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.