Monday, February 16, 2009

Killing your newspaper

Two recent articles, one in Time and one on the web in, discuss the decline of the newspaper.

Walter Isaacson, in Time,
How to Save Your Newspaper”, Feb. 05, 2009 and

Gary Kamiya, Salon,
"The death of the news: If reporting vanishes, the world will get darker and uglier. Subsidizing newspapers may be the only answer"

I would've liked to be able to post a response to Isaacson at Time's web site, but only Salon allows this:

Half-empty? No!

Dear Gary Kamiya,

1.With all due respect, I think you are 100 per cent wrong.
If the internet didn't exist, this article about the "death of the newspaper" would appear in some indie weekly, like the Village Voice, just as somebody else wrote about it recently in Time.
Newspapers have supposedly been dying for several decades now, and the culprit is clearly TV, not the internet.

I would argue that the internet has increased newspaper readership substantially, just not in as profitable a form as big media magnates would like. If anything, I suspect that ad revenue from the internet has probably helped stop the bleeding a bit, and (somewhat) deccelerated the rate of decline of traditonal newspapers at the hands of TV.

Another reader mentioned the UK's Guardian, approvingly. I imagine that reader wouldn't have access to the Guardian if not for the 'net. I know that I've also read scores of Guardian stories, but I've never bought a paper copy, or even seen one. Likewise, I hadn't even heard of Hong Kong's Asia Times, another supremely valuable "paper", let alone read anything in their pages, before I had internet access. I'm pretty sure my story applies to many people.

There will always be a demand, at least among some people, for serious journalism, and newspapers will continue to exist, but they need to figure out a way to make viable a business model whose bread-and-butter is the internet.

We will lose the paper that is all things to all people, with a section for everybody from most demographics, all rolled neatly into one rubber-bandable unit, and I can understand why some people will miss that, but I suspect that's inevitable.

But I'm very skeptical that subsidies are the answer. The subscriber model, like the one that

The Real News

and others have been trying to foster might hold some promise.

2. Still, there's no question, there is a huge mis-allocation of resources, and I think that somewhere down the line that needs to be addressed. Just think of how many news bureaus, of both the television and newspaper/net variety, you could open with just the salaries of Katie Couric and Brian Williams(!). Maybe we need a Big Hair Tax, with the proceeds given as grants to struggling news centers.

But that would be unfair, amusing as it is to momentarily daydream about. Better yet, reintroduce steeply progressive taxation and trust-bust the big media monopolies, and nobody would have a multi-million dollar salary, while thousands of others would have more mundane but practical opportunities to do real journalism. Sadly, I'm still dreaming.

from Walter Isaacson's insipid article
“How to Save Your Newspaper”, which I mentioned earlier:

This is not a business model that makes sense. Perhaps it appeared to when Web advertising was booming and every half-sentient publisher could pretend to be among the clan who "got it" by chanting the mantra that the ad-supported Web was "the future." But when Web advertising declined in the fourth quarter of 2008, free felt like the future of journalism only in the sense that a steep cliff is the future for a herd of lemmings. (See who got the world into this financial mess.)

Newspapers and magazines traditionally have had three revenue sources: newsstand sales, subscriptions and advertising. The new business model relies only on the last of these. That makes for a wobbly stool even when the one leg is strong. When it weakens — as countless publishers have seen happen as a result of the recession — the stool can't possibly stand.

me: this reasoning is garbage-- revenue from everything declined in 4Q 2008, as the recession intensified. And the “three legs of the stool" argument is also bollocks: broadcast television was immensely profitable for decades of “giving away” their content for free, while just depending on advertiser revenue. Now they have more competition, from cable TV and other media, but the advertiser-based model is still working pretty well for them. How could they otherwise afford to pay Brian and Katie all those previously-alluded-to millions if the "one-legged" advertiser-revenue model wasn't working for them?

Isaacson wants newspapers to go to micropayments, a particularly regressive idea that enemies of a mostly unregulated internet have been touting for some time now. It's also Big Brother-style intrusive-- do you really want your web surfing/consumption habits so closely monitored? Ultimately, of course, people like Isaacson attack the internet as it is presently formulated because it represents a rejection of authority-driven media, and, therefore, a rejection of the authority of the Walter Isaacsons of the world-- and a threat to their high-paying jobs.

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