink being good), they will pay "with their eyeballs".
Very interesting essay, and largely dead-on about the strategic challenges facing newspapers and their implications on journalism.
I'd like to cautious folks on one point: Newspaper revenues and profits DO NOT and SHOULD NEVER march in a 1:1 relationshipo. Why? Because our businesses have enormous FIXED COSTS. People and equipment have to be paid for regardless of whether we sell even one ad.
The best example (stolen from Hal Varian's excellent book Information Rules) is a music CD, or a piece of Microsoft software, or a blockbuster Hollywood movie The FIRST copy of the CD or software might cost millions of dollars to produce (all the programming/recording, mastering, etc.) The second costs less than a buck (the CD and its packaging, plus the small incremental royalties).
What that means: Microsoft, or the record company, loses an enormous amount of money on the first few copies, all the way up to the break-even point. But from there, each additional copy is ENORMOUSLY profitable: If their revenues go up 2 percent, their profits might go up 10 percent or more - because the last few copies are relatively cheap to produce, but sell at the same price for the first one.
Same with any media firm: The profits mostly come from the LAST FEW ADS SOLD. A hypothetical example: Let's say your newspaper generates $1 million in revenue in a week (that's a mid- to small newspaper, by the by). And let's say it typically makes $200,000 in operating profit (before taxes).
Now let's say the paper has a good week - it sells just a couple more ads for a total of $10,000 in "extra" revenue. Revenues are up 1 percent. But there is very little extra expense - no more reporters, no more press crew, no new equipment to jam in those extra ads; just a little bit of added newsprint. So profits might go up $7,000 - or an increase of 3.5% from the "normal" $200,000.
To recap: Revenues up 1 percent. Profits up 3.5%. That is not "harvesting profit and abandoning a mature business." It's the natural workings of any business with high fixed costs, but low additional cost for one extra bit of revenue.
To my friends and colleagues who might say "spend most of that extra $10,000 on journalism so that profits only go up 1 percent, too!" I would offer this warning: Leverage works both ways. If you want your bosses to spend more when revenue is good, you've got to be prepared for them to whack when revenue is bad, far more severaly than they already do.
PressThink: An Introduction
We need to keep the press from being absorbed into The Media. This means keeping the word press, which is antiquated. But included under its modern umbrella should be all who do the serious work in journalism, regardless of the technology used. The people who will invent the next press in America--and who are doing it now online--continue an experiment at least 250 years old. It has a powerful social history and political legend attached...
The People Formerly Known as the Audience:
"You don't own the eyeballs. You don't own the press, which is now divided into pro and amateur zones. You don't control production on the new platform, which isn't one-way. There's a new balance of power between you and us." More...
Migration Point for the Press Tribe: "Like reluctant migrants everywhere, the people in the news tribe have to decide what to take with them. When to leave. Where to land. They have to figure out what is essential to their way of life. They have to ask if what they know is portable." More...
Bloggers vs. Journalists is Over: "Here is one advantage bloggers have in the struggle for reputation-- for the user's trust. They are closer to the transaction where trust gets built up on the Web. There's a big difference between tapping a built-up asset, like the St. Pete Times 'brand,' and creating it from scratch." More...
"Where's the Business Model for News, People?" "It’s remarkable to me how many accomplished producers of those goods the future production of which is in doubt are still at the stage of asking other people, “How are we going to pay our reporters if you guys don’t want to pay for our news?'" More...
National Explainer: A Job for Journalists on the Demand Side of News
This American Life's great mortgage crisis explainer, The Giant Pool of Money, suggests that "information" and "explanation" ought to be reversed in our order of thought. Especially as we contemplate new news systems. More...
The Beast Without a Brain: Why Horse Race Journalism Works for Journalists and Fails Us. "Just so you know, 'the media' has no mind. It cannot make decisions. Which means it does not 'get behind' candidates. It does not decide to oppose your guy… or gal. It is a beast without a brain. Most of the time, it doesn’t know what it’s doing.." More...
They're Not in Your Club but They Are in Your League: Firedoglake at the Libby Trial: "I’m just advising Newsroom Joe and Jill: make room for FDL in your own ideas about what’s coming on, news-wise. Don’t let your own formula (blog=opinion) fake you out. A conspiracy of the like minded to find out what happened when the national news media isn’t inclined to tell us might be way more practical than you think." More...
Twilight of the Curmudgeon Class: "We’re at the twilight of the curmudgeon class in newsrooms and J-schools. (Though they can still do a lot of damage.) You know they’re giving up when they no longer bother to inform themselves about what they themselves say is happening." More...
Getting the Politics of the Press Right: Walter Pincus Rips into Newsroom Neutrality "The important thing is to show integrity-- not to be a neuter, politically. And having good facts that hold up is a bigger advantage than claiming to reflect all sides equally well." More...
A Most Useful Definition of Citizen Journalism "It's mine, but it should be yours. Can we take the quote marks off now? Can we remove the 'so-called' from in front? With video!." More...
The Master Narrative in Journalism: "Were 'winning' to somehow be removed or retired as the operating system for news, campaign reporting would immediately become harder to do, not because there would be no news, but rather no common, repeatable instructions for deciding what is a key development in the story, a turning point, a surprise, a trend. Master narratives are thus harder to alter than they are to apprehend. For how do you keep the story running while a switch is made?" More...
He Said, She Said Journalism: Lame Formula in the Land of the Active User "Any good blogger, competing journalist or alert press critic can spot and publicize false balance and the lame acceptance of fact-free spin. Do users really want to be left helpless in sorting out who's faking it more? The he said, she said form says they do, but I say decline has set in." More...
Users-Know-More-than-We-Do Journalism: "It's a "put up or shut up" moment for open source methods in public interest reporting. Can we take good ideas like... distributed knowledge, social networks, collaborative editing, the wisdom of crowds, citizen journalism, pro-am reporting... and put them to work to break news?" More...
Introducing NewAssignment.Net: "Enterprise reporting goes pro-am. Assignments are open sourced. They begin online. Reporters working with smart users and blogging editors get the story the pack wouldn't, couldn't or didn't." More...
What I Learned from Assignment Zero "Here are my coordinates for the territory we need to be searching. I got them from doing a distributed trend story with Wired.com and thinking through the results." More...
If Bloggers Had No Ethics Blogging Would Have Failed, But it Didn't. So Let's Get a Clue: "Those in journalism who want to bring ethics to blogging ought to start with why people trust (some) bloggers, not with an ethics template made for a prior platform operating as a closed system in a one-to-many world." More...
The View From Nowhere: "Occupy the reasonable middle between two markers for 'vocal critic,' and critics look ridiculous charging you with bias. Their symmetrical existence feels like proof of an underlying hysteria. Their mutually incompatible charges seem to cancel each other out. The minute evidence they marshall even shows a touch of fanaticism." More...
Rollback: "This White House doesn't settle for managing the news--what used to be called 'feeding the beast'--because there is a larger aim: to roll back the press as a player within the executive branch, to make it less important in running the White House and governing the country." More...
Retreat from Empiricism: On Ron Suskind's Scoop: ""Realist, a classic term in foreign policy debates, and reality-based, which is not a classic term but more of an instant classic, are different ideas. We shouldn't fuzz them up. The press is capable of doing that because it never came to terms with what Suskind reported in 2004." More...
Karl Rove and the Religion of the Washington Press: "Savviness--that quality of being shrewd, practical, well-informed, perceptive, ironic, 'with it,' and unsentimental in all things political--is, in a sense, their professional religion. They make a cult of it. And it was this cult that Karl Rove understood and exploited for political gain." More...
Journalism Is Itself a Religion: "We're headed, I think, for schism, tumult and divide as the religion of the American press meets the upheavals in global politics and public media that are well underway. Changing around us are the terms on which authority can be established by journalists. The Net is opening things up, shifting the power to publish around. Consumers are becoming producers, readers can be writers." More...
News Turns from a Lecture to a Conversation: "Some of the pressure the blogs are putting on journalists shows up, then, in the demand for "news as conversation," more of a back-and-forth, less of a pronouncement. This is an idea with long roots in academic journalism that suddenly (as in this year) jumped the track to become part of the news industry's internal dialogue." More...
Two Washington Posts May Be Better Than One: "They're not equals, but Washington and Arlington have their own spheres. Over the newspaper and reporting beats Len Downie is king. Over the website Jim Brady is sovereign. Over the userï¿½s experience no one has total control. There's tension because there's supposed to be tension." More...
Laying the Newspaper Gently Down to Die: "An industry that won't move until it is certain of days as good as its golden past is effectively dead, from a strategic point of view. Besides, there is an alternative if you don't have the faith or will or courage needed to accept reality and deal. The alternative is to drive the property to a profitable demise." More...
Grokking Woodward: "Woodward and Bernstein of 1972-74 didn't have such access, and this probably influenced--for the better--their view of what Nixon and his men were capable of. Watergate wasn't broken by reporters who had entree to the inner corridors of power. It was two guys on the Metro Desk." More...
Maybe Media Bias Has Become a Dumb Debate: "This here is a post for practically everyone in the game of seizing on media bias and denouncing it, which is part of our popular culture, and of course a loud part of our politics. And this is especially for the 'we're fair and balanced, you're not' crowd, wherever I may have located you." More...
Bill O'Reilly and the Paranoid Style in News: "O'Reilly feeds off his own resentments--the establishment sneering at Inside Edition--and like Howard Beale, the 'mad prophet of the airwaves,' his resentments are enlarged by the medium into public grievances among a mass of Americans unfairly denied voice." More...
Thoughts on the Killing of a Young Correspondent: "Among foreign correspondents, there is a phrase: 'parachuting in.' That's when a reporter drops into foreign territory during an emergency, without much preparation, staying only as long as the story remains big. The high profile people who might parachute in are called Bigfoots in the jargon of network news. The problem with being a Bigfoot, of course, is that it's hard to walk in other people's shoes." More...
The News From Iraq is Not Too Negative. But it is Too Narrow: "The bias charges are getting more serious lately as the stakes rise in Iraq and the election. But there is something lacking in press coverage, and it may be time for wise journalists to assess it. The re-building story has gone missing. And without it, how can we judge the job Bush is doing?." More...
The Abyss of Observation Alone. "There are hidden moral hazards in the ethic of neutral observation and the belief in a professional 'role' that transcends other loyalties. I think there is an abyss to observation alone. And I feel it has something to do with why more people don't trust journalists. They don't trust that abyss." More...
"Find Some New Information and Put it Into Your Post." Standards for Pro-Am Journalism at OffTheBus: "Opinion based on information 'everyone' has is less valuable than opinion journalism based on information that you dug up, originated, or pieced together. So it’s not important to us that contributors keep opinion out. What’s important is that they put new information in. More...
Out in the Great Wide Open: Maybe you heard about the implosion of Wide Open, a political blog started by the Cleveland Plain Dealer with four "outside" voices brought in from the ranks of Ohio bloggers: two left, two right. Twelve points you may not have seen elsewhere." More...
Some Bloggers Meet the Bosses From Big Media: "What capacity for product development do news organizations show? Zip. How are they on nurturing innovation? Terrible. Is there an entreprenurial spirit in newsrooms? No. Do smart young people ever come in and overturn everything? Never." More...
Notes and Comment on BlogHer 2005 "I think the happiest conference goers at BlogHer were probably the newbies, people who want to start blogging or just did. They got a lot of good information and advice. Some of the best information was actually dispensed in response to the fears provoked by blogging, which shouldnï¿½t be avoided, the sages said, but examined, turned around, defused, and creatively shrunk.." More...
Top Ten List: What's Radical About the Weblog Form in Journalism? "The weblog comes out of the gift economy, whereas most of today's journalism comes out of the market economy." More...
A Second Top Ten List: What's Conservative About the Weblog Form in Journalism? "The quality of any weblog in journalism depends greatly on its fidelity to age old newsroom commandments like check facts, check links, spell things correctly, be accurate, be timely, quote fairly." More...
Blogging is About Making and Changing Minds: "Sure, weblogs are good for making statements, big and small. But they also force re-statement. Yes, they're opinion forming. But they are equally good at unforming opinion, breaking it down, stretching it out." More...
The Weblog: An Extremely Democratic Form in Journalism "It's pirate radio, legalized; it's public access coming closer to life. Inside the borders of Blogistan (a real place with all the problems of a real place) we're closer to a vision of 'producer democracy' than we are to any of the consumerist views that long ago took hold in the mass media, including much of the journalism presented on that platform." More...
No One Owns Journalism: "And Big Media doesn't entirely own the press, because if it did then the First Amendment, which mentions the press, would belong to Big Media. And it doesn't. These things were always true. The weblog doesn't change them. It just opens up an outlet to the sea. Which in turn extends 'the press' to the desk in the bedroom of the suburban mom, where she blogs at night." More...
Brain Food for BloggerCon: Journalism and Weblogging in Their Corrected Fullness "Blogging is one universe. Its standard unit is the post, its strengths are the link and the low costs of entry, which means lots of voices. Jounalism is another universe. Its standard unit is "the story." Its strengths are in reporting, verification and access-- as in getting your calls returned." More...
Dispatches From the Un-Journalists: "Journalists think good information leads to opinion and argument. It's a logical sequence. Bloggers think that good argument and strong opinion cause people to seek information, an equally logical sequence. What do the bloggers bring to this? My short answer to the press is: everything you have removed."More...
Political Jihad and the American Blog: Chris Satullo Raises the Stakes "Journalists, you can stop worrying about bloggers 'replacing' the traditional news media. We're grist for their mill, says Satullo, a mill that doesn't run without us. Bloggers consume and extend the shelf life of our reporting, and they scrutinize it at a new level of intensity.."More...
Raze Spin Alley, That Strange Creation of the Press: "Spin Alley, an invention of the American press and politicos, shows that the system we have is in certain ways a partnership between the press and insiders in politics. They come together to mount the ritual. An intelligent nation is entitled to ask if the partners are engaged in public service when they bring to life their invention... Alternative thesis: they are in a pact of mutual convenience that serves no intelligible public good." More...
Horse Race Now! Horse Race Tomorrow! Horse Race Forever!: "How is it you know you're the press? Because you have a pass that says PRESS, and people open the gate. The locker room doors admit you. The story must be inside that gate; that's why they give us credentials. We get closer. We tell the fans what's going on. And if this was your logic, Bill James tried to bust it. Fellahs, said he to the baseball press, you have to realize that you are the gate." More...
Psst.... The Press is a Player: "The answer, I think, involves an open secret in political journalism that has been recognized for at least 20 years. But it is never dealt with, probably because the costs of facing it head on seem larger than the light tax on honesty any open secret demands. The secret is this: pssst... the press is a player in the campaign. And even though it knows this, as everyone knows it, the professional code of the journalist contains no instructions in what the press could or should be playing for?" More...
Die, Strategy News: "I think it's a bankrupt form. It serves no clear purpose, has no sensible rationale. The journalists who offer us strategy news do not know what public service they are providing, why they are providing it, for whom it is intended, or how we are supposed to use this strange variety of news."More...
He Said, She Said, We Said: "When journalists avoid drawing open conclusions, they are more vulnerable to charges of covert bias, of having a concealed agenda, of not being up front about their perspective, of unfairly building a case (for, against) while pretending only to report 'what happened.'" More...
If Religion Writers Rode the Campaign Bus: "Maybe irony, backstage peaking and "de-mystify the process" only get you so far, and past that point they explain nothing. Puzzling through the convention story, because I'm heading right into it myself, made me to realize that journalism's contempt for ritual was deeply involved here. Ritual is newsless; therefore it must be meaningless. But is that really true?."More...
Convention Coverage is a Failed Regime and Bloggers Have Their Credentials: "No one knows what a political convention actually is, anymore, or why it takes 15,000 people to report on it. Two successive regimes for making sense of the event have collapsed; a third has not emerged. That's a good starting point for the webloggers credentialed in Boston. No investment in the old regime and its ironizing." More...
Philip Gourevitch: Campaign Reporting as Foreign Beat: "'A presidential election is a like a gigantic moving television show,' he said. It is the extreme opposite of an overlooked event. The show takes place inside a bubble, which is a security perimeter overseen by the Secret Service. If you go outside the bubble for any reason, you become a security risk until you are screened again by hand."More...
What Time is it in Political Journalism? "Adam Gopnik argued ten years ago that the press did not know who it was within politics, or what it stood for. There was a vacuum in journalism where political argument and imagination should be. Now there are signs that this absence of thought is ending." More...
Off the Grid Journalism: “The assignment was straightforward enough,” writes Marjie Lundstrom of the Sacramento Bee, “talk to people.” When a writer dissents from it or departs from it, the master narrative is a very real thing. Here are two examples: one from politics, one from music. More...
Questions and Answers About PressThink "The Web is good for many opposite things. For quick hitting information. For clicking across a field. For talk and interaction. It's also a depth finder, a memory device, a library, an editor. Not to use a weblog for extended analysis (because most users won't pick that option) is Web dumb but media smart. What's strange is that I try to write short, snappy things, but they turn into long ones." More...