Newspapers are dying, but that’s old news. It’s been happening for years. The industry has made few, if any, adjustments to the digital revolution, and now they’re all suffering for it. This has led to numerous publications ceasing operations, and we haven’t seen all of it yet. Not by a long shot.
Craigslist has made newspaper classifieds obsolete. Online publications, fueled by ad networks, have decimated the artificial scarcity which fueled inflated ad prices since the beginning of last century. Online publications in general have led many to forego their newspaper subscriptions. Even legal notices, a nearly effortless form of revenue, could be going away. There aren’t many industries which could survive this level of revenue loss.
Jason at It Is About The Money, Stupid asked an interesting question of the newspaper downfall as it relates to baseball: “What does that mean for the media business? Where do the writers go? To the Web, obviously, but can ALL of them afford to rely on an ad-based revenue model?” It’s something media companies are going to have to think hard about, because they’re running out of time.
Soon enough, print publications will be a rarity. Some will continue operation — I don’t think the Daily News, which still turns a profit, will be dying any time soon. For most publications, Web will be the way to go. The problem for publishers is that the Web is far more democratic than print. People have a choice, and with dozens of alternatives they’re not always going to pick the hometown paper. Sometimes they’re not even going to pick the paper of record. They’re going to pick the publication that fits best with their own worldviews.
What, then, happens to “objective” reporting? While I don’t believe any news that filters through humans can be truly objective, there is certainly value in hard facts. That’s the basis of nearly everything in the news industry. Digital media might handle the facts in a manner more palatable to the general public, but news organizations are the ones which gather the facts in the first place. If they die out, how will we find the facts on which we pontificate?
Former Giants beat writer Jeff Fletcher understands this. He summed it up perfectly on his blog a few months ago: “Even on the easier stuff … you need someone there to ask the questions.” Absolutely you do. That’s how we obtain information, by asking questions. Fletcher also notes the obvious, that writers need to be paid for their efforts. They have to pay the bills somehow, and journalism can be a time-consuming endeavor.
By no means do I have all the answers for how journalism will adapt to the digital world. I do read everything I possibly can on the matter, but even the most in-depth experts don’t have hard and fast solutions. What I do know is that instant-money-making ideas like micropayments will not work. How many times do you read a news article? Once, probably. Then it’s never read again, for the rest of eternity. Is that something a consumer should pay for? Probably not, but at the very least it’s a strong argument against the analogy between music and print. News organizations as nonprofits? Great idea in principle, poor because it would involve direct government involvement, and the watched funding the watchdog doesn’t sound like a good idea.
What’s it going to be? First, journalists, editors, executives, and even the public will have to rethink the nature of a news organization. No longer can newspapers afford bustling newsrooms. No longer can they act like they’re the only show in town. No longer can they try to force a sense of scarcity when there exists true abundance. The base level of a news organization needs to change in order to adapt to a new environment. This means decentralized and bottom-up networks of journalists and editors working together, rather than competing with one another, to disseminate the news.
As I’ve long explained to friends, as it relates to baseball, the costs of reporting are simply too high. Think of all the times you see PeteAbe post from an airport. Think of all the road trips and the hotel rooms. Think of expenses incurred in the normal course of duty. Those costs add up big time, to the point where most future organizations won’t be able to afford them. This hurts for baseball writers, because as Fletcher explained, access is key. Yet what we haven’t seen is new organizations combining forces to provide full coverage. Want the facts while your team is in Detroit? Partner with a news organization from that city to provide you coverage. They file the report, the local beat writer adds the color. Not only does this help cut costs, but it also puts pressure on beat writers to be knowledgeable about more teams, since they will be called upon to cover them when they’re in town.
This conversation could go on forever, but in the interest of brevity I’ll cut short here. If you want to read further into how news organizations can adapt to the new century, I’d recommend the following: The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman, Wikinomics by Don Tapscott, and What Would Google Do? by Jeff Jarvis. (Full disclosure: those are our Amazon Associates links). I’d also recommend Jarvis’s blog Buzz Machine, as well as David Carr of the New York Times.
I’d also like to say that if you’re not already reading It Is About The Money, Stupid, you should be. Jason is just excellent. Just wait until he has two, three full years of this under his belt. He and Craig from Shysterball should have a real future with this gig.