Tuesday, December 11, 2007

My Rant On Newspapers...

This is the blog post that I intended to do in conjunction with this cartoon from a few weeks ago. Lo and behold, fellow Cartoonist With Attitude Ted Rall has beat me to the punch with an excellent three-part series of columns on the plight of newspapers and their content providers. I will add a few things here that have been bothering me, but be sure to check out Ted's columns. We have slightly different views on the future of the Internet for newspapers, but I think we share the same desire to see them work out their problems in a way that recognizes the importance of having quality content.

In the "Media Menu" cartoon, I describe newspapers as "wallowing in self-pity" as their product steadily shrinks into oblivion. Many people believe that print newspapers are an endangered species, not long for the digital world. Given the unlimited potential of the Internet as a method of communicating information, the growth of handheld wireless devices, and the simple truth that the print medium is an inefficient and wasteful means of conveying the daily news, I have to agree. Bill Gates recently made the claim that "reading is going to go completely online" sometime in the near future (although some like Cass Sunstein argue that "the Internet is making us stupid"). The countdown is on to see which major daily newspaper will be the first to kill its print edition. While most papers are seeing their print circulation steadily declining, some are finding that their worldwide online readerships far outweigh their print readerships. Likewise, while ad revenue in general is tanking, online profit margins (while still small) are "skyrocketing." Papers are beginning to work together to find new ways to make an online model work.

These developments notwithstanding, the overall consensus seems to be that the transition up to this point has been "mangled." One analyst says "there is absolutely no question that the next 10 years are going to be really bad for the newspaper business." As a result, papers continue to cut costs to the bone, as we saw recently when the Houston Chronicle cut out a full page of comics, and they are generally refusing to pay for any new content. They gingerly dip their toes into vast waters of the Internet (e.g. by jumping on the "blogging bandwagon") and hope like hell they won't have to incur any new costs.

It seems to me that there's an underlying resistance within the newspaper business to new blood and new ideas as we enter the brave new Internet world. Hal Crowther makes the point that while print newspapers may be expendable in the new world, tradition and professionalism are not. I have as much respect as anyone for the traditions of journalism and the people who came before me (I have a family history in the industry). However, Crowther also complains that journalists with 40 years of experience are being replaced by "volunteers," or "anyone with an Apple and an attitude." I would argue that the overriding reason for this (as Crowther himself notes later when he re-labels the newbies as "vigilantes") is today's journalists' neglect of their own standards of professionalism. Those who attempted to step into the void were motivated to do so after, time and time again, the media failed to represent our interests in the greater discussion on issues of consequence. As we witnessed the mainstream media lead the parade as we marched to war in Iraq, people like me stopped believing a damn thing they had to say and fled for bloggers like Juan Cole or Glenn Greenwald (who I would hardly call "amateurs") or watchdog sites like Media Matters. Or, some of us simply started to do the research and commentary ourselves.

The problem is that these new media "volunteers" cannot work for free forever, and they are getting impatient. This is precisely what makes the Hollywood writers' strike an interesting test-case for the future of online content providers. Sites like the Huffington Post cannot expect to continue getting their content for free without suffering a "revolt of the serfs." This is not the model for newspapers to follow.

What's the solution? Veteran newsman Charles Lewis believes the answer may lie in the models used by non-profit media organizations such as NPR and AP, which are "flourishing" today. By seeking contributions from readers, charitable foundations, and other sources, Lewis believes newspapers may be able to ease the transition until online advertising revenue can catch up to editorial payroll levels:
Civic-minded, wealthy individuals who believe in the concept of an "informed citizenry" and public service journalism -- local, regional, national, international...Great work itself will begin to attract "buzz" online, and other revenue sources could open up, from advertising, to subscribers/members, to paid partnerships with existing hollowed out media corporations desperately seeking content, etc.

One important detail that will need to be worked out is exactly what our commitment will be to the principle of "net neutrality." For a brief moment, when I started to grasp the dilemma facing newspapers today, I wondered whether this situation may be the flip-side of the net neutrality coin (a rare shift to the political right for me). Clearly, people are reluctant to pay for things on the Internet, which is why subscription walls have been failing for news sites. It occurred to me that in order to change the fundamental nature of the Internet, it might be necessary for service providers to put in place a system similar to pay cable TV in order to start generating some revenue for the people who provide the content. In other words, there may have to be some kind of "tollbooth" to get on the information superhighway. Blogger and net neutrality guru David Isenberg quickly helped bring this back into perspective for me:
I understand the impulse to say that if the newspapers can't pay you, maybe the telcos can. But I'd call this a bit Stockholm-ish . . . "look, the guards have bread, if we become their friends, and even act like them, maybe we can have bread too . . ."

The downside when NN goes away is fairly profound. The early scenarios, where the cablecos block bittorrent, which carries "the other video," to "manage" their networks, or where telcos sell "enhanced" connections so you can do VOIP instead of using their telephony, is just the beginning.

The Internet access providers' end game is to determine the "willingness to pay" for each transaction on "their" network and charge by that value -- it will be "yield management" on steroids. Along the way, once the machinery to do that is working, if a business partner (e.g., with a business plan that's cratering due to the Internet) has an interest in blocking or enhancing certain sites, or if a government wants to manage its citizens' information or behavior, well, hey, the Internet access provider knows who its friends are.

In other words, who do I trust more to treat me fairly: newspapers or giant telecommunications corporations? That's an easy one... since I'm pretty sure newspapers aren't currently helping the government to eavesdrop on my cell phone conversations.

Along with everybody else, I eagerly await a solution to the newspaper problem, whether it be through the help of philanthropic entities or a new, comprehensive ad revenue model specifically designed for the Internet. Either way, newspapers, it's time for you guys to step on the gas, stop wallowing in self-pity, and figure out how you're going to fix this problem.

1 comment:

Brubaker said...

"Either way, newspapers, it's time for you guys to step on the gas, stop wallowing in self-pity, and figure out how you're going to fix this problem."

I'd say this line needs to be repeated to all the editors in charge right now.

The future of newspapers has been in my mind lately, mostly because I'm one of those guys who prefers to read stuff in print (for nostalgistic and archiving reasons). Let's hope the "free daily" model Ted Rall mentioned in the third part of his column catches on. And that comics will be available to them the way weekly comics were to alt-weeklies.

And let me just state, in case I sound like an old-fogey, that I'm not old enough to smoke and drink in America.