As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Long Death March Of The Newspaper Industry

Today is the final printing of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which starting tomorrow will be a Web-only product. Sitting about 950 miles from Seattle, this means nothing to me, as any news in the Post-Intelligencer would be as available to me tomorrow as it was today. But that assumes all things being equal, and the same commitment on the part of the online product - and the same budget - for state and local journalism.

But The P-I, as it is called, will resemble a local Huffington Post more than a traditional newspaper, with a news staff of about 20 people rather than the 165 it had, and a site with mostly commentary, advice and links to other news sites, along with some original reporting.

Other newspapers have closed and many more are threatened. But the transition to an all-digital product for The P-I will be especially closely watched in an industry that is fast losing revenue and is casting around for a new economic model [...]

Hearst said it would offer severance packages to about 145 employees. Because the newspaper has had no business staff of its own, the new operation plans to hire more than 20 people in areas like ad sales.

Among the new columnists, Hearst said, will be Norm Rice, a former Seattle mayor; Maria L. Goodloe-Johnson, who heads the city’s public schools; John McKay, a former United States attorney; and two former governors.

Who knows, the region may benefit from a strong online presence like this. But the reach will be smaller, by design. Until broadband is universal, Web-only services necessarily leave many behind. The future is very uncertain.

Print media does much of society’s heavy journalistic lifting, from flooding the zone — covering every angle of a huge story — to the daily grind of attending the City Council meeting, just in case. This coverage creates benefits even for people who aren’t newspaper readers, because the work of print journalists is used by everyone from politicians to district attorneys to talk radio hosts to bloggers. The newspaper people often note that newspapers benefit society as a whole. This is true, but irrelevant to the problem at hand; “You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone!” has never been much of a business model. So who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs?

I don’t know. Nobody knows. We’re collectively living through 1500, when it’s easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it. The internet turns 40 this fall. Access by the general public is less than half that age. Web use, as a normal part of life for a majority of the developed world, is less than half that age. We just got here. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen [...]

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

When we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.

I don't think that clinging to the past will be a worthwhile solution here. There is a market for journalism, but not a market that is profitable, at least for all but a few outlets. There has arguably never been a profitable market for local journalism; its appearance alongside the news people wanted to read, like sports and the movie listings and national coverage, served the function of keeping local government honest and exposing corruption and malfeasance. Like Dana Goldstein I hope that marketers will switch over to fund Web journalism at some point and sustain the institution. However:

But even if that's true, we are entering a long, dry spell in which reporting resources will shrink at most publications once dependent on print revenues. Now matter how much of an Internet triumphalist you are, this is cause for serious concern -- especially at the local level, where small newspapers serve as watchdogs over police, school boards, town councils, and the like [...]

I have every confidence that in a democracy and market as vibrant as ours, web publications will spring up to fill the void. But that will take time. And we will also lose newspapers' role as the trainers of young journalists. I know I benefited greatly from the daily paper internship racket. I worked at The Journal News in New York's northern suburbs, and was taught there how to copy-edit, write a lead, and churn out five stories a week. All skills crucial to blogging.

What is most troubling is not that the financiers of journalism have yet to make the online side profitable (even the Politico loses money, except for its print edition in DC), but that in that arduous process, the well-balanced civic diet will get thrown away in favor of the junk food of three-year election cycles and daily tracking polls. A functioning society needs the full spectrum of journalism - just look at California as an example of what happens without it.

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