The Newspaper Industry and the Arrival of the Glaciers

Ed. Note: Boing Boing's current guestblogger Clay Shirky is the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. He teaches at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, where he works on the overlap of social and technological networks.

In light of Sam Zell's Tribune newspaper empire filing for bankruptcy today, I was reminded of Ron Rosenbaum's piece beating up on Jeff Jarvis -- The Good Life of a New-Media Guru -- for being unfair to journalists who "have been caught up in this great upheaval" of the print business model. (The piece is sub-titled "Is Jeff Jarvis gloating too much about the death of print?") That in turn reminded me of something I'd written back in 1995 called Help, the Price of Information Has Fallen, and It Can't Get Up. It's not my best writing, but having just re-read it, there's not a conclusion I would change:

The price of information has not only gone into free fall in the last few years, it is still in free fall now, it will continue to fall long before it hits bottom, and when it does whole categories of currently lucrative businesses will be either transfigured unrecognizably or completely wiped out, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.


Newspapers make an enormous proportion of their revenues on classified ads [...] however, this arrangement is something of a kludge, since the things being sold have a much more intricate relationship to geography than newspapers do.

You might drive three miles to buy used baby clothes, thirty for a used car and sixty for rare coins. Thus, in the economically ideal classified ad scheme, all sellers would use one single classified database nationwide, and then buyers would simply limit their searches by area. This would maximize the choice available to the buyers and the cost able to be commanded by the sellers. It would also destroy a huge source of newspapers revenue.

This is happening now.

I don't post this because I think I had some unique vision back then. In fact, I'd only arrived on the net in '93, a complete newbie, and most of my opinions about newspapers came from talking with Gordy Thompson of the NY Times and Brad Templeton of Clarinet. Instead, what struck me, re-reading my younger self, was this: a dozen years ago, a kid who'd only just had his brains blown via TCP/IP nevertheless understood that the newspaper business was screwed, not because this was a sophisticated conclusion, but because it was obvious.

Google, eBay, craigslist, none of those things existed when I wrote that piece; I was extrapolating from Lycos and it was still apparent what was going to happen. It didn't take much vision to figure out that unlimited perfect copyability, with global reach and at zero marginal cost, was slowly transforming the printing press into a latter-day steam engine.

And once that became obvious, we said so, over and over again, all the time. We said it in public, we said it in private. We said it when newspapers hired us as designers, we said it when we were brought in as consultants, we said it for free. We were some tiresome motherfuckers with all our talk about the end of news on paper. And you know what? The people who made their living from printing the news listened, and then decided not to believe us.

So I'm calling bullshit on the Rosenbaum thesis, because no one has been "caught up in this great upheaval." Caught up? That makes it sound like a tornado. This change has been more like seeing oncoming glaciers ten miles off, and then deciding not to move.

By the turn of the century, anyone who didn't understand that the business model for newspapers was a wasting asset was caught up in nothing other than willful ignorance, so secure in their faith in the permanence of their business that they assumed that those glaciers would politely swerve at the last minute, which minute is looking increasingly like now.

Tribune Co. Files for Bankrupcty Protection | The Good Life of a New-Media Guru | Help, the Price of Information Has Fallen, and It Can't Get Up


  1. I find it hard to dismiss Rosenbaum’s point on who will do the actual feet-on-the-pavement reporting, though. Save stuff like BBTV and CurrentTV–good primary source reporting for the most part–I find that most new media is just echo chambers of press releases and curated copypasta that doesn’t add much more to a story than the talking heads on Fox or CNN do.

    Take Huffington Post for example–they’ll take a huge blockquote from the NYTimes or AP, add a few summary lines, and boom, there’s their “story”. I found this section of Rosenbaum’s article relevant–

    It makes you wonder whether Jarvis has actually done any, you know, reporting. Particularly when he tells you that in doing his book on the total wonderfulness of Google, he decided it would be better not to speak to anyone who works at Google, that instead he’s written about the idea of Google, as he construes it, rather than finding out how they—the actual Google people—construe it. What he’s done, Jarvis claims, is to “reverse-engineer” the reality of Google. This means deducing how Google got to be what it is and do what it does by conjecturing about its effects from the outside.
    Allow me to make a conjecture: Did Jarvis sound out Google informally and get rebuffed, prompting him to “decide” he wouldn’t talk to them “on principle”? Of course, I could ask Jarvis about this, but that would be mere “reporting”; it’s more fun to “reverse-engineer” his decision.

  2. It’s hard for me to judge how much leeway the news biz or the record biz had to move, and how seriously they took the notion that they were endangered. But my local paper (which was independently owned at the time) tried to be proactive in 1995, starting one of the areas early ISPs and an early portal for our metro area. Neither really caught on, and I’m not sure it’s entirely the fault of the newspaper. They were/are in between a rock and a hard place, and as part of a big publicly-owned chain now, they’ve been slashing everything left and right in the last two years trying to stay afloat. In the old days, newspapering was a high-margin industry (margins of 30-40%, unheard of in most industries). Maybe what will have to happen is for everyone who is only willing to be in the game for those margins will leave, and some new scrappy generation will show up and figure out a way to make it worth its time for 10-15% margins. Or something. Local papers no longer really need to publish seven editions a week, even in fairly large metro areas. There just isn’t that much local news. My local daily seems to be spreading about 4 days worth of news and features over seven editions, and they all look pathetic compared to just a few years ago. Tough times. I’m glad I’m not in their shoes.

  3. “The people who made their living from printing the news listened, and then decided not to believe us.”

    But what could they do? When a paradigm shifts and leaves you behind, what do you do, take up another vocation? I don’t think anyone in the print business was blindsided by what was coming. They enjoyed what they did, took pride in it, and wanted to ride it out to the end. I may be speaking out of my ass, I’m no industry insider or veteran, but that’s just plain ol pluckiness. I think the print media adopted well enough to the upcoming technologies of the internet, but they could only diversify their revenue sources so much. This blog knows well the relation between it’s livelihood and the strips of ads that frame it. If I were to tell you well, soon every browser will have built in adblocking rendering those ads invisible, what do you do then? Come up with another more invasive advertising mechanism, or just close up shop and try your hand somewhere else? I’m just not seeing your point. Your right, pointing out inevitable doom doesn’t take a shred of prescience or insight. Likewise, throwing it in their face is not consultation or advice. It’s like a parent telling their kid they’re wasting their time doing a humanities major (or journalism school), because there is no future in it. The kid might smile, maybe yell ‘fuck you’ in their head, and go on with their plan. And Clay, if you are a professor, then you must appreciate at least that much, because they are the ones coming to your class.

  4. Cloudform, loss of feet-on-the-street is absolutely _the_ civic worry in all of this (Ebert’s recent hand-wringing about the loss of Detroit’s movie reviewer notwithstanding.)

    But the basic problem — why does the principal source of funds for the NY Times Mosul bureau have to be Bloomingdales? — is completely unrelated to that civic value. In fact, many of the people in 2008 are claiming that they are socially indispensible were crowing about record profits in 2004. They’ve discovered that they are indispensible only after those profits started drying up.

    So in my view, Rosenbaum has done far more harm than Jarvis, because at least Jarvis was correct in telling people that the old model was doomed.

    My personal view is that critical civic functions are often best served by non-profit institutions, which Tribune Company emphatically is not, and I hope we get lots of experimentation with non-profit news models — we need them.

    And EdGore, re Clarinet: That’s what I’m sayin’ — Clarinet was a direct and observable challenge to the idea that the newspaper model was a perfect fit for the times. After 1988, that thesis started to rot, and it stuns me that there are people who are only catching up to Templeton *20 years later.*

  5. McScruff @4: But what could they do? When a paradigm shifts and leaves you behind, what do you do, take up another vocation?

    Yep. That’s what they could have done. (More on this in a minute.)

    And I think you have the teaching mantra backwards — teachers are not there to ratify what the students are minded to do, we are there to provide an alternative point of view. The issue isn’t whether my students agree with me, but whether they understand new ideas, even if (perhaps especially if) they disagree with them.

    The conversation with newspaper people rarely rose to that level. Imagine, in 1995, if they’d said “I disagree because computers will only be owned by a minority of people” or “I disagree because people only want to read things written by professionals.” (Both beliefs were wrong, but neither was observably pathological a dozen years ago.) Had they done even that minimum bit of cognitive work, they could have recognized when their predictions started to fail, and bought themselves some time to react.

    And what could they have done? They could indeed have changed jobs, which would have left them a lot better off had they done it earlier, no? Or, alternatively, they could have said “We’re like Butch Cassidy — we’re gonna go out blazing.” Instead, though, we get a whiny sense of entitlement that is totally unrelated to what actually transpired.

    The worst possible outcome will be the one Rosenbaum wants, in which the journalists were too myopic to get out, but too bathed in a sense of indispensibility to take their having ridden the whole thing to the end as a heads-up choice, and if that happens, no one will have learned anything.

    If I know one thing about teaching, it’s that you should never pass up an opportunity to learn from failure, which is precisely what Rosenbaum is advocating.

  6. Thinking a little further, maybe all the shrewd people in the biz did see those glaciers coming, hence all the sales of papers in the 1990s to the Gannett and McClatchy chains.

    The chains have to keep Wall Street happy, so perhaps like the investment banks more recently, they just had short-term-itis, despite knowing that big problems loomed over them.

  7. I read the Rosenbaum article a little while back and there were several things that I took away from it.

    #1 Jeff Jarvis seemed to be gloating about the death of the Newspaper industry. Jarvis reminds me of Malcolm McDowell’s character in the movie “In Good Company”. Not a lot of real substance, but tons of buzz words that sell the hype and dogma of Jarvis. The portion from the article previously posted about Google was pretty telling.

    #2 There’s a difference between the business of newspapers and working at a newspaper. Why should a reporter need to develop a new business model for reporting? Is that what they spent years studying and perfecting?

    #3 Not all newspapers were or are a money losing proposition. However, as has been pointed out there were huge margins to be made back in the day. Some papers have been sold and seen layoffs simply because they weren’t profitable enough, even though they were profitible.

    It’s a difficult subject overall. I don’t think there is any set environment for universal distribution over the net. Licensing, copying, distribution are all developing in new ways (some good and others not so good). I just hope that some form of dependable, indepedent (from external influences) investigative journalism survives.

  8. In Minnesota washed up corporate media (including now TV and radio that are getting fired in droves) are writing for online “Minn Post” and serving up the same old pablum and hoping for some crumbs off the rulers table.

    Instead, the real reporting is going on with the “independent journalists” and a couple of AP reporters who were all charged with terrorism during the Republican Convention. Local news for decades has been if it bleeds it leads and the rewrite of the local corporations PR releases and pretty much suppressing anything interesting or controversial while pumping public funded sports stadiums and tax decreases.

    So stuff is changing and the old guard tried to hold the monopoly on information (political shaping) and its profits (adverts) but failed.

  9. Two years ago I bailed out of the newspaper biz. I had spent three decades in it — in small towns — because it was fun chasing stories as a reporter and later as an editor. Chain papers are dying today not because they don’t make money — they just don’t make enough money. Corporate management always comes up from advertising or the business office and are incredibly ignorant of the fact people buy newspapers to get a quality news report. Name another product where the business strategy is to put out a cheaper, smaller, poorer-quality product. I felt like I was working in a Yugo factory, and the one day I quit.

  10. On the plus side, jaybyrd, that would make a fantastic screenplay. And supposedly you know how to write, so… I’m just saying.

    I do hope against hope that the displaced reporters of the newspaper die-out will now go on to give us the great novels and movies of our time. I’m serious. The newspaper I can take or leave, but without good fiction at my fingertips, I’m completely lost. Please help.

  11. A recent televised discussion about the state of the newspaper biz in our city included one publisher acknowledging that they “trained” advertisers to devalue online ads – by throwing them in as freebies, almost-freebies, or charging ridiculously low rates. They made their bed, now they have to lie in it. If not for this problem they created, they would not be running around saying “but we can’t just stop PRINTING, we need the money from the PRINT ads!” That money will dry up soon. Best to just get on with it, and see how much you can save from stopping the presses, the paper and ink purchases, the trucks, the gas. If you provide a good product, you will be able to attract advertisers online and if you charge a reasonable rate for a good product, you will be able to sustain the reduced staff you need for online news without the auxiliary paper operation to support.

  12. Here’s what I don’t get about the “plight” of the newspapers, and if I’m missing something please somebody explain it to me:

    . First-person investigative reporting, especially *good* first person reporting, is incredibly compelling content, and as much as I appreciate Clay’s appreciation for non-profit alternatives, I’ve never really seen it done well by non-professionals.

    . Online advertising is massively profitable. (Right? That’s right, right?)

    So how come a newspaper can’t get turn a profit selling ads around compelling content? I can’t get what the NYT does anywhere else because no one else is as good as the NYT (or the Trib, or Guardian, or LA Times), and I can’t get what I can get from my local paper because they’re local. I am willing and do look at ads to get that. How come newspapers are the only content providers who can’t turn a profit that way?

  13. Finally let my last print subscription go a little while ago. It’s simple: newspaper owners/publishers are too cheap to pay good writers to keep their papers worth reading. Silly bastards could probably have kept many customers just by reviving the old style funny-pages, instead of keeping the dross and shrinking that to microscopic levels.

  14. Breaking news and analysis journalism needs to transition away from the shareholder owned corporate structure to nonprofit organizations that generate revenue from grants and public funding.

  15. I think of’s rise this election cycle as proof that excellent journalism is still a product people want to consume.

    Whether or not it’s profitable in the future to package that product onto ink and paper is largely irrelevant outside of the small number of people who will become structurally unemployable (myself among them).

    But for the love of dog, high school guidance counselors, stop sending kids who love to write to the journalism programs. Writing is perhaps the least important skill in a reporter’s toolkit.

  16. I read an essay years ago (maybe 5? maybe a bit more…) from a newspaper man who was talking about turning stories into, essentially, narrative database entries. He made the point that any given news story is built around facts that, alone, are really only metadata for the story: the time and place of an event, people involved, companies involved, type of incident, etc. Sure, some of them have compelling narrative elements, too… but the underlying data, if stored in a way that could be machine-read, could power entirely new ways of sifting and sorting the news. One of his examples was accident and property damage data for insurance companies and/or prospective homebuyers.

    Several years later, I read my first article on the semantic web and thought, “Whoa. That newspaper dude was on to something.”

    Anybody know if that’s happening anywhere in newspaper land?

  17. Newspapers used to be the only major media outlet, besides town criers. Then came radio, Television, and now the Internet. When radio came, they got concerned until they realized that a newspaper can cover topics in depth that there simply isn’t time for in radio. The same was even more true of television.

    But with the Internet, they got in huge trouble. First, they tried to make money off of it. But nobody would buy. Why? Because the papers were mostly just repeating press releases from major PR sources. I can read the damned PR release on the source’s web site with no editing from some newspaper editor who thinks he or she knows what I “need to know.”

    Next, they said they’d have hard-hitting reporting. Well, I’m not sure what would fund such reporters. Most of them know very little of what they report about. Some do, but most do not. I can’t trust them to accurately report the efforts of a creationist group with county schools, because these reporters often do not understand the philosophical arguments, nor the politics behind these arguments.

    So what about specialized journalists? Well, they have a future. Like so many other fields, it’s not enough to know just law or just engineering or just journalism. You need to know more than just one field of study. A journalist needs to know something of the law to accurately report interesting cases. A journalist needs to know about engineering to understand what is really going on in Detroit and whether they’re truly capable of delivering on what Congress is asking. And a journalist needs to know what political realities are actually facing the politicians so that they do not report the whole damned process as if it was some stupid horse race.

    For far too long the supremacist idiot editors have assumed that we readers are too stupid to know what pablum they were writing. This justice has been a long time coming.

    It will be interesting to see what rises from the ashes.

  18. Anonymous @8: Why should a reporter need to develop a new business model for reporting?

    Because the old model was going away. Duh.

    News people were like kept women, believing that they’d never need to know where the money was coming from. Meanwhile, back irl, anyone who works at a for-profit company but thinks they were isolated from market forces is willfully self-deluded.

    Hugh @13: non-profit alternatives, I’ve never really seen it done well by non-professionals.

    Careful, non-profit doesn’t mean non-professional, as reporters at NPR and the BBC will tell you.

    Online advertising is massively profitable. (Right? That’s right, right?)

    Nope, it’s not right, but it’s not wrong either.

    Online advertising generates revenue. Profitability is only measured after expenses are deducted, and there’s the rub. Mature companies wanting to use the Web profitably always start with “How do we raise revenues to meet our current expenses?” and never “How do we use the Web to cut costs to the point we become profitable at current revenues?”

  19. A lot of truth in this observation of Shirky’s, unfortunately:
    “The worst possible outcome will be the one Rosenbaum wants, in which the journalists were too myopic to get out, but too bathed in a sense of indispensibility to take their having ridden the whole thing to the end as a heads-up choice, and if that happens, no one will have learned anything.”

    And what are j-schools teaching their students these days? Why have they been accepting applicants?

  20. “And what are j-schools teaching their students these days?”

    As a recent graduate of one who is already starting to save up money to go back and do something else, I believe the best way to put it would be to have you imagine Kevin Bacon’s character at the end of Animal House.

  21. Can we really blame the newspapers for ignoring the warning signs or was there just not a viable alternative. They were making good money, many still are, while few companies who started online in 1995 are still around. So, they keep raking it in while they keep searching for an internet model that will satisfy the investors.

    A good example of how difficult this changeover from brick and mortar to the internet can be is Tower Records. They didn’t wait, they went online in 1995. So, what went wrong? went online in 1995. So, what went right? Tower had a ton of experience and connections. They had the revenue from their chain to fund the website. They had a distribution system that should have been a decent starting point for online sales. They were selling the exact same product, with lower overhead. Transition to the download era should have been a boon, but eleven years later they were bankrupt.

    Amazon started in 1994 from nothing and went online in 1995. They didn’t turn a profit until six years later. In 2006, the same year Tower filled for bankruptcy, they earned $10.7 billion.

    So, can anyone really blame these highly successful companies for ignoring the warning signs in 1995? Are you sure they ignored anyone? Maybe they just didn’t have a viable model to sell investors? And truth be told there still isn’t a viable model that will make the kind of money they are currently making. So, why should they be convinced to give it away for pennies on the dollar, just because they are going to go under? Hell, doesn’t that sound like going under anyway?

    No, what has been happening is TV and print have been merging and creating joint online ventures. That is the model no one predicted. TV ad revenue is funding the changeover and newspapers are still making money in many markets. Yes, eventually there will not be any newspapers left, but that is still many years away. Meanwhile, USA Today is making the big money on another model few predicted in 1982, where no one decided to compete with them, just like Amazon.

  22. Clay, none of us old-guard journalists are going to learn anything else. We spent our careers learning the history, politics, personalities, sources and stories of our communities for decades, just to get either fired for a J-school intern from 500 miles away who’ll work for $11/hour, or get transferred from our beat to sports, spending 4 hours a day entering “news you can use” calendar entries into a database nobody uses, and uploading all 80 photos from one story into a gallery in a weak bid to amp page views.

    The reporters you want to take up a new career have already moved on to other industries altogether; everyone that’s left at a news media organization understands it’s a temp job from here on out. Out of my old coworkers, one’s a Blockbuster clerk, one’s an ad copywriter, one’s back in school and one’s hitchhiking across the country for the third time. Only two are still in the business; one left corporate to work for a family-owned paper for half the pay and twice the love, and the other’s wife just won a lawsuit against the company for wrongful termination during her pregnancy.

    All news has left are bloggers who shit bricks when anyone tells them to show any objectivity, and J-school grads who thought they were getting into PR. Good luck with that.

    (Gannett can eat shit and die with the rest, by the way, if not sooner. You don’t take a 20-year police writer and tell him to write human-interest fluff for sports just because you can pay him and the intern replacing him less. Fuck that.)

  23. Whatever happens in the next few years is certainly going to be interesting.

    Improvements in efficiency in information distribution, manufacturing and a host of other areas seem to be having the unintended consequence of sucking the profit out of the system.

    That means the money that remains for things like Google Adds will sooner or later be gone too . The internet will certainly survive but I suspect you’ll be able to kiss big media goodbye and thats not entirely a good thing. A steady diet of Lolcats and homemade video is no substitute for quality professionalism

    The end process is almost certainly going to be significant deflation and a host of disruptive changes in the economy.and frankly I am not sure these changes are entirely a good thing

  24. As a life-long resident of LA and avid reader, I’ve been increasingly dismayed by the LA Times, LA Weekly, City Beat, etc. I find the NY Times online more relevant and better written than all of those three combined.

    It’s amazing to me that I can find very little of relevance in my life, lifestyle, community, income, hobbies, interests, etc in these “local” papers. (I say “local” cos they are so out of touch of what real Angelenos are dealing with. They only care about specific groups of people. Their writers often know nothing about truly local happenings and residents.)

    Plus add the fact the ink comes off on my hands and the paper fills landfills very quickly. So I have little reason to read them. In print OR online.

    However, I spend a HUGE amount of time online, checking out various sites which fulfill a variety of my NEWS needs. These sites are able to function by selling products of interest to their readers. News, health, art, entertainment and more. I met someone while walking to the library and asked her about her walking shoes. She told them how much they helped her physical problems.

    I let my fingers do the walking and Google’d them, they looked interesting, and bookmarked for when I have time and money to check out local stores. You think the LA Times or other newspapers carry ads for those little shoe stores or products? You think the ads would provide the info I could find online? NO way! Who needs printed “news” papers?

    I happen to do something some people find newsworthy, but do you think my local papers will cover me? When my FIRST, long-awaited, highly anticipated solo photo book was publised, you think the LA Times would cover it, although it’s about LA? NO fucking way (other than a tiny photo talking about NY and Brit punk bands, NOT the many LA bands I covered). The LA Weekly, don’t get me started, they use my photos for free in articles, but would they mention one word about my book? No, cos I don’t run in their social circle. Snotty assholes. And you can quote me.

    But when I sent an email to Mark, he blogged it here at, and it got picked up by other bloggers.

    Now that’s how news is supposed to happen!

    Online sources are able to provide up to date information. Many are “bloggers” and I am sooo tired of defending that term. They use blogging software, but provide better, more informed, more specific, more timely info than most all news sites, especially local papers, in print or online.

    Instead of bemoaning the death of newspapers, we should celebrate the birth of easily accessible info that is specific to each of our needs WITHOUT ruing the land by cutting trees and filling landfills.

    NEWSPAPERS ARE DEAD AND NOT A MOMENT TOO SOON. Their arrogance and irrelevancy turned them into dinosaurs long ago, dying a long, slow death.

    Move on, everyone. It’s a time to celebrate!

    Now the next battle is eBooks! I am amazed that some in the punk rock world are reluctant to embrace eBooks. Print is dead, if you want to make money, if you want freedom, if you want to share your art ON YOUR TERMS and you have few other options.

    Long live eBooks, blogs, and whatever new ways of communicating are around the corner!

    Here’s to the future, which is here, my friends. Embrace it and move forward!

  25. So what are some of you ex journalists doing now?

    I’m a recent J-school grad and got pretty lucky when I finished school. I was able to get a short term associate producing gig with CBC Radio. Unfortunately, they don’t have any more work for me (I knew going in that it would be a short term job) and most other news organizations aren’t hiring because of the recession.

    I’m living with my parents again and am seriously considering making the switch to PR…

  26. @ foetusnail,

    Excellent example of the impossibility of ‘transition’ — whether dealing with stocks or VC, ‘growth’ is all that matters to the money men, and growth is easy from nothing to something, but impossible from a leaky balloon, regardless of what else they do — so ‘going online’ itself is blamed for tower’s collapse.


    Maybe you just found the ‘right’ comunity for you? Cliques, unfortunately, are not limited to school.

  27. Anonymous @8: Why should a reporter need to develop a new business model for reporting?

    “Because the old model was going away. Duh.

    News people were like kept women, believing that they’d never need to know where the money was coming from. Meanwhile, back irl, anyone who works at a for-profit company but thinks they were isolated from market forces is willfully self-deluded.”

    Duh or no Duh, I still don’t buy your argument. That’s like blaming the bank tellers at Washington Mutual for the poor decisions of executive management that lead to the company’s downfall. Your statements seem to imply that to be a reporter you must also be an entrepeneur capable of creating entirely new business models. At this point though it’s really just a blame game. Which was one of the points of Rosenbaum’s article about Jarvis seemingly dancing on the grave of the newpaper industry while selling his own brand of hype.

    I think the question now is who can develop a business model that still provides thoughtful and independent analysis. As a loyal NPR listener, I agree with you that non-profit could be a possible solution.

    What will current Journalism majors do when they get out of college? Get a job that has little to do with their degree. How many of you graduated with a Liberal Arts degree and now have a career that isn’t related to your degree?

  28. @#26 –
    The only problem I have with “bloggers” is that 99.99% of blogs are incredibly biased, whether they admit it or not.

    So while the term “blogger” can be viewed as you do, it’s often derogatory instead. And “bloggers” often write on stories without fact-checking, because of the instant nature of posting, and the magic of correcting on computers. As to the fact-checking… well given the current climate of journalism, I guess the same could be said there.

    Yes, I realize that Fox, CNN, et al., and other “major” news associations are biased as well. In most cases, they outright state that they are biased.

    What really perturbs me though is that people see “commentary”, “opinion”, “op-ed”, and think that it’s unfiltered news. These are written by people with opinions, these are BIASED. What you read on blogs: ALSO BIASED.

    The other big fear, and it’s been touched on here at BB, is that history (or news if you want to call it) can be REwritten just as easily as it can be written. Racial slur appears in a newspaper describing a criminal? Can’t take it back, have to print a retraction. Same scenario on a blog: edit the text, it was never there in the first place.

  29. @#30
    And thats why we need more services like the Internet Archive and Zoetrope. The sheer economic benefit of being able to track online data across time and into the future is even more valid in these fast-changing, hyper-interdependent times, and will only become more so.

  30. Plenty of examples of original online reporting feeding traditional media. – and with multiple revenue streams to boot.

    Downfall of print is that the culture was built around the success of the paper, not the information. Any new product was a threat because the circulation department bonuses were delivered based on the circulation of the main papers. So instead of saying, “It’s not a bad thing to acknowledge tons of people DON’T want a daily newspaper, let’s build new products: online news, online services, other niche print pubs.” They acted like the Big 3 and tried to preserve and ignore.

    Newspapers weren’t just newspapers. They were by default the central information source for communities. People would call to get the information to the corner store because the paper was seen as the main source. But the definition of community changed, the requirements to become the destination information source changed. Papers didn’t.

    Why couldn’t a newspaper – particularly a newspaper chain – create a database of speed traps in their state based on data their police reporters gather, make a site and resell the data to GPS companies? Why couldn’t they make a high school pub to free-drop in the schools? Why couldn’t they create a Craiglist before Craiglist. Because it was like telling Native Americans suddenly in the new United States that land was owned. It wasn’t in most of them.

  31. In 1982, I took a year’s leave of absence from my job as a reporter for the New York Daily News. Part of that time I worked as a per diem news writer for a market test for an online venture that eventually became Prodigy. No matter that Prodigy eventually proved a costly bust (basically because it was not sufficiently interactive, I believe), I had seen the future.

    When my year’s leave was up, I went back to the AME in charge of personnel at the Daily News and told him I had an offer from Clay Felker to go to Adweek, but that I preferred coming back to the newspaper business. But only if I could have one of two jobs that I thought no one else wanted.

    My first request, which I knew was a long shot, was to work for the Chicago Tribune’s incipient videotex (an early word for “online”) service. The Trib owned the News at the time, and they had a videotex presence in New York. My second choice was to be Bronx borough chief because I thought that there would be great stories as it rose from the ashes (like why were there ashes in the first place?). I didn’t get either job. Basically, I was told the first was too futuristic and the other was a dead end. In reality, the AME was right because both were about 15 years ahead of their time.

    So I went to work for Adweek, leaving there as editorial director of what is now Brandweek in 1990 to take a half time job as editor-at-large for NewsInc., a startup monthly covering the business of newspapers. Felker, who had himself left Adweek for a second time at this point, told me I was nuts to leave a solid platform for a startup magazine covering newspapers. I knew I was nuts, but I loved newspapers that much. But I also knew that they had better quickly get their individual acts together as the interactive voices of their local communities if they were to survive.

    Just last week I came across a long essay I drafted for NewsInc in 1990 that never got finished. The story begins with a poem of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s called “The Mill.”

    “The miller’s wife had waited long,
    The tea was cold, the fire was dead;
    And there might yet be nothing wrong
    In how he went and what he said:
    “There are no millers any more,”
    Was all that she had heard him say.”

    I then wrote:

    “There were no millers any more because there were no mills. There was instead, The Mill, a highly mechanized operation that was able to grind much more grist for many more people in a shorter time in a uniform way with greater consistency.

    The greatest self-delusion in the print journalism today is that the newspaper industry has survived its electronic competitors throughout this century, and that anyone who writes off the viability of newspapers in the face of emerging new media is spitting in the face of history. The victors, of course, write the histories. And the victors are corporations that have stakes in all media, and maintain stronger ties to Wall Street than with Main Street.

    The reality is that newspapers bear little resemblance to what they were through the first decades of this century: scrappy, boisterous and entrepreneurial ventures whose glory often rose and faded with the ability of the proprietor to make his voice more integral to his community than that of his challengers and competitors.

    The reality is that any locale of any size at all had several publications vying for its citizens’ eyes at a given time.

    The reality is that we have “Newspaper,” as the current industry ad campaign refers to the medium, but we don’t have newspapers. And without newspapers, there are precious few editors and publishers any more.”

    The essay goes on in its meandering way (which is why it was never published) but you catch the drift. I’ve said many times since then that the Internet of the past dozen years is very similar to what newspapers were from about the 1830s to the first World War. Another way of looking at it is that anybody who wants to be a miller is setting up his own mill. Of course, the quality of the product varies from mill to mill depending on the craftsmanship of the miller. Same as always. It will continue to get better as more millers mill.

    As for the miller in Robinson’s’s poem, his wife found him hanging from a rafter. To my brethren out there who still harbor, as I do, a certain fondness for galley proofs and hot type, I say this: It doesn’t have to be that way. It has been a long time coming, but the mills are back.

  32. Clay,
    Ouch. As a print journalist I have no trouble agreeing with your conclusions about the destruction of the newspaper’s business model – I, like many other journalists have been beating the same drum for many years.
    But you are exceedingly harsh in your judgement of reporters who’ve stuck with the craft through this past decade. Yes, many have been sleepwalking towards the cliff’s edge, and many have been willfully blind to the shifts in power that (virtually) free publication and distribution tools have wrought. And still more have been so blinded by the powerful feeling of entitlement that 30% margins conferred on them for so long that they can not imagine why they can be replaced by a 19-year-old semi-literate intern.
    But many of us have persisted in journalism even as it’s benefactor (the newspaper biz) was gutted by technology because no other job we could imagine offers the same blend of learning, excitement, challenge, and influence each and every single day we show up for work.
    As a result, many of us have worked hard for years to understand these tetonic shifts, to see the new opportunities and seize them.
    I’d have to say we’re failing – failing because culture shifting is very, very hard work and the changes the news business needs to make to survive are bad business decisions by every accepted conventional yardstick.
    Clayton Christensen’s theories of disruptive innovation suggest we are doomed to fail, almost inevitably.
    But that’s the business model being crushed by your glacier, not journalism itself. The skills – in research, interviewing, analysis, story-telling and yes, in the stubborn refusal to take no for an answer – that make a good reporter will still be desperately needed in whatever new model emerges to more evenly distribute the truth in an information rich, knowledge poor society.
    I can’t blame someone for jumping into PR or teaching because it’s a more ‘secure’ field, but please, don’t cast aspersions on those of us who stick with it and struggle to find new ways of doing this very important job.

  33. #10 jaybird has it right. When times get tough and customers start to flee, any business that wants to stick around creates VALUE for their product/business. Zell and Tribune Co have done just the opposite. They’ve gutted the LA Times to the point that there really isn’t any reason to keep subscribing. All that’s left is the same news you can get online from most any source. All the local/small-interest pieces and sections have been shut down or folded away.
    Their weekend calendar was worth the weeks subscription alone. In 10 pages (5 minutes of reading, try that online) you could cover movies, music, art, restaurants, clubs, and children’s events. They also foolishly folded up the Auto, Real Estate, Books, and more…
    So you’re losing money, losing customers (eyeballs), and what do you do? Give those who stick around even less reason to keep subscribing….brillant.
    Regarding #26 Jennylens, it’s too bad your book didn’t get covered, but don’t let sour grapes blind you to the great things a newspaper can do for your community. Seen many online articles on pollution, or cronyism in city hall? Didn’t think so. While you may be bitter, plenty of books come out that don’t get covered, you just gotta move on. Did you really think they’d cover a punk history book, even if it was LA-based?

  34. can anyone here give me an example of a news site or newspaper site that is economically sustainable? I can’t think of one. NPR uses federal grants. The christian science monitor uses church money and endowments, huffpo uses venture capital, every traditional newspaper website uses print (declining) revenues. Are blogs, e-commerce, and tech sites the only ones able to sustain their operations?

    I think i have the answer, but i’m like some more feedback.

  35. Hugh and others, the problem is bigger than can be solved by compelling content, for the paradigm that’s truly broken is the use of advertising to support content. One thing a lot of people miss in all this is that advertising is evolving as rapidly as content creation. Advertising IS content in the new world, so the mission of media is shifting from the serving of ads to the enabling of commerce, and that’s a different beast altogether. Advertisers are becoming media companies, and the truth is they don’t need us to deliver their “messages” as they once did. Ad ubiquity is available beyond the pages of media (cheaper, too), and that’s the really scary thing about the disintermediation of media.

    That said, it’s not an all-or-nothing thing, but it certainly is an issue for those seeking an answer to that “who’s going to pay for the ‘real’ reporting” question.

  36. Why do mainstream media proponents trumpet that minor (or not) errors of fact ruinously undermine the blogging “model?”

    NBD when a post contains errors: a subsequent commenter corrects, and more often than not the Original Post is updated accordingly.

    After all, facts are “merely” metadata (thanks @AndyHavens). And there’s no shame in the process. The only time anything like a retraction box-style, handwringing mea culpa is called for is if the OP reached some egregiously wrong conclusion based on the error.

    “Interactive.” “Iterative.” The way of the world today. Deal.

  37. Warren Buffet was still extolling the virtues of local newspapers in 1995. Did this superlative value investor not see the issue, or was it a case of guessing that it would be a while before the glacier arrived?

    Like other commentators, I think many newspapers prostituted themselves until all they produced was fluff and stories that would support advertisers. My local paper is one of the many freebies and I still recycle it without reading it.

    Supposing these newspapers die, what changes might we see in the news and advertising ecology, if any?

    – Alex Tolley

  38. Robert @ 36: Why is subsidy, whether from user donations or religious groups, not “sustainable”? Seems to me that the harnessing of non-market motivations is quite sustainable (viz. Linux, Wikipedia).

    The assumption that all motivation must be reducible to market price is itself a blind spot in the current media landscape.

  39. Bill @ 34: I can’t blame someone for jumping into PR or teaching because it’s a more ‘secure’ field, but please, don’t cast aspersions on those of us who stick with it and struggle to find new ways of doing this very important job.

    I certainly don’t mean to cast any such aspersions — the behavior I am trying to combat isn’t working but whining. People who’ve stuck at it because cultural change might be possible are exactly what the business needs.

    What the business distinctly *doesn’t* need is apologists of the Ron Rosenbaum variety, who seem to be saying “We had no idea what was going on, but at least we didn’t learn anything.” The idea that this transformation to digital was unpredictable and sudden, instead of observable and deliberate, is harmful to the business precisely because it provides an excuse for past inaction and a rationale for future inaction.

  40. I agree with you that the industry doesn’t need apologiests like Ron Rosenbaum.

    Sadly it is people like Rosenbaum who get the limelight, when perspectives of those within the industry are far, far different.

    In fact they are so different that I say it is a dangerous re-writing of history to say that “The people who made their living from printing the news listened, and then decided not to believe us.”

    You can pull famous examples such as Dan Gillmor or Jay Rosen or Jeff Jarvis himself.

    You can look directly at to see the competitive state of newspaper websites in the late 90s or early 00s (note when they stopped evolving – the .com crash).

    Undeniably there some within news organizations that are (were?) willfully ignorant – for sure – however I can tell you from personal experience that the majority of my ex-co-workers were not keeping their heads in the sand and had fought (are fighting) tooth and nail to bring culture change to their organizations.

    Take a look at


    These organizations were doing fabulously well in their economics btw. So much so that what is occurring is a textbook example of “the Innovator’s Dilemma” (thank you Henry Copeland for suggesting that book to me so long ago!).

    You are more correct in your glacier analogy – however – think of it as a slow approaching death – a frog in a slow boiling pot of water.

    Speaking of Dan Gillmor – I remember the difficulties he faced in getting his first blog off the ground within Knight Ridder. But he wasn’t alone in pursuing the future.

    It is factually incorrect to state otherwise.

    If there are any lessons to be learned by all this – they won’t occur if the narrative becomes a simplistic “we spoke – they ignored”.

    And to not expect people to cry out as they lose their jobs – jobs that many have been fighting to transform when they are still relevant (the reporting not the papers) is bull.

    I remain a tremendous fan of your writing.

    But consider your point of view. And maybe reach out to Dan Gillmor, Jay Rosen, and people still in the trenches to get a true view of what has and is occuring.

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