Newspapers' nostalgia has deluded them into thinking print can be "saved"

As Register Newspapers' high-profile paywall experiment implodes, Clay Shirky offers an acerbic obituary and a dire warning in Nostalgia and Newspapers, which discusses the futility of trying to "save" print, and the news industry's enormous, wishful-thinking blindspot about its own business.

In the same piece where he lauds Kushner, Chittum waits til 2/3rds of the way through to point out that the core of Freedom’s strategy “has been unsuccessful most places it’s been tried”, and buries his most important observation — it will probably fail — at the very end of the piece.

What happened to Chittum and Doctor is endemic to media reporting generally — an industry that prides itself on pitiless public scrutiny of politics and industry has largely lost the will to cover itself with any more skepticism than sports reporters rooting for the home team. (Here’s Doctor, writing during the implosion of Freedom’s strategy: “The enthusiasm of Kushner and [partner] Spitz is hard to dislike.” What’s this, a Pharrell profile?)

When you have an audience mostly made up of nostalgists, there’s not much market demand for unvarnished truth. This kind of boosterism wouldn’t matter so much if it were only reaching weepy journos whose careers started in the Reagan administration. But the toxic runoff from CJR and Nieman’s form of unpaid PR is poisoning the minds of 19-year-olds.

We don’t have much time left to manage the transition away from print. We are statistically closer to the next recession than to the last one, and another year or two of double-digit ad declines will push many papers into 3-day printing schedules, or bankruptcy, or both. If you want to cry in your beer about the good old days, go ahead. Just stay the hell away from the kids while you’re reminiscing; pretending that dumb business models might suddenly start working has crossed over from sentimentality to child abuse.

Nostalgia and Newspapers

(Image: HULK SMASH!, Christopher Woo, CC-BY)

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  1. jaf says:

    The biggest problem I have with this "death of print" thing is that it has gotten harder to find newsprint to use as a catch-mat when changing the oil on my truck. When the end comes, I'll just get one of the reusable aluminum things.

  2. The problem, of course, is not print versus digital, but the continued viability of non-Buzzfeed-style journalism. I was going to write out a longer bit, but a commenter on Shirky's original post did it far better:

    "Everybody knows print is on the way out, it’s just a question of how quickly. That’s extremely difficult to estimate. And it’s harder still to manage the transition, especially since online revenues are so hard to come by.

    The only thing I’m “nostalgic” for is complete, fearless, high-quality daily news coverage at mid-sized and larger city and
    regional news organizations, in whatever format and on whatever platform. I’ve noticed you don’t actually talk about that much, I guess because it’s actually a very difficult industrial-analysis problem, and it’s so much easier to gravedance and sling buzzwords.

    But, yes, print is dying. Got it. So, now what? Before you answer, please try to remember that we’re talking about ongoing professional scrutiny of public institutions here, not just widget sales."

  3. My dad did a lot of management consulting. He would describe a curious phenomenon, found across his client base when the situation allowed it, of action bias.

    They would pay him to come in and crunch numbers, he would crunch away and come back with the news that they could either succeed, or at least lose least, by not undertaking the project/cancelling the new unit/etc. And, even the ones who trusted his work and had nothing to say against the analysis, they just couldn't bear to hear it.

    If the situation is bad, something must be done, and so doing something, which will ensure that something is done, must be better than doing nothing. It just can't be that doing something will just cause the bleeding to speed up...

    He always found this quite baffling; but I strongly doubt that it was confined to his clients.

  4. Do most local papers still include mandated public notices by city and state government?

    In Alaska this year, there was a push to abandon the "paper of record" model and just put all that information in a big searchable database with email notifications and that sort of thing. The papers spun it as a public access issue and leaned heavily on the politicians involved but I don't think it's the kind of pressure they can sustain for long.

    Eventually those government classifieds are going to move out and without the ground floor tenants, newspapers are going to be in even more trouble.

    Has this happened already in other states?

  5. There was a push to do this in Illinois about four years ago; the head of the Illinois Press Association dubbed it "The latest government takeover". No, really.

    I should have gotten out of newspapers way before I did; at one of the papers I worked at, an appallingly high percentage of their revenue came from delinquent tax notices. It also had "Republican" in the name, so it wasn't appreciated when I used the word "welfare" to describe what was keeping us afloat.

    The thing is, it would save money. I had hardcore conservatives arguing with me that, this time, it didn't matter because reasons, mainly that it affected our livelihood rather than someone else's (though not worded exactly like that).

    I use one of these:

    Since newsprint tends to use soy ink, it's a great way to start charcoal and have absolutely no lighter fluid smell or taste. When I still worked in the 'biz, I'd just snag an old bundle once in a while, or snag some out of the recycle bins.

    This is what scares the hell out of me. I worked for a company that thought the Next Big Thing was going to be to build websites with submission forms facing the public, and people would just willingly write for us, for free. They based this on (you can tell this is a few years back) the popularity of Digg. They somehow conveniently forgot that Digg was (and is) largely an aggregator, and that they got their content from people like us, the paid journalists.

    Having worked in an office where I was working production, but I was the only person with an actual journalism degree... :-/

    And to finish it off, it doesn't help that many community papers are owned by multinational holdings companies now. They have to turn a profit. Period. Ain't gonna happen. For one thing, that shoudn't be the top priority--but it is. That's why you see community papers with bland coverage, covering ribbon cuttings, club meetings, and Chamber of Commerce luncheons.

    And because the owners are themselves for-profit, it's why you see newspapers getting jerked around. I worked for one large company that moved all Web operations to the corporate level. We were admonished to make sure all news went to the website first, before it hit the street, even though we were still expected to publish a dead-tree paper at a profit. And the number of times I had conversations with advertising reps, letting them know that the customer they were tasked with getting to buy banner ads was already on the website because the customer was already buying ads through Adsense...

    I miss it, and recognize that I'll likely never work another day in that business. I fear that journalism will be dead when print, radio, and TV go away.

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