The clip above came to mind while scrolling through comments on Dean Starkman’s CJR piece, Confidence Game: The limited vision of the news gurus.
As Starkman points out, there’s two camps in the game of predicting where the news game is going and how it will survive. There’s the Future of News Crowd, a group of academics and business elite who proclaim everything is changing, the world is falling apart and the old models will not work in the fully digital future. The other camp is the Journalism for Democracy gang (Starkman’s phrase). This is the group that us digital types have often dismissed as “printies,” dinosaurs who decry the changes in media markets and demand, “somebody must pay.”
I believe in, more than ever, the middle ground.
There will be no radical shift in the news business (though, I myself, fretted about it in my newspaper company executive days). There is an evolution going on, not revolution. Newspapers may die (and maybe they won’t), but the news business, and journalism, will survive.
The main thing both the FON and JFD groups miss is a sense of history, hence the Bogart clip.
Since early in the 19th Century, the news business has been constantly evolving, and each step of the way, there has been somebody to mourn the passing of an era, from the six-penny publishers losing out to the penny newspapers, from the muckrakers being superseded by the professional journalists, and then you had the advent of radio and TV and the death of evening newspapers, and finally, the digital age.
Each step of the way, the old school reacted with fear and loathing.
But somehow, each step of the way, new and better forms of journalism emerged.
Some of the greatest work in newspaper history came after broadcasters began competing for listener and viewer attention and local advertising dollars.
If you study the charts on newspaper readership and circulation declines, newspapers have suffered more from the changing demographics of America and changes in their own business structure than the rise of new technology.
Newspapers have been hurt by three things:
- World Wars. Both the first and second big wars caused great migrations around the country, mostly toward the west, as workers went to factories to find wartime jobs and military personnel found new ports of call on the coasts. This created a less rooted society, which hurt local newspapers as people felt less connected to their communities, and therefore less interested in what the local daily or weekly had to offer.
- Professionalization. The rise of journalism schools and the sense that all reporters and editors needed to be “professional journalists” turned newspapers away from being interwoven in the fabric of their communities toward disconnected observers that need not be troubled with the consequences of what is covered, or not; and, more so, gave a sense of entitlement to reporters that they need not bother with the trifles of community life.
- Chains and IPOs. Once a newspaper (or radio or television station) becomes part of a chain, it’s profits are no longer its own. A certain layer of revenue gets sent back to corporate HQ to cover corporate expenses (corporate HQs are by definition incapable of generating revenue to support their own operations) and the local profits must be shared with corporate overlords. This means money that once stayed in the community to reinvest in journalism is now ripped away from the place where it could do most good for the health of the community and the news organization. The introduction of publicly traded newspaper companies in the 1970s brought a whole next level of evil in the chain ownership structure. With shareholders to please, insane profit margins needed to be maintained. The news business — and it is a business — is not of sufficient structure to make rapid enough change or introduce new quickly commoditized products (the way a traditional manufacturer can) to maintain those profit margins. The best newspapers can do are invest in themselves to improve and maintain quality. In the publicly traded world, that’s not possible.
The news business was in decline before the Web came along. Like the proverbial frog in hot water, nobody noticed how these structural changes to the news business were leading to irreversible long-term declines. In fact, it looked like things such as chain structure (so bean counters could create “efficiencies of scale”) and a more professional work force (which also made reporters more like factory workers, more interchangeable), were in some ways beneficial (professional reporting is better, after all, than gossip mongering).
If my thesis is true — and obviously, I believe that it is — then digital represents more of an opportunity than a threat.
And the opportunity lies with those businesses that are addressing the structural flaws in the American media landscape.
- Local ownership. Only local owners can address two of root causes of the news business decline. First is a connection to the community and a commitment to the community. Second is that revenue is not frittered away on support of a wasteful corporate infrastructure. So called “scale” has no place in the news business. Local news operations by their most eloquent definition can’t scale. Regionalism is one thing, national scale is a pipe dream.
- Start ups. A start up doesn’t have the baggage that goes with legacy. A start up can come out as a pure digital play and build a business around realistic cost and revenue projections. Digital is a different medium from paper or air. It calls for a different approach to news and business. The start up owner has the flexibility to experiment and fashion a structure that better fits the environment.
- Reinvent journalism. The independent editor has the freedom to change the rules of the game, re-evaluate all of the sacred cows that have been erected in the high church of journalism and decide what makes sense and what doesn’t. The reinvented journalist can once again be a booster for his or her community, can care about the health of the local business community, can more effectively point out the rights and the wrongs in the civic sphere, and can engage his or her community in ways that are meaningful and hopefully attract more people into a new engagement with the very places they live and work.
There’s a lot of talk in the pundit class about the “sustainability” of local online journalism. To me, it’s a ridiculous topic to theorize about. Of course, local online journalism will be sustainable. Each stage of journalism, from the penny press to the arrival of television, local journalism has remained sustainable. Those who navel gaze lack a sense of history.
Think back to the original penny press publishers — they had no concept of professional journalism and certainly couldn’t imagine paying for it with classified ads, especially with big profitable verticals in jobs, cars and real estate, nor could they imagine full page spreads from department stores, nor did they think much about special sections and Sunday morning inserts — all of the things that went into making modern newspapers powerhouses of revenue and investigative, watchdog journalism were not invented for decades after the penny press was born.
We don’t know how online journalism will evolve, but it will evolve. It will find ways to make more and more money to pay for more and more journalism. The audience is there for it, local businesses will always want to connect with that audience, and entrepreneurial minded people will find ways to put the pieces together.
Recommended reading (books that influenced the thinking behind this post)
- Discovering the news: a social history of American newspapers, By Michael Schudson
- The vanishing newspaper: saving journalism in the information age, By Philip Meyer
- The newspaper publishing industry, By Robert G. Picard
- Liberty and the news, By Walter Lippmann
- Home town news: William Allen White and the Emporia Gazette, By Sally Foreman Griffith
- Bowling Alone, By Robert D. Putnam
- Look homeward, America: in search of reactionary radicals and front-porch anarchists, By Bill Kauffman