Friday, October 1, 2010

Media Column: Newspapers

Once upon a time, every small town had their own newspaper filled with fun, exciting, and illuminating information.

But somewhere in the last 10 years the whole business model imploded leaving communities without news, or with an abbreviated version of it.

The industry is in dire straits, and nobody knows how to save it.

These traditional companies spend inordinate amounts of cash on expenses such as printing, advertising, sales, a bloated newsroom.

Readers have gone somewhere else (the internets?). Classified advertising has gone to Craiglist, real estate to Zillow.

Web sites have had a poor response to the changing climate and influx of readers. Popular sites like HuffingtonPost and Gothamist simply aggregate news from the old media and repackage it for the new - presto. 

This is not a way to build a sustainable business - on the back of someone else's crumbling one.


This won't help though.

Newspapers are built on a foundation of sound editorial judgement and trust with the general public. Not to mention a solid business plan and advertising market.

Web sites come and go. Blogs are notoriously lazy, inaccurate, hyper-partisan, and, generally, unreliable. 

Some communities around the country have created grassroots hyper-local projects for the web out of the ashes of dead papers, or laid-off newsrooms. And some have worked. But a clear revenue model that can be duplicated elsewhere simply does not exist.

It's not clear how things will shake out. Some people are saying it will all go mobile, others are putting their money on tablets like the iPad. But one thing is clear: whatever or however it is that we receive information and communicate 20 years from now, it will be drastically different than anything we've seen before. 

Blogs will be as ancient as a soapbox preacher and those PC towers - a typewriter that collects dust.


  1. While I agree that the news industry is changing and projects like Patch will fail (and miserably). Howeve there a few glaring problems.
    A) projects like Patch will fail not because they mirror an AP model, but because they model content mills like Demand Media that don't employ professionals but sucker in hobbyists and pay them an incredibly low wage and are geared towards maximum SEO rather than quality content or reliable reporting.
    B) "Web sites come and go." I'm not sure how narrowly you meant to define "website" but if you're simply talking about Internet-based destinations I'm sure Google, eBay, Yahoo! and Aol would all take issue with that claim.
    C) "Blogs are notoriously lazy, inaccurate, hyper-partisan, and, generally, unreliable." While perhaps this was once accepted wisdom it's no longer true. Sure partisan political blogs are notoriously partisan. Sure your average Blogger blog or Livejournal are lazy and unreliable, but the distinction between "blog" and traditional news outlets has blurred. Not to mention that the issues you attribute to blogs are not unique to the outlet, all you need to do is pick up a copy of the Advance, the Post or the Daily News to get your fill of lazy journalism.

    Blogs won't become "ancient" in the sense that they will continue to evolve, just as other web sites and services have. 20 years from now they may barely be recognizable when compared with their original form dating back to the 1990s but their roots will be obvious, and will likely contain many similar features such as reverse chronological posting and reader engagement through commenting.

  2. It's hard to replicate the collective resources and knowledge a Newspaper like the Advance holds among reporters, archivists, editors, etc.. You may take plenty of pot shots at the paper, because the Advance is there for the pot-shot-taking (and sometimes deserves it). But if I wanted to get the most accurate and objective news (both of those are ideals, not examples of perfection in reality), I'd take the Advance over most anything else.

    Don't get me wrong, when it comes down to traditional vs. new media, I may be employed by a newspaper but I fully accept and embrace the unstoppable march of new media. And that's as it should be. A lot of monks lost their jobs when the printing press got invented; we all lived through that. Things change.

    Here's what I'm worried about: the survival of that collective knowledge and pooled resources. The problem with newspapers is fat; the problem with blogs is they have no fat. Issues of ad revenue, print costs etc. squeeze the ability of publications--online or otherwise--to do real investigative work. You know, the kind of work that actually has the power to hold the guilty accountable, to expose the corrupt, and to, inch by inch, change the world.

    When WaPo recently produced that series on the explosion of the public and private counterterrorism sector in the U.S., and the inherent problems that that explosion have created when people actually want to fight terrorism, that reporting was mind-blowing and incredibly important. Is HuffPo going to do that work? Am I going to be able to do enterprise journalism of my own on Staten Island when my day is often interrupted by Obituaries, meeting notices, and rewrites of stories assigned by frantic editors trying to fill tomorrow's pages with a shrunken staff?

    My fear is that the answer is no. That in the race to cover everything, to get the clicks, to laugh off local newspapers and sing the praises of Gawker etc., Americans are losing an important ingredient in their democracy: institutions with the money and know-how to protect it.

    Lookup the article in The Nation from a few years ago, about how in some "Socialist" countries, from Europe to Central America, citizens are taking ownership of local publications, through protected public subsidies, collective trusts, etc., and trying to protect relative objective reporting of the news. There are some interesting models out there. Here's hoping we all find one that works. If we don't, we're all in trouble.