More on The Future of Print and Journalism

(This post will be part of a series I'll be writing on print, publishing and journalism. I'm not sure where it's going, but I really do want to Think Out Loud about this stuff.) If you care about journalism, and I certainly fall into that category, then don't feel…


(This post will be part of a series I’ll be writing on print, publishing and journalism. I’m not sure where it’s going, but I really do want to Think Out Loud about this stuff.)

If you care about journalism, and I certainly fall into that category, then don’t feel bad if you’re confused. There’s been no shortage of contradictory reporting about the state of reporting. Take this piece, for instance, which come to us courtesy of I Want Media:

Deloitte report claims traditional media ‘more popular than online’

IWantMedia’s summary of the piece, which is pretty much what most folks read (unless they really want to learn more, and click through), reads this way:

Traditional media — print, television and radio — remains more popular than online, according to research from business advisory firm Deloitte. Some 73% of consumers say they prefer reading print magazines even though they know they can find the same information on the Internet.

But if you do click through, you find out this is an article in the UK edition of PrintWeek (where I am certain there is no bias toward, er, print), and the findings are solely for the UK market, which is a very different publishing economy than, say, the US or Asia. (Print distribution in the UK is far cheaper than in other markets due to the abundance of urban newsstands, the abundance of choice in UK newspapers, and the abundance in appetite of UK consumers in the reading of newspapers, in particular newspapers with a very sharp political point of view. Regardless, online is already in the process of doing to the UK’s print hegemony what its done to others like the US).

In other words, in no way should you form an opinion on the future of print based upon that summary in IWantMedia*. And while I do not blame IWantMedia for this, I do think is reflects an issue with how we consume news and information on the web – we depend on summaries, aggregations, and pointers, we create our own bricollage of comprehension on the fly. Every so often, we go deep into a source we’ve decided to trust, often one that is far more conversational (like this site is) than a traditional news outlet. The traditional print hegemony – editors, publishers, executives in the newspaper and magazine business – seem unwilling or unable to respond to this new reality in a way that can save their businesses. But I think they can.

Let’s take a spin through some recent print-related news as a thought exercise. I’ve already done a quick overview of the End of Times piece in The Atlantic. A similar piece in Fortune has gotten a lot of pick up (all of it online, of course): Google News: CEO Eric Schmidt wishes he could rescue newspapers. Wishes, but apparently, not willing. As I’ve argued a few times in the past, I do think Google has both the means and the model to help the news industry, but let’s set that aside and grok what Eric has to say.

In the introduction, the editors state that Schmidt and Google possess “a passionate desire to lend a hand” to the struggling industry. He mentions the various services Google has to drive traffic and revenue to online versions of newspapers, but admits those can’t solve the basic economic issue – it costs too much to print and distribute the product, and the product itself is one fewer and fewer people actually want. I think there’s a lesson there, but more on that in another post.

The question is then posted: What about Google buying newspapers? The answer is interesting: “The good news is we could purchase them. We have the cash. But I don’t think our purchasing a newspaper would solve the business problems. It would help solidify the ownership structure, but it doesn’t solve the underlying problem in the business. Until we can answer that question we’re in this uncomfortable conversation.” He goes on to state: “To me this presents a real tragedy in the sense that journalism is a central part of democracy. And if it can’t be funded because of these business problems, then that’s a real loss in terms of voices and diversity. And I don’t think bloggers make up the difference. The historic model of investigative journalists in any industry is something that is very fundamental. So the question is, what can you do about this? And a fair statement is, we’re still looking for the right answer.”

I don’t think we’re all that far from the right answer. I can tell you this,however: It won’t look much like the old answer. The problem that no one seems to want to admit is the way newspapers are organized, they way they leverage their most precious assets (journalists and readers), and the way they approach their businesses in general is simply a non starter in the online space. The newspaper as an institution does not graft to the web. It doesn’t. The sooner newspapers realize this, the sooner they’ll start to get healthy again. As I wrote before:

I can’t tell you where I heard this, but trust me, it’s from a good source: Up until recently, the Chronicle had 400 journalists working at the paper. FOUR HUNDRED! When I wrote for the LA Times, I often wrote two stories a day. Is the Chronicle pumping out 800 stories a day? Is it breaking all sorts of amazing stories and being a leader in the community with those 400 journalists? Hell no! 400 reporters and what is the paper DOING with them? Not much, I’m afraid. The paper should OWN the Valley Tech story. Does it? No. It should OWN the biotech story. Does it? No. It should OWN the real estate/development story. Does it? No. It should OWN the California political story. Does it? No!

Why? Well, maybe it has THE WRONG 400 journalists working for it?! And the wrong tone/approach/structure? Just maybe?

I hate to be the one calling bullshit on an industry I love, but really, honestly, how on earth can you want to save an industry that requires hundreds of journalists to fill a paper that has about 50-100 stories a day in it, half of them wire copy taken from AP or other syndicates? The newspaper industry has a GM problem, if you get my drift. Too many expensive workers doing too little work on products not enough people actually want to buy. And minor shifts in strategy – HORROR! selling ads on the front page – are not going to right the course. I concluded:

I agree that Google and others should be more engaged in helping shore up and – GASP – evolve the fourth estate. But assuming the way to do it is to support more of the same – the approach that gave us a bloated newsroom that puts out a product fewer and fewer people want to read each year – is to ask for tenure over evolution.

And evolution is already happening – at thousands of small and large media sites on the web. In short, I am convinced that journalism will not die if and when major print based journalism outlets die. I have to run to more CES meetings but I plan to write more – a lot more – about this in the coming days/weeks.

*I should note, PrintWeek is sourced in I WantMedia’s summary.

17 thoughts on “More on The Future of Print and Journalism”

  1. Google may choose not to rescue newspapers, but they could hire the best journalists and put them to work reporting, investigating, writing, producing news & related content, and put some geniuses to work on how to make it pay. A long-term, not short-term profit strategy, obviously, but maybe they can afford it.

  2. I think we can be reasonably comfortable that smaller, more specialized, more ‘paid-for-performance’ journalistic bloggers or blogger-teams will emerge to fill *some* of the gaps left by the collapsing newspapers and magazines.

    This model seems like it will work particularly well for content like political or financial opinion columns, news analyses, product and entertainment reviews, recipes and how-tos, and various Q&A/advice formats. The result might even be better than the traditional model, because it will be more diverse, more collaborative, more engaging.

    Where there’s more concern — and I’m guessing you share this worry, along with Dr. Schmidt — is about the funding of investigative journalism. The fear is that these single or small-group blogging enterprises will not be able to afford the investment required to painstakingly unearth some complex scandal or crime, especially if it is overseas.

    I agree with that, at least in theory. Certainly, given their concentrated resources, newspapers and magazines *should* have been the ideal ‘deep pockets’ for these kind of stories. The question we need to ask ourselves is: were (or are) they really doing much of this? And, if they were, did it have the prophylactic effect we presumably expect?

    We have gone through three horrible collective mistakes in the past ten years: a stock market bubble; an unnecessary war; and a housing bubble. Did investigative journalism conducted by newspapers and magazines have any meaningful impact on their prevention?

    So I think the real question is not how do we sustain journalistic institutions that can conduct successful investigative journalism? But, rather, what kind of institutions would those need to be?

    Because, based on their recent track record, they might need to look nothing like our current newspapers and magazines.

  3. Scary though it may be for many of us, it’s not always a bad thing when a behemoth goes under. It gives smaller, more nimble players room to fill the gap, and do it better, in ways that couldn’t have been predicted. Whether you’re talking about failing car companies, or failing newspapers.

    But that’s an outsider’s view. I look forward to hearing more about how you think you think the print and online journalism fields should evolve.

  4. Online citizen journalism, while inspiring, is not professional journalism; most citizen journalists fall well short of what the NYTimes journalists can do (that last bastion of good American journalists). So while I agree that journalism won’t die, I wonder if for how long it will live an impoverished life?

    What is being taught in journalism schools these days? What prospects do students have? You’re only going to be a professional journalist if you get paid for it. Where’s the money going to come from? Google won’t touch it because it will only bleed money. Unless someone finds a business model — online or off — that saves the industry, what will become of it?

  5. I agree, @alphanliste, it will not look like it does today. and that is really, really exciting. I’ll be thinking out loud about that in future posts. @Jon I think models ARE emerging that will pay for investigative journalism. Look what made 60 Minutes – CBS used that as its news brand “crown” – and it helped them sell tons of ads on entertainment shows. That happened at the creation of a new industry. We’re at the same point now.

  6. It is maddening that the Chronicle can employ 400 journalists and not have one of them actually get out to the zoo to do fact checking. The problem is lack of motivation throughout the organization engendered by the unions competing for turf (and protecting redundant jobs). When I worked at the SF Newspaper Agency — back in the day of the Chron-Ex… Read More JOA — there were 17 unions in the shop. It was bizarre to walk through the Chron newsroom and see the entire city desk cruising racing forms or tide charts. Sales departments were no better. Also unionized, sales personel received the same compensation as reporters and promo writers with a few spiffs allowed by the contract. The paper does not reflect the intelligence or spending power of this community. I can usually find a typo or unchecked fact before I’ve taken the rubber band off the paper; I head to the funnies, then onto the NYTimes.

  7. As a former newspaper journalist, I know that a very small part of the once-big revenue made by newspapers went into investigative reporting. A lot more goes into coverage of local government — an area which may suffer the most from the decline in newspapers, since few unpaid bloggers can afford to spend the time it takes to do that well. A lot of the rest of the staff at a big paper cover features, sports, lifestyles and so on — things people want to read, but not really vital to our democracy.

    In other areas, we’ve gone from incredible amounts of duplication by newspapers’ Washington bureaus to a dangerous lack of such coverage.

    At one time newspapers used to earn one of the highest returns on investment for any industry. One problem is that publishers got used to that, and are not content (in many cases) to get by with more routine returns.

    The biggest source of newspaper revenue was never display ads, but classified ads. That can’t be replicated on the Web since most of what papers used to offer is now free elsewhere.

    I agree that propping up existing newspapers isn’t the answer.

    Most of the really high quality newspaper journalism was paid for by owners who cared about quality and were willing to spend money on investigative reporting that would never yield financial return (and often hurt, when advertisers pulled out).

    Someone in the Web space needs to step up and make that kind of commitment. If Google cares about this, I think they should just do it.

  8. Result might even be better than the traditional model, because it will be more diverse, more collaborative, more engaging. You’re only going to be a professional journalist if you get paid for it. Where’s the money going to come from? Google won’t touch it because it will only bleed money. It was bizarre to walk through the Chron newsroom and see the entire city desk cruising racing forms or tide charts. Sales departments were no better. Also unionized, sales personel received the same compensation as reporters and promo writers with a few spiffs allowed by the contract.

  9. Google could certainly have a role if it wants one. The support of local newsgathering functions in particular is vitally necessary.

    Being the fanatic intellectual I am, even before building the Chagora prototype on my own to give basic demonstration of Political MicroDonation & Electoral/Geographic networking concepts as a potential catalyst for a Donor/Recipient HUB I sent them details of what I called “GOOGLE CITIZEN” via some suggestion email address they have.

    They’re ideally configured for the role.

    Never heard back but they receive literally thousands of proposals so not surprising especially from an unknown outsider.

    Regardless, the concept remains sound and dovetails extremely well with an entirely new model permitting both the shedding of archaic structures holding the news business back while providing a source of funding to support both professional news gathering and opinion while providing a focus for similar amateur contribution to the community dialog.

    The only ammendment I would make is in the legal structure such that this particular feature would NOT be owned by Google in its entirely. But rather majority ownership would be held by multiple independent for-profit corporations which in turn are majority owned by the Donor base (1 share per account regardless of size).

    The Model:
    A profitable, neutral platform offering transaction, information, networking, communication and ancillary services to both Donors & Recipients in the charity and campaign/cause services industry with dominance in this field catalyzed by proprietary systems enabling MicroDonation (especially political) supported by advertising, charity/corporate sponsorship opportunities, accounting services, supplementary promotional services, third-party affiliations, etc. while taking no part of the transaction between the donor and recipient.

    Quote from Iqbal Quadir, founder of Grameenphone of Bangladesh:

    “If concentration of power has contributed to poor governance, the solution must lie in dispersing power… ICTs empower from below while devolving power from above, resulting in a two-pronged attack on abuse of state power that has left so much of the world’s population languishing in poverty… ICTs can be the means to both freedom and development by blindsiding obstacles to both.”

    This quote comes from “The Connective” article “Enlightened Self-Interest” but also of particular interest is the piece “Scale Free Thinking”.

    And note also Eyal Sivan’s Connective Hypothesis:

    The key organizing pattern of our global culture is shifting from a top-down hierarchical pyramid to a distributed, self-organizing network.

  10. I would argue that the most precious asset for newspapers is not journalists or readers. The most precious asset is content. The problem is one of delivery. 50-100 stories a day in the Chronicle. What percentage is relevant to each reader?

    This will not be solved with different journalist or amounts of stories. The problem is fundamental to the digital age where the real value creation is not in content (everyone has content), but in the discovery and distribution of it. Delivering content in a relevant way creates value to everyone.

    Herb Simon pointed out almost 40 years ago “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume.” How prescient he was.

  11. Re: I Want Media’s press, you can spin statistics any way you want to help boost your argument. However, stating that 73% of people prefer to read print magazines doesn’t mean that 73% of the people actually DO buy and read print magazines. Focuses on that stat also ignores the trendline showing the migration to online readership, and the advertising dollars that follow.

  12. On Jan 8, David Morgan wrote at Media Post,
    . . . the notion that the purity of newspaper journalism is the cornerstone upon which today’s great metropolitan newspapers were built is revisionist history. Most of today’s great newspapers were built through achieving dominant distribution in their markets, not through delivering better journalism. Most U.S. cities used to have two or more competitive newspapers. The eventual winner was almost always the one that won on the battle on distribution or advertising, almost never on journalism.

    To figure this out we owe it to ourselves to stop the revisionist history and face what really happened.

  13. What happened to “natural selection” if you will, the last thing we need is another legacy trust like GM.
    1. I worry about accountability, the folks in the Newsroom, typing away with the cigar hanging out of their mouths, had to stand behind what they wrote. Their reputations depended on it!
    2. The Internet (present company excluded) is so full of self serving crap at every turn, with it seems to me no accountability.
    3. The Newspaper is doomed it’s like having a History book delivered to your door every morning.
    4. I think the Google’s and Yahoo’s and Drudge’s, are going to miss all that content they grab every morning.
    5. Oh my Gawd! Ad’s on the front page of the Newspaper! The Internet’s worse.
    6. I also think Newspapers shot themselves in the foot years ago with the “If it leads it bleeds” journalism, I know this sells papers, but they’re telling us in Denver, “contractors are standing in line for our business in this Recession”, and the next week they’re sending a sales person to get the contractor to advertise with them. He’s out of money because they’re scaring the homeowners to death, and the world keeps on turning.
    7. I love books, John Battel’s books on Search are among my favorites, we used much of his Information when building our online business. By the way get busy we’re waiting for more!
    8. Hold on to your shoe’s folks, why don’t writers like John allow some ads, (just a few) in and around their books. That wouldn’t bother me in the least, and I’m not going to quit buying books like these that I want to read 5 times.
    9. I watch Hulu at work when I need a break, their short ads don’t bother me at all, I think all advertisers will learn from this, a short sweet ads in the middle of Audio books would not bother me either.
    10. I think we’re turning into the Jetson’s, and we’re all kicking and screaming all the way.
    11. This is all about the new Media swinging at the old Media, I can’t Imagine for the life of me any of the boy’s at Google wanting to save any other Media but the one they control.
    12. They do need to be careful, “Pigs eat and Hog’s get Slaughtered” as they say in the south.
    13. A very smart man said “he who marries this Generation will be a Widower in the next! We need to let go just a little bit. Sometimes we do hang on a little to tight. i.e. (GM)
    14. I’ll leave you with this. We have done some studies on our own, asking approximately 1000 homeowners a month, How, What, When, and Where, they look for a contractor in Denver, when they need one. This is not a scientific study on Creative vs Directional advertising, so we’re not going to publish it, but we do know one thing. No one’s looking or Listening until they need you, and that’s where the Internet is going to win!
    Consumers got very tired of the endless scheming of Marketers years ago, and tuned them out. Think about it, can you remember an ad you heard on the Radio on the way to work this morning, a Truck Side ad, a full page ad in a Magazine? Homeowner all say NO! Get ready to keep on clicking!

  14. Another idea question: could NPR be the future of journalism? Backed by an endowment and foundation, cross-publishing on the air and online, not dependent on online advertising, partially funded by the government…


  15. hmmm, I listen to NPR, I like to hear different sides of every story, they’re a great way to keep in touch with what China, North Korea, Nancy Pelosi, Communist Russsia, and Hollywood are planning for us!

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