Bullshit about newspapers' future, dissected

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33 Responses to “Bullshit about newspapers' future, dissected”

  1. beemoh says:

    Apologies if this has come up before, but has anyone either running a newspaper or writing these pieces looked at the system that (amongst other non-old media, non-news sites) IGN have had in place since the year dot, of having normal, ‘free’ ad-supported content, and letting users buy away the ads and offer extra services/non-news content for a subscription?

  2. Jack says:

    People will pay, but not for content as much as ease of use and easy access to content. Yes, some crappy blog can do shoddy reporting on local events and then link to other real newspapers, but if you tell me that for $5 a month I can have access to a solid source of content you win.

    The problem with all this “copyfight” talk is it ignores the fact that people actually pay more for quality already. Look at food. We live in a time where most people have very decent and usable kitchens and access to decent ingredients but people still pay a premium to go to a restaurant and have someone make food for them. Logically, the restaurant model is “broken” until you really look at the limits of people’s desires to do things on their own.

    Ditto with the bar model and the coffee shop model. You go back to the 1970s and tell folks that people would pay $3 for a cup of coffee they would laugh at you and think your model is “broken”… The reality is laziness and sloth is the business model of all electronic transactions from now one.

  3. BadStoryDan says:

    @ Rob #6

    I agree with your comments mostly, but I think the key to understanding what might happen is to acknowledge that there are two lessons to be learned: Firstly, as you state, that a (significant) few people will pay for high quality news and create a market niche for themselves; but secondly, I think it’s important to acknowledge that nobody, consumers or advertisers, wants to pay for bullshit, puff-piece, pop-star or downright crappy ‘journalism’, and that’s why a significant number of newspapers and other archaic newsmedia organizations are probably going to have to die.

    I think your comment regarding consumers spiting themselves is a bit much though, because frankly, if nobody wants to pay for something, it’s not worth anything.

    I believe that the newsmedia have absolved themselves of responsibility for providing quality news, so a few of us are going to be able to gain an informational edge for the time by paying for our news. Until the chaff is separated from the wheat, Advertisers will stay out of the game and let the market sort itself out by seeing who eats whom, and who just goes off in the corner to die..

  4. Inkstain says:

    The sooner newspapers and those of us who work in them accept that’s over, the easier this will all be. It’s like watching a family that keeps ordering the doctor to use the paddles when it’s clear the loved one is dead.

    Paid, professional newsgathering is soon to be a thing of the past. Whether that’s good or bad, I’ll let history decide.

  5. jccalhoun says:

    The problem of dying newspapers won’t be saved by making people pay. It will be solved by making the content of newspapers worth paying for.

    There is very, very little in a newspaper that I think is worth paying for. Why should I pay for yesterday’s sports news? There are a half dozen sports channels on my cable. (Let’s not even mention that I don’t even care about 99% of sports in the first place) Why should I pay for yesterday’s news? There are at least 3 24 hour news channels (4 if you count CNN Headline News) and local broadcast news and network nightly news. Why should I pay for comic strips that haven’t been funny since the 70s? There are lots of funny web strips online. Why should I pay for Dear Abby or other crappy opinion columns? There are millions of blogs for that.

    People talk about newspapers as this bastion of investigative reporting. When is the last time that my local small town newspaper did an investigative story?

    I don’t think it is a bad thing is maybe newspapers don’t come out daily. My local newspaper hasn’t been a daily since before I was born in the mid-70s.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Hi, I’m Anonymous (#14) chiming in again:

    Thank you, Adonai (#15), for offering a great example of the “entitlement” mentality.

    Adonai knocks newspapers for regurgitating AP news. The problem with that argument is: AP news actually comes from … newspapers!

    The AP isn’t just some magical, sparkly sugarcube of “yay” that falls from the sky . The AP is , basically … newspapers. The AP is a cooperative of newspapers, TV and radio stations that have teamed up so they can afford to send reporters to go to far-flung places they couldn’t otherwise afford to staff.

    Do you want to say “goodbye” to that information, Adonai? Well then, see ya! And good luck being smart.

    Let me be clear: I’m NOT DEFENDING THE AP. Actually, I think the AP is stupid. Why? Because it doesn’t make people pay enough for what it does. (Small example: AP’s iphone app, which is free. That’s dumb.)

    See my previous comment in this thread for my argument on who should pay for quality info, and why.

  7. Anonymous says:

    The thing that’s missing from all these discussions is the fact that news, by itself, doesn’t have value that’s immediately visible to the consumer. Senator caught accepting gifts from contractors? Tsk tsk, public shame and embarrassment, maybe he won’t get reelected. So maybe the next Senator will avoid the bribes, and we get better governance as a result.

    At least that’s the theory — in reality, I think we mostly get crooked politicians that are more talented at covering their tracks, but that’s a different debate.

    The idea is that newspeople keep the government more honest than they otherwise might be.

    And for that, we have keep watch on them 24 x 7. I can’t afford to watch them myself, I’ve got a day job. So I rely on the journalists to do what they can. But if I’m not paying them, why would they continue to watch for misdeeds? All we’d get would be amateur coverage, posted by people with heinous slants. “The Alien Probe Victims Group reported today that President Obama was walking funny, and they believe he may have been probed last night.” Or “President Obama is going to socialize the nation faster than Stalin purged Russia, according to a report by Fox News faux reporter Nancy Grace.” We’d have no idea who to believe, we’d have no idea what is going on in Washington, and we’d have no way to keep them in check in the slightest.

    So as a nation, I firmly believe we have to have professional journalists. Given that need, how do we pay for them? Taxes? What’s the first budget item Senator Not-caught-in-the-act-yet is going to vote to cut? I predict a 100-0 result.

    So keep telling me paywalls are bad, or that print is dead and that news should be free, but we will completely screw ourselves as a society if we do. I say let them try paywalls. What’s the worst that could happen? Oh, right, we end up with Fox News, published by the richest, greediest right-wing idiot to ever soil the Earth with his footprints as the sole dispenser of the “truth” coming out of Washington. And you thought G.W.Bush was bad? You ain’t seen nothing yet.

  8. Anonymous says:

    hi this is Anon#14 again.

    Responding to Jcalhoun and Anon#19, who I think/hope will agree with me: All of us — as smart people who want trustworthy info about our world — should be thinking of ways to make sure newshounds can keep putting bread on their tables.

    This dopey “newspapers sure are dumb!” mantra is lazy.

    Let’s face facts: It’s easy to be a critic. It’s easy for you or me to harrumph, “Wow, that story in the newspaper today was old news. I read about that on Ars/Digg/TechFart three days ago!”

    But that’s narrow, unsophisticated criticism. It doesn’t take into account the news stories that the New York Times, or the WSJ (or pick your favorite “mainstream media” whipping boy) actually broke that day. Or the stories they didn’t break, but that are on topics where you have no built-in expertise, which you *didn’t* know about beforehand. I’m talking about stories you might *never* have known about, if it weren’t for the fact that someone (AP? Christian Science Monitor? Again, insert your preferred whipping boy here) pays journalists actual money to get out there and dig around for hours, days or weeks, to sniff something out.

    I’m not saying the news businessis smart. (Doubt me on that? Then read my earlier comments in this thread.) I am saying, however, that it’s in our interest to think about how to reward journos for the good work that they do.

    To say “they just don’t get it” is facile and wastes smart people’s time. Let’s get beyond that.

  9. Marchhare says:

    I would pay for the LA Times as it was 10 years ago. But not as it is now. I’ve thought many times about subscribing just to make a statement and kick a few dollars to the newspaper. But it’s a gossip rag now, a shadow of its former self. Thanks, Zell.

  10. Anonymous says:

    In the olden days of yore, newspapers used to have morning and evening editions. Even in those days there was competition to get people news faster. Today, you just can’t compete with the Internet for delivering news. Even the 24-hour cable news companies can’t deliver news like the Internet simply because it’s a single channel of information. News organizations are just going to have to face the fact that the Internet simply cannot be beaten.

    That being said, there is still a way to preserve print journalism, and I think that Bruce Schneier has the model.

    Some time ago, Bruce Schneier of Crypto-Gram fame (among others) struggled with the decision to continue his mailing list or abandon it in favor of his online blog and forum. After some consternation he decided to keep both, with the caveat that the monthly mailing list would simply be a digest of his blog with links in each section to the original to the online post. This dual channel of delivery satisfied a far wider audience then either method alone. For example, I don’t feel like visiting his fora, but I do enjoy the monthly mail — it’s a lovely surprise when it arrives and it contains information I’m interested in but not so interested that I must take a daily feed from the trough. And, if there is a really interesting piece, I can always go to the original article and participate online.

    News companies need to follow a similar model. The web site should always come first, but a digest of the interesting stories can be published periodically, but not necessarily daily. The newspaper companies should abandon their printing presses and outsource the printing and delivery to independent companies. These independent companies could handle the work of multiple news agencies simply because the print circulation has dropped to levels where dedicated printing would no longer be required. Indeed, by using outsourced print companies, news agencies could deliver electronic copies to re-printers throughout the country so that people could get print copies of non-local papers for the same price as a local.

    Unfortunately, I think that — much like the movie industry — there are too many entrenched interests to make much headway on this strategy.

  11. davegroff says:

    Newspapers in Canada are still profitable (I work for the web division of a media company here). Its a smaller business than it used to be but advertiser supported news can still be done profitably. I don’t doubt some newspapers will go under, but its a little early to call the extinction of the industry.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Rob Beschizza says: xxx Just because newspapers are stupid and greedy doesnt mean we haven’t developed a sense of entitlement. xxx

    Yay! An (all too rare) acknowledgement by a boingboinger that there’s a two-way street in the “future of newspapers” debate! Some media companies may be dumb — but so are any news consumers who believe in free lunches. You get what you pay for.

    Newspapers should offer quality, and ask people to pay for it. Consumers who want quality, should be willing to pay for it.

    I am using the word “newspaper” loosely. (‘newsentity,’ anyone?) I am also using the word “pay” loosely — you can “pay” for quality various ways. For instance at boingboing, one way you “pay” is via the writers’ promotional posts about outside money-making projects. I’m not complaining about that. Rather, I am pointing out that this seems to be something that helps sustain the site. That’s a fine bargain to strike. It is a value proposition that works.

    Back to newspapers. I believe newspapers were stupid to give away their product, after basically spending centuries training people to pay. Declaring today that your product is worth nothing, when for 10,000 yesterdays you said it was worth something, is a biiig mistake. Perhaps it’s even suicide. Time will tell.

    Important: I am NOT arguing against change. I’m arguing that, if you abandon one value proposition (“pay me for access to my reporting”) you damn well better have an equal or better replacement. That’s business 101.

    Newspapers sure screwed the pooch on that one.

    But news consumers, too, might screw up if they think that “something for nothing” is somehow magically sustainable.

  13. teufelsdroch says:

    Papers are authoritative. Rants are not.

    No substitute.

    Also, the modern direction of the net is toward more control, not less. Nick Carr is right, not Pierre Levy.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Anon 14 here, responding to jcalhoun:

    The key word in my sentence is the “good” work that they do.

    Nobody’s requiring or expecting you to read the whole NYTimes (or, for that matter, requiring you to read 100% of anything at all). But you *do* want to enjoy the fruits of the *good* work that journos do … don’t you? and you want there to be a suitable reward for performing the good stuff … don’t you?

    *Good* is a subjective word. You and i might like, and dislike. very different kinds of news reporting. But surely, some of it is valuable to one of us.

    Meantime, it proves nothing that you don’t want to read 90% of the NYTimes: After all, it is a general interest-publication covering everything from Azerbaijan to Zippo collectors. In fact, I can probably best you: I don’t read 93% of the NYTimes! I don’t read the 99.999% of its fashion coverage, to give just one example.

    I challenge you to come up with a better argument.

    (by the way, we both went to college in indiana. sad but the Star is totally gutted.)

    (Antinous: thanks for the invitation! I guess I should)

  15. mackenzi says:

    Saga II

    “A Terran Odyssey”

    Since before the dawn of time a struggle of print journalism erupted between the wavering borders of the two cosmoses, one god and always the other jealous. One point of paper sent from beyond, must dictate the final outcome of the ruling journal and its surrounding territory. Who will be the victor? And whose pen is it?

  16. hello whirled says:

    Anon 14 here, responding to jcalhoun:

    The key word in my sentence is the “good” work that they do.

    Nobody’s requiring or expecting you to read the whole NYTimes (or, for that matter, requiring you to read 100% of anything at all). But you *do* want to enjoy the fruits of the *good* work that journos do … don’t you? and you want there to be a suitable reward for performing the good stuff … don’t you?

    *Good* is a subjective word. You and i might like, and dislike. very different kinds of news reporting. But surely, some of it is valuable to one of us.

    Meantime, it proves nothing that you don’t want to read 90% of the NYTimes: After all, it is a general interest-publication covering everything from Azerbaijan to Zippo collectors. In fact, I can probably best you: I don’t read 93% of the NYTimes! I don’t read the 99.999% of its fashion coverage, to give just one example.

    I challenge you to come up with a better argument.

    (by the way, we both went to college in indiana. sad but the Star is totally gutted.)

    (Antinous: thanks for the invitation! I guess I should)

  17. huntsu says:

    ‘their biggest financial problem is the rapid decline in advertising rates, not the slow decline in print circulation”

    Of course, a big reason for the decline in advertising rates is the decline in print circulation.

    Another reason for the decline in advertising rates, perversely, is the drive for profits. Newspapers that were local got bought up by large corporate media outlets who demanded “synergy” and started selling ads for multiple papers at once. Advertisers then decided that they should get a bulk discount for the large ads, and then local advertisers decided they should get the same rates.

    Restore local ownership to papers, forbid owning more than 20 nationally and one in a market, and you’ll see improved circulation, readership and stability whether it’s on the web, in print or on the Kindle. Keep going the way they’re going and they will die.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Hmmm, a typo like the one in the first paragraph (double since: “And since since)” would not have happened in a newspaper – now they do.

  19. DWittSF says:

    Let ‘em die. From William Randolph Hearst to Rupert Murdoch, profits have come ahead of everything else, and those two never did anything for journalism, except milk it for all they could.

    It’s a symptom of something wrong when a business is only deemed worth being in when it delivers 20%+ profit, and that goes for all industries. If you’re only in it to make a killing, don’t be surprised if nobody’s sad when you’re the one getting killed.

  20. Anonymous says:

    When newspapers first appeared, they were printed opportunistically — when there was ‘news’ to report — and that’s not such a bad idea. Once you have a channel that needs to be filled with content, you’ve redefined the purpose of the medium, haven’t you?

    I don’t think newspapers — as businesses, not as paper-based distribution channels — need to be doomed at all, and I agree with some of the comments here that their efforts at reformatting amount to little more than committing suicide. As content on the Internet flattens, it also gets chaotic and meaningless, which means there’s an opportunity for news-propagators to exist, whether distributed on paper or online.

    I’ve written about this a fair amount at DIM BULB, and here’s the link if you’re interested in the last few essays: http://dimbulb.typepad.com/my_weblog/newspaper/

  21. jccalhoun says:

    #20 I am saying, however, that it’s in our interest to think about how to reward journos for the good work that they do.

    I’m saying that I don’t think they are doing a very good job. The signal to noise ration is way too high. My college used to offer its students free copies of the NYTimes, USA Today, the Indianapolis Star (the school was in Indiana) and the campus paper. Of the 4 the only one I found worth my time was the campus paper because it had things about campus — things that weren’t any where else (except the campus paper’s website).

    After hearing for years about how great the NY Times was, my reaction on reading it regularly for a few months was, “this is the best newspaper?”

    The old saying 90% of everything is crap applies to newspapers and they don’t see to be trying to do anything to get rid of that 90%. Instead they seem to be of the opinion that they are fine they way they are and it is the public that just doesn’t get why they are worth paying for. I think they are wrong. The fact that the newspapers don’t even seem to be trying to change their content says to me that they are just as clueless as a frog in slowly warming water.

  22. Rob Beschizza says:

    Interesting story: when I became the website guy for a newspaper 5 or 6 years ago, the very first thing I did was make it pay-only.

    We had a local monopoly on print news in a market that wouldn’t pay for web ads. It also meant we could include website subscribers as paid circulation.

    We got death threats over it, but it made money, rather than lost it, which was the objective.

  23. digitalcole says:

    If we look at the newspaper only as a “delivery mechanism” then it’s easy to remove the “romance” connected to this now archaic device. Although I’m convinced the powers that be (i.e. the money makers) would want you to believe that news and the newspaper are the same thing and that the death of one is the death of the other. We need to look at the reality of the situation. News will indeed live on but, in a different form. Instead of paying that journalist to travel to that far away place and tell us what his/her opinion is about what’s going on. We’ll just follow the populations twitter/friend feed/blog/live journal and whatever other “new” delivery mechanisms come into play.

    The days of the middle/meddle men/women are over. The future will consist of a direct connection between the creator of the content and the consumer of said content.

  24. Inkstain says:

    “Instead they seem to be of the opinion that they are fine they way they are and it is the public that just doesn’t get why they are worth paying for.”

    Trust me, nobody in the newspaper business thinks things are fine the way they are. We’ve lost 2/5ths of the paid reporting and editing jobs in less than half a decade. It’d be insane to think that doesn’t affect quality.

    We are just convinced that we are still better than the alternatives. If anyone really thinks the concept of getting news from the twitter feeds of random people is going to be all that great, more power to them.

    “Why should I pay for yesterday’s news? There are at least 3 24 hour news channels (4 if you count CNN Headline News) and local broadcast news and network nightly news. ”

    Pick an important news story in the next 24 hours.

    Write out a transcript of the reporting you get from any of those sources, then compare it to a newspaper story. If your TV news gives you one-third of the depth, I’ll be greatly shocked.

  25. rmstallman says:

    I’ve occasionally paid for a printed newspaper (though I never did it
    regularly). I have always done this anonymously, paying cash. I also
    look at some newspapers’ pages on line. This too is anonymous. I
    normally refuse to do e-commerce because it is not anonymous.

    I would not be outraged to pay to see a newspaper article on line, as
    long as it is equally anonymous, and provided it doesn’t make me agree
    to terms which are not imposed on buying a newspaper. The technology
    exists. What’s needed is a decision to implement it.

    If anyone from the newspaper business is reading this, I would like to talk
    with you about it. You can write to me at rms at gnu org.

  26. Anonymous says:

    Great! Let them put up their ‘pay wall’ and then I get to make money (and you can to). Here’s how. The big secret to new gathering is to gather the news. Yes, that’s right, anyone can do it.
    With newspapers gone that means a whole lot of free-lance reporters gathering news and selling it to the highest bidder. Want your local news? Anyone with a police scanner can get the ‘breaking stories’. The in depth political analysis, well that takes time but it can be done. Sports? Pul-lease. Any sports addict with pad of paper and a dictionary can report game scores and high-lights. Weather? That’s been done by television stations now for year.
    With papers gone we can finally get some decent reporting in this country, reporting not ties to a corporation with ties to other corporations.
    The revolution starts now.

  27. Rob Beschizza says:

    The lesson, inasmuch as there is one, was that people will pay for access to real news. But not an awful lot of people, and only when the value of that news is clear.

    The problems with newspapers, and their arrogance, are well-established. But consumers’ expectation that people will work for them for free because it’s all on the advertisers’ tab becomes self-spiting when the product simply goes away.

    Just because newspapers are stupid and greedy doesnt mean we haven’t developed a sense of entitlement.

  28. brianary says:

    Giving stuff away isn’t necessarily a mistake. NPR is doing great, and they give nearly everything away.

  29. adonai says:

    Well, I haven’t bought a newspaper for years…I read some online, but if they decide that I have to pay for it, sayonara, no hard feelings, etc.
    The problem is in most cases they seem to either regurgitate AP pieces, or else just spew press releases as unquestioned fact. Additionally, all tech news is usually about a week old.
    The only ‘researched’ parts are analysis & opinion, and guess what? We have blogs for that now.

  30. Roy Trumbull says:

    I worked for a TV station / newspaper corporation. The TV station consistently made money and paid the bills at the newspaper. There was no sign that would ever change except to get worse.
    I was at an NBC meeting once well into the Grant Tinker era in the mid 1980s when the network had 8 out of the top 10 shows. A speaker gave us a wakeup call. “Remember the early 1980s when NBC was dead last and none of our shows were in the top 10? We all groaned. Then he said, “NBC’s audience was larger then than it is today.”
    In other words, audience and reader erosion didn’t start yesterday.

  31. hello whirled says:

    brianary: NPR’s $ comes from fund drives at member radio stations, aaaand … partly from a whopper of an endowment from the McDonald’s hamburger fortune.

    I’m not knocking NPR. Nor am I endorsing Burger King’s Whopper hamburger sandwiches. I’m saying: Nothing is free.

  32. Anonymous says:

    So, I work in print media right now, the magazine side, and I want to wholeheartedly agree with Conover. The crisis resides inside media companies, not inside “journalism” itself. Steve Brill is beating a very self-serving drum with the reestablishment of paywalls in the online news world. If we will recall, the NYT itself got beaten like a drum by yahoo news back when they were hard-asses about their paywall, and I look forward to them getting beaten again by wire-services and the BBC.

    I welcome failure of outfits like the Boston Globe and the Chicago Trib, not because they won’t be missed, but because they’re already gone. The New York Times is a shadow of its former self, too, and they have only management to blame.

    What’s striking about the looming failure of American media is how similar it is to the failure of American auto manufacturing. The notion that these guys knew what they were doing from a business or a craft angle is laughable. Both GM and The Times had a lot of money and a lot of history behind them, and a lot of cosseted, frightened and greedy management at the top, focused on short-term gains instead of adapting to the changing market, with both better business models and better products.

    In the same way that GM’s rep for building crap cars is part of what dragged them into bankruptcy, the Jason Blair and Judith Miller scandals have crapped up the reputation of a paper who should understand that it’s now trading on name alone. All large organizations attract corrupt or lazy workers, but repeated failures of the editorial staff to skeptically investigate Blair and Miller’s reporting makes readers lose trust, and all a paper’s got is trust.

    It makes me scream with frustration, but the best solution, as Connover suggests, is to hope they die quick, mourn what they once were, and get on to the next thing

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