February 18, 2005

Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 11: Saving Journalism

Philip Meyer hasn't killed off newspapers yet, but in this chapter of "The Vanishing Newspaper, Saving Journalism in the Information Age" he digs the grave, orders the flowers and all but cues the choir to sound the opening bars of Amazing Grace.

Remember, this book isn't about saving newspapers - although that would be nice - it's about saving journalism, specifically the "social responsibility functions that have been traditional for newspapers."

As printed products subject to the vagarious pricing of ink, paper and gasoline, newspapers can no longer scale. Most can earn more money selling fewer papers in more focused markets than they can by trying to expand circulation to the fringes.

With the exception of a few national newspapers that sell to elite audiences, most newspapers are not going to grow. Even those that do manage to add circulation because they are in growing communities will likely to continue to lose market penetration.

Even as Meyer reminds us that a quality product - in this case journalism - is associated with business success, he points out that neither he nor anyone else has been able to prove that the former causes the latter. It could be that papers that make money have the wherewithal - the capacity [Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 9: Capacity Measures] - to add staff and do better journalism. Of course, neither is profitability a predictor of quality. High-margin mediocrity abounds in the world of newspapering. Meyer writes (all emphasis throughout is mine):

"… there is very little to suggest that quality is the prime cause rather than an incidental effect of profitability, except in those cases where two or more newspapers are contesting for market dominance."

Aha! Quality matters when there is competition between newspapers - of which there is precious little these days.

But, there is a new kind of competition, one that holds the potential to both further marginalize newspapers and be the vehicle that might help save journalism. "Bring on the Internet," Meyer says.

The newspaper business model (audience = influence = advertising = profit) was already under pressure from declining audience when the Internet became popularized in the mid-90s. Now, a decade later, with the web fully commercialized by both legacy and start-up enterprises, the long-term viability of the newspaper model is questionable. The disruptive potential of the 'Net is being realized.

What can newspapers do? "The most obvious way to deal with substitute technology is to enter the substitute business," says Meyer. But, that's a risky proposition and newspapers are unaccustomed to risk. Meyer writes:

"The Internet can do many wondrous things. Learning how to make its wonders profitable requires a long series of trial-and-error experiments, performed by organizations with a high tolerance for failure. Newspaper companies seldom fit this description."

That was evident, of course, in the first iteration of newspaper web sites, which were shoveled into electronic reproductions of the newspaper, many of which still exist today in the same formats dressed up with fancier technology. (Disclosure: I was one of the early shovelers.)

In recent months, legacy news media companies have made major acquisitions of online news and content operations, signaling a shift in strategy: If you can't beat 'em -- or don't want to build 'em -- buy 'em. The New York Times' purchase of About.com, the Washington Post's absorption of Slate, and Dow Jones acquisition of Marketwatch are big money bets that the future of news media is digital not printed.

Jeff Pelline was a cross-alley competitor of mine at the San Francisco Chronicle in the 1990s when he left the newspaper to join a start-up called C|Net. He writes (with some obvious satisfaction):

"Despite the opportunity to make their businesses more profitable, the brass worried about cannibalizing their own print model. Although many companies invested in the Internet, it definitely was a sidelight business. ('I work for the print edition, not the online edition,' was the typical refrain from many longtime journalists.)

"Now the print media giants are changing their tune--albeit it more from a defensive than offensive posture. Stuck with stagnant growth and under pressure from Wall Street, these companies are taking their biggest plunge yet into the Internet pool."

Meyer correctly sees the Internet as a means to save journalism, not an end. Of course, much good journalism is being done on the 'Net, and much of that by former newspaper people. As competition on the Internet to provide the best journalism replaces traditional print competition, Meyer returns to his influence model as a predictor of the companies that will win out. [Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 1: The Influence Model]. He writes:

"If the industry were to embrace the influence model and use it as justification preserving social responsibility functions in whatever new media combinations emerge from the great technological disruption, then it might make a difference. … It will be especially important to compete with local newspapers for the role of the most trusted."

This is important: Trust matters. Credibility matters. Meyer has pointed out earlier that credibility is one of the few indicators of profitability for newspapers [Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 4: Credibility and Influence].

And, in a period when sources of news and opinion are at once exploding in number and narrowing in focus, I believe credibility counts most of all. This argues for greater transparency by newspapers, more interaction with the community and further dissolution of the barrier between the producers and consumers of news.

The Internet is not the only possible savior of journalism, says Meyer. He points to the emergence of organizations like the Center for Public Integrity, which uses foundation money from a number of sources to produce high-quality investigative journalism. Similar private, non-profit enterprises could fill the gap left by newspapers that lack the resources to do heavy-lifting journalism.

I like the way Meyer dismisses concerns that these non-profits are funded by foundations like the Pew Charitable Trusts or the Ford Foundation. He writes:

"So let us be blunt. Allowing charitable organizations to pay for the news might be risky, but it is probably no worse than a system in which advertisers pay for it."

Touché, Phil.

Let's end on an up note, as Meyer does. He wastes no paragraphs bemoaning the inevitable continuing decline and eventual demise of the traditional newspaper business model (the paper may persist, but profits will come from new revenue models). He writes:

"There is, in short, more than one way to pay for the next news. The fact that newspapers are not doing so well these days should not blind us to the possibility that the influence model could reappear in unexpected form. Remember its elements. Advertising gains value, not through interference with the news product, which undermines the long-range interests of everyone, including advertisers, but by appearing in a medium with a reputation for integrity."

Here's the question journalists must answer: "How would we create such a medium using the tools and economics of new technology?"

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Posted by Tim Porter at February 18, 2005 06:57 PM

Great series, Tim. Many thanks.

"If the industry were to embrace the influence model and use it as justification preserving social responsibility functions in whatever new media combinations emerge from the great technological disruption, then it might make a difference. … It will be especially important to compete with local newspapers for the role of the most trusted."

High time they they started thinking more about 'trust', that's for sure. But I resent their missionary attitude. What social responsibility do they have that the rest of us don't? Who appointed them to be our social conscience? Enough of this sanctimony! What we need is honesty, integrity and intellectual diversity. Let them report the facts, and state their opinions forthrightly, and let the readers decide!

Posted by: pete on February 21, 2005 09:17 AM
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