Death and hope of resurrection among newspapers and magazines

What's killing the mainstream press? advocacy masquerading as journalism. What's going to save it? Technology.
Written by Paul Murphy, Contributor on

As regular readers know I've been exploring the use of Drupal for a large website. Overall I'm becoming increasingly convinced that it's the right tool for what we want to do - largely because what's there works and the open source nature of the thing means that what isn't there should be relatively easy to add.

I say "should be relatively easy to add" because of course I don't know what isn't there - and therefore don't know how hard it will be to add whatever it is that's needed to deal with whatever requirements it eventually turns out I've missed.

One of the things I've been doing to address this business of not knowing what I don't know has been to review lots of other people's websites looking for applicable functionality - and in that process I've "discovered" something very intriguing about the way traditional newspapers and magazines "do web."

The print media are in big trouble - and to show you how serious this is, let me quote from when No News Is Bad News, a James Warren pleading for The Atlantic:

Newspapers have been and remain by far the largest source of news coverage and analysis in any city or town. Without the local paper, the TV and radio stations would be in difficult shape, despite the good work they often do. The most popular websites: Yahoo, the Drudge Report, MSNBC.com, CNN.com, the Huffington Post, you name it, also rely heavily on the work of newspapers, more often than not appropriating and linking to their stories without providing a penny in payment. ...

The cooption of that Post story serves as a clear reminder of the extent to which newspapers serve as daily tip sheets for other media outlets. The Chicago Tribune has, or at least had, many more reporters and editors than all the TV stations and radio stations in town combined. Far more than CNN or Fox or CBS or ABC News. Traditionally, it brought in $100 million to $200 million more in revenue annually than all Chicago's radio stations put together. But now a stunning decline in advertising revenue has broken the traditional business model for all papers. (There were weeks in the early part of 2008 when the Tribune began to fall behind conservative weekly revenue projections by more than $1 million. And in seemingly no time, its editorial department has gone from 650 employees to about 470.)

Classified ads, once the mainstay of newspaper advertising, are scarce - headed to Craigslist.com and other websites, where you can place your ad for free or for pennies. Other key advertising categories, notably auto and real estate, have also plummeted. Meanwhile, the price of newsprint is skyrocketing, despite declining demand.

Adding to what is essentially an advertising-driven calamity is the reality that though the U.S. population has more than doubled in the past 60 years, absolute newspaper circulation this year will be lower than in 1946. A younger generation wants its information online, and newspapers and magazines have obliged by, after first being too slow to embrace the Internet, giving their content away online for free. Content for which, I might add, they charge their traditional subscribers hefty sums in print. But even as other sites profit by aggregating and linking to their content, most newspaper websites themselves are austere, dull, and technologically backward, relying for revenue on the evaporating supply of low-cost help-wanted, real estate, and auto classifieds.

Newspaper penetration -the number of households looking at a paper - now amounts to less than 18 percent of the population, compared with 33 percent back in 1946. In its home market, The New York Times has a dismal 7 percent penetration. The New York Times Company, which, like the rest of the industry, used to reap tremendous profits, is one of the many publicly traded newspaper companies that have lost well over half their market value in the past two years. Just this past year, shareholders of publicly traded newspaper companies have lost 83 percent of their investments, according to Alan Mutter, an astute industry analyst, blogger and former newspaper city editor. Papers are throwing out employees almost weekly, cutting national and foreign bureaus if they have them, and slicing the actual size of the product, since newsprint is a huge cost. In some cases, entire newspapers are shutting down. Hearst Corporation is the latest to serve as executioner, announcing the likely demise of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer if a buyer can't be found.


Meanwhile, websites are not obligated to spend money on newsprint, printing plants, or union drivers to drop their product at readers' doorsteps. Yet they benefit from linking to all that work they've not done or paid a nickel for. And they supplement this borrowed reporting with user-generated content and material produced by freelancers who are paid a pittance or nothing at all. They've also opted for chat rooms and ongoing dialogues among their adherents, a laudable, democratic impulse, but one that often devolves into an unedited legitimization of stupidity and bigotry.


Why should we care?

This matters because of the unique role journalism plays in a democracy. So much public information and official government knowledge depends on a private business model that is now failing. Journalism acknowledges and illuminates complexity, and at the same time prioritizes, helping us to evaluate the relative significance of developments playing out all around us. A very shrewd journalist-entrepreneur I know, Steve Brill, asks that one just imagine walking into a library and seeing the pages of all the books scattered on the floors and stairwells. To be sure, editors are human and subjectivity plays a role, but a newspaper places those pages, and thus the news, in some sensible order.

And, importantly, there's a sense of social mission. Good journalism keeps public and private officials honest and helps citizens make thoughtful decisions. It does this by systematically gathering, processing, and checking relevant information, and by doing it with a spirit of independence. It's how two previously unknown Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, put together the Watergate puzzle that forced the 1974 resignation of President Richard Nixon. And as they pursued their investigation, they, like all good reporters, followed certain commonly accepted ethical norms: You don't take money from the people you're covering. You don't bow to special interests or to the economic interests of your employer. You confirm and reconfirm the accuracy of assertions and supposed facts and quotes. As an old saying used to go at the City News Bureau of Chicago, a now-defunct training ground for decades of reporters, "If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out."

The ironies here abound: and neither least because I'm proving one of his points by not paying anyone for this extract, nor most because a one to ten scale ranking for the major media players on how fanatically they avoided checking things out to protect and promote Obama during the last election, correlates almost perfectly with their percentage revenue losses this year relative to 2006/7.

Bias, self-pleading, and anti-customer blindness aside, Warren's main argument here seems to be that the loss of readership to "pirate" news sites like the Drudge Report, combined with the loss of traditionally reliable classified advertising revenues to sites like craigslist, has reduced the revenues available to protect democracy through good journalism - and I couldn't agree more despite thinking his definition of good journalism as anything attacking Republican and/or core American values a big part of the problem.

I also agree with something he slipped in between whine courses - here it is again:

A younger generation wants its information online, and newspapers and magazines have obliged by, after first being too slow to embrace the Internet, giving their content away online for free.

What he's saying is that the traditional media not only haven't adapted to the web, but that what they have tried to do with has been wrong - and, again, I think he's right despite this being only a secondary symptom of a wider problem (the first being that major media's obsessive campaigning for Obama angered about two thirds of the customer base -remember that the total votes counted for Obama didn't quite make it one third the number of eligible voters).

Contrary to his beliefs, however, players like craigslist and kijiji didn't win the personal ad business by being cheaper; they won by being better - photos, fast access, and full text search are worth far more to both buyers and sellers than the few minutes and/or dollars they save by avoiding the traditional print process.

So what's going on? As it turns out there's a mindset issue at work here: major media management staff seem deeply conflicted between two sets of beliefs:

  1. the cynical belief that advertising earns their salaries and editorial content is what attracts the reader to the ads; and,
  2. the idealistic belief that the ads pay for editorial content as a public service.

Put these together with pressure to establish a web presence and what you get is a generic decision to leave the print ads off the web presence and then seek to sell additional ads to pay for that web presence.

Or, in my particular case, it suggested a downstream requirement to reproduce printed pages, including ads, without giving up access speed, searchability, and the ease of access that goes with web style hyperlinks.

As it turns out Drupal will do that trivially in either high end or low end ways. In the low end way you simply format your docs as PDFs and start-up the user's acrobat reader as a new page - backing its search and related functions against your server files. That's in-scope for reader7 and later, but has the downside of depending on the customer's willingness to launch a 70MB application just to read a few pages of text - and that's not really a winner if the customer is using a low end netbook or a slow connection.

The high end way to do this is to take the postscript file magazine and newspaper editors send their ($60 million and up "lot top"!) printers, direct to the web. If your customer happens to be on a fast link and a Mac (or a 1985 Sun NeWS terminal) that's fairly easy and astonishingly effective - it gives you everything you need from guaranteed fidelity to easy searching and hyperlink navigation, at little more than the cost of creating, maintaining, and using a filter.

Unfortunately Wintel customers don't have PostScript compatible display technologies so this approach won't generally work to reach a majority of customers -a reality that can be seen either as requiring a two tier approach or as creating an opportunity for bigger media players to work with telcos on putting NeWS type terminals in customer homes.

The latter approach sounds ridiculous: surely the cost of replacing a physical newspaper with a very thin, 23" x 21" LCD screen flat on the customer's kitchen table is out of reach? But it's not: in the kind of numbers that the most self destructive of the big players would command, delivered costs running under the magical dollar a day would be fairly easy to achieve and provide better service to the customer at lower total (subscriber plus advertiser) cost than paper - oh, and generic internet access too, of course.

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