Mainstream Press in Freefall
Two prestige brands are joining a growing number of major press outlets undergoing restructuring or worse this week. NPR is cutting 7 percent of its staff, suffering from a crash of the stock market that has significantly hurt its endowment and from a noticeable decline in corporate underwriting. Newsweek is cutting 11 jobs, slimming the number of pages, and slashing guaranteed circulation. This comes in a week when the Tribune Company, owner of the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and Baltimore Sun has filed for bankruptcy; the NYT is leveraging its building for operating expenses; and the Rocky Mountain News has been put up for sale.
As massive as a collapse of the Big 3 automakers could be, at least there’s comfort in the fact that manufacturing is an early 20th century enterprise that has naturally become a comparative advantage of the developing world. Journalism, by contrast, is a white collar knowledge industry of the type that we’ve been preparing our kids to enter for decades. Then again, newspapers have been dying off for decades, with only a handful of cities able to support more than one paper.
Jeff Jarvis argues that “Rupert Murdoch is now the great shining hope of journalism” because “Murdoch is the one mogul with brains willing to invest in journalism. But note well that he’s investing in national journalism.”
WaPo business columnist Steven Pearlstein is thinking along similar lines:
[T]he only way to produce a good product is for there to be massive consolidation in the industry, so that economies of scale can be achieved. But to date, we cling to these outdated notions that every city of 25,000 people needs its own daily newspaper. Not only can’t those papers be very good at delivering a full range of local, national and international news and features, but their existence makes it difficult for even the big metro papers to have enough circulation (scale) to do that.
That’s exactly right. In the Internet age, it’s silly for even mid-major papers such as the Dallas Morning News or Atlanta Journal-Constitution to in the national and international news business. They should cede that territory to the NYT, WaPo, WSJ and the like and instead be really great at covering state and local news, politics, and sports.
Still, even Pearlstein is stuck in the past:
What is also needed, however, is for the public to finally realize that there is no free lunch, that advertisers are no longer willing or able to pay for the cost of news collection, and that if people want quality news, they are going to have to pay for it just like any other good. If they are willing to pay $2 each morning for a cup of coffee, then they should willing to pay at least that much for a good newspaper.
I’m a news junkie. I don’t take the newspaper anymore, despite my “local” paper being the Washington Post, which is a great paper. I take the Sunday edition for the coupons and supplements and toss the rest in the recycle bin, preferring to read it online. Indeed, they constantly badger me to take the other six days for free and I found that it was just too much trouble to collect it every day, so I’ve stopped allowing them to deliver it.
The future of the newspaper business isn’t selling papers. Outside of cities with lots of public transport commuters, newspapers are something old people read because they’re still in the habit.
Appearing on NPR’s Dian Riehm show yesterday, Jarvis argued that major papers like the WaPo and WSJ should work out syndication arrangements with local papers and do content sharing, mostly on the Web, and also share revenue that results from the cross linkage. I’m not sure that’ll work, either, but it strikes me as a much more plausible way ahead than the $2 newspaper.
Photo by Flickr user marcelgermaine under Creative Commons license.