Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Future of Newspapers

I was at the Houston Chronicle Thursday night for a lecture by the Columbia School of Journalism Dean on the future of print newspapers - which got changed to the future of journalism. Before I go into that lecture this is Seth Godin on When newspapers are gone, what will you miss?
If we make a list of newspaper attributes and features, which ones would you miss?

Woodpulp, printing presses, typesetting machines, delivery trucks, those stands on the street and the newsstand... I think we're okay without them.

The sports section? No, that's better online, and in no danger of going away, in fact, overwritten commentary by the masses is burgeoning.

The weather? Ditto. Comics are even better online, and I don't think we'll run out of those.

Book and theater and restaurant reviews? In fact, there are more of these online, often better, definitely more personal and relevant, and also in no danger of going away.

The full page ads for local department stores? The free standing inserts on Sunday? The supermarket coupons? Easily replaced.

How about the editorials and op eds? Again, I think we're not going to see opinion go away, in fact, the web amplifies the good stuff.

What's left is local news, investigative journalism and intelligent coverage of national news. Perhaps 2% of the cost of a typical paper. I worry about the quality of a democracy when the the state government or the local government can do what it wants without intelligent coverage. I worry about the abuse of power when the only thing a corrupt official needs to worry about is the TV news. I worry about the quality of legislation when there isn't a passionate, unbiased reporter there to explain it to us.

But then I see the in depth stories about the gowns to be worn to the inauguration or the selection of the White House dog and I wonder if newspapers are the most efficient way to do this anyway.
So if online newspapers can generate more than 2% of the revenue of the present print versions could we still maintain an effective media?

The lecture at the Chron was not sponsored by the Houston Chronicle, oddly enough, but by the Houston area Columbia Alumni Association. Dean Nicholas Lemann had earlier given a talk to Chronicle employees. The well respected Columbia School of Journalism, publishers of CJR, seems to be a leader in training all of its graduates in the new digital journalism. The Dean explained that most of their recent graduates in whatever journalism field, broadcast, photography, new media, or newspaper, are working at least partly on the web. Applications to the school of journalism are way up, but that may be a economic counter cyclical phenomena, as jobs disappear some people go to school for a couple years or more.

The following is from my notes, and interpolations, and don't represent quotes from Dr. Lemann.

The magazine business has had a terrible year but doesn't seem to be in a midst of a sea change like newspapers. With very rare exceptions major magazines are defined by affinity groups, not geography. Attempted clones of Texas Monthly in other states have failed. The crisis in newspapers may be because for the local news mission the web is just as good, if not better, than a printed newspaper while the slicker more transportable magazines with a narrow focus of articles are more comparable.

In contrast to the newspaper business problems, if you like reading journalism you have never had it so good. The Internet provides articles and opinions from publications around the world, with even tools to translate, as well as the hyperlinks often embedded in the articles and the browsers that can open another window or tab to search for related material. Several businesses like Google News will help you search and display for topics and key words. And they provide these services free to the user.

The problem for the users is that the web is destroying the profitability of the providers of the news. Printed newspapers have the large staffs of trained reporters, photographers and editors that generate the content. In any metropolitan area printed newspapers have a large majority of these resources. These people have to be trained, overseen and paid. The web doesn't have much money to pay these people. The newspaper business model depends on advertising, and right now businesses value an online reader only about a tenth as much as a print media reader. The well paying department stores and automobile dealers who provide much of the newspaper revenue don't spend much of their advertising dollars for online products.

It would be a shame, a damn shame, if the number of journalists in America diminished.

The economics of online journalism is that readers very rarely will pay for the information and the paid advertising needed isn't there yet. Economically it would be cheaper to give everyone free high speed Internet access than to give everyone a free newspaper subscription.

From the Q and A session:

This is actually a pretty good time for ethnic journalism as they are expanding.

Locally owned definitely does not mean better. There have been many newspapers which are locally owned by bad, cranky, very opinionated, wealthy local businessmen who don't produce as good a product as the newspaper chains.

Bloomberg has been one of the success stories for new media and content due to getting paid subscribers for proprietary financial content. The Wall Street Journal is another content provider which has a large paid online subscriber base. (The WSJ has excellent reporters but often biased and uninformed editorials - EL)

Is there a "crisis of authority" for newspapers and particularly the New York Times now? Not now. (The NYT responded to critics and made changes. The people who disrespect and don't like the Times now are those who have always disliked the paper. By contrast, the Washington Post ignored and denigrated thousands of its readers when they made critical comments on some bad articles. They have made no effort to change or answer the criticisms of the paper's former supporters. - Easter Lemming)

(Of course, it can be difficult to distinguish between legitimate criticism and heated passions among a segment of readers. The Houston Chronicle had many outraged Texas readers when it said that shooting burglars robbing a neighbor's house in the back as they were leaving, against the advice of the 911 operator, was not something we as a society of laws should want to encourage. - Easter Lemming.)

I am not sure there was any new material presented at this lecture and the cost ($25) seemed high. A very good friend of mine gave me the ticket.

I like the Dean and perhaps as Alison Cook said he may be "one of the smartest people I've ever met." I don't know, I hang around with some very smart people. A lot of food for thought, even if no solutions for the print journalism profitability problem were offered.

If you can strip a newspaper down to the core reporters and editors which represent 2% of the present costs can you generate 5-10% of the present revenue purely online?

Coming soon - the retail advertiser view.


Anonymous said...

Hello, Easter Lemming Liberal News,

I enjoyed reading your article regarding the future of newspapers. I have been in the media business for more than 25 years, with much of that time creating news for politicians and government.

In my opinion, the demise of newspaper will be no big deal. In general, newspapers did an average job of reporting news, but they are easy to manipulate, either with the threat of withholding information to give individual reporters status, or by threatening to withhold governmental legal notices or campaign advertisements.

Don't get me wrong; there are thousands of reporters in America who do outstanding jobs in serving as champions for the truth. But the truth is those reporters too often have to write the articles with the bias that their editors and publishers are pushing.

It's all about money and power for even the most humble newspaper. But thanks to the Internet, millions of people now have the opportunity to have their voices heard, to showcase their editorial skills, without someone looking over their shoulders.

What your readers should be concerned about is the millions of dollars being spent annually by the government to put out their propaganda. That's what I do for a living, and I am telling you good folks out there, that's the biggest change in "news" that is going on.

I don't have the wisdom to come up with a solution to this advent of government propaganda in our great nation. But I do know this much – if our so-called vaunted press was really doing its job, we would be seeing exposes of this revolution on a daily basis, because that is how often Big Brother is putting out the Party Line.

Bottom line: when the newspapers fold, and they will, it ain't like we are going to be worse for it. I say good riddance to the newspapers, and thank God for the New Media.

Anonymous said...

First, thanks for blogging the presentation.

My respect for the Chronicle has increased over time. Their stable of writers are first class.

Newspapers have the resources to investigate stories; you don't have to ask yourself, is the reporter/commentator reliable? Well, if they are writing for the Chronicle, you know there's a certain quality level. (Of course, you probably transfer that same degree of trust to Dahr Jamail, Matt Yglesias, etc.

By the way, did you see Michael Hirschorn's piece about whether the NYTimes will go under?