Former CEO of Village Voice: A World without Newspapers

28 02 2010

Feeling curmudgeonly today. I agree with every point David Schneiderman makes here, but I don’t like it one bit.

His conclusions prove that revolutions do not equal progress, and technological advances are separate from quality improvements.

In the case of the Internet spelling the death of newspapers, technology is accelerating the arrival of the lowest common denominator in news and information: tabloid-style “journalism” and opinion undifferentiated from news, delivered not by institutions with time-tested credibility but by news celebrities with personal brands who can gain prominence virtually overnight, particularly if they are edgy and sensational.

It’s a good read, though, and a useful primer on the information revolution.





Kinsley: Verbosity killing newspapers

7 01 2010

I was on my way out of newspapers when “context” was on its way in. Don’t just tell readers what happened, tell them what it means. The original movement surely intended journalists to show how events would affect the readers’ everyday lives. But few journalists understood their readers enough to interpret the impact on those lives, and they soon perverted the concept to report on the only impact they really cared about: politics.

Thus, the principal impacts of healthcare reform are not take-home pay for wage earners, security for people changing jobs, or assurance for those with a history of illness (the dreaded “pre-existing condition”). No, in journalists’ minds, the major impacts are the 2010 elections and the daily or hourly approval ratings of the president and the major parties.

But as Michael Kinsley notes in the Atlantic, this trend also brought about newspaper prose that is more tortuous, bloviated, and overstated. News via the Internet, which already has many reader advantages, is cleaner, pithier, and more inviting.

But providing “context,” as it was known, has become an invitation to hype. In this case, it’s the lowest form of hype—it’s horse-race hype—which actually diminishes a story rather than enhancing it. Surely if this event is such a big, big deal—“sweeping” and “defining” its way into our awareness—then its effect on the next election is one of the less important things about it.

Most grievous, in my opinion, is campaign coverage that, rather than informing the electorate about candidates’ positions, their feasibility and practical implications, consists almost entirely of who’s up and who’s down starting years from election day. All media are guilty of this, but newspapers cannot make the claim that they lack the space for such coverage. They are devoting thousands of words to political horse-race speculation rather than exposition of what it all really means for our lives.

And over the years, the public has responded with a massive “Who cares!”

Thus the only people still reading newspapers are political junkies, and because those readers are the ones closest to reporters’ and editors’ social circles, the newspaper people can’t understand their withering circulation.





Thomas Frank: Political diversity won’t save newspapers

16 12 2009

Thomas Frank, author of “What’s the Matter with Kansas” and the Wall Street Journal’s one liberal columnist, challenges the Washington Post’s notion that adding more conservatives would stave off the newspaper’s rapid demise. He makes the case that the two biggest journalistic failures of recent years can hardly be blamed for lack of conservative ideology in the newsroom.

Craziest of all, though, is the prospect of the Post ditching its decades-long pursuit of the grail of objectivity . . . because it got scooped on the Acorn story. If that is all it takes to reduce the Washington Post’s vaunted editorial philosophy to ashes, what is the newspaper industry planning to do to atone for its far more consequential failures?

Remember, this disastrous decade saw two of them: First, the news media’s failure to look critically at the Bush administration’s rationale for the Iraq War; and then, the business press’s failure to understand the depth of the subprime mortgage problem and to anticipate its massive consequences.

… The problem, in each of these massive failures, wasn’t really ideological at all. The people who got it right, in both cases, were the ones willing to hold power accountable, to directly challenge the conventional wisdom.

What the Post seems to be after is the opposite: A form of journalism that offends nobody, that comes crawling to the powerful, that mirrors the partisan breakdown of the population as a whole. If that’s the future of journalism, we can be certain that ever more catastrophic failures await.





Editor & Publisher magazine goes under

10 12 2009

Sad, sad news. After 125 years as a watchdog of the newspaper industry, E&P is closing shop. Over the last decade, it has been an excellent chronicler of the death spiral of journalism as we once knew it. It has encouraged the transition to the Internet and criticized newspapers’ stodgy approach to it.

Most notably, E&P held newspapers accountable for their role in the run-up to the Iraq War, parroting the administration line without examination.

In a bad sign, five years ago E&P switched from weekly to monthly publication. Its own death now signals a final lap around the drain for the traditional media.

UPDATE: The Columbia Journalism Review has an interview with E&P editor Greg Mitchell here.

“We made a lot of friends and a lot of enemies, I suppose, because we really were an independent voice, and often a very critical voice. I don’t think there are too many trade publications that were as independent and critical as we are, and we made some people angry because of that. We were calling for more Web focus way before it was fashionable; we were critical of many moves the industry was making and not making, covering the warts of the industry, trying to push them to make changes—and at the same time, standing up for the First Amendment, standing up for ethics, standing up for reporters’ rights.”





Study projects dramatic shift of ad spending to online sites

13 11 2009

In a study presented today at the Yale Law School Conference on the Future of Journalism, two leading analysts of media economics say there is a wide gap between the ratio of adults who get their content online and the amount of ad spending online, and that gap is about to close. The implication for legacy news providers is dire.

Today, U.S. advertisers spend 8 percent of budgets online, while Americans consumer 30 percent oftheir content online.

If history is any indication, a more appropriate re-allocation of advertising dollars will occur in the not-too-distant future, and daily print newspapers, with declining readership and household penetration, are mostly likely to be losers.

Over the next five years, the authors say, traditional news organization must take the following steps to survive:

  • Shed legacy costs as quickly as possible
  • Re-create community online — in an attempt to regain pricing leverage
  • Build new online advertising revenue streams to replace the loss of traditional print categories

The authors are Penelope Muse Abernathy, who holds the Knight Chair in Digital Media Economics and Journalism at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina, and Richard Foster, a former McKinsey & Company executive who is a now senior faculty fellow at the School of Management at Yale.





Nicholas Lemann on the Journalism Crisis

29 10 2009

nicholaslemannphoto_p233_crop“Journalism isn’t going away,” says Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, in an interesting interview with Spiegel Online. “But it is reconstituting itself in a pretty fundamental way.”

You would expect some optimism from someone in Lemann’s position, and he doesn’t disappoint. Confronted with plunging circulation figures among major dailies, he says, “Newspapers may have found the bottom.”

“Metro newspapers in the United States are probably not going to disappear entirely. But they’ve almost all shrunk. That doesn’t mean they’ll go away or won’t continue to be the dominant news provider in their communities.”

Spiegel frequently alludes to the recent report by Columbia Professor Michael Schudsonand Leonard Downie Jr., the former executive editor of the Washington Post, “The Reconstruction of American Journalism.” But it returns, naturally enough, to questions about the Balloon Boy coverage and its implications for the future of journalism.

“This is something I found a little frustrating. If you have a pure market-based journalism system, then stories like Balloon Boy will inevitably rise to the top. [!] The reason is that there are pure market forces at work, and this is what people apparently want. So if you say on the one hand that public support for journalism is unthinkable and that journalism must live entirely in the market system, but then on the other hand you reject the results as worthless, that puts us in a bind.”





Counterpoint to death watch for newspapers

28 10 2009

Jonathan Knee of the Media Program at Columbia Business School opines in Barron’s that newspapers are doing just fine.

Until recently, many newspapers had profit margins exceeding 30%. By 2008, the industry’s average margin had fallen to the mid-teens. The speed and magnitude of this decline have resulted in wrenching changes in the way these historically stable businesses must operate.The continuing drama shouldn’t distract from real earnings power. Many newspapers still have almost double the profitability of other media sectors, such as movies, music and books — which have long struggled to achieve margins of even 10%.

Knee concedes that the Internet has hurt newspapers and that Web media deliver value that newspapers can’t match. But he notes that the downside to the Internet is information overload and says newspapers may or may not play a key role in guiding customers through the cacaphony. It depends on whether they join the race for solutions to finding and identifying credible, balanced, and researched content on the Web.

THE NEWSPAPER OF TOMORROW will indeed be very different in terms of how it is produced and delivered, what is in it, and how profitable it is. It will be part of a much more crowded and complex news and information ecosystem.

Operators must aggressively focus on cost and cooperation, designing truly distinctive offerings that leverage their advantages in this newly competitive landscape.

Policymakers currently have plenty of legitimate targets of their attention without worrying about the fate of newspapers or trying to keep change from happening. If they keep out of the way, news junkies in particular should anticipate an era of unprecedented plenty. And investors will be well-rewarded by backing managers who appreciate the continuing, if diminished, profit potential of this new environment.