The Elephant in the Room

The name of this blog means a lot to me. I am an ink-stained wretch.

I have largely avoided blogging about the fate of my beloved industry, because I frankly dread the well-meaning thread of comments from ‘Net people who are happy to explain that if newspapers only would do “X”, things would improve. Please, don’t. I don’t want to hear it. Whatever “X” you have to suggest has already been tried, by people far smarter than either you or I. And it has not worked.

The bottom line is that we probably did not deserve the money we made all those years, when we had a quasi-monopoly on daily information delivery, and (more importantly) on advertising delivery. The newspaper has always been an odd product – a bundle of only vaguely related goods that you’re forced to buy as a package. That’s a terrible idea, but it worked for years. The civic mission – the wretch sitting in the city council meeting, or poring over campaign finance reports, or shivering in the cold at dawn at the scene of some horrible accident, the formal witness to mark the passing of the deceased – piggybacked on the revenue generated by the fact that most people really want sports pages and comics and that dreadful little box that every day delivers starlet gossip.

It was lousy economics to spend all that energy on the civic mission stuff, because the best evidence available (especially web traffic) suggests not very many people actually read it. But it’s there, and its presence is nevertheless central, I believe, to the civic dialogue, to the lives of our communities. Now that economics is what matters, the stuff that was noble but not profitable is what will go. Roger Ebert was right last week to bemoan the loss of the thoughtful, but, dude, not enough people are apparently reading that shit any more to pay for people like you and I to keep doing it.

News on the web works great for readers, but not terribly well at all for generating revenue to support the wretches, so there are fewer and fewer of us.

I was thinking about this today while I read my old college friend Chuck Taylor’s blog post on his search for a path forward. Chuck’s a good journalist and a very smart guy. When you think of “X” – the creative new stuff worth trying – Chuck has been in the vanguard, working in straight mainstream press, alternative press, the terrific (and not so financially successful) web-ony regional press.

I don’t think the average person out there realizes what’s about to happen with the demise of newspapers. Whatever you think of their relevance to your world, they do the heavy lifting when it comes to covering both routine and important local news. Newspapers, and not blogs or TV or radio, are consistently and methodically covering and holding accountable local governments, businesses, and institutions. Sure, they miss stuff and don’t always live up to our expectations, but they’re reliable.

I was really excited with the emergence of Chuck’s Crosscut, in Seattle. I’m really excited by what my friend Trip Jennings and his colleagues are doing with the New Mexico Independent. I hope alternatives will flourish. But I have yet to see a model other than the strangely archaic approach of words on paper thrown on driveways that can support the civic mission.

I think the solution is to find the core of the civic mission, and to keep doing it as our audience declines. 100,000 people buy the Albuquerque Journal every day, but the core audience, the one that matters for the civic mission, the players and actors, is likely far smaller than that. It differs depending on the topic, but whatever its size, that core audience will continue to read the newspaper. Its size remains unchanged.

They will still need Dan McKay at the city council meeting.

18 Comments

  1. John-

    I grew up in a household that subscribed to *3* local, daily newspapers. We subscribed to Life and Look. We had the Great Books, two sets of encyclopedias, countless dictionaries. Times sure have changed already. Someone must have lamented the passing of town criers and singing telegrams.

    I’m not mocking you. I start each day with the Albuquerque Journal. But, the Journal gets thinner every day. A half page of truncated articles — all the non-local versions of which are available on the Web in full for free — faces a full page ad for something I’ll never buy. Half the paper is classifieds I never read. (What happens when those people discover Craigslist?) And, occasionally, there are 2 sports sections instead of the one I never open. There is no other product that I continue to pay for that disappoints me so much. (TV would be second, but I don’t pay for TV.)

    But, I agree with you that a community needs a commons, and the DukeCityFix ain’t it. Further, I like that newspapers tell me what someone else thinks is important, which isn’t always the subjects that already have my attention. (Even knowing that others care about sports helps connect me to the community.) Newspapers are a daily refresh of a liberal arts education.

    Unfortunately, the Journal is to newspapers what the Journal website is to websites. (Now, there’s a vicious, double-edged, backhanded swipe!) But, the Journal is our paper of record — itself, now an archaic concept. It has some history and it records some history. It’s like a sick aunt — we can’t just abandon her nor can we wish for her death, even if it would relieve us all. She’s not what she once was and never will be again. Death comes for us all, John, even institutions. Change keeps coming. Good luck in your next life. peace, mjh

    PS- See what you get when you start by rejecting any well-intentioned suggestions and declaring your readers not quite as smart as the better people who failed already? You get the brave new blogosphere.

  2. Mark –

    Thanks for the note. Great newspapers are flailing along with bad ones. The question of their quality seems largely irrelevant to their success or failure, because the success or failure is tied to the underlying structural economics. Ironically, the Journal, despite the issues your raise, is doing far better than most.

  3. From Ebert’s post:

    It is about the death of an intelligent and curious, readership, interested in significant things and able to think critically. It is about the failure of our educational system. It is not about dumbing-down. It is about snuffing out.

    I’m right there with him lament the loss of readers and thinkers in whatever form and that, I’ve come to believe is more the problem than competing internet media.

  4. Why does clipping coupons still have such a social stigma to it, especially in today’s economy? It’s literally the only reason we subscribe to the Sunday paper as we get all of our news online. We can typically save $5-$10 a week at the grocery store, which more than makes up for the cost of our subscription. Yet when I mention to friends that my wife and I have made a little competitive ritual out of clipping coupons every Sunday afternoon before doing our weekly shopping, without fail I get one of two responses:
    1) “What are you, 80 years old or something?”
    2) The surprised “You clip coupons?” as if clipping is a sign that we’re struggling.

    I wish more people would get on the coupon train. A subscription is still revenue for the paper, regardless of if the paper gets read, and my Google News is going to get pretty bleak if all of its news sources start folding.

  5. Mikey – Thanks for clipping!

    Chantal – I actually disagree with Roger and you on that point. If you look at the studies that have tried to assess public understanding over time, it looks like people are no more or less intelligent, curious or engaged in civic life now than they ever were. There was always only a small core among the much larger newspaper readership that was consuming the smart bits. We just had this weird-ass business model that allowed us to make money off of everyone in order to support the civic stuff. I’m convinced, as I suggested above, that that audience is unchanged in size, but we’re only now being forced to grapple with how small it really is.

  6. These are scary times, for sure, especially for those who work in the daily newspaper business. But the nation isn’t turning into a bunch of brainless, Brangelina-worshiping rabble. We’re turning into a nation of people who can get information from myriad sources.

    The people who run newspapers were late to the Information Revolution, and it’s killing them. Newspapers still haven’t figured out how to make money off the Internet. The collapse of the newspaper industry isn’t so much because people don’t want to know what happened at the city council meeting, it’s because newspapers lost their classified advertising revenue that paid for the city council coverage.

    Humans need a commons, just like you said John. That commons is no longer the daily newspaper. Not sure what it will be, but one will emerge. The need to know what other people are thinking and talking about is as basic a need as oxygen. The commons isn’t gone, it’s relocating.

  7. A big part of the problem is that people like that first commenter thinks the stories they read on the web are ‘for free” Free to them, but not to the newspaper or other media outlet that paid for them in the first place. And most radio and TV newscasts are simply rip-and-read or run to the scene and rehash of what’s in newspapers.

    Newspapers still pay for reporters to go to the city council meeting and the accident and the courthouse. And newspapers pay for reporters to spend months digging out stories. And newspapers pay for reporters to travel to Iraq and Afghanistan and report on things other than generals’ photo ops. And newspapers pay for attorneys to defend reporters when corrupt politicians try to stop them from finding things out.

    Newspapers are imperfect, but we are all screwed when they go away. And i say that not just because I’m another unemployed ink-stained wretch.

  8. Great topic John, and timely given Tribune Co’s impending bankruptcy.

    What are your thoughts on the alternative press? I am not all that impressed with the Alibi, but the Reporter manages to put out a number of relevant and civic-minded pieces every year. This is in addition to their solid arts and “goings on” coverage.

    Might that be a good place for traditional journalists to land?

  9. I’m a little late to the conversation here, but thought I’d jump in. John, I think you’ve always been a little ahead of the curve in examining the industry, and reacting to it as well. That’s why I looked up to you so much (and still do) when I was writing for the Daily Press a few years ago.

    I’d agree with your points on revenue generation, and also wonder what will happen as more and more newspapers die. The internet can’t be the sole answer, especially in rural areas that don’t have broadband access. I almost wonder whether a public broadcasting-type model couldn’t be worked up for the print industry. Subsidized by the government and supported otherwise by donations (and maybe advertising too, to a degree?), it might just work.

    I also sometimes think the changes will vary geographically, or as individual circumstances permit. What works in Albuquerque might not work in Dallas, much less Washington D.C., while smaller communities or rural areas will have to pursue other alternatives. Daily newspapers are in all these places right now, but what happens in five years? Ten?

    Don makes a good point as well – the Desert Exposure down south is a nice example as well, though it lacks the local news component of the Reporter (understandable, since it’s a monthly publication).

  10. This is an interesting topic, and it is a good example of the economics of bundling and transactions costs.

    Before the internet, papers had information on many things (good for you and what you wanted), and the paper covered costs with ads and subscriptions.

    [Note that free papers did the same -- just more ads.]

    With the internet, information was unbundled AND more material came for free (best example is how free porn is killing pay-porn :) — so the papers are losing custom to places that deliver what people want, faster.

    The way to go appears to be online (free) papers with targeted ads, and subscription papers. Sadly, only the WSJ can do the latter (even most of the economist is free now!) — and that’s probably b/c WSJ subscriptions are paid by the company.

    [btw, I discuss a similar disruption of academic publishing on Friday @ my blog...]

    As it is, I think that papers are goign where network TV has gone. Bye bye to “objective” POV and “quality” shows — the model now is Fox and Jackass…

    Bottom Line: Average quality will fall; excellent quality will be supported by locals writing for free and pros writing for “tips” @ nationally syndicated sited (e.g., Sullivan @ the Atlantic or Jones @ MotherJones…)

  11. Great post John. “…words on paper thrown on driveways.” is classic.

    I was lucky enough to grow up with a mentor from the newspaper industry. I have experience in both circulation and advertising, and I’m getting to know the comings and goings of a newsroom. For whatever it is worth, I still value the morning combination of caffiene in one hand and newsprint on the other.

  12. As one ink-stained, lead-infused City Council wretch to another, let me echo your most important point, John: the so-called civic stuff is the bedrock of the representative democracy in which we still live, work and vote. And the lowly newspaper is the only honest broker that puts all of that stuff on the street, in the coinbox and in the driveway. Even those who don’t pay attention to the civic stuff pick it up at the watercooler, through their friends and over the aether. (Q: How do they decide what to yak about on TV? A: They read the paper.) I’m even fine with “what someone else thinks is important.” Without it, we really are doomed.

  13. I totally agree, John, about the upside-down business model that, for years, allowed us to get more than we deserved. My question, then, is this: How do we square the fast-falling bottom with the unaffordable civic mission?

    As a fella who has fed his family for five years “shivering in the cold at dawn at the scene of some horrible accident, the formal witness to mark the passing of the deceased,” I’m scared, confused and kinda pissed off. (Mostly because my skill set doesn’t lend itself to much else.)

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  14. I am not now, nor have I ever been, an employee of a newspaper. I come to this issue from the perspective of a consumer of information. It has been many, many years since I subscribed to a daily newspaper. To the question of why not, I can say:

    – Even before the internet became prevalent, I came to hate the “inkstained” part. The daily accumulation of paper that was news yesterday but birdcage lining today annoyed me and made me feel guilty. I mean most of the Sunday paper simply slid straight into the discard pile;

    – I never had time to read much of the paper anyway. Reading the paper at work was much too conspicuous as “not working” to pull off. Now I can consume info throughout the course of the day wherever I am while still getting other things done;

    – the Internet has come to serve my daily info needs in a much more diversified way. My “daily paper” consists of a browse through a range of sites (Washington Post, Duke City Fix, New Mexico Independent, Daily Kos, etc). Need to sell something? Craigslist works better than any newspaper ad I’ve every used. Need to know about a product, Google has the answers. I was never as well informed in the old days as I am now.

    – the traditional media has done many bad things that caused me not to trust them. Judy Miller at the NY Times. CBS fired Dan Rather. Fox News. Even the AP has become suspect. Right now blogs and web publications are putting them to shame in the insight, analysis and accountability categories. The ABQ Journal? No no no no no no no.

    What does this mean? I don’t know. Maybe it means that if we lose the local city council reporting people will miss it and new way will emerge to pay for it. Maybe it means that I’m no longer the customer for the people who are doing that kind of reporting and that they need to find a new type of customer. (i.e. those who need access to this reporting to develop there own content such as bloggers and web publications). Maybe it means that newspapers are just going to go away.

    What I do know is I do not want “words on paper thrown on driveways.” I can pay for it. I will pay for it. But it has to be in a form that fits into my current means of consuming information. Then I would happily welcome it into my “byte-stained hands.”

  15. For those of you that know John, there shouldn’t be any argument that he’s one of the most upbeat, optimistic guys out there. That’s why this post terrifies me so much.
    And for everyone that thinks a new medium to cover your local news accurately and objectively, good luck with that. I like blogs as much as the next guy, but the good ones still use newspapers every day for their best content. For every story of a lying, foolish or biased reporter in the — sadly bunched together, like we’re all the same — “traditional media,” there are thousands of newspaper, television and radio reporters doing a good job covering the news.
    The newer generation of media consumers (this includes myself) has been conditioned to think the “traditional media” is the enemy of what could be outstanding journalism. Ironically, the generation has been convinced of this by our competition/people with something to lose: point-of-view television pundits, blogs and politicians. The media criticism often comes from those who have no real idea how objective news writing works. There is some excellent media criticism out there, but its often used as a blanket statement applied to every story, whether the circumstances of the story warrant criticism or not.
    What we have left when the newspapers die is a barren wasteland of biased reports coming from passionate — and sometimes well meaning — people.
    I repeat, good luck with that.
    Before, reporters had still feared the coming end of the daily newspaper, but managed to keep that fear snugly in the back of our minds.
    Now, if John Fleck doesn’t have anything positive to say about our chances, I’m starting losing sleep.
    In fact, the only optimistic thing John is getting excited about these days is welding.
    God help us all.

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