What's hurting newspapers

The Rogue Columnist blog has a thought-provoking entry on reasons that the newspaper industry is reeling and teetering -- it's not just "the Internet exists," but rather a set of things the industry did wrong, continues to do wrong, and should fix if the newspapers are to emerge from the net with still-beating hearts:
The biggest problem, of course, had nothing to do with the newsrooms. It was the collapse of an unsustainable business model. Simply put, the model involved sending miniskirted saleswomen out to sell ads at confiscatory rates to lecherous old car dealers and appliance-store owners. Protecting these profits, whether from national, local or classified ads, became the central focus of newspaper bosses. These areas were the most vulnerable to new competitors. But the condition of the industry by the 1990s – risk averse, promising unrealistic margins, losing its best talent, ignoring ideas outside its preconceived notions – left it unable to meet these threats.
Link (via Making Light)


  1. All of these reasons may be partially true, but their biggest problem is that no one reads newspapers anymore.
    Many Americans just don’t care about news (its too depressing, boring, etc).

    Those of us that do care can’t get what we want out of American’s current newspapers. For instance, I care about international news, not local. And the newspapers in Minneapolis don’t carry many international stories.

    Of course, I haven’t found a decent online paper that does comprehensive international news either.

  2. What is hurting newspapers? Cheap-ass owners that won’t pay what it takes to get writers and journalists

  3. Newspapers seem to hurt themselves more than anything else.

    Check out the action the Charlottesville Daily Progress has been doing to Joe Stirt over at the BookOfJoe:


    And several more…trying to C&D a guy that is probably the only one that has ever brought in outside links to a po’dunk newspaper.

    And they wonder why they are so last century…

  4. I would agree with #2: to my mind, no newspaper is really set apart from any other in terms of journalistic quality. They all seem to just take AP feeds and regurgitate them or do the same thing as every other newspaper, which is feed me outrageous headlines which, when I read the story, have little or nothing to do with the facts of the matter but was instead designed to draw my attention. It works on the short term — see dramatic headline, buy newspaper — but it fails in the long term — realize headline was an exaggeration meant to sell me a paper, stop buying papers.

    Of course, the same is true for most (if not all) online media outlets. News editors all seem to think that what we need is a little shazam in our news headlines and truth be damned.

    It’s like every news media source these days is just the editorial section of a real newspaper, but we can’t find the real newspaper. We can’t find the section where a real journalist pounds the streets to interview both sides and get to the bottom of a matter.

  5. In my opinion, US newspapers and journalist have experienced a rise and fall of credibility since the days of the penny press. With the build-up to the latest war, even traditionally respected papers like the NYT, LAT or WAPO, who beat the drums of war and helped spread the pro-invasion propaganda, have been cast in a new light. The internet’s has spread alternative news to the masses serving as a check on the once hegemonic status of these large papers and their stories narratives. I believe there is an awakening occurring in this country where the once duped media bombarded population is coming to the realization that with all news and entertainment media in the control of a handful of individuals, the once widely held belief; that we in the free western world were free of the type of ubiquitous propaganda of Soviet or totalitarian regimes, is delusional at best. Another nail in the coffin is the phenomenon of Craigslist which has cut papers off newspapers from their once vital source of income…classifieds. I see this as unfortunate though, because it might only stifle the re-emergence of an independent press and leave us solely dependent an information network which is being censored more and more.

  6. I love getting the paper. I like to read the New York Times, the Detroit Free Press, even USA Today. I think if you were raised in a household where breakfast was served with a newspaper that you’re more than likely to have continued with the habit, unless you just like online news better. And I do like to read the Irish times on line. If I had a large magazine format mediatronic paper, I’d download instead of waste the paper. But we don’t have it yet, so I’ll continue to invest in the pulp industry.

  7. This guy is trying hard to be a contrarian, and you gotta respect that. Some of what he’s saying is true (and mostly obvious), but much of what he’s saying isn’t borne out by the evidence.

    If newspapers were an “unsustainable business model” then why were did they survive for 200 years? That’s a freaking incredible run for *any* business model.

    “The demands of Wall Street” has been a very common whipping boy since the 19th century. But at the end of the day, what Wall Street wants you to do is not destroy your business — or permit your business to be disrupted. Having worked for a small community paper that was bought out by a national chain, I gotta say, the chain manager were dopes but they were an order of magnitude less dopey than the local amateurs.

    It is hooey that nobody reads anymore. People are reading more than ever now. They’re just not reading newspapers.

  8. In a typical US big-city paper, wire stories and other big-topic news takes up a really small portion of the paper. Most of it is small-potatoes local content — PTA news, sewer board hearings, obituaries, business news, recipes, high-school sports, and small local ads — not to mention the classifieds.
    Some of these things can be easily ported over to the web, and in some cases the results are better or even much better — classifieds, for instance (Craigslist is killing ’em).

    But other stuff is unglamorous, poorly suited to the web, and immensely valuable to the community: community news. Obituaries, for instance. Most Boing Boing readers are young, and thus don’t have a lot of people they know dying all the time, but older people do; and they need that connection.

    The web is also a lot more sensationalist and partisan than old-line papers. Boring local stories, like local business and politics, can’t possibly compete on the web with 24/7 Britney Spears coverage. But, as newspapers die off and the outlet for this kind of coverage disappears, communities are impoverished. People who are isolated from their communities but have connections with, say, Boing Boingers from across the globe, have advantages that were previously unavailable but also have new DISadvantages that they probably aren’t even aware of. That’s a shame.

    As a genealogist and history buff, I can say also that old newspapers are THE most fascinating source in the world. There is nothing that even comes close to the sense of a place you get from paging through its nineteenth-century papers, especially if (as is usually the case) you’ve got several to choose from in the same city, each with a different political and business outlook. Just the “trivial” stuff like following the level of the Mississippi River as it rises and falls in a river town — absolutely vital news of the day — tells you a lot about what life there was like.

    There is no history on the web.

  9. The same young people that won’t pick up an old fashioned news paper are not reading much. AND Txt mssgs do nt cnt. There’s a big reading problem in the USA, espeically with young men and boys in general. I was told to read the paper and then summerize for my father, and quickly. Ah, life in the military! Good training starts young, IMHO.

  10. Newpapers have never bee “free”, they have always danced to the tune of their owners to some extent. After Vietnam and before Watergate even, certain conservatives decided that they needed to own media and control the message because they didn’t like the message at that time. Media, CBS in particular was deeply hated, was blamed for losing Vietnam.

    And so we have the situation of today where a handful of virulently conservative nutters own and control virtually all media in the US.

    I stopped reading newspapers a couple of yeas ago because I literally felt sick to my stomach reading the filth they published. I no longer listen to NPR and here in Minn we have a strong tradition but still, I cannot stand listening to them any more.

    Part of the reason why is that I can see it for what it is, corporate propaganda. But another reason is that at least on the web I can participate. I can have my say and be heard, that is worth a lot to me.

    In time, wealth and power will take this away from us. I am convinced of that.

  11. I don’t read the paper because I live in a freaking backwater town where a guy tilling a proposal to his “girl” is considered front page news, but whatever’s going on in the Iraq plays second fiddle to whatever the Packers are doing.

    However, I rarely read the paper when I lived in a bigger city either. This is mainly because I didn’t see the point of having a giant paper brick dropped on my door every day when all I wanted to read was one section and do the crossword. Rather counterproductive, really.

  12. Based on my (peripheral) involvement with the newspaper business, this guy is dead on. Newspapers make money by selling ads, not papers. Any discussion of how much to charge for the paper is about convincing advertisers that people actually read it. It’s an unsustainable business model because newspaper ads were never very effective compared to TV ads, bilboards, etc. They’re just too easily ignorable.
    Now people have the analysis tools to figure out newspaper ads aren’t worth it, and the web gives readers and low-end advertisers other options.

    Frankly, looking at the state of technology today, why would anyone imagine daily newspapers could be a viable medium? When was the last time you decided to buy something based on a newspaper ad? Heck, it’s got to have been years since I even saw a newspaper ad.

    It may not be “just” that the internet exists, but that’s plenty sufficient. Print is dying as a medium for daily news. This strikes me as unsurprising, and not even necessarily sad.

  13. #13 jeff
    I don’t like NPR because they fired Bob Edwards and replaced him with those neocon mouth pieces Mara Liasson and Steve Inskeep. NPR is better than average but they still have a strong bias towards the received “conventional wisdom” worldview. I also don’t like the local MPR call-in shows because they don’t really let you participate. Not to the extent that I’m used to on the web.

    #15 jimtealiii
    The rightwing base says that and I suppose from their extremist point of view it may seem that way to them. But there is very little honest self reflection on the right. I have yet to see any.

  14. I don’t know how no one has mentioned the Wire or David Simon yet. The current season is all about this.

  15. Newspapers would be a lot more valuable if they realized that incidental news coverage is out of their domain now. With TV and the Internet, there’s just no way that a paper that comes out once a day is going to be able to satisfy peoples’ need for current information. If they focused instead on creating more in-depth coverage (which may no longer be possible with the rise of blogs), rather than reprinting the same AP wire stories that every other paper (and Internet news site) is printing, they could provide real value. Something in between current news and magazines, which is about what their publishing cycle is best equipped to cover.

  16. Newspapers make money by selling ads, not papers.

    This is the heart of the old business model. Businesses that are following the old model are all in trouble. The big three television networks, radio and newspapers all work on the model that the advertiser is the customer. The viewer, the listener and the reader — i.e., us! — are the product to be delivered. The actual medium is, in each case, just the truck used to deliver us to the cattle chutes.

    That’s why we love Google the way we do. They are using the new business model. We, the end users, are Google’s customers. The advertisers are there to support us; thus, they don’t get privileged placement, either in rankings or in obnoxious banners. We moved to Google because we trusted them more; I vividly remember thinking, “None of these results are ads?” and dropping the other search engines quite literally immediately. Google’s logic is that by catering to the end user, they can expand the whole market qualitatively, serving everyone better. That logic, the “rising tide” model, seems to be working this time.

    This is all possible because the internet is as close to a true democracy as this planet’s ever come. I know an actual bum who has a blog. You can literally be homeless and jobless and still participate. Earlier democracies have had de facto barriers to entry that were much higher. To vote, you have to leave your house; to start a blog, you just need to sit down in front of your computer. To change your newspaper subscription requires a request, personal information, a delay and paying attention to bills. Reading a different website requires a new tab loading in the background while you finish reading at your current news site; and you’re not committed to that news site in any way.

    The new model is finally a much more real democracy, based on a technical layer designed to re-route around a nuclear war. The old model requires scarcity to justify an oligarchy; that scarcity no longer exists in the degree it once did, and if you read Boing Boing regularly, you’ll read about frequent attempts to impose a new artificial scarcity. Those are just stopgaps, of course; you can’t use the old business model anymore.

    Well, you can, but that guy with the weird round, spinning, sled runners is going to out-pull your old-style sled any day.

  17. Newspapers don’t sell because they are full of useless crap. The university has a program to encourage people to read so in addition to the school paper we get the NYTimes, USAToday, and the Indianapolis Star (I go to a school in Indiana) and so I pick them up and I go through them in about 15 minutes.

    Wire stories? I read the headlines on news.google. Sports? If I cared I would watch sports center.
    Stocks? If I cared I would watch CNBC
    Hi and Lois? Peanuts? If I cared I would be 70.
    Classifieds? If I cared I would check out Craig’s list or the school’s online classifieds.
    So what does that leave? local stuff, editorials, and letters to the editor and the occasional *gasp* original reporting that is more than just the facts of what happened and is something that I would need to do more than read the headline to get the information from.

  18. Announcing you read the New York TImes or Washington Post have become declarations of party affiliation…

    I read an op ed at HuffPo a while ago about newspapers not understanding what service they provide. In the horse and buggy era, news was a rare commodity and newspapers had to go out and find it. Now there’s so much news that it gives you a headache just thinking about it. The job of a modern newspaper is to select news for its readership. Which means that you almost have to have a niche and you definitely have to understand your demographic. Huge difference in mission between pre-web news and post-web news. I thought that it was a pretty good point.

  19. Local newspapers have turned into local TV news – mostly murder, sports, fires and entertainment news. Anything they don’t have to pay somebody to go out and investigate.

    Most of the other news they cover is old by the time they get it printed. It’s called “internet time”.

  20. I read online news because it’s instantaneous and it doesn’t eat up natural resources like print publications. It’s also searchable, which means I can get the info I want without having to wade through the miresome prose of an exhausted, over-worked reporter.

    And am I the only one who absolutely hates newsprint? The way it sticks to your fingers? Its acrid industrial smell? And the newspaper format is horrendous. You don’t read a newspaper. You wrestle with its huge, maddeningly thin and crinkly sheets. You fold and subdue it into rough rectangles just to isolate a few skinny columns of text that end in a jump, requiring you to do it all over again. Extracting information from the format is an utter nightmare.

  21. speaking of media; is Iran cut off from the web totally now ?(as some reports of a third and fourth cut cable would have it) Is it true? Are the bombs on the way?

  22. #19 : “We, the end users, are Google’s customers.”

    Give me a break. Customers pay. I don’t know about you, but I don’t pay Google. Google isn’t a new different business model than newspapers. It’s exactly the same business model, done better. Just like newspapers, they make money selling ads that are displayed next to the content we actually want. They’ve brilliantly offloaded the risky content-creation side of the business. Individual content sources can die, and Google keeps making money selling ads on the ones that live.
    It’s great for them, and arguably for good for content producers (e.g. reporters) and consumers (us) as producers can take what risks they like without the business side of a newspaper caring so much if they, as individuals entities, live or die.
    I mean, feel free to love the fine works of Google (I do). They’ve got a nice big-picture view whereby they don’t sacrifice their longterm asset (our eyeballs) for short term gains. But their revenue comes from advertisers; and it is advertisers they must keep happy. Keeping us happy is merely a necessary prerequisite, not the goal.

  23. I read online news because it’s instantaneous…

    But accurate, not so much. Although that’s also true for other media, online seems to be an egregious offender.

    And am I the only one who absolutely hates newsprint?

    I have a phobia about getting my fingers inky. Watching people trying to read them on a subway or a plane is funny, though. It’s like trying to fold a bedsheet in a phone booth, if the phone booth were made out of other people’s body parts. The inability of modern humans to move in a linear fashion without a cup of coffee elevates the hijinks potential.

  24. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t Google’s real business AI? Their search engine is one of the many tools they use to help determine how computers should respond to a user’s query, the end objective (??) being a computer which can “converse” normally with a human being, even with all of our linguistic nuances.

    The aspects of the Internet Google has their hands in — Google maps, web search history, advertising, email, blogs, etc. — makes this prospect a little scary.

  25. But their revenue comes from advertisers; and it is advertisers they must keep happy. Keeping us happy is merely a necessary prerequisite, not the goal.

    Hmmm. I’d pay money if I could get people to stop using the concept of intent. It’s a religious concept because it’s impossible to genuinely know what someone else is thinking. Intent is also used to excuse atrocious behaviour; that’s just as bad as taking orders from Invisible Sky Man. In each case, accountability for the outcome is displaced to an imaginary being.

    I don’t know and I don’t care what Google’s goals are. In practice, end users trump advertisers at Google. Google is servicing end users. The proof is this: if the advertisers had their way, they’d be using the same stupid tactics at Google that they use at other sites because it’s only been three million years since they touched the damn monolith. Google is forcing an intelligent — i.e., long-term — choice on the advertisers by (a) being the market leader, and (2) not letting them be stupid. But that choice is putting the end users first. The result is a better situation for both the end users and the advertisers.

    I could talk extensively about the “breaking of the circle”, but you’ll have to wait for my book. In short, society has a lot of problems because people are stupid. The primary stupidity is that they don’t take care of each other. The upper class directs the flow of money-power-energy-information to go in one direction: up. The lower class directs the flow of money-power-energy-information to go in one direction: down. That doesn’t work. You end up with Marxism and unions on one side, and soulless reactionary suits on the other, in a positive-feedback loop that continues to drive the groups even further apart.

    The base of the pyramid is the base of all economic production. The brainpower at the top is needed to co-ordinate and optimize that production. You need both in balance to work; it’s like a boat with two propellers: if one propeller is spinning faster than the other, the boat goes in a circle. (Take two Matrix: Reloaded and call me in the morning.) Google has simply begun to restore the practice of those at the top of the pyramid taking care of those at the bottom, and those at the bottom caring for the top.

  26. All the way back to #1, Pango: You’re right–is it just us, or is there no really good international news online or on paper? Even The Economist is disappointing now.

  27. Takuan has it pegged.

    Cheap ass owners indeed. The staff in most newsrooms has been cut and cut and cut. The owners want the profits, but don’t feel any need to provide a quality product.

    And product is the best you can hope for. A sense of responsibility to the community? Not a chance. Any thought of the fourth estate, of the importance of having an informed public, is long gone.

    Here’s a not-so secret secret. Newspaper publishers do not think of you as citizens, nor even as readers. They think of you as consumers and not very bright ones at that. They think of their newpapers as crappy product.

    I heard the publisher of our local city newspaper droning on about how his paper provides important local news, local news that people cannot get elsewhere. But this same sleazebag has cut his reporting staff to a skeleton crew and has but one reporter assigned to the state capitol. His idea of local news is to report the little league and soccer scores.

    In the course of rattling on, this publisher referred to his readership as “consumers” no less that four times. And when I called him on it, he lied and denied it. Got him on tape … Grrrr.

    An informed public? That might stand in the way of increasing shareholder value.

  28. Here’s one small step that would help traditional newspapers a bit: they should print a title-abbreviation, plus the date of publication, at the start of every story. E.g. “NYT 2005-12-31.”

    Certain readers——especially those who write articles or reports, or post to Wikipeida (“citation needed”)——regularly clip or photocopy stories and columns from newspapers. Such items often lack the part of the page that contains the date and/or title, forcing them to write those facts in by hand. But hand-entry is a pain in the neck, and it’s error-prone: the date might be entered incorrectly, or not entered at all.

    A datelined-newspaper would appeal to those readers, who are attracted to online news stories partly because they (usually) contain embedded dates. Doing so would also implicitly proclaim to advertisers the seriousness and intelligence of its readership.

    There’d be no manual date-entry needed, since typesetting software would interpret and fill in an embedded “Current Date” directive in each story-template.

    BTW, the old-style datelines newspapers used to include forced clippers to provide the year and title, and to increment the day by one, so they weren’t very helpful.

  29. Ok, so newspapers do essentially the same thing that websites do – only slower: deliver the bullet points on stories. Pages full of regurgitated or just straight-up AP reports accomplish nothing that can’t be gotten faster (on TV) or with more context (online).

    What newspapers should do, and don’t, because they’re short-sighted, is become the source for heavy-duty in-depth reporting. Big newspapers should be *the* place to go for investigative journalism. Instead, they’ve ceded that spot to the weeklies.

    Here in Madison, the local paper (The Capitol Times) occassionally manages to squeeze out a relevant investigation. But mostly it’s our weekly, The Isthmus, that really brings the bacon home with long-piece local stories.

    It’s simple: Printed media is best for stories that require exploration and lots of words. If the major papers focused on that instead of trying to cram in every 500-word story from around the country, they could re-capture an audience.

  30. @#37: Bravo! I wholeheartedly agree. But sadly, newspaper editors (and publishers) are addicted to the “we got it first” rush, despite the fact that there’s no way in hell they got it first, thanks to Internet, TV and radio reporting. And many of them are simply too inept to provide good investigative reporting, or even leadership that encourages investigative reporting.

  31. I do read the news, but some newspaper and newsmagazines just turn to sod, examples being The National Post (Canadian Newspaper) and Macleans (Canadian Magazine).

    I stopped buying and reading the National Post a few years back, when it got ‘progressively’ more reactionary, more angry… They are filled with petty idiocy now, when Dumbledore was outed, they published a column about how that /diminuished/ him.

    I stopped buying and reading the Macleans years ago, when they ceased to be informative. I’m told, through the livejournal community canpolitik, that there was a ‘right-wing takeover’ of sort, but I didn’t noticed it then. I just stopped reading, because where there were once in-depth, interesting, and uniquely Canadian stories (such as one about the effort to preserve heritage chicken breeds), the articles grew shorter and composed of more filler.

    I won’t even read it at the library when I pass by it, because it’s a waste of time. A few weeks ago, they had a headline that caught my eye, about the healthcare crisis we have…when I picked it up at the library, their finger was pointed at the increase of female doctors, who spend too much time per patient, and like to take time off for their families… Absolutely no mention was made of how expensive medical school is, or suggesting that perhaps the government should increase grants towards the training of an essential industry we all depend and is short on. Most was made of women not committing enough time to being doctors or not committign enough time to being mothers…WITHOUT pointing out that not enough men are putting in THEIR HOURS as fathers and co-homemaker.

  32. #13 jeff
    I don’t like NPR because they fired Bob Edwards and replaced him with those neocon mouth pieces Mara Liasson and Steve Inskeep.

    Neocon? What!? People get replaced all the time. Editors change, talking heads come and go. I’m listening to those two now on NPR, and all they seem to be doing is reading the news without interjecting much in the way personal political values. I also think both lean toward the left, not the right. To each his own.

  33. Jeff, the right wanted for a long time to get rid of NPR and PBS. They couldn’t so what they did instead is exactly what Georgia Tills describes happened to Macleans above. You put your people in and you fill it with shit. You’re pretty naive if you think all they do is read the news.

  34. I read many papers daily on the net, however I’m like a drug addict, every so often I have to get an ink and paper fix. I have to drop the coins into the box and get all inky and rustle the paper between my fingers while sipping rotten coffee in the local coffee shop. Then I kick myself for wasting the time, the resources and everything else, but I smile, and I smile and I smile…….

  35. I work for a big Chicago newspaper that’s in serious trouble. I haven’t had a raise in 14 months, and even though I proofread sometimes, they rarely correct mistakes…they just let 200,000 copies go out with the mistake. Last time I said something, they said: “Nobody reads it anyway”. And they wonder why the paper is going downhill……

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