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July 26, 2007

Woe Is The Media!

I agree with Ankush that newspapers will have to change to survive, and that many of them will. But, working in media, it's almost impossible to overstate how resistant they are to that process. The degree to which folks appear to believe that every newspaper is a special little snowflake, its value incalculable and its presence critical, is remarkable. I can't tell if this is straight rationalizing for a situation that, as Matt says, "is very good for newspaper writers," or because of some odd status quo bias, or simply the internalization of journalistic mission statements, or what. Hear it often enough, though, and you begin to wonder if these institutions have even a hope of changing enough to survive.

But the old ways really do need an overhaul. Take coverage of presidential speeches. We do not actually need 40 different reporters from 26 different outlets writing the same story according to the same stylistic conventions about a useless address. Six would do just fine. Particularly in an age where the transcript -- and the reports of the other six -- can be easily accessed online. It's now much cheaper, easier, and more possible for a large slice of the population to directly access the primary documents, transcripts, and video clips that could, before, only be provided by on-location reporters and newspaper distribution systems. That leaves the newspapers adding less value than before, and it means we need fewer of them

Having fewer of them is something that many people appear desperate to head off. And I think it's possible, if not terribly likely, that most will survive. But only by becoming something different. The Tallahassee Reporter can't compete with The New York Times at news gathering. And until now, they haven't really had to.

The heyday of newspapers had them operating amid a scarcity of information. The average citizen in Omaha, Tallahassee, or even Los Angeles simply couldn't collect information from DC or Nairobi, couldn't call up yesterday's presidential speech, couldn't choose from thousands of content sources and millions of blogs and dozens of cable news channels. Newspapers, due to their wide array of reporters, their investment-heavy text transmission infrastructure, and their near-monopolies in individual markets, added a ton of value in getting consumers information they couldn't otherwise access. That's changed.

Now information is abundant, even too abundant. What readers need is interpretation, filters, guides. The media -- dare I say it? -- needs to mediate. That's where they can add the value. The basic stenography that was valuable in one age isn't worthless in this one, but it's simplistic, and not nearly enough.

Further, we're not merely dealing with an era in which information has become overwhelmingly abundant, we're caught in a moment when all sides have become exquisitely sophisticated at spinning it, at publicizing what they want heard, distorting what scares them, drowning out what hurts them, discrediting what attacks them. So not only is there too much for the average consumer to deal with, it's not even clear what they should deal with, what's honest, who can be trusted. This is dicier territory, of course, but I think those who fret over the newspaper's capability to serve this guiding function give insufficient thought to how odd the concept of objective news coverage has always been, and how much more potential there was for abuse when there was nearly no in-market competition.

But instead of moving in that direction, what you see is a profession articulating an enormous resistance to those trends. The response to blogs has been a sort of occupation-wide condescension to those who opine rather than call people, who express opinions rather than seek objectivity. And that's natural: Traditional reporters have responded to an occupation challenge by emphasizing what sets them apart from the newcomers. But the reason these new types of media are proving successful is because they fill a need, they serve a market that, right now, isn't being well-served. If newspapers are to survive -- particularly the smaller ones -- they have to stop operating from a business plan which only succeeded because bigger, better newspapers were unavailable, and start thinking about what actual value they can add to a broad information market that they no longer monopolize, and in most cases, can't compete in.

July 26, 2007 in Gaze at my Navel!, Media | Permalink

Comments

This post strikes me as something of a muddle - newspapers needing to change is hardly, er, news; the bloodletting has been in place for a good 10 years, the resistance to online media is something of a given, and the challenges of adapting are still fairly obvious. Remember, the big failure here doesn't have to do with reporting or opinion coverage (though that, I think, is the sexy part to other writers); the real problem is the disintegration of their raison d'etre as businesses, which is advertising: the complete decimation of the classified ad market (hello Craigslist!), and the slow fizzle of other advertising (my understanding is that online revenue doesn't begin to replace print losses) is what's doing them in - the budget cuts to news coverage are really results, not causes.

Until newspapers can solve their business problem - you, know, like having Rupert Murdoch buy you at an absurd premium to add to his loss leading newspaper businesses - how they adapt to online reporting and opinionating is interesting, but beside the point; they will die because they can't make money, not because they don't understand blogging. And I don't know that anyone has solved that - because if you asked me, I thought the WSJ was doing better than anyone in proving that people will pay a premium for unique content (in its case, the quality of its business reporting on its all pay site). That not being the case, I think it's real hard to say who's got this figured out... and if they don't, then they are pretty much doomed.

Posted by: weboy | Jul 26, 2007 5:16:59 PM

I can't help but see this as bad news all around.

Right now, we have big city newspapers all over the country supposedly covering national news, and, um, we're getting a great deal of crap -- both in what is written, and what isn't written. I can't see that situation getting better when we only have 4-10 news entities covering national news.

And local news -- where we really need the coverage that the Mayor's best friend seems to be getting all of the zoning variances they ask for, and the police is covering up for its bad eggs -- is where the money is fleeing fastest.

Posted by: Shereld | Jul 26, 2007 6:15:13 PM

Now information is abundant, even too abundant. What readers need is interpretation, filters, guides. The media -- dare I say it? -- needs to mediate. That's where they can add the value. The basic stenography that was valuable in one age isn't worthless in this one, but it's simplistic, and not nearly enough.

Unlike weboy, I thought this post really hit a lot of salient points. Most crucial was the above graph. I think this point is at the heart of the lefty-netroots critique of the media. While some lefty folks are looking for a new partisan tilt, I do think the more intellectually honest ones are simply looking for the media to do a better job interpreting events and identifying patterns and trends. And this is how blogs actually do threaten MSM's supremacy--while political bloggers seldom attend news conferences and rarely speak with government or political sources, they (as a group, and through a dialectic process) analyze current events better than most MSM sources.

Which almost does make me wonder if it's not just the dead-tree newspaper that's going extinct, but rather the institution itself. If you accept the analogy of analytical/punditry blogs as parasites feeding off the wire services/major national papers hosts, it seems that soon the day will come when the hosts are no longer independent organisms, but rather mere passive food sources for the voracious and more successfully evolved parasites.

I'm not sure I even believe that's what will happen (even now, blogs are still more like ticks than tapeworms), but Ezra's post makes this kind of shift seem more possible.

Posted by: Philly | Jul 26, 2007 9:37:33 PM

There's an interesting counter-example. In Australia, one of the large newspaper groups closed down several papers in rural areas. One group of fired journalists set up a hyper-local news site on a shoestring budget, and made a go of it.

I do think it's important to remember that a very, very large proportion of the American public get their news from the local network and the local paper.

While some lefty folks are looking for a new partisan tilt, I do think the more intellectually honest ones are simply looking for the media to do a better job interpreting events and identifying patterns and trends.

The question is perhaps whether the practice of newspaper journalism can be detached from the medium of the newspaper, with all that entails. We'd like more Knight Ridder / McClatchy Washington bureaux. But that kind of reporting was premised on a target readership outside big metropolitan areas. And those areas are struggling to support local papers. Consolidation would keep the NYT and WaPo in business, but that would sustain the insider-ish bits of NYT and WaPo journalism.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Jul 27, 2007 2:59:55 AM

Just to add that while UK readership has declined, the national papers are in a better position to survive because of their explicitly ideological editorial positions. And paradoxically, that leaves the local papers (usually evening papers) in better shape, because the nationals create space for non-ideological local reporting.

I can't think of many parts of the US where households get a morning and evening paper. That's common in the UK. And perhaps that's a direction for the American market.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Jul 27, 2007 3:06:51 AM

pseudo, I tend to think that the UK example can't be replicated here - there's a culture and tradition in the UK around their papers that we simply don't have. My example would be that while I was there on vacation, I found myself compelled to buy those morning and evening papers, because there seemed to be a constant flow of stories (it was also the time around the publication of Paul Burrell's book on Diana, and the Palace and the papers were all over it). But back at home, I didn't miss the multiple papers, and was happy to get back into my once a day newspaper purchasing supplemented with web reading. Americans are too rapid fire, too into the "new new new" afforded by 24 hour cable news and the internet, to really buy into the idea of multiple newspapers (also, given London's centrality to the whole of England, and the small and contiguous nature of the country, the London papers can be national and local at once; it's hard to see how NY papers will really seem relevant to, say, Seattle, in the same way).

And that too would be my point: I think if people are so concerned about newspapers dying, I'd like to know that they're actually reading them. I spend $2.50 a day 6 days a week for the WSJ and the NY Post; I live in Boston and I don't buy the Globe, except maybe when I need a movie time. I stopped buying the NYT as a protest to going to $1.25. Would content or ideology change my purchasing? I don't think so; a price cut might. What's really changed is the world, with blogging and with internet news reporting, and that can't, really, be undone or repurposed to a newspaper format.

I sympathize with Philly, but I still say this post doesn't really say anything that hasn't been said for a while, and is, I think, what lefty/netroots people like to think the problem is (there's a countervailing argument on the right that I like as little or less): that somehow, if the "MSM" just did a better job with analysis/opinion, there wouldn't be a problem at newspapers. I don't like the argument because I think there's a continuing need for good solid reportage separate from the need for opinion and analysis; if anything, blogs have shown that opinion alone can't really take the place of informing citizens - it can be an incredibly helpful adjunct, sure, but not a replacement. And what we're talking about is the best reporting sources going out of business over falling ad revenue. That can't be solved by opinion journalism. That's the problem.

Posted by: weboy | Jul 27, 2007 6:45:28 AM

weboy,
The question is whether the same executives and editors who stood by and watched as the Internet ate their classified ad revenue from 1995-2005 with no effective response are going to be capapble of making the changes necessary to survive. Business history says no on that one.

Cranky

My local newspaper is still trying to charge $400/day for a 2-inch print-only classified ad. They are "considering" partnering with an online ad site. And they wonder why their financials are so bad; must be those darn bloggers.

Posted by: Cranky Observer | Jul 27, 2007 7:48:37 AM

"I do think it's important to remember that a very, very large proportion of the American public get their news from the local network and the local paper."

That's not really true. A very large proportion of the public gets their news from the AP wire, which is stuffed into the news hole of their local paper. And the AP is not in danger of failing.

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