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July 28, 2007

Ad Newseum

By Ankush

I don't mean to needlessly prolong this discussion about the state of newspapers, but, from my perspective at least, just a few more points are in order -- which, lazily, I'll present in bullet-form.

  • Everyone agrees that specialization -- for smaller papers, localization -- is the best way for newspapers to thrive. We shouldn't obscure this agreement or suggest that the point is new. It's something of a cliche, in fact.
  • Ezra rightly observes that, whatever people may say, it's not clear that folks in the media are prepared to see their outlets dramatically change. I agree, but I think many of them will see that change is the only option and will try to adjust accordingly. Bob Kuttner's punishingly long piece about newspapers and the internet demonstrates that this can happen.
  • It is, in fact, possible to overstate the impact of the internet.  For one, media technologies rarely die.  As Jack Shafer has observed, "New media technologies almost never replace old media technologies, they merely force old technologies to adapt and find new ways to connect with their audiences."
  • Relatedly on the point of overstating the internet's impact, I see folks suggesting there's a tremendous redundancy in national news reporting. Ezra writes that "The Tallahassee Reporter [ed.: the what?] can't compete with The New York Times at news gathering.  And until now, they haven't really had to."  Matthew Yglesias writes that "the world doesn't need nearly as much duplication of the basic national news function" and asks, "Why should your local paper be good at covering local news, and be good at covering national news [... etc.]?" In fact, most smaller and mid-size newspapers outsource pretty much all of their national news coverage to wire services and other syndicates. (See here, for just one example.) These papers left the national game quite a while back, so I don't think we should suggest that the internet is rendering obsolete a function that many of these papers gave up on before the internet was their biggest concern.
  • Likewise, a ton of cultural coverage is done through the use of syndicates.  Until his illness, Roger Ebert was probably the most widely read film critic in the country.  It's not really the case, as Yglesias writes, that papers are "trying to be good at everything simultaneously."
  • The use of sports coverage here is curious. On the whole, sports fans are notoriously devoted to their local writers. It's probably one of the areas of the local paper (whether it exists in print or exclusively on the web) that's least likely to go anywhere.
  • I'm also not sure that local journalism is quite as devalued as we all might think. It's worth noting that, for those of us who live in D.C. or New York, our perceptions of what people think about local reporting gigs is dramatically skewed by the fact that we're surrounded by the writers who most think like that -- the people who don't want to work in the smaller media markets and the people who wanted to work out of them. Likewise, people reading blogs like this tend to be more national news-oriented, but I suspect the average reader really does value local journalism (perhaps more so than national reporting), and I think most local journalists like what they do and aren't aspiring to be the next Wolf Blitzer.
  • Finally, for anyone who's wondering how it could be true both that there's all this handwringing about the state of small and mid-size newspapers and, as I claim, that a lot of the supposed redundancies in these papers hasn't really existed for quite a while, it's worth trying to venture into the actual economics of what's going on here, which tends to get neglected in these sorts of discussions. So far, one of the worst things -- perhaps the worst thing -- about the internet for smaller newspapers hasn't been the availability of alternative sources of news. It's been Craigslist and all the other sites that are displacing classified ads, job listings, car ads, and so forth in these papers, which previously provided a very large chunk of their revenues.

July 28, 2007 | Permalink


Jack Shafer is wrong. Because, as we all know, the vast bulk of new reporting is still radio based and television still runs nothing but soap operas.

Seriously, pointing to this Shafer nightmare is like holding up a big sign that says, "The New Media Is For Morans" and not noticed the misspelling.

New medias do supplant old ones. It's especially true in entertainment and it's true in news. Television eclipsed radio in a very short length of time.

It's difficult to see where the shift is taking place but it seems ridiculous to me to argue that print will forever be the "one true source" for news but to ignore history's clear lessons is to appear to be the fool that Jack Shafer obviously is.

Posted by: ice weasel | Jul 28, 2007 1:43:14 PM

What media deliver may change over time, but the media themselves don't go away -- they get repurposed.

Newspapers got their name because news is what they originally did. Books and the theatre are where storytelling was done.

In the 19th c. storytelling came to newspapers, via serialized novels in daily papers. Come radio soap opera, and the movies, papers lost that function.

Television usurped the non-music entertainment functions of radio, so radio news dwindled on some stations, went full time on others, and talk radio was born.

Dead-tree print will go away to some large extent, mostly for cost reasons, but that's more like replacing AM with FM, or silent movies with sound.

There's a lot of news, and a lot of it needs explaining. All the talk -- ads included -- from a network 1/2 hour news show fills 2 1/2 columns of a broadsheet newspaper, or its HTML analog.

Print per se -- not the same thng as dead-tree print -- will remain the 'one true source for news' if 'news means 'news analysis', and for news in bulk, to the extent that data density matters.

Posted by: Davis X. Machina | Jul 28, 2007 1:59:22 PM

Good analysis, Ezra, much better than Matt Y's original post, which got him a much-deserved beatdown from commenters. You're absolutely right about the effect of Craigslist, etc., on newspapers' classified advertising -- it's a serious blow to their bottom lines.

One of the problems with chain ownership of newspapers is that chains come up with a one-size-fits-all strategy, but every community is unique, and a single approach may work well in one city but tank in another. For example, one chain pushed its papers to create a monthly "parenting" supplement after one paper had great success with such a publication. Other papers jumped on the bandwagon and lost a lot of money when the supplements flopped. "Know your market" is a basic tenet of business, but some newspaper chains seem to have forgotten that.

Posted by: Bat of Moon | Jul 28, 2007 2:05:11 PM

Whoops -- I meant, good analysis, Ankush!

Posted by: Bat of Moon | Jul 28, 2007 2:06:00 PM

On second read, it occurs to me that my "ed.: the what?" line could be taken as a snark at Ezra. It wasn't meant to be.

Posted by: Ankush | Jul 28, 2007 4:04:43 PM

Except that the Internet has, without question, destroyed the newspapers' classified and display ad bread-and-butter. A $400 ad on Careerbuilder reaches worldwide for 30 days; the same ad in the Chicago Tribune cost $1200 per DAY the last time I bothered to get a quote.


Posted by: Cranky Observer | Jul 28, 2007 6:23:25 PM

I think Ankush, as with others, has done a lovely job of defining the problem... but that doesn't really give any sense of a solution. It occurred to me that one solution would be an online megacorp that bought up regional and local dailies, providing nearly identical national content, with strong local bureaus, all linked up online (and probably owned by a classified ad company) that would globalize the work and aggregate the content online as a primary outlet. Outside of that, I think it's nice to auggest that "old media" can't die, but in practice, it can, and with newspapers, I think one can expect some pretty major deaths sooner rather than later... as we've gotten pretty darn close to unsustainability in a lot of cases. Given the anti-MSM feeling out there, I'm not sure there really is pressure to save the papers like there needs to be.

Posted by: weboy | Jul 28, 2007 7:10:53 PM

One thing that really sticks out here is using like ten tons of newsprint, delivered over a 50-mile radius by hundreds of trucks, to subscribers who read maybe 5% of the content, and then face the task of getting rid of the paper. Daily.

At some point, this won't make sense. Whether that point is in the future, or already in the past, I cannot say.

And this is especially true when we consider that everything involved in getting the paper ready to print is already done with computers. On the production end there's nothing but savings from here on out when they switch to the web.

Posted by: serial catowner | Jul 28, 2007 7:28:39 PM

this is especially true when we consider that everything involved in getting the paper ready to print is already done with computers.

I don't know if you've seen the on-demand newspaper printing machines in a few big airports. They're pretty cool: better than having shelves of two-day-old papers for foreign travellers.

There are limitations, of course: newsprint is cheaper, made from recycled paper, and is itself more recyclable than printer paper; also, newspaper formats aren't suited to regular printers. But for those who still want the ability to browse, or read in the bath, or read on a plane, it's becoming increasingly viable to offer on-demand printing while the rest of us read online or PDF editions.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Jul 28, 2007 9:54:08 PM

pseudonymous - which airports?

As far as reading in the bath is concerned, I'm just as likely these days to take my laptop to the john as I would a newspaper. If anyone comes up with a cheap (compared to low-end laptops), light (ditto) laptop-like portable (WiFi) Web browser, I'm buying one.

Posted by: low-tech cyclist | Jul 28, 2007 10:27:35 PM

One ignored problem in this otherwise excellent analysis: It isn't the newspaper workers who are wedded to the idea of all kinds of news in the paper, it's the customers. They want one-stop shopping. Newspapers have been going ruthlessly local for all of this decade, and the circulation just keeps dropping faster. People understand they're getting less for their money, and they don't like it.
The real solution would involve a massive violation of anti-trust laws. All papers, from the Times to the smallest community weekly, would starting charging money for their Internet product on the same day. There's no way anyone can survive offering one means of using a product for free and another that costs money.

Posted by: JMG | Jul 29, 2007 8:55:44 AM

JMG's right. Readers of "local" papers around the country want national/world coverage too, and are upset they aren't getting it. I've talked to enough longtime newspaper readers to know that's the case.

If I subscribe to a newspaper (or even buy it at the Kwik-i-Mart), I want a package of national and world news along with local coverage. It doesn't have to be a huge package, but I should come away from it with a general picture of what major events happened in the last 24 hours. Sure, I can do that on the web, too, but I have to go hunting for it, and that takes time -- I'd prefer professionals to do the work for me -- since that's what I'm paying for when I buy a paper.

Posted by: Bat of Moon | Jul 29, 2007 2:22:01 PM

I think the one thing missing is this, for several reasons, newprint isn't doing anything (or much) to transition to new content. Like the music industry, they're digging in their heels and have their fingers stuffed into their ears. Advertising rates in newsprint, in my area, are still rising. They're pretending as though their circulation isn't down and, of all the things they deliver, their advertising is still as potent as it once was.

And that's merely one example of how newsprint continues to make a problem for them now even worse.

Then there the issue of conglomerate ownership for most and an utter abdication of mission on a large part of the independent newsprint publishers. As someone said upthread, there, for now at least, is a niche for print media, especially local, well written and relevant print media. It's just the most newsprint organizations ignore this as they print more wire and syndicated material in an attempt to cut costs and deliver a soothing "product". One need only look at the rise of local alternative newsprints versus the decline of the mainstream papers to see this is true.

And like the music industry, I don't think newsprint will do anything but fight the inevitable until, bankrupt, they're left holding empty sacks.

Posted by: ice weasel | Jul 29, 2007 7:24:26 PM

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