It’s the Money, Stupid

Whet sendsthis along:

1. Consumers don’t pay for news. They have never paid for news.

problem of the daily press in the U.S. is exclusively this: the
collapse of its business model. That model used to be, plainly put,
making money—a lot of money, oceans of money—delivering advertising on
newsprint into peoples’ homes. Subscribers didn’t pay for news.
Advertisers did.

Remember “shoppers,” the poorly designed
throwaway publications filled with tacky little ads? Daily newspapers
are high-end shoppers. They spent a lot of money on original content to
class up the operation and give people a reason to ask for the ads to
be delivered. Long before the web displayed the power and leverage of
critical mass, newspapers benefited from it; once you got the franchise
in your particular locale, you tried not to stir up trouble, because it
just distracted you from time better spent cashing checks.

Some people liked the news, sure; most thought theywere
paying for it. And some papers spent more money on news than they had
to. But the papers weren’t selling the news. They were selling ads and
charging a lot of money for them because of one thing only:They
held an informal monopoly on a societal convention whereby they
deposited those ads—around which they wrapped some reporting, some of
it serious, some of it fluff—on subscribers’ driveways.

the model was going to change was obvious for many decades; even before
the Internet age, papers saw their readership grow older, year by year,
as longtime subscribers died and weren’t replaced by new, younger ones.
This should have prompted rethinking and change—but it didn’t, really.
Why? Because of a quirk in the way the newspaper industry was viewed by
investors prevented that. Wall Street’s implacable demand for increased
returns—ever-improving returns on a traditional net of 20
percent or more—which the papers and their parent companies focused on
to the detriment of evolution.

Now, the papers could have used
the money they were making to, in essence, buy the future of
communications. Instead, they used it for something else: pleasing Wall
Street, and consolidation.

Right. They could have invested in making their “product” (I used to hate that word but understand the need for some kind of collective descriptive term here) better. They could have been Google, instead of being the AP. Instead they ran dreadfully earnest stories on “this new-fangled ‘ski the Interweb’ activity all the kids are into” and pondered if it could make your children porn stars. Most of them are still doing it, when they’re not trying to sue bloggers for linking to them.

This is somethingSteve talks a lot about, that the Internet and particularly the political blog culture of collaborative investigation and link exchanging is actually PERFECT for newsies, and I have to agree. As my own newsroom experience was getting thinner and thinner on actual collaboration and energy and enthusiasm, I was finding that opposite online. Groups of smart people who want to talk and argue for HOURS and hunt down obscure bits of information and make them into something useful, funny, or just plain cool? You can’t click a Facebook app without tripping over a dozen of ’em. Ethics and standards and comma usage? You can teach that shit. You can’t teach people to want to find the truth and tell everybody.

There was no reason it had to be this way. That it is, and what to do about it, is something I’m hoping the author of the piece above addresses in the following installments.


4 thoughts on “It’s the Money, Stupid

  1. Hi A. Good link. I agree with it, but there’s another angle I’ve brought up that I don’t see news folks bringing up: Information has gotten cheaper. That’s affected newspapers, but also computer programmers, travel agents, and any other business for which relative scarcity of that commodity has become a pillar of its model.Jeff Zucker’s “trading analog dollars for digital pennies” line just strikes me as incredibly prescient (and he wasn’t talking about newspapers!) Yes, there has been untold billions frittered away trying to please Wall Street and yes the owners are obnoxious, amoral greedheads who resort to mass layoffs when profit margins sink to levels Wal-Mart would kill for, BUT: There is less money out there because you no longer have a monopoly on the distribution of information. Deal with it.
    And another thing. Not only don’t you have a monopoly on the kind of passion and devotion that inspires the best investigative reporting, you have nearly snuffed out that spark in your newsrooms through your relentless march towards syndication and timid inoffensiveness.

  2. Well, the writing on the wall should’ve been right about the first year USA Today turned a profit, ’cause it was as non-trad as newspapers get — and you had to either have it flopped down on your hotel room floor, or buy it out of a machine, to boot. (Well, there are the used ones in airport lounges and coffee bars but still …) it was TV soundbite news on a page, with umgawa-gajillion lines of agate about Wall Street filling up half of one section.
    Didn’t used to be nearly as ubiquitous on hotel room floors, either; heck, as late as the early 2000s, in Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma, they still asked you at the desk if you wanted the local instead. I usually said yes, even if I had been de facto out of the field since 1990. But by last month it wasn’t a question anymore: want a paper, yes or no? It’ll be USA Today, even in Dallas.
    Even in Dallas.
    In 1987 the Dallas Times Herald and the Dallas Morning News got into a circulation fight, and the Times Herald … lost. It sold, then folded. I don’t remember exactly how many jobs went away, but I know that sale and shutdown put a lot of good reporters — not to mention news editors, photogs, copyeditors, and rewrite folks — on the street with so little warning it might as well have been a bomb.
    It took the DMN a decade and a quarter to start laying off in industrial quantities, shutting down local and color and community coverage first (naturally). The Fort Worth Star Telegram (I’d interviewed there, and I’d actually worked for several years at a paper the Times Herald owned out in the boondocks) made it another three years before they laid off, in roughly the same sections, roughly 10% more of their local coverage guys the DMN had kicked to the curb. So now, if you’re in the MetroPlex, unless you pay for it out of your own pocket, you’ll get no local paper; but you’ll get a happy-face-stickered USA Today on the floor by the door anywhere upscale of a TPWD campsite, starting with a Red Roof Inn… they’re everywhere.

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