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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.

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


Comments on "Daily News, Daily Blues"


Blogger Amy Kincaid said ... (March 21, 2009 at 2:52 PM) : 

Glad you're posting again! On this death of print papers topic, check out the work of colleague Ned Hodgman, (nicely DC wonky org name, but they are working on something more like It's Your Gov), and also a recent post on Allison Fine's blog (and comments) that connects this topic with similar threats to future of local arts organizations. What does it mean for social capital in communities (and I ask, for what would be the word for it...Expressive? Cultural? Capital).


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (March 22, 2009 at 3:09 PM) : 

what no one mentions is that if you separate the newspapers from the publishing companies that own them, most of them could survive. They're still profitable, but not as much as before and not enough to service their debt. And when you're still making 90% of your revenues in print, it's pretty hard to abandon paper altogether. Look at local papers and what they're doing to adapt to the Internet as a better example of what online news can and will look like


Blogger Michael Stein said ... (March 23, 2009 at 12:50 PM) : 

ChuckL - look at the CNN coverage today of newspaper closings - it is local papers all over the country that are failing. Link


Anonymous Jochen said ... (April 26, 2010 at 11:58 AM) : 

I feel stupid subsribing to a paper, then reading the content online and recycling the physical paper usually without reading a word of it. The business model of having advertisers shoulder such a large burden of the publishing price is an issue in this process - a paper makes more money off of my subscription receiving the paper copy then if I simply gave the subscription price to the publisher directly, saving print, delivery, etc. Something is not right with the model.


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