The coming golden age of journalism
One editor’s analysis of and hopes for the future of the printed word
I recently spoke to a group of visiting high school journalists at the University of Nevada, Reno. Their belief that they were involved in a dying medium—print journalism—but expressing a sort of optimistic cynicism surprised me. Or maybe it wasn’t entirely surprising, since the death of newspapers is a constant theme on newscasts, blogs and other reports. It’s the Big Lie: Say something often enough and people will come to believe it. Be that as it may, I don’t happen to believe newspapers, as a medium, are dying. They’re simply evolving, and since I’m as interested as anyone in their survival, I’m going to offer my views. In five years, feel free to send me an email to my corner office high in the world headquarters of the Reno News & Review to tell me how wrong I was.
Can I offer two propositions so we’ll have a place of common ground from which to launch this conversation? (1) The current newspaper business model is obsolete. (2) The internet news business model is half-formed and has worked to undermine the newsprint product.
General observation: While a newspaper can sustain a website, as the business models stand, a website can’t sustain a newspaper. In the vast majority of cases, if the newspaper dies, so will its website.
What has happened to daily newspapers was entirely predictable. Any company that made the decisions that these mega-chain newspapers made would go belly up. Yes, the internet, particularly Craigslist, took a big chunk of newspaper profits, but that’s just part of the formula. (And just wait until they lose the legal notices to the internet, too.)
Let me see if I can’t come up with a metaphor a 9-year-old can understand.
I chew Orbit Citrusmint gum. I pick it up at Walgreens for $1.39. It’s my favorite, but when it’s not available, I’ll chew something else.
But let’s see just how loyal a customer I am. What if:
The price was increased to $2.10?
The size of the package was decreased?
The ingredients providing the sophisticated flavor were removed?
The ingredients providing its primary function, chewiness, were removed?
Filler materials were added that kept the pieces the same size but diluted the taste?
The display boxes of the gum were removed from the checkout counter and only available in the candy section?
Fresher Orbit Citrusmint gum was offered for free with variations on the flavor and innovative packaging at a special counter at Walgreens?
There is no product on Earth that would survive those decisions. And yet, that’s exactly what newspapers have done. I don’t mean to pick on the Reno Gazette-Journal—it belongs to Gannett, just one of many newspaper corporations that led the industry in making these decisions in order to buoy up corporate profits in the short term. And besides—they’re right down the street.
But in the last year, the RG-J has
• Increased per issue price from 50 cents to 75 cents most days
• Decreased page size
• Retired some of its most flavorful voices (Cory Farley, for example)
• Decreased the editorial section from two pages to one on all days but Sunday
• Decreased arts coverage (Forrest Hartman no longer does local movie reviews. Every aspect of the arts coverage has suffered on newsprint.)
• Decreased the number of reporters and increased their beat responsibilities, which created shallower coverage
• Decreased investigative work
• Decreased the news hole, combined sections (world, local and sports on Tuesdays), printed sections fewer days each week (Neighborhoods on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Sunday and classifieds Wednesday-Sunday.)
• Increased its fluff factor by using reader-generated content—like photos and reader commentary—in high-profile areas, which has saved money, but has had the result of decreasing credibility. This works in conjunction with removing the professional, credible voices of long-time reporters to undermine the paper’s authority.
• Decreased availability (For example, what happened to most of those newspaper hawkers?)
Gannett as a corporation has chosen a path—to drastically cut expenses at its newspapers, while reallocating resources toward the web—designed to enhance short-term cash flow and future internet positioning.
In short, that company made the product it sells, the newspaper, not worth buying, while investing in the other product it provides for free. Of course readers are moving to the internet. How hard is that to figure out?
The headline on this essay makes a pretty high-falutin’ claim: The coming golden age of journalism. Things couldn’t appear worse, so how will newspapers move from their death throes to their glory?
Two steps: Make a paper product that’s worth buying, and then give it away. Start charging for the bells-and-whistles product on the internet.What do newspapers do well?
Newspapers have been dying for a long time. In fact, at least two other media revolutions of the 20th century were supposed to kill newspapers: radio and television. (And then there was the telegraph in the 19th.) Newspapers could learn something from those last two assaults because the things that newspapers do better than radio or TV are also the things that newspapers do better than the internet. In fact, the things the internet does better than newspapers—interaction and selection—it also does better than radio or TV.
To my mind, a bigger impact on the crapification of print journalism was the rise of corporate journalism and wire services. Journalism became all about corporate profits, instead of community service. Now, I know the wire services existed back to the Civil War, but for many years, they served a different purpose. Wire copy was used to augment local news content, not as a substitute for it. For example, it makes sense for international news stories to come from a wire service. (Although not too long ago, more top newspapers had their own foreign bureaus.) The only reason it makes sense for the RG-J to run a wire story about, say, the Nevada Legislature in Carson City, is that it’s cheaper than producing its own. And these wire stories about the glories of barbecuing asparagus or the latest health polls don’t enhance my newspaper experience at all. If I want information about cancer, I’m going to a specialized website, not some generic 700-word wire story.
Call me old school, but I believe newspapers must go back to doing what they did well back when newspapers provided a high-quality product and service. Newspapers, when done correctly, do these things better than other media:[page]
Well-written, accurate, day-to-day local news through knowledgeable reporting. I know that most people will neither take my word for this nor go to the microfiche at the local library, but if they were to look at just about any metropolitan daily newspaper prior to 1970 or so, they’d find crime stories as sensational as any recent JonBenet Ramsey story, business coverage that wasn’t just promotional marketing reports, political coverage that went deeper than he said/she said, court reporting that portrayed real human drama—not just crime and punishment. Newspapers had their problems, sure. For example, they were often too concerned with parroting government propaganda—like establishment support of the Vietnam War, or, for a more modern example, the New York Times’ lead-in to the Iraq War. But the real difference between then and now is that newspapers used to be good.
The key to this was the extent of the coverage, the quality of the reporting and institutional knowledge of the reporters.
It’s fair to contrast this with what other media do. Television and radio news have made a science of short reports, often breaking stories, but in my opinion, the brevity tends toward superficiality. Nothing’s funnier to me than when some poor TV reporter, stuck for an image, waves a court document or government report in lieu of reading its content. Again, there are shining exceptions to this—radio and television shows and reporters that take different angles to offer insight into events—but generally speaking, both media are designed to express the most basic facts of events. Either can be more immediate than newspapers, but neither can be as in-depth nor cover the breadth of the day-to-day events in a city. Exclude newspaper, radio and television content from the internet and what single site even begins to offer you the local information you need to live your life, vote in elections, take care of your kids? The blogs ain’t doing it; they’re mostly commenting on the news of the day generated by more conventional news outlets, i.e. print newspapers, where 90 percent of online news content comes from.
And you know what? I haven’t watched a television show that wasn’t available on the internet in months. I haven’t exclusively listened to a local radio station in years. To rephrase something I said above, when the real world product that sustains the website dies, so will the website. There is only one possibility that can arise from this: Pay-for-content websites. Newspapers will lead the way, but television and radio will follow. Why? Cash, baby.
In-depth coverage and investigative reports. There are two ways to publish investigative reports, both of which require a sustained effort on the part of a newsroom. The first is the flashy special report package: Renoites will be familiar with the RG-J’s annual meth issue in which the newspaper covers a topic with a team of reporters writing from a variety of angles to create an in-depth package that really helps readers understand the breadth and depth of that particular topic. (Oh, c’mon, I’m kidding; I know it’s not annual.) A recent example appeared in the Sunday, Feb. 1, Reno Gazette-Journal regarding local government personnel issues, in which Sue Voyles approached the subject from at least five different angles. The other type of investigative report is incremental, where the story reveals itself over time, different stories revealing new details and a more comprehensive view of the issue. Think back to Frank X. Mullen’s series on the Fallon leukemia cluster or his reportage on the treatment of animals at UNR.
Again, internet, radio and television news outlets can and do these types of reports. For example, 60 Minutes does investigative stories on a weekly basis. But while I appreciate local television and radio news, I’m afraid I’m unable to remember a recent example when Channel 4 (or 2 or 8) said, “For the next four weeks, we’re going to look at water in the Truckee Meadows: the droughts, storage sites, agencies, water rights, health concerns, river pollution—the people, places and policies that make up this complex and fascinating issue.”
And what’s happening on the internet? True, there are more tools than ever for individuals to do their own research into public events, and there are sites like www.propublica.org doing public interest, interpretive journalism, but the vast majority of investigative journalism that appears on the web is republished from real world news purveyors—the same stories for free that newspapers charge for, plus cool interactive widgets and cranky “comments.” You want to know what’s really hilarious? The Reno Gazette-Journal posted that time- and personnel-consuming investigative piece about the public employees for free online the day before it appeared in the Sunday newspaper for $1.50. (Speaking of customer service, when calling to find out the current cost of a Sunday RG-J, I was left on hold for 10 minutes and 42 seconds before being transferred to voicemail at Gannett’s Center for Excellence.)
Insightful commentary through known and credible columnists. Talk radio beats newspapers or TV all to hell with this, but it’s unquestionable that guys like Rollan Melton, Ty Cobb, Cory Farley and women like Siobhan McAndrew or Erin Breen have added flavor to newspapers since the early days of journalism. In many ways, columnists are about achieving a level of credibility, complexity and sophistication on newsprint. Do newspapers do columnists better than blogs? Some days I feel one way about this; sometimes the other. I think a columnist who blogs is probably the best of both worlds.
I’ve got a “sidebar” to this. When looking for items even cheaper than wire copy with which to fill news holes, many publications turn toward “reader-generated content,” those cute photos of flowers and pets and children that are supposed to enhance community connection, entertainment value and daily newsstand pickup, but have only further diluted the newspapers’ primary product: credible journalism.
Cartoons. Not a particularly heavy subject, but have you noticed neither radio, television nor the internet has come up with a better version of newspaper funnies or editorial cartoons? Newspapers all over the country are cutting back in this relatively inexpensive area in which they have it over all other media—saving expenses at the cost of quality and readers. Yes, the internet gave us Flash cartoon animation, and yet, somehow comic books are experiencing their own golden age.
Advertising that looks good and works for the advertiser. Every type of media has its own style of advertising that works best in that media. I’ll leave this argument to the experts, but I’ve never downloaded a 2-for-1 pizza coupon or recorded a commercial so I could refer to it later. And I know there are readers out there who focus just as much on ads as they do on editorial content. I don’t believe anyone logs onto the internet to check out the ads—in fact, pop-ups and banner display ads corrupt the internet surfing experience. In my opinion, except when the internet mimics television, it’s the worst form of advertising. After all, I never got spyware from four-color newsprint.The ever-evolving press
I’m not the first person to say much of this. As Time magazine noted recently in its article “How to Save Your Newspaper:” “Newspapers have more readers than ever. Their content, as well as that of newsmagazines and other producers of traditional journalism, is more popular than ever—even (in fact, especially) among young people. The problem is that fewer of these consumers are paying. Instead, news organizations are merrily giving away their news.”
While the Time story, available for free at www.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,1877191-1,00.html, was interesting. I found this memo by Steve Brill (www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=45&aid=158210), which was posted on the Romenesko media website, more to the point: “Continuing to train the next generation of readers to expect editorial quality to come for free when delivered the way most of them actually prefer it delivered (online) is a long term plan for failure if your core business is editorial quality.”
I know the people who need to read those articles will do so, and those who don’t probably won’t even make it this far into my essay. Suffice it to say, news has value. The higher quality the news, the more value it has. News outlets must charge for online content, either through subscriptions or through so-called micropayments (by-the-article fees, which could be as little as a nickel or even a penny).
It is already the internet business model to offer free stuff—like software—to develop demand and then to start charging for it. Also, don’t quibble with me about micropayment technology. If you think Microsoft or Google can’t come up with an automatic, internet-based central piggy bank by which the search engine that drives you to a blog post gets a penny, the blogger gets a penny and the originating site gets three cents, you haven’t been paying attention. Think a more sophisticated PayPal.
I hope I’ve already made my argument that newspapers must return to doing what they do best and stop reallocating newsgathering resources into areas that undermine their viability. But there’s another piece to this: I think instead of raising their newsstand prices, daily newspapers should reduce or eliminate per-issue charges for newspapers. In fact, I can think of no good reason to charge for undelivered newspapers except to enhance profits: greed.
I believe daily newspapers must adopt a business model similar to that of the free alternative press—like this newspaper.
That means display advertising pays the newspaper’s cost to the reader, and the vast bulk of the newspaper’s profits come from advertisers. It also means instead of making 25-30 percent profits, successful newspapers will have to settle for half that.
The formula works like this: Cheap or free newspapers with quality content get more readers. More readers mean more people see the advertisements. More people reading more advertisements means more people buy the products and services in those advertisements. More people reading and buying means a) the advertising is more valuable; and b) the advertiser can buy more or more colorful or larger advertising. More money from advertising means newspapers can invest more in the content and increase the news hole, which returns us to the top of this paragraph.
Plainly, there will be further cost-cutting measures—like some dailies going six days a week—to get to this newspaper utopia, and I’m not sure this model can exist as part of a massive corporate chain. I’ll also admit that distribution methods for free dailies will also be a puzzle for bigger brains than mine.The Golden Age of Journalism
OK, in my rose-colored view of the future of newspapers, newspapers have more in-depth, day-to-day, local news, more investigative pieces, less fluff, better advertising and best of all, they’re free! This will provide years of fulfilling employment to those high school journalists who were trying to figure out why they felt the weight of extinction at the same time as their friends were reading more news than any generation has read in the history of the world.
Internet news, too, will carry its weight when filling corporate coffers. One noteworthy thing about this is there are some things the internet does better than newspapers—interactivity, social networking and database reportage, as examples—which means for the first time, internet news outlets will compete dollar-for-dollar with real world news outlets to put out the best reports because it’ll be the highest-quality articles that get that click-through micropayment. This’ll be true for every topic from celebrity gossip to the most turgid economic reports.
Vast amounts of high-quality news available to more people at lower cost—if that’s not a Golden Age of Journalism, I don’t know what it is.