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Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Must We Lay Our Traditional Daily Newspapers Gently Down to Die?

The Professor - aka Jay Rosen of New York University - has a lengthy essay up on PressThink that probes the question of whether those in charge of the business decisions of the MSM have, consciously or otherwise, realized the days of dead-tree newspapers are dwindling away and as a consequence begun taking all the profits possible before the end.

It is a fascinating query and while I suspect no one on the business side of any major daily would even recognize the legitimacy of the question, it is nevertheless difficult not to conclude that something very like the process Rosen describes is occuring.

Consider these things cited by Rosen:
"No R & D rush. No large investment in the future. No siren call to find the new model. And yet the Project for Excellence in Journalism report says that in 2004, daily newspapers (the ones still making money) employed fewer reporters and editors. They also squeezed in more ads per page, and less news. Not only are we not seeing the big investment in an online alternative, there are signs of a withdrawal before the great divide.
"'There is more evidence than ever that the mainstream media are investing only cautiously in building new audiences,' the report states. 'That is true even online, where audiences are growing. Our data suggest that news organizations have imposed more cutbacks in their Internet operations than in their old media.'
"Getting it yet? Growing audiences, lower budgets. Pulling back when you should be stepping forward. The harvesting of the newspaper's monopoly position has apparently begun. The assisted suicide is underway. But not in every company, or every town, which kind of makes it interesting. It could be a great nonfiction book someday: Laying the Newspaper Gently Down to Die. (Does
Kurt Eichenwald have a new project?)
"The reasons are obvious why it will never be announced as such. Stated publicly, the laying down would be a scandal. But it does not have to be a wholly conscious choice for the enterprises that are going down that road. They can just continue with business-as-usual, obeying the incentive system as it stands, and the demise will 'happen.'"

You can read Rosen's full post here. But before you do, let me give you a prefacing thought: Why aren't the people in the newspaper industry who control the budgets investing in the Internet, except as a platform for mimicking the hard copy? The sagging demographics of the newspaper industry have been obvious to everybody for decades, so it's not like this is a recent development.

Other than the Greensboro News & Record's recently launched attempt to evolve from hard-copy to web-copy, nobody in the industry is moving forward. But I don't think it's mere greed that accounts for this phenomenon.

I think most daily newspaper executives simply don't understand the Internet. They don't get the immense newspower available to them via the wisdom of crowds. They don't get that instant links make fixed deadlines and editions as obsolete as crossbows in an ICBM world. They don't get that generations raised on multi-media news and information sourcing find a hard-copy newspaper archaic and inconvenient. They don't get that transparency is becoming the sine qua non of credibility in public policy discussions.

They just don't get it. And because they don't, they don't know where to start in seeking a new editorial and business model that works in an Internet world. So they focus on maximizing profit now.

The shame is that the profession does not face an either/or choice between the virtues and essential skills of old media and the foundational possibilities of the new media. There is no fundamental reason why a blog cannot cover the news just as effectively and credibly as The Washington Post or The New York Times on the best day. But the obsession with profit now at the expense of future market position will inevitably bleed the old media of energy and hope and thereby force the new media to find its own way financially and editorially.

It doesn't have to be this way.

UPDATE: Dan Gillmor makes a similar point to mine above, plus much, much more in his response to Rosen's essay.

Here's a sample of the much, much more:
"If the newspaper business does turn out to be dying, we need to make sure that journalism does not. I apologize to my blogging friends for saying this, but the free for all in the blogging world, however valuable (and I love it), is not sufficient to replace what we'll be missing.
"We need ways to combine the best of the old and the new. That's what I'm working on.
The people we've called the audience play a key role, in several ways. As consumers (I hate the word) of news they have to make some choices. I believe they will pay for quality, to start with. "But young readers have changed media. We in the journalism sphere need to innovate on new forms and delivery mechanisms as well as the journalism itself."

There is absolutely no reason why the Blogosphere cannot ultimately do an even better job of covering the news and making it intelligible for millions of people than the MSM has done for the past five decades.

But if that is going to happen, we bloggers need to get on the stick and start sorting out things like coverage strategies, acquiring new credibility enhancing reporting and research skills and experimenting with alternative approaches to presentation.