You’re not in the railroad business, you’re in the news business

Countless times in the past 15 years I’ve heard online news gurus exhort newspaper executives to “get” the digital media future with admonition: “Railroads thought they were in the railroad business. They didn’t realize they were in the transportation business.”

The lessons were were supposed to learn from this MBA-style wisdom is that

  • Newspapers needed to realize they were in some other business than the news business — communications, perhaps, or community, but certainly not news on paper.
  • Newspaper executives needed to focus on customers not product.

But what if this bit of sage advice isn’t so sage after all? What if it’s just plain wrong in every respect?

My current iPad book is Bully Boy, by Jim Powell. It’s about the disastrous consequences of just about every policy initiative Theodore Roosevelt under took throughout his political career.

Besides being a racist, imperialist warmonger, Roosevelt fashioned himself as a trust buster — along with other progressives of the era — with a chief target of his wrath following on the railroad industry.


  • Every publicly subsidized railroad company of the 19th Century went bankrupt and were rescued out of receivership by railroad owners who prided themselves on building their companies without the aid of taxpayer money, such as James J. Hill, Edward Harriman and J.P. Morgan. Hill, especially, built his business by investing in quality and keeping prices low — hardly the practice of an anti-consumer monopolist.
  • When Harriman, Hill and Morgan decided to consolidate rail operations, Roosevelt initiated a lawsuit under the fairly recent Sherman Anti-Trust Act and successfully broke up their holding company, Northern Securities.
  • Roosevelt’s next anti-trust target was John D. Rockafeller‘s Standard Oil, which was accused of monopolistic practices because it used its superior technology, assets, economies of scale and frugal business practices to secure lower shipping rates on rail lines compared to smaller and regional competitors.
  • From the 1870s or so until the government began controlling rates, passenger and shipping rates across rail lines continued to fall as more lines were built and technology improved (rail also still competed with water transportation, which helped push prices down).
  • The reason rail companies were portrayed as evil in news reports and populace myth were that even as prices fell, they fell faster for big shippers (benefiting from economies of scale), and farmers, small meat packers, small fuel producers, resented paying higher rates.
  • The main competitive pressure for farmers, however, wasn’t rail prices, it was other farmers.  Many Civil War vets, after the war, went into farming. In 1850, there were 1.4 million farms in the U.S.  By 1900, there were 5.7 million. The number of acres of land in production rose from 293.5 million acres to 841.2 acres.  Still, farmers, blamed rail “monopolies” for their woes.
  • Feb. 4, 1887, Congress passes the Act to Regulate Commerce, which creates the Interstate Commerce Commission, which begins to regulate railroads, including setting long-haul rates.  This process intensified after Roosevelt became  president when he increased the number of board members from five to seven so he could appoint two people more aligned with his policies on railroads.
  • In 1903, Congress passed the Elkins Act, which outlawed rebates on railroad shipping.
  • In increasing the power (greatly limiting the ability of railroads to appeal rate decisions) and size of the ICC in 1905, Roosevelt declared, “The government must in increasing degree supervise and regulate the workings of the railways …”
  • Starting after the turn of the century, the rise of labor unions in the rail industry further increased costs and depressed profits.
  • Railroad investment in its own infrastructure peaked in 1907 — decades before interstate highways.
  • During World War I, the federal government nationalized the rail system, leading to $900 million in loses for railroad companies.
  • In 1971, historian Albro Martin estimated that more than $5 billion in investment capital that might have helped upgrade the rail system before World War I went to other financial opportunities. Martin wrote, “Developmenst like the diesel locomotive were delayed twenty years even though the steam locomotive had passed its peak by 1914.”

Railroads did not fail to invest in better passenger service because of lack of focus on customers, but because government control constrained investment, dried up profits and made it impracticable to add air conditioning or other comfort improvements, let along invest in new and faster engines.

Whether you agree with progressive trust busting or not, certainly, knowing these facts, it’s hard to make the argument that railroad executives were the authors of their own demise.

What are the implication for newspapers?

Perhaps publishers need to do a better job of remembering their in the news business after all.  Yes, focus on customers, not the product, but one thing that I’ve relearned numerous times over the past four years is the product customers most want is news.  Embrace the fact: You’re in the news business, not the communication business.

It’s time to move legal notices online

There are important reform bills in California and New York, and perhaps elsewhere, that would allow online-only publication of legal notices.

Newspaper publishers are predictably fighting the bills, one of the last reliable revenue streams for print newspapers.

But what they’re really arguing for is a right to maintain a monopoly on what has essentially become a government subsidy of their operations.

It’s a position that is hostile to taxpayers and consumers by blocking free market competition and potentially saving governments money.

Below is an FAQ I’ve prepared as a handout for local government officials in my coverage area and I would encourage my fellow New York online publishers to use it or something like it too build local agency support for the New York bills that are currently hung up in the Government Organizational Committee.  To get these bills moving forward, it will take the support of local government officials, who are always looking for relief from unfunded mandates.

Information supporting Assembly Bill 6058 by Assemblyman Steve Hawley and Assembly Bill 8075 by Assemblyman Kevin Cahill.

Q. How will this change the current law.?

A. Currently, government agencies can only place legal notices in printed newspapers to satisfy various public notice requirements.  These bills would allow agencies to place notices in qualified local online news publications.

Q. Would agencies be required to post notices online?

A. No. The agency could choose whether to publish its notices with a qualified newspaper or a qualified online news source, or both, or with a local news organization that provides both print and online publication.

Q. What is the purpose of these bills?

A.  These bills will end what is essentially unfunded mandate.  Currently, print newspapers have a monopoly legal notice publications. In the vast majority of jurisdictions in New York agencies have only one or two qualified publications available for legal notices. This bill would allow for competition in the market place leading to lower prices and cost savings for taxpayers.

Q. What do these bills change?

A. There are dozens and dozens of laws on the books that govern the publication legal notices.  Generally, the definition of what constitutes a newspaper is taken from the language of the general construction law. These bills add to the definition of what constitutes statutory publication to include general online news publications that cover a defined geographic region and have been in continuous operation for at least one year and publish news on a daily basis.

Q. Won’t this bill hurt the profitability newspapers?

A. That’s up to newspapers.  It’s up to publishers to manage their businesses better in a more competitive environment rather than rely on what has become a government subsidy of their operations.  For many newspapers, these bills will actually add to the profitability of the newspapers because those newspapers will be able to retain much of the current legal publication business at current rates but save money on ink and paper by publishing the notices online only.

Q. How will citizens benefit from online legal notices?

A. Online publication opens up a wealth of opportunities for legal notice enhancements, from maps, links to related data, searching, greater and wider distribution (think Google), and continuous archives.

Q. But not everybody has access to a computer or the Internet. Won’t this deny those people an opportunity to view legal notices?

A. The flip answer is, not everybody reads a newspaper. The truth is, neither paper nor online have a monopoly on readership. Just as anybody can borrow a neighbor’s paper or go to the library to read a paper, every body has a friend or relative with online access and the library offers free online access.  For people with a real interest in online notice publication, such publication is equally accessible both online and in print.  The online advantage, if any in this regard, is that the notice is still easily available days later if you happen to throw out your newspaper before seeing an important notice.

Q. Government agencies all have their own online sites now. Why should agencies pay a third-party for publication?

A. Third-party publication is essential to maintaining accountability and transparency.  The third-party publisher is responsible for ensuring the notice, once published, is not altered in anyway and provides a barrier to those who might tamper with a legal notice.

Q. Won’t hackers be able to alter or damage a legal notice published online?

A. First, professional news organizations provide a high degree of security for their sites. It’s a vital and essential part of their businesses. This makes any computer break-in necessarily sophisticated.  The people with motivation to alter public notices are not usually the people with the tools and knowledge necessary to hack into a web site; and typically public notices are not the kinds of online information that hackers target.

Q. I’ve heard of some government agencies running into difficulty with the local papers that have reduced publication cycle making it hard to get notices published in a timely manner.

A. It’s true. In New York, some government agencies have found that as formerly daily newspapers drop publication days, they have to plan ahead to get notices published within the legally proscribed time line.  This bill will allow those newspapers to move their legal notices entirely online and better meet the needs of the government agencies within their coverage areas.  These bills also prepare for the inevitable day when newspapers no longer publish a printed product on any day of the week.

To support these bills send a letter to Assemblyman Steve Englebright, chairman of the Governmental Operations Committee, LOB 621, Albany, NY 12248.

Paywalls create opportunities for local news entrepreneurs

It seems like paywalls are popping up all over the place these days.  In recent months Lee, GateHouse and Gannett, for example, have all announced or are implementing paid subscriptions for digital content.

Nobody is rooting for these newspapers to fail as they try to prop up flagging business models, but as a matter of business reality, when an incumbent business moves deeper into sustaining innovation it opens up opportunities for disruptors.

In every market where a newspaper puts up a paywall, an opportunity is created for an entrepreneur to start a local online news business.

Here’s an outline of three possible approaches (and depending on  conditions in each local market, there may be other models or variations — the key is for an entrepreneur take a close look at his or her market, and his or own strengths and weaknesses, and figure out the best bet for success).

The important thing to remember is that history has shown — including quite recently — that consumers will flee to a free alternative content sources when available.

A key rule of disruption is to target the customers undervalued by incumbents. Clearly, any news site that puts up a paywall is telling the community, “there’s a lot of people in this town we don’t value.”  That creates pure opportunity for the disruptive entrepreneur.

In small markets: Start a local news site.  Concentrate on breaking news, some enterprise and feature content, lots of what’s deemed “hyperlocal” news. Successful examples, of course, would include The Batavian (my own business, for those who don’t know).  This can easily be done as a two-person operation.

In suburbs: Perhaps the entrepreneur lives in a suburb and doesn’t want to tackle the larger metro area. The effort here is more hyperlocal (typically, a suburb is undercovered by definition, even if it has a good print weekly). Overlapping emergency jurisdictions and jurisdictions that take in much larger areas can make breaking news harder to cover, but not impossible, but just being embedded in the community and showing great passion for it is a huge competitive edge. Successful examples would include West Seattle Blog (which also shows how to do breaking news in a suburb) and Baristanet. (Authentically Local is another great resource for finding examples of successful, independently owned local news sites. You’ll also find other successful sites that do variations on the quick outline of approaches posted here.)

In Metro Markets:  A metro presents a decision fork for the entrepreneur, with the question being, “do you have money in the bank or not?”  It becomes much harder to bootstrap an original reporting site the bigger the market.  There is simply so much more to cover in a metro, and if you can’t give readers a sense of having a good handle on the community, they won’t find your effort appealing.  With that in mind, below are alternatives for an effort that is funded and one that isn’t.

Boostrap in a metro: Pure, or nearly pure, aggregation.  Not to pick on my friends at the Democrat and Chronicle, but if I lived in Rochester, I would be taking a serious look at how to take advantage of Gannett’s plan to wall off the D&C, so I’ll use Rochester as an example.  Rochester is blessed with some fine TV news stations. There is also local radio news and local bloggers who do various forms of reporting and aggregation. In other words, it’s a news rich environment.  A good aggregator could bring all of this coverage into a home page for the community sort of site and give people who don’t want to pay for the D&C an convenient place to go for as much if not more local news than they could get from the D&C’s web site. A good example of a local aggregator is in Watertown, N.Y. While this is a smaller market, it shows the potential. In fact, NJ’s successful eventually forced the Watertown Daily Times to take down its paywall in 2008, which should serve as a cautionary tale for publishers putting up paywalls now.

Bootstrap in a metro II: Aggregation could be supplemented by original reporting.  If you’re a one or two person team, you won’t have time to cover the whole metro, but why not cover a portion of it?  If it were me, I’d get a scanner and concentrate on breaking news, even going out to the scene of bigger events.  A reporter with a strong background in city government might concentrate on City Hall as a specialty, or an education reporter might spend a lot of time on schools and the school board.  Or maybe the reporter would do only a couple of big enterprise stories pure month. Aggregation supplemented by original reporting would create a stronger draw for readers.

Funded in a metro:  No advice here on how to get money to hire staff, but if I were an entrepreneur with some backing, I would start a series of local news sites, each with their own area of coverage. There would be a blog for crime and courts, a site for breaking news, a site for city hall, a site for education, a site for environment and infrastructure, a site for business, etc.  Each editor would be a co-owner in their own site, giving them a greater stake in its success.  A series of separate sites, instead of one big one, would open more revenue opportunities and diversify the risk (some sites might work, while others wouldn’t, giving the group publisher greater flexibility in how to adjust during the start-up phase).  There would also be an umbrella site that would act as an aggregator of not just my own group of sites, but the other free news outlets in the market.

In all of the bootstrap models briefly outlined here, there are examples of independent publishers finding at least enough success to support themselves (and maybe a staff member or two).  Nobody yet has shown that these independent sites can grow into larger operations, but I believe that growth is only a matter of time and inevitable.  The point is, whether you’re an entrepreneur who would just be happy with a ma-and-pop operation, plenty of successful examples already exist.  If you have bigger ambitions, there’s no reason not to believe those ambitions can’t be realized. The money is there to be made if you want to make it.

Newspapers are turning to paywalls not because they’re great business models, but because lack of vision and lack of execution over the past decade and a half has left them in a desperate bind to just try and survive. Being in business for yourself is a great lifestyle if you can stomach the hard work and unavoidable frustrations.  As newspapers crumble, there should be entrepreneurs ready to pick up the pieces, if for no other reason than our communities deserve good local news coverage. And a little (more) competition is always good in any market.

Advocates of pay walls should consider the fate of the New York World

At the time it was built (1890), the New York World skyscraper was the tallest building in the world.

First, let me remind you of a post November, 2009, in which I quote Walter Lippmann:

We expect the newspaper to serve us with truth however unprofitable the truth may be. For this difficult and often dangerous service, which we recognize as fundamental, we expected to pay until recently the smallest coin turned out by the mint. … Nobody thinks for a moment that he ought to pay for his newspaper.

Second, a summary of the situation faced by the New York World in the 1920s:

So by every measure the acolytes of the Church of Journalism might apply to the sanctity of a newspaper, the World met the standards of absolute divinity.

So what killed the World?

It wasn’t bad journalism. It wasn’t cuts to the editorial staff. It wasn’t competition from the New York Times (the death of the World created a vacuum for the Times to fill). It wasn’t a change in the public taste.  It wasn’t new technology (radio news was just barely invented when the World closed in 1931).

According to The Golden Age of the Newspaper, by George H. Douglas, in 1925, Joseph Pulitzer II made a fatal mistake.  He raised the price of the paper from two cents to three.

No other New York newspaper followed suit and circulation plummeted. In  1931, Roy Howard bought the World and laid off its remaining 3,000 employees.

People may pay for home delivery. They may pay for a nice package of reporting, entertainment and advertising. But history has shown time and again: They won’t pay for news.

The newspaper harvest is underway

Harvest market position. This is the “take-the-money-and-run” plan. Because newspaper customers are such creatures of habit, it could be quite seductive. It means raising prices, reducing quality, and taking as much money of the firm as possible. I know of no newspaper company totally committed to that strategy. But, on some days, there are very strong indications that they are drifting in that direction, egged on by short-term investors. — Philip Meyer, The Vanishing Newspaper.

harvestMr. Meyer might want to revise his book. There are newspapers in full harvesting mode these days.

Bay Area News Group announces rebranding plan

I would argue newspapers have been in harvesting mode for the past decade, using the Internet to up sell (i.e., raise prices), reducing staff (lowering quality) and trying to maintain some level of profit margin even in the face of dwindling markets and increased competition.

Harvesting has been particularly acute at publicly traded companies or those held by private equity firms, and the process of harvesting in this sector of the newspaper industry is only going to accelerate.

Face it, if you were a newspaper investor, which strategy would you prefer: Harvest as much profit from the property as you can before closing it; or, investing in quality and/or digital R&D in the far-from-sure gamble that there might be some pay off down the road? If you accept that print media is doomed (not necessarily a position I agree with), and you have one sure chance to get your money out — harvesting — wouldn’t that be your strategy?

Newspaper pass along rates

I’d like to see somebody do a study of what newspaper pass-along rates really are — and not a study sponsored by the newspaper industry.

I’ve heard numbers over the years ranging from 2.5-1 to 3.5-1.

At one time, those numbers might have been true.

I suspect the pass along rate is closer to 1-1 these days.

Anecdotally, my observation is that there’s a growing percentage of people who keep the habit of subscribing to a newspaper, but rarely take it out of its wrapper.  Most papers go to the curb weeks after delivery wrapped and yellowing.

Also, in households and offices were people have more options for obtaining news, the idea of EVERYBODY who might have access to picking up the available newspaper seems like an incredibly quaint idea.

Among the younger members of secondary readers, the numbers of readers must surely have dropped significantly as more young people turn to online as their primary news source.

Is there any credible and current information out there to suggest that a newspaper pass-along rate as anything other than 1-1?

Newspapers: Don’t be the web

The newspaper in the town of my birth, San Diego, has launched a redesign.

The redesign features fewer stories on the front page, more space for graphics and the name plate has been changed to the snappier "U-T" rather than the apparently more cumbersome "Union-Tribune."  The amount of actual news on the front page has been greatly reduced (and if you compare it to a San Diego Union or Evening Tribune front page of 1971, tremendously reduced).

While the redesign story says the U-T is recommitting to watchdog journalism and more in-depth coverage, everything else screams "we want to be the web in print."

The trend of snappier, more graphic printed newspapers began decades ago, but I continue to maintain that it’s no coincidence that as newspapers have moved toward trying to be more like magazines, or now, the web, readership has declined.

There is lot of reasons for readership declines, but what I don’t get is: Why did newspapers stopped trying to be a newspaper.  

A newspaper is about black and white first and foremost: headlines and words. 

Newsprint is a writer’s medium, punctuated and enhanced by exceptional black and white photography.

The effort to move newspapers toward color and fewer words has been destructive to the greatest value proposition of a newspaper: To be a product that thoughtful people spend time with.  The endless chasing of "time-starved readers" has done nothing more than alienate core subscribers.  And I also believe created a product that is even less interesting to younger generation of readers.

This remains one of my pet peeves.

I love the web. I think it has great, great strengths as a news delivery platform, and news organizations need to figure out how to more effectively deliver news online, but at the same time, publishers need to stop investing in splashy redesigns and instead invest in good, quality print journalism.

The way to fight print circulation declines isn’t to move away from good print journalism, but to embrace what makes print a great platform for great journalism.

My advice to publishers: Embrace the web as the web; celebrate print as print. Don’t try to transfer one mindset on the other.

The Newspaper Original Sin: Keeping online units tethered to the mother ship

Alan Mutter started it. He said the newspapers "Original Sin" was not charging for online content from the beginning.

He was wrong, of course — many newspapers tried and failed at paid content online in the early days, and even the ones who stuck with it never generated enough revenue to make up for their declines in advertising revenue.

But Mutter’s "Original Sin" meme started a trend toward "Original Sin" guess work about just where and when newspapers went wrong with their online strategies.

Steve Buttry hits on one possible answer with his "Original Sin" post. His answer: The bundling of online ads with print ads.  Bundling devalued online ads and taught advertisers online could be viewed as an add-on, just something extra.

There’s merit to the assertion, but it misses why newspapers bundled ads in the first place.

Simply put, they couldn’t sell online advertising in the early days.

In most cases, publishers relied on their existing print sales staffs. 

That seemed logical, I suppose, but in an era when selling print advertising was more like order taking and less like selling, why would a fat-and-happy print sales rep go out and actually SELL a low-margin online banner?  That was too much like work.

Steve makes the point that bundling taught advertisers to see online as nothing but an add-on, but the flip side is that back in the day, local advertisers barely even knew online existed, let alone how it might benefit their businesses.

Publishers who needed to justify the salaries of their online staffs needed to ensure online operations contributed to the bottom line. The only way to do that was through bundling.

And bundling was easy. Advertisers who might not get online, at least understood that online audiences were growing agreed it made sense to put their ads online with an established local brand  at a low cost. Advertisers simply didn’t object to bundled pricing.

Besides bundling, publishers also tried hiring online-only sales reps. The problem, however, is they were rarely really online-only. They weren’t allowed to sell against the print reps, and had to consult with print reps on mutual clients, were encouraged to go out with print reps on "four-legged calls" and easily fell into thinking the only clients worth calling on where the ones already buying newspaper advertising.

Throughout the history of newspapers online, there has simply been a lot of thinking that there isn’t much different between the Web and print.

It’s understandable. The Web, especially in the early days, is a text-dominated medium. The natural response is to think editors could simply move print stories into pixels and be done with it. From the very beginning we called this "shovelware" and "the daily dump," but the practice has persisted.

If publishers thought the Web was no different for content, how could they possibly be expected to see online sales were different, too?

And this leads to my theory of the "Original Sin."

The Original Sin was? Failure to create separate business units for online.

And I’ll plead guilty to a share of this sin.

As director of new media in Ventura and VP of interactive in Bakersfield, I certainly had some grasp that online wasn’t print. I did push such innovations (at least for the time) as comments on stories, video, web-first publishing, locally focused home pages, user profiles/social networking. But looking back, I see now that I still had a lot of newspaper-think in my outlook.

In both Ventura and Bakersfield, I saw it as my job to figure out how to make enough money online to pay for the newsrooms as constructed at the time.

That seemed impossible without being tethered to the mother ship, mooching of established customers and existing sales, and hoping some day, some how, we could convert that bundled revenue into pure online revenue.

It wasn’t until late 2007 that a switch tripped in my head and I realized I needed to flip the expense/revenue picture upside down. Instead of thinking about how to generate more cash, I needed to figure out how to create a news operation that could exist profitably based on a reasonable expectation for local online revenue.

In a market where the newspaper newsroom might cost $10 million, I knew how to make $1 million online, or even $2 million, but I didn’t know — and still don’t — how to make $10 million.

So if I can make a million online, why do I need operate a $10 million newsroom, especially given the greater efficiencies of online publishing?

It was that realization that lead to planning The Batavian (not that The Batavian will ever make anything close to $1 million, just illustrating with round numbers).

Here’s what a separate online business unit would look like:

  • Minimally staffed on both the sales and content side.
  • Both staffs would operate in a building far away from the newspaper office.
  • No newspaper content would feed the web site, and the online staff wouldn’t consult or work with the newspaper staff on stories. There would be a total wall of separation.
  • There would also be a total wall of separation between sales staffs.
  • The separate business unit would be competitive with the newspaper, not complimentary.

It’s a little surprising to me that after all my study of Clayton Christensen and other thinkers on disruptive innovation  that I didn’t see more clearly sooner the imperative of a separate operation, but it is what we should have been doing.

The thing about this approach is that by starting small, starting with the lowest cost possible, in the disruptive innovation model, you have your best chance to grow a $10,000 business into a $10 million business.  In a disruptive world — which online is by its very nature — if you start out with a $10 million expectation you’re only going to end up making the kind of mistakes that eventually lead to failure.  By starting smaller, you can adjust more quickly to a turbulent environment.

So, if the "Original Sin" had’n’t been committed, if newspapers had created more totally separate business units, would newspapers be "saved" today?

I don’t know.

The strategy could have hastened their demise, but I think you can also make the case that by letting newspapers be newspapers, and keeping online far away, you would have had fewer readers dropping subscriptions in favor of free online content. Maybe. Maybe the online competitor would have been seen  by readers as just another media outlet, not a replacement for the newspaper.

It might not have saved newspapers, but it would have been the right thing to do, because it would have led to greater innovation. It also would have helped publishers retain a foothold in communities they served should the newspaper ever fail.

And it may not be too late for this approach, but newspapers are pretty hemmed in now with their existing operations — making too much money to put at risk, but not enough to make a difference in the current model.

Newspapers started small, cheap and with different standards

There are those in our industry who seem to assume that newspapers emerged in 1835 in full flower, that many of the elements of the newspaper world that were until recently taken for granted were all part of world of James Gordon Bennett and Horace Greeley.

An example of such thinking might be found in this post by Bill Doskoch.

The assumption, in my perception, is pervasive, and it colors the view of today’s journalist toward development of online news; in fact, the assumption may have blinded many executives (including online executives, including myself for a time) in their expectations how to build an online news business.

For more than a decade, we expected to build online news organizations that could support a super structure of the modern newspaper newsroom — with the all the reporters and editors and big story packages (look at all the emphasis we put on big Flash multimedia productions) and that we could keep doing journalism just the way we always did it.

While we bemoaned shovelware (taking the same exact print story and repurposing it for the Web), we took little time to really examine what might might be different about online publishing that should change the way news is gathered and presented.

That’s why we were slow to embrace blogging, slow to recognize the power of social networking, and why, even today, most newspapers treat reader interaction (re: comments on stories) as a nuisance rather than an essential part of the business.

Look at the typical home page design — the level of sophistication and attractiveness may have improved from five or six years ago, but these sites are still trying to recreate the newspaper experience, the packaged-goods experience, shoving everything possible into a single, wholistic collection of pixels.

From the in-the-trenches newspaper journalist perspective, today’s surviving reporters and editors keep looking to paid content as some sort of savior, ill-equipment mentally to understand why it simply won’t work, and unwilling to accept any online news model that looks different from the print world they’ve loved.

The seeming fact that no online news model has yet emerged to support their paradigm of journalism — the large staffs, the watchdog journalism (at least to the level they expect), and the comfortable 9-to-5 work shifts — is proof to them that online can’t or won’t work they way they expect.

Any experiment in online journalism that doesn’t fit their paradigm is just folly.

These reporters and editors need to go back to J-school, and one that offers some history of newspapers rather than priestly pronouncements on religious tenants in the High Church of Journalism.  Or at least reflect on what history they did learn.

James Gordon Bennett, Horace Greeley, E.W. Scripps and Joseph Pulitzer were not just earlier versions of Woodward and Bernstein. They were entrepreneurs, visionaries and risk takers who experimented and explored the capabilities of new technologies with a goal of meeting readers needs and growing audience.

They put ads on their front pages. They ran straight murder trial transcripts. They sent row boats out in the harbor to meet incoming ships so they might be the first with the news Europe. They produced multiple editions in the race to build reader loyalty. With the penny press, they disrupted the incumbent six-penny newspapers. They pushed partisan positions. They crusaded, some times to the point of unjustly influencing the course of events.

These entrepreneurs competed fiercely, which led to an intense circulation war between Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. This war became so pitched, that both papers embarked on a short era of sensationalistic reporting that we now know as "yellow journalism."

Pulitzer, who also ushered in graphics and color comics, so regretted later his participation in this low-brow craft that he endowed the Columbia School of Journalism.

The early giants of journalism got much wrong and got much right, but little that they did would resemble journalism of the past 60 or 70 years.

They didn’t, for example, do much in the way of investigative journalism. Nelly Bly worked for the New York World, but even her greatest public service reporting — locking herself in an insane asylum — isn’t what many of today’s newsroom pundits mean by high-cost investigative journalism.  it was a stunt, just like her most expensive adventure, going around the world in 80 days. That really brought down a president, didn’t it?

Most of the other muckrakers who set the stage for investigative journalism didn’t even work for newspapers. They wrote for magazines and published books.

It took a long time for newspapers to build the cash flow to afford big time, expensive investigative journalism, and for publishers to recognize its value (and some of them still aren’t convinced) in helping to retain readers.

So if it took newspapers more than 100 years to build the business and content models that we all now cherish, why do we expect a fully formed online model to emerge in just 10 years?

There are a number of worthy experiments in online publishing going on out there. Maybe rather than scoff, some of these skeptics should stop yapping and try an experiment or two of their own.  Maybe one of them will find the model that will one day employ a legion of highly paid investigators, at least until the next disruption comes along.

Events that have contributed to the decline of newspapers

  • The professionalization and creation of "objective" journalism in the 1920s
  • Movies, 1920s
  • Radio, 1930
  • Mass migrations caused by Great Depression and World War II, dislocating communities and families
  • Television, 1950s
  • Birth of suburbs, automobile, decline of mass transit, 1950s
  • Shoppers, i.e. PennySaver, (not sure when they started, but let’s put them in the 1960s)
  • Unrest of 1960s, distrust of mainstream institutions, rise of alternative press
  • Watergate
  • Wal-Mart and other Big Box retailers in the 1980 and 1990s, putting out of business traditional newspaper advertisers (at higher margins than pre-prints from Big Boxes), often with help of government subsidies.
  • Cable television, and not just more news, but more choices.
  • Digital media and all that comes with it — more choices, greater competition for attention, craigslist, more competition for advertising dollars, etc.

If you fail to look at the decline of newspapers in context of the historical arch of events, and you fail to see that the same forces driving down circulation are the same forces decreasing community involvement and civic engagement, then you’ll never have a clue how to solve the problem. If you don’t see the whole picture, you’ll look for quick fixes like government aid or legislation, grants and annuities, paid content or just whine about "society can’t function without us."

The solution lies in figuring out why increasingly society is deciding it doesn’t need us and fixing that problem, not in hair-brained schemes that attempt to force journalism on the masses.

Stop the insanity: The government has no business messing in the news business

This tweet:

Why didn’t I watch Senate hearing today? Because I’m busy working on journalism’s future, not worrying about its past.

Proved quite popular this evening.

I posted it in light of news about the Senate Subcommittee Hearing today on the future of journalism.  For months (years?) we’ve been assaulted with notions of  "saving" newspapers — should we give them non-profit status, issue some sort of taxpayer bailout, make Google pay, relax anti-trust laws … etc.?

There’s a whole host of proposals out there to "save" newspapers that any real capitalist should find not only laughable but horrifying.

Let’s be clear: If a newspaper can’t compete in the free market it’s not worth saving. If a newspaper needs aid from the government to survive, it’s not worth saving.

A newspaper is a business, just like any other business. It’s not a church. It’s not a social services agency. It’s not a civic organization.  It’s a business.

When a business model is broken, or a strategy is flawed, or time has just passed it by, that business – even whole industries — die. It’s a process of evolution. It’s necessary for the ecosystem of society.

Journalism will not die, though every newspaper might stop printing and some companies that now spew ink to tell the news will cease. Journalism will not die.

If businesses that support journalism are now are not able to compete in the free market, if they are unable to adapt to the changes in the market, they simply do not deserve to survive.

The only thing that will save journalism is the free market. Any other solution will lead to ossification and ultimately will greatly damage democracy, because citizens will become only more jaded and distrustful of a press that through government-backed monopoly power suppress entrepreneurial competitors.

I work my ass off every day — 14, 15, 16 hours a day — trying to create a sustainable online news site.  Maybe I’m on the right track, maybe I’m not, but as an entrepreneur I feel I have a right to put forward my ideas, my business model in a free market and see if it works.  

If it doesn’t, fine, but I shouldn’t have to compete against media companies that are given government favor through changing anti-trust laws or granted special privileges.

The free market should decide what journalism will be in the future, not some gray-haired Senator or government bureaucrat.

If you’re not doing comments right, you shouldn’t do them at all

Maybe it’s time your newspaper reconsidered its Web site’s commenting policy.

If the same group of people are dominating the discussion and ganging up on newcomers who aren’t part of the clique, maybe it’s time to reconsider your policy.

If flame wars are frequent, sock puppets obvious and informative discussions rare, maybe you need to reconsider your policy.

If you cringe every time you see a new comment has been posted on one of your stories, maybe it’s time to reconsider your comment policy.

Those among you who have followed my career for any length know I’m an advocate for comments on news stories. I believe conversation and news are two great tastes that go great together, like beer and chocolate or peanut butter and apple.

And while I’ve noted that comments can help increase page views, I’ve never advocated comments purely as a cheap way to drive up banner impressions. To me, it’s always been about building community.

Unfortunately, for many newspapers, comments are more like the mother-in-law who won’t shut up at Thanksgiving dinner. She seems necessary, after all she brought the pie, but she really isn’t very entertaining and sometimes offensive. And she’s probably the main reason your sister and her family decided to stay with her husband’s parents.

If you aren’t managing your comments well, you’re doing your newspaper more harm than good  Your advertisers question the wisdom of associating their brand with yours — at least the smart ones do — and your readers are questioning your professionalism.

This issue came up on the Online-News discussion list this week, so I know many newspapers are struggling with comment management at the moment. It also came to a head this week in Batavia, where the Daily News was hit by a particularly ugly comment thread in which a socket puppet attacked fellow elected officials, one politician is posing as a defender of said politician, and a community activist brought to light unfounded allegations against a city councilman (I won’t dignify the charge by repeating it here, and because I know these people, it’s pretty easy to figure out who’s who).

I don’t bring this up to bash my competitor — in fact, I rejected (so far) the idea of discussing this issue on The Batavian for fear it would come across as petty — but the struggles the Daily News has with comments (and granted this is something new for them) illustrates a point that has implications across the industry.

If you allow behavior in your comments that would never fly in your news columns, even your letters to the editor, is your comment conduct really ethical?

Just because the law protects you from libel claims arising from comments on stories, should you really allow libelous statements to stand, especially when submitted anonymously?

Here’s how you fix your comment policy:

  1. Assign one person on staff — ideally, make this a full time job — to be community site manager. This person will participate in the community, both online and off and be known as a person of authority and friend to the community.
  2. Require every writer to read and respond to comments on his or her own stories. Journalism online is more than a "I publish and you read" job. Reporters need to be part of the conversation. This leads to more civil discussions and more fruitful discussions.
  3. Require real names. This is hard to enforce perfectly, but not impossible to make a consistent feature of your site.  The smaller the community – where reputations can be broken so quickly — this is especially important.  People will often say anonymously (you’ll note none of the garbage in the Daily thread has appeared on The Batavian) won’t they won’t say when people know who they are.  Real names also serve as a check against sock puppetry, which has no place in a local community site.
  4. Act swiftly to remove libelous statements. The law doesn’t require this, but journalism ethics does.  This is also why you need a pro managing your comments.  All kinds of grey areas arise when deciding what comments to delete, and even after more than a dozen years of managing online communities, I’m not sure I always get this right.
  5. A subtext to all of this — make sure the community knows you take the community conversation seriously and expect it to be productive.

If you’re unwilling or unable to take these steps, you should seriously consider turning off comments. They are likely doing your newspaper more harm than good.