The fate of newspapers: All the news that’s fit to tweet?
The beginning of 2009 saw the greatest decline in newspaper profitability in U.S. history. The closures and bankruptcies of venerable American newspapers made headlines and even prompted a Senate hearing on the future of journalism.
“As local newspapers disappear, we lose an important check on local governments, state governments, the federal government, elected officials, corporations, school districts, businesses, individuals, and more,” testified Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (Democrat- Maryland). “Newspapers and the investigative journalism they provide are essential in a free, democratic society and must be preserved.”
But “news” may have to survive without newspapers. Revenue from print editions of U.S. newspapers was down almost 30% in the first quarter of 2009. Classified ad purchases fell 42% in the same period, continuing a trend that emerged several years ago with the advent of online classified advertising (led by giant Craigslist). Prior to 2009, many media pundits and newspaper supporters cited growing online ad sales as a hopeful indication that online ads would replace revenue lost from the collapse of print subscriptions and the classifieds market. So far, even online newspaper ad revenue has not been enough to save many print editions.
Peter Appert, longtime media analyst for Goldman Sachs, wrote in an October 2008 investor letter that newspapers wouldn’t be able to replace lost print revenue with online ad revenue for at least five years. Ironically, when the stock market collapsed, Goldman Sachs dropped its coverage of the newspaper industry, and Appert himself was then out of a job. “Accordingly,” he wrote in an e-mail, “I’m not covering the sector anymore, so [have] no forecast to offer.”
Appert is not alone. Since January 2007, some 12,000 journalists in the United States have lost their jobs, according to the Columbia Journalism Review.
Media attorneys Bruce W. Sanford and Bruce D. Brown argued in a May 16 Washington Post op-ed that the U.S. government can strengthen newspapers by remedying copyright laws and relaxing monopoly rules for media companies. Specifically, they say the government could:
* Impose a new statute making the “crawling” of text by searchengines a violation of copyright.
* Federalize the “hot news” doctrine, already on the books in several states. This doctrine mandates that original content creators can claim money when their content shows up on other sites. For instance, if a blogger picks up a New York Times article and posts it to his or her blog, and then someone visits that blog site and clicks on an ad, bringing immediate revenue to the blogger, the New York Times would be entitled to a portion of that revenue.
* Abolish restrictions on who can own a newspaper and grant antitrust exemptions so that papers can consolidate.
* Provide tax incentives to advertisers for placing ads with content creators as opposed to sites like Craigslist.
Other media watchers contend that legal maneuverings and congressional favoritism will just delay the inevitable.
Newspapers have become a tough sell with today’s news audiences, observes popular blogger and Guardian columnist Jeff Jarvis, author of What Would Google Do? (Collins, 2009). He points to statistics indicating that few people aged 12 to 25 ever read a newspaper. Online, news aggregator sites are proliferating, and wireless technologies for reading news on the go are becoming cheaper, more convenient, and more accessible. Young people aren’t likely to discover the joy of ink-stained fingers anytime soon.
Innovative news organizations could rise to fill the void created by the absence of local newspapers, says Jarvis. In these new organizations, the primary job of the news editor will be helping community members share what they want to share and learn what they want to learn. News generation will come from self-organized networks of people, rather than from newsrooms full of staffers, he believes. The job of the editor will be to create strategies to help the public investigate the issues and stories of relevance to them, report on their findings, and keep the organization open to all.
Designated investigative journalists and beat reporters will remain. Organizations will need well-researched and unique stories to gain attention on the Web. Every news organization that wants to be taken seriously will need at least one star investigative reporter.
The syndication model – wherein one particular columnist might be picked up in dozens of papers across the country – will disappear. “There’s no longer a market for the second copy of a story,” writes Jarvis.
The medium for distribution will be instantaneous and global (the Internet), but coverage will be even more local and niche oriented in coming years. For instance, the Los Angeles Times may deepen its entertainment industry coverage and cede coverage of national politics to a sister publication (what used to be called a competitor). The two would exchange links online to build traffic and reader-following across new audiences and not fret about being “scooped.” (Twitter will have already done that.)
The public won’t necessarily support every digital journalistic endeavor, says Jarvis. The new sites and startups that prosper will be the ones that turn their readers into active participants in content generation.
“A newspaper is no longer a printing press that turns out money,” he writes, “but as a network it could be bigger than papers have been in years, reaching deeper into communities, having more of an impact, and adding more value. To get there, it has to act small but think big and see the world differently.”
– Patrick Tucker
Sources: “U.S. Newspaper Stocks Dive, Analyst Cuts Estimates,” Reuters (October 15, 2008).
What Would Google Do? by Jeff Jarvis. Collins Business, 2009. 257 pages. $26.99.
Originally published in THE FUTURIST, September-October 2009