If the doomsayers are to be believed, the above picture is the only way people are going to be experiencing print-based newspapers in the near future: as a museum piece. The future’s not quite that simple, nor is the current situation in the news reporting world as cut and dried as you might think.
You’d have good reason to think it’s pretty simple, even after the massive amount of discussion about it in our town last week. Maybe because of the discussion last week. If you somehow managed to miss it all, we had radio shows and Senate hearings and, of course, the various kibitzing in the print media itself. Somehow, through it all, everyone managed to say things that were mostly true but the picture didn’t add up to what they claim it did.
Let’s do a little walk through what was done and said, supplement it with what’s come from others, and try to apply a slightly critical eye to it all, shall we?The big dog of it all was, of course, the Senate hearings run by John Kerry. There’s some bitter sniping going on about his choosing to do such a thing now. Joe Weisenthal, a columnist whose work runs on The Business Insider, humorously said “Hello, it’s May 2009, and you’re starting this debate now? The eventual demise of big media was probably the second blog post ever written, years ago (the first was: Hello, this is my blog, not sure what I’ll say here or who’s reading this, here’s a picture of my goldfish…).” Less comically, he probably hits the nail on the head when he says that Kerry’s interest is probably more about his constituency and the Boston Globe than a general interest in newspapers. So what, though? Nothing wrong with people acting in their own dedicated self-interest or senators representing their constituents.
By the way – Life’s full of accidental humor, and this Senate hearing is no exception. I wanted to read a transcript and went looking for one online. The GPO Access website – the online arm for the government printing office – has a webpage specifically for Senate hearings. “Most Congressional hearings are published two months to two years after they are held.” This is the organization proposing solutions to newspaper’s challenges? Like what, papyrus and transcribing monks? My Google Voice phone service automatically transcribes voicemails and sends them to me about 3 seconds after they’re recorded. It might be imperfect but nobody waits 2 years for me to know what they said and get back to them.
Lacking a full transcript we’ll have to rely on some other sources for information about what went on in the hearings. There’s some partial transcripts covering what some of the speakers said, such as David Simon, creator of The Wire and Alberto Ibargüen of the Knight Foundation. We’ve also got our own Acacia’s twittering from the event, who noted that Arianna Huffington, unsurprisingly, thinks the death of newspapers is just fine. Senator Kerry, ever so insightful, said that providers need a new business model.
Well, no kidding. One of the big problems with most of this coverage, however, is that many of the players seem to think that just because one system is coming down means that another one has got to come up. Clay Shirky has an excellent essay online talking about the fact that revolution is messy and has little to do with what comes after.
When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.
Shirky’s analysis is a little scary but it’s worth a look. If you only follow one link out of this post that should be the one.
In looking at what some of the speakers said I was particularly surprised by David Simon’s remarks. He wrote an essay for the Guardian last year that I thought was amazingly insightful about the newspaper business and its current failings.
But here’s the thing of which we can all be certain, the thing that fuels all the dramatic arcs of The Wire, in fact: the why is the only thing that actually matters. The who, the what, the when, the where, even the how – every other building block in which journalists and policy planners and political leaders routinely trade – amount to nothing beyond the filler, interchangeable with the facts flung a year ago, a year from now and decades hence.
The why is it. The why is what makes journalism an adult game. The why is what makes policy coherent and useful. The why is what transforms bureaucrats and foot soldiers and political leaders into viable instruments of rational and affirmative change. The why is everything and without it, the very suggestion of human progress becomes a cosmic joke.
And in the American city, at the millennium, the why has ceased to exist.
Despite having written that last September, however, Simon sat in the Senate and said this:
The internet is a marvelous tool, and clearly it is the information delivery system of our future. But thus far, it does not deliver much first-generation reporting. Instead, it leeches that reporting from mainstream news publications, whereupon aggregating websites and bloggers contribute little more than repetition, commentary and froth.
He’s certainly right that the internet doesn’t deliver us material like the Walter Reed series, and when I worry about not being able to pick up the paper every day – and I personally still read it in print – it’s the loss of that kind of thing that concerns me. I do wonder, however, what he sees when he picks up the newspaper every day.
My copy of the Washington Post is filled with things I’ve already seen, and not necessarily online. The Metro section has information on crimes that I’ve often already read about in the Arlington Police Crime Report. They helpfully mail it to me directly, and it’s got the facts in it. If the paper isn’t expending on it – isn’t offering me the why that Simon mentions – then what do I need them for?
Simon takes issue with the word “citizen journalist,” but between us and DCist we had a first-hand demonstration this week that citizens can pull the information and report it. One of our readers tipped us off about the Screen on the Green cancellation and it took 30 seconds on the phone for me to confirm it and report it before getting back to my day job. Sommer Mathis at DCist, whose day job it is to blog and report, put in the additional time to get full quotes from HBO’s consumer affairs and published an expanded report.
I’m not sure if Simon would consider that a fair criticism, given that Mathis does this for a living, but where did we need print journalism for that? It’s not world-changing, but it’s what’s in 90% of my newspaper.
That seems to be a big thing being missed in the discussions, however good. The discussion on the Kojo Nnamdi show with two former Boston Globe journalists and Diane Rehm’s panel on the future of journalism were both great, but I don’t recall a single mention of what percentage of the newspaper’s content is accessible elsewhere. Not by the newspapers giving it away free online, which you can’t pick up an editorial page without finding complaining about, but by other sources – people and organizations providing that information to the public directly.
Of course that always sets off the discussion about how the newspapers are different as a source – they provide impartiality. They check their materials and verify veracity. But they’re just as flawed as online sources and the fact that they’re paid doesn’t mean they don’t cut corners or fabricate things the way Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass did. Or they pick up some extra bucks to write the slant someone wants.
They may be the outliers, but the other thing that rarely seems to come up in these panels is that this long and storied history of unimpeachable journalism is that this glorious tradition isn’t even 80 years old. Here in the U.S. the newspaper industry has a history of fabricating evidence to drum up the Revolutionary War and the Spanish-American War, then later overtly maligning the women’s movement’s efforts to get the vote. It may or may not be the pinnacle of achievement, but this fiction of a long history of an unbiased press digging up truth and light at every turn belongs in the funny papers, not section A.
Which segues nicely back to the “giving it away for free” issue people seem to be similarly confused… on both sides. Online cartoonist Scott Kurtz is notorious for liking to kick around the print comics and sells a t-shirt that says “I’m killing newspapers by reading webcomics.” He’s no more right than the columnists who think newspapers gave up their revenue by putting items online. Shirky’s article above talked about the things that were going online whether the newspapers put them up or not, but that’s similarly irrelevant: the money the newspapers take for subscriptions have never been the real source of revenue.
An Ask Metafilter post runs the numbers for what a daily run of the NYT costs in newsprint and it leaves out only the final calculation to determine the per-paper cost: about a dime. Add in printing hardware, buildings, ink, and distribution – all the things you don’t have to spend when you put a story online – and you’ve got a cost of around $0.30 for that $1 paper. That $100,000 per day isn’t making the NYT it’s money, it’s the ads.
The ads have always been the point, and the connection between them and reporting news is a side effect, not the mission. The newspapers would give away the paper to everyone – and some do – if collecting money wasn’t a way that advertisers determine readership. People who paid money for the paper have skin in the game and are more likely to actually look at the paper and see the ads – it’s why the issue of paid circulation is important. The fact that advertisers have somewhere else to go now is completely disconnected from the newspaper business. Free stories online have about as much to do with the newspaper’s decline in ad revenue as the deck chair configuration did with the sinking of the Titanic.
Just to wrap it up before this gets even longer, take a look around and see the fact that gets the least discussion in all this worry about the survival of journalism.
Newspapers are still making money.
The problem isn’t profitability, it’s bad choices. Simon, in his Senate testimony, mentions that the Baltimore Sun was cutting reporting staff even while they were making profits in the 37% range. Any of you readers in business for yourself? Would you kill both your grandmothers or just one for that kind of margin? Sam Zell’s purchase of the Tribune was done with billions of borrowed money, and it’s the need to make payments on that loan that’s truly killing them, not their day to day problems.
Weisenthal, my first link above, threw around the world “bailout” and made a parallel to the auto industry. He was dead right in that comparison for entirely different reasons. Like the auto business, newspapers have a problem that is more about their legacy costs than their current reality. You can print news and make money and you can sell cars and make money. It’s when you’re choked by bad and/or expensive past decisions like pensions, leveraged purchases, brand dilution and failure to adapt that you might find yourself on the way out.