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The topics discussed here grow out of the bread-and-butter issues that confront my consulting and software clients on a daily basis. We'll talk about prosaic stuff like Membership Management, Meetings and Events Management and Fundraising, broader ideas like security and software project management, and the social, cultural, and organizational issues that impact IT decision-making.

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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Daily News, Daily Blues

In the last few months, it seems that at every social gathering I attend, the conversation gets around to "Newspapers - what's going to happen to them?" The closing of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's print operations a few weeks back, coupled with Hearst Corporation's announcement that may close the venerable San Francisco Chronicle as well, has brought the plight of print journalism into focus. And I've been finding that my friends get really worked up about it -- it's clear the newspaper as it exists today has real meaning in people's lives.

It's not a problem that suddenly snuck up on us. Back in the summer of '06, The Economist was already talking about the decline of print, and predicting that the future would see the closing of most local papers, and a new mix that consisted of "an elite group of serious newspapers available everywhere online, independent journalism backed by charities, thousands of fired-up bloggers and well-informed citizen journalists..."

The problem of course is the collapse of the traditional business model of the newspaper. In that model advertisers pay publishers enough to support the news-gathering operation because advertising in a newspaper with decent reporting was the best way to get their copy in front of readers. As essay by new-media guru Clay Shirky points out, this is no longer the case, because
"...the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem."
The Internet has disrupted the old economic realities of information distribution. Because of that, advertisers have migrated to the net in droves. In the past, classified advertising was the most lucrative source of advertising revenue for the publisher - Rupert Murdoch referred to it as "a river of gold" - but that river is now reduced to a trickle, leading the Economist to say that Craigslist has done more than anything to destroy the newspaper. And publishers' reponse to that loss of revenue has been to cut expenses by shrinking the paper and reducing the news staff - in other words, by making their product less desirable.

Shirky says, "Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism." But the newspapers have provided a concentration of resources for serious journalism that the new media alternatives, such as The Huffington Post, let alone individual bloggers, have not yet demonstrated an ability to replace. Walter Isaacson, former managing editor of Time and former CEO of CNN, assumes that the print edition is dead but the institution need not perish with it. He proposes that the solution is for the major pappers to begin charging for their websites.
Even an old print junkie like me has quit subscribing to the New York Times, because if it doesn't see fit to charge for its content, I'd feel like a fool paying for it. This is not a business model that makes sense.
Isaacson envisions both a subscription basis (as the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal currently have) as well as a micropayments model where individual articles have a small fee (five or ten cents each) for non-subscribers. Conventional wisdom is that people will not pay to read the newspaper online, but Isaacson is convined that it can be done. After all, he points out, people pay to text.

Some resources:
"Who Killed the Newspaper", The Economist, August 24, 2006.
Eric Alterman, "The News Business: Out of Print," The New Yorker, March 31, 2008
Clay Shirky, "Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable",March 13th, 2009
Walter Isaacson, "How to Save your Newspaper", Time, Feb 5th, 2009
Scott Adams, "The Future of Newspapers", Oct 1, 2007