Sunday, April 5, 2009

How to kill newspapers

Just heed the advice of old-school newsmen and women, who can't get their heads around the media revolution that's leaving them behind.

The Boston Globe is in trouble--and not just because its owner is threatening to shut it down. It's in trouble because the best minds in journalism can't get their blinders off long enough to get on board with innovative business models that can support a participatory model of journalism.

The New York Times Co., which purchased the paper in 1993 for what the Associated Press calls "a record $1.1 billion," is now threatening to shutter the paper unless its union accepts $20 million in concessions.

Right on schedule, economists and media analysts are offering up their ridiculous resolutions to this impending crisis. Management consultant Peter Cohan, for example, suggests this wacky solution: Scrap dead-tree printing, move the paper to an online-only news source, and charge readers to view the content.

Cohan writes that if the Globe goes to an online-only format, it will lose a significant revenue source in paid print advertising; as a result,
in order to make up the lost revenue The Boston Globe will need to charge users for access to its online content as the Wall Street Journal does. This might not be as difficult as it would first appear. If it stopped producing a dead-tree version, The Boston Globe could roll the unfulfilled portion of its print subscriptions into online ones. Then it would face the challenge of getting others to pay for a previously-free online subscription.

This argument calls to mind Jon Stewart's recent interview with Walter Isaacson, who argued, first in a Time Magazine article and then on the Daily Show, that the way to save newspapers is to charge readers to access online content. Stewart's response to this argument was a deadpan look of utter disbelief, followed by this:

"This is ridiculous--I can't believe we're talking about this. Sir, the internet is free."

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As the primary blogger for sleeping alone and starting out early, I spend a lot of time trolling the internet looking for interesting news items to write about. I poke around a lot, following links wherever they take me. But do you want to know where I never look? News sources like the Wall Street Journal that require paid subscriptions for accessing content. Why would I, when I can a.) find coverage of most of the most interesting stories for free at other news sources; or b.) find links to free online reprints of the WSJ stories that matter to me?

The problem with newspapers is not, contrary to the opinions of journalists and critics, that people are dumb or the Internet is destroying real reporting or that kids today just don't care about good journalism. The problem is that the people who are running print news can't shake antiquated approaches to journalism. In the Christian Science Monitor, for example, former Globe senior editor and current CS Monitor editor John Yemma calls Boston without the Boston Globe "unthinkable"--privileging, I assume, the traditionally territorial nature of beat journalism.

Yemma and others think of a city's newspaper as an institution in line with sports teams and local celebrities--an integral element, in other words, of that city's character. Sports teams and newspapers have traditionally served an important purpose: Uniting a city when it has become too big for social ties alone to do that work. When people feel like they belong to something larger than themselves, after all, they're more likely to care, to pitch in, to align with the larger cultural work of the city and its residents.

But increasingly, citizenship is less about geography than it is about affinity. I may live in Boston, but the crew I run with largely depends on the context. Members of my Friday afternoon book group all live in the Boston area. As a blogger, my network is much more widely distributed. Bloggers I follow live as close as Cambridge, MA, and as far away as New York, Michigan, Indiana (Indiana, Indiana, Indiana, Indiana), the UK, and Peru. At my day job, I also happen to be a part of the MacArthur Foundation's Digital Media and Learning Initiative, a globally distributed network of educators and researchers.

Traditional newsmen and women understand, I think, that in a participatory culture people affiliate with networks outside of their geography. What they don't seem to understand, though, is that these identities aren't like hats that we put on and take off at will. We all position ourselves somewhere inside of a constantly fluctuating network of interests, affinities, and causes. Print media, to the extent that it has been willing and able to accommodate this shift, has successfully adjusted to this change--but so far, adjusting is the best it has been able to do.

Newshounds remember the good old days when the newspaper was the fastest, most cutting edge information source; chasing after emerging trends that have come out of online innovations has been a difficult change. People like Cohan, Yemma, and Isaacson remember with great fondness the time when journalism felt an awful lot like tap dancing to a medley of greatest hits while seated in front of a single camera trained on their every movement. One camera, two chairs, three television stations: The days of single-digit anything are long, long gone.


Tessa said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Carolyn Kraut said...

I would be okay with paying to read content on line if there was a way to institute micro payments. My reading is too varied to subscribe to each publication. One minute I might be reading the NYTimes, the next the Globe, the next the Washington Post. Then to there are the international web sites I visit in London and France. Sites like Stumble Upon and Digg bring interesting news to us from all over the globe. If every one of them instituted a subscription model they would get a lot fewer eyeballs on their pages.

I think this works for the WSJ because they are first and foremost a business publication. Not only do they report on business, but businesses buy subscriptions for their employees and these subscriptions are tax deductible.

The NYTimes used to charge for online access as well, or only give access to some features of the site to print subscribers. Now its wide open. Either people weren't biting, or they were able to increase their online ad revenue enough to make the user fees go away.


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