What is Bad for Newspapers Might be Good for the World….

David Carr has a piece in the New York Times today – “United, Newspapers May Stand,” where he envisions a world in which the heads of newspapers all get together to hold hands and unanimously decide to work together and declare….

No more free content. The Web has become the primary delivery mechanism for quality newsrooms across the country, and consumers will have to participate in financing the newsgathering process if it is to continue. Setting the price point at free the newspaper analyst Alan D. Mutter called it the “original sin” has brought the industry millions of eyeballs and a return that doesnâ’t cover the coffee budget of some newsrooms.

I don’t take sides in the old media vs. new media debate. I think we have LOTS to lose if newspapers go under. But I also think there is an inflated sense of self-worth in this article. Not because I believe citizen journalism can fully replace traditional newsrooms – but because of what the world has gained by making news content free online.

Yes – putting content online for free has caused economic problems for newspapers – but it has made mankind better.

  • How many people have been informed because newspaper content was made available online for free?
  • How many people made better decisions because they were engaged in online conversations – that reacted to newspaper content?
  • How many young people learned to appreciate high quality journalism because it was easy to access?

Of course – the numbers can’t be quantified – since the information was free and we can’t be sure how far any one idea from a newspaper article spread, emailed, blogged, reblogged, tweeted, morphed, etc.

I wonder if given the choice to go back in time  whether Carr would change all this. Would keeping people ignorant and disengaged be worth saving the newspaper industry (or any industry)?

Putting aside that Carr’s dream would never happen ( most newsrooms are cultured in scoops and competition, not collaboration), I think it is fair to say that mankind is better for having had access to this information for free.

Yes – it was a bad economic move for newspapers. But the decision has had a positive influence on millions of people. That newspapers are having a tough time keeping profit margins is secondary for me – compared to the incredible evolution in human knowledge.

And I’m a self-identified journalist.

The counter-argument could be made: Without an economic model newspapers will crumble and then there won’t be any content available to enrich the lives of so many.

Fair point, to which I can only make this honest response.

I really believe that “journalism will survive the death of its institutions.” That journalism will look different – but there will be a marketplace for quality information and individuals who provide it.

I don’t know what that model will look like – so you can call bullshit on me if you want, but that is what I believe. And if you share that belief – then the idea of putting content behind a paywall to save an industry at the cost of keeping millions ignorant – just doesn’t fly.

10 thoughts on “What is Bad for Newspapers Might be Good for the World….”

  1. I wholeheartedly agree that the business model is better for consumers so, while the general interest daily newspaper will likely not survive in its current form, something will replace it, as the market dictates any industry will be replaces.

    I do, however, take issue with suggesting today the citizenry is more engaged and better educated on the issues. I wonder if that’s true. The Internet age has also come about with declining newspaper staffs, which continue to dictate what stories and coverage is had. That may mean less coverage on the big important stuff and more coverage – by citizen journalists – on the less important. That is, yes it’s cool that Twitter uses Tweeted the California fires or the Hudson River landing of a plane, but that news doesn’t really improve or better engage a citizenry.

  2. Hi, David – did you see my not-as-nice response to David Carr — No More Free Content : http://bit.ly/keg_free

    I debunk the implication that newspapers consumers pay for content with their subscription fees. We don’t – we pay for delivery (maybe). Subscription revenue doesn’t pay the cost of newsprint (on average, based on date in Media Economics). Grumble, grumble, grumble.

    That’s not to say that news organizations don’t need a new business model. They do. Just like Every Other Institution challenged by the move from scarcity to “abundance” (head nod to Chris Anderson).

    But the business model failure is not the fault of subscribers.

  3. Yes, society has gained from free news, but newspapers (and private TV broadcasters, like the one that employs me) are for-profit businesses.

    If it costs money to produce quality journalism and not enough is coming in to do so at a reasonable profit, then as a business, why bother?

    A bigger question flowing from that, and one that gets ignored in this debate, is “what’s a reasonable profit?”

    Many monopoly papers had operating margins of 25% or higher.

    Much of the cutting in recent years was done to prop up high margins to pay off debts accumulated during highly-leveraged acquisitions.

    Now, when the dust has settled from the combined pain of the recession and the ill-advised business deals that preceded it, what can be done to economically ensure the same (if not) better quality of journalism — but at a lower cost?

    Online distribution is cheaper, but newspapers produce more revenue and higher margins.

    That brings us back to my initial question: What’s a reasonable profit level at which a newspaper can still produce a socially useful product?

    Philip Meyer, author of The Vanishing Newspaper, has suggested it could be done with operating margins of seven per cent.

    Question is, will the owners of newspapers be happy with lower profits? If not, does that logically lead to the suggestion that what the newspaper business really needs is a new ownership model as much as a new business model?

    Some thoughts to ponder.

  4. Dave, thanks for this, and thanks to all the commenters.

    The problem is Wall Street — the margins HAVE to be lower if you want to do public-interest reporting.

    You can be commercial and do travel, sports, entertainment, style and “business” (i.e. conventional capitalism) coverage. And if coverage here declines or is affected by the vicissitudes of the commercial market, it won’t be a huge problem because it’s already skin-deep and half brain dead (Octomom! etc.).

    But you pretty much CAN’T be commercial and do serious public-interest reporting, UNLESS Wall Street is willing to drop the margins to a lower, lower, lower level.

    Since that won’t happen at the conglomerate level, there needs to be aggressive efforts to develop a real public-media infrastructure.

    This brings up my own work with Newsdesk.org. Basically, all this flailing and failing on the commercial-news side is just pure opportunity for the nonprofit producer to do something SMARTERFASTERDEEPERBETTER, on a much lower, and tax-deductible, margin.

    Newsdesk.org plans to exploit this vulnerability in the business model by selling to commercial outlets the public-interest coverage they need at rates the AP can’t beat.

    Hope it works. But the basic principle is, their loss, my gain.

    Maybe we won’t be looking at the same scale of industry. But then again, maybe journalism needs to be a widespread practice, like lawyering or medicine, rather than a concentrated industry in the factory-production model.

    josh w.

  5. Availability of newspapers online has brought in a kind of revolution that is affecting print journalism really bad. Newspapers play an important role in the development of a nation and economy. It is role as an identity independent of government should be withheld at any cost. At the same time, it is the responsibility of the government to bail it out of trouble for the better interest of the general public.

  6. Unbelievably well said. If news organizations would put time into making the world a better place; into providing added value and utility to their readers; into making the platforms into which they publish better places to be, then they would begin to reap rewards.

    The open web is good. Search engines are good. Aggregators are good. And newspapers CAN monetize the audiences they develop by providing community and utility.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *