Where’s the paper?
Today, Reynolds and McChesney address the future of newspapers. Previously, they debated the state of contemporary news media and the value of traditional journalism. Later in the week, they’ll debate media consolidation and other issues.
By Robert W. McChesney
I recall attending a conference on the state of the media in the summer of 2000. One of the attendees was an old friend, the president of a small book publishing company based in New England. We started talking at great length about the internet and how it was fundamentally changing the book industry. He was so captivated by what the internet was doing that he told me, “I am having a contest. I have had all my employees write down in what year the last book will be published in ink and paper. In what year will we go totally digital?” I asked him if he entered the contest as well. “Oh yes,” he said with a knowing smile. “My year is 2002.”
I mention this story because while we are all captivated by the digital revolution, we should not lose our perspective. It is true that all media are gravitating toward digital standards, but it will not happen evenly across all media sectors or overnight. What happened in this intervening period will determine where we end up.
The newspaper industry is now held up as the latest media basket case, a victim of the Internet and a youth market disinterested in traditional journalism, or whatever newspapers are doing nowadays. Before we ask Willie Nelson and Sir Bob Geldof to do a telethon fundraiser for Gannett and Dean Singleton, let’s take a look at their situation.
It may be true newspapers are no longer as profitable as they once were, but that is like saying Shaquille O’Neal is no longer the best player in the NBA. He is still a fine player, and newspapers still make money, just not as much as their halcyon days of the 20th century. They remain monopolies in almost every community and with the collapse of broadcast journalism they continue to be just about the only viable newsroom in city after city. It will be a while before we see shuttered doors.
Glenn, you and I agree about old media digging their own graves, only I think the reasons are structural, not largely because of incompetent owners. Most newspapers have been in a death dance of sorts for the past generation, a death dance that has picked up its tempo in the past decade. It goes like this: newspapers gut serious journalism because that costs money (and can antagonize powerful people in their community) and their marketing people tell them the desirable youth demographics (and major advertisers) want sports and entertainment and business and lifestyle news, which is far less expensive to produce. In the near term that equals higher profits. Younger readers over time find they can get this type of information faster and better on line and stop reading daily newspapers. By this time they have less of an understanding of what good local journalism is because they have not been exposed to it. So newspapers find themselves painted into a corner, producing less of the product that makes them distinct and not having nurtured a market for quality local news.
The legendary journalist Ben Badgikian has argued for 25 years that the smartest newspaper publishers would upgrade their commitment to local journalism, downgrade the silly stuff the marketing people promoted, and suffer smaller profits in the near-term to guarantee a growing market down the road. Recent research at the University of Missouri provides supporting evidence for this analysis.
Perhaps Ben and the University of Missouri researchers are right, but few in the corporate newspaper community seem to be paying it much heed. Some publishers, like the Blethen family with the Seattle Times, have ramped up their budget for journalism in the past two decades. Most of the local family publishers who might have been sympathetic to such a long-term approach sold out to the chains, and the chains were in the mad hunt for maximum return. Each quarterly report hung like the Sword of Damocles over the managing editor’s head. The Bagdikian approach looked like a very risky venture to our media CEOs. Let some other chump waste his capital (or lose his job) in the dubious and immediately unprofitable venture of building a long-term market for local journalism. If it works, you can jump in later and not take such a huge risk.
So will it matter if city after city eventually no longer have daily newspapers? It probably won’t mean a great deal in many cities if newspapers continue their devolution into corporate McPapers.
But it will be a huge loss if American cities in the digital era do not have multiple newsrooms of well paid journalists competing to cover their communities. It is imperative that we develop policies to make certain we end up there, regardless of what happens to newspapers per se. In the near-term, policies to preserve and promote local (and possibly worker or community) ownership of daily newspapers would be a good start, and then these institutions could be our bridge to the paperless digital newsroom of the future.
If we allow our newspapers to continue their downward spiral, and have nothing there to replace them, it will be a tragedy of epic proportions.
Robert W. McChesney is a professor of Communication at the University of Illinois. He is the co-founder and president of Free Press.
Can’t anyone here play this game?
By Glenn Harlan Reynolds
Which will be the first newspaper to fold? Some are suggesting that it will be the Minneapolis Star Tribune, based on its “boneheaded” decision to kill James Lileks’ column.
Killing Lileks’ column won’t kill the Strib by itself, of course, but it does suggest the kind of inept management that I’ve been talking about in previous postings here. Lileks is a guy who’s built a national reputationhe’s the only Strib columnist with one, reallybut it’s also telling that Lileks’ fame comes mostly from his own independent Web work and not from his newspaper column. Instead of finding ways to capitalize on that, and bring the pageviews he’s attracted to his own site into the paper’s, they’re pushing him out. He’ll do fine, as he was probably underpaid at the Star Tribune anyway, but this suggests that the management there is substantially overpaid.
But there are plenty of newspapers out there with problems. (And it’s not just newspapersburied within this ratings report is the shocking fact that no national newscast gets even 3% of Americans as viewers). It also seems that Bob and I agree pretty thoroughly on what the problems are, both economically and editorially; and as he points out, people like Ben Bagdikian have been pointing those same problems out for decades. (I also recommend Andy Krieg’s excellent book Spiked! How Chain Management Corrupted America’s Oldest Newspaper which tells how corporate ownership and bad management damaged the Hartford Courant.)
I guess I’d be more willing to buy the notion that newspapers’ decline is the result of impersonal and implacable economic forces, rather than miserable management, if I saw much evidence that newspapers and broadcasters were even trying to deal with the problem seriously. Instead, they’re mostly in denial. As Dean Barnett writes:
There’s a gold rush afoot to create the virtual enterprise that will take their place. Some entities like the Politico, Pajamas Media and Townhall have seized a head start in becoming the mainstream media of the future, but no one yet knows what the MSM of the future will look like. Some us think we know, but the precise formula remains unhatched. The weird thing about the newspapers is they’ve decided not to play. Other than putting an exact replica of their dying product out there on the internet, they’ve shown nothing but intellectual paralysis. We all know the virtual edition of the Minneapolis Star Tribune is not the MSM portal of the future, but the people running papers like the Strib have apparently quit trying.
That’s not quite fairsome papers are trying, and my own local paper, the Knoxville News-Sentinel, is beginning to do a lot with web content and web video. But it’s mostly true. Like most bloggers, I don’t hate Big Media, any more than baseball fans kvetching about their team’s lousy performance hate baseball. I just look at what’s going on and wonder: Can’t anybody here play this game?
Glenn Harlan Reynolds is Beauchamp Brogan distinguished professor of law at the University of Tennessee and creator of instapundit.com.
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