Post-Dispatch: Newspapers are too essential to fail

11 05 2009

In its lead editorial today, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch rejects the call for federal aid to newspapers. I agree with this conclusion, but for reasons of pragmatism, not journalistic integrity.

The editorial makes an important point that the very term “newspaper” is becoming antiquated.

The Internet has changed every dynamic and challenged the dominance of daily newspapers, although they still command the largest audience and largest news-gathering teams. The rubric “newspaper” masks the breadth of online content that refreshes around the clock and provides in-depth local/regional news unlike any other medium. Online readership is growing in most newspaper markets.

But newspaper companies must find ways to pay for that news coverage in a digital world where information is free and a click away. News monopolies have vanished.

Right, but I fear the newspaper remains in denial about the impact of the dying business model on journalism itself.

But the newspaper industry doesn’t face a crisis of journalism. It is a crisis of advertising that affects all commercial media — including local television, magazines, radio and cable news. Like newspapers, other media companies have been enforcing layoffs, unpaid furloughs, and pay cuts to reduce expenses as revenue shrinks as advertisers pull back. … Newspapers will begin to heal when the nation’s economy rises from its knees and people begin to spend money again.

This optimism borders on delusion. Economic recovery may slow but will not reverse the decline of newspapers. Advertisers started deserting newspapers not because people weren’t spending money but because the ads were less effective. The cost of ads supporting an antiquated news delivery system was too high compared to the multiple alternative channels available. Also, some species of major advertisers, such as department stores, were marching toward extinction more than a decade ago.  They won’t return. For these and a host of other reasons, I think it’s highly wishful thinking to expect newspaper advertising to return to pre-9/11 levels.

The fact is,  newspaper journalism started suffering long before the current slowdown. Newspapers lost their way two decades ago trying to imitate USA Today and the infotainment model of broadcasters . Distilling “hard” news to one or two paragraphs in summary columns while dedicating front-page space to fluffy features turned off the base readership. Diverting resources away from coverage of local government and issues — and away from enterprising investigative projects —  gave away newspapers’ “essential” nature.

These wrong-headed news-gathering decisions are easy to reverse, and newspapers can get smarter quickly about providing more essential fare. But it’s much more difficult to change the cultural trends that led to declines in readership and the appetite for real news, as well as the commercial forces that negated the returns for newspaper advertising.

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