Newspapers vs. Journalism

Newspapers vs. Journalism Tim Lee, guesting at Megan McArdle’s place, dismisses the romanticism of such things as Howie Kurtz’ lament about the dying of the newspaper industry.

The “wholesale abandonment of newspapers” is simply a reflection of the fact that the web now provides a wealth of new technologies for delivering news and information. Websites are more comprehensive, more customizable, more timely, and, yes, more engaging, than newsprint. Video—whether delivered via cable or YouTube—isn’t inherently less serious or substantive than newsprint. And of course there are a ton of textual news sources to choose from that aren’t “newspapers” per se.

Kurtz’s dichotomy, between “newspapers” on the one hand, and “Xbox and Wii and full-length movies on their iPods” on the other, simply fails to grasp this diversity. There is nothing magical about paper and ink, and there’s absolutely no reason to lose sleep over the fact that people in the year 2050 are unlikely to learn about the previous day’s happenings by retrieving a bundle of newsprint from their front steps. Journalists are an indispensable part of a free society. Newspapers are simply a technology that many journalists happen to have used to convey their ideas during the 20th century. That medium is now being replaced by a more versatile medium called the Internet, and that’s not a bad thing from almost any perspective.

That’s right, of course, so far as it goes. But newspapers are more than just a means of distributing news, they’re a business model for sustaining journalism. The Internet, by contrast, is merely a means of distributing news and commentary. Nobody should be concerned if Thomas Ricks stops producing context that appears in newsprint. But how does an aspiring Thomas Ricks make a living if there’s no newspaper to hire him? Everyone can’t go work for Josh Marshall, after all.

To be sure, there’s no reason the Washington Post shouldn’t continue to exist as a journalism producing institution even if it ceases to put out a paper edition. The Politico is doing quite nicely as a Web-first publication that puts out a paper as an afterthought. But the fact that the Post and others continue to shrink their writing staffs would seem to be an indicator that the Web editions aren’t going to fill the gap entirely.

UPDATE: In a follow-up post, Lee addresses this concern:

What we’re seeing is the disaggregation of the news business. Instead of dozens of media organizations with staffs in the hundreds or thousands, we’re likely to see thousands of news organizations with a few dozen—or even fewer— employees.

[…]

Bureaucratic organizations tend to have high overhead and to allocate resources poorly. In hierarchical news organizations, reporters tend to be confined to narrowly defined beats and are given limited flexibility to branch out into other subjects that might interest them more. Large organizations tend to waste resources—flying a reporter to a remote location and putting her up in a hotel when a locally-based freelancer could have covered the story just as well, for example.

Maybe so. Maybe we’ll see an Army of David Suskinds out there with their mini-cams recording and reporting on the news in a way that’ll be an improvement over the old model. Then again, maybe we won’t.

Image: Concordia University Magazine

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Media, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Bithead says:

    But newspapers are more than just a means of distributing news, they’re a business model for sustaining journalism

    I am reminded of someone… and I forget who… saying that owners of railroads forgot they were in the transportation business, and instead thought they were in the TRAIN business… and that government regulations didn’t help that mistake, either.

    In the end, “Journalism” is merely a way to sell printed pages. … regardless what they’re printed on, including photons.

    That brings up some rather interesting questions about the pretense involved with “Jounalism”, including Jounalism Ethics, which I consider a conflict in terms.




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  2. yetanotherjohn says:

    Railroads were supposed to put canals out of business. The car and planes was supposed to put railroads out of business. In both cases, people forgot they were in the transportation business, not the canal or railroad business. And you will also note than canals and railroads are still around (albeit in much less grandeur than before).

    There is no “newspaper” business. There is an information gathering and dispersing business. And not doubt as the technology changes, the business models will also adapt. To put it another way, the old technology reached an equilibrium between the cost of gathering/dispersing information and the revenue to be made from it. That equilibrium has changed. Where the new equilibrium point will be is not yet known, but it will be found. And people will pay for it directly or indirectly.

    But as long as the MSM reports Obama’s lies as facts with out calling him on it, then they are failing at their job of gathering and dispersing the news.




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  3. yetanotherjohn says:

    Doh!. Bithead, we must have been typing at the same time,




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  4. Bithead says:

    ^5




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  5. Triumph says:

    Nobody should be concerned if Thomas Ricks stops producing context that appears in newsprint. But how does an aspiring Thomas Ricks make a living if there’s no newspaper to hire him?

    Thomas Ricks is a liberal traitor, so we would be in a much better place in this country without liberals like Ricks being paid to destroy America.




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  6. Dave Schuler says:

    Maybe we’ll see an Army of David Suskinds out there with their mini-cams recording and reporting on the news in a way that’ll be an improvement over the old model.

    It’s funny you should mention that, James. It’s one of the hottest trends in professional journalism. All the cool kids are doing it. The basic concept is that everybody in the organization from the managing editor on down to the custodian carries a camera. If they see something, they tape it. It even has a name but it escapes me right now what it is.

    What Kurtz’s column misses is that it’s the business model that’s failing. It’s not merely that revenue is too low it’s that expenses are way too high.

    The idea that you should be able to make a decent living as a journalist is less than 50 years old, dovetailing nicely with the rise of the J-schools. So, for example, my dad was the editorial page director of one of St. Louis’s major newspapers about 60 years ago. It was essentially a volunteer position—compensation was extremely small and he continued to make his living as a lawyer. Writing opinion was a hobby.

    That’s basically what bloggers are doing today and the experience of Kos, Josh Marshall, and the relatively small number of bloggers who make a living at it notwithstanding, it’ll probably continue to be the case. Meanwhile it will inevitably push wages down for newspaper and TV writers. They’ll continue to be able to write, it’ll just be harder to make a living doing it.




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  7. Bithead says:

    What Kurtz’s column misses is that it’s the business model that’s failing. It’s not merely that revenue is too low it’s that expenses are way too high.

    And until the revenue started dropping off that wasn’t much a problem… agreed. But look at when the expenses started ramping up; When journalistic pretense started on it’s meteoric rise. Essentially, owners, (Willingly in most cases) started paying huge sums of money essentially because of the “journalist’s” opinion of himself and his “profession”.

    What got forgotten was that Jouralism was merely content that aided along the selling of advertising. Once they started ascibing higher language to it, is when things started getting out of control.

    Consider a parallel, that I admit I’ve not fully worked through, please.

    You may or may not know I used to work in radio, from the early 70’s to about 1987. Certainly, there was a mystique, an aura of ‘public service’ etc to the profession. And on air folks used to get huge amounts of money for their services.

    When I was growing up, and getting my chops together, there was a bunch of people I later on in life got to work with, who I greatly respected; they were the local greats around these parts. I was honored to work along side these people who I grew up listening to. I won’t bother mentioning their names, you wouldn’t know most of them, and this thing’s going to get too long as it is. One of them even got to be one of the best freinds I ever had in the world, and I miss him terribly today.

    They all told the same story.. In their day, time was you could make a comfortable living behind a mike, but that those days, at least for most of us, were coming to a close. I got on the train just as it was slowing down, if you will, and managed to ride the thing for 15 years or so. I was lucky; I had the skills and my voice wasn’t bad at all… I made it into that comfortable inner circle around here, for that time. I made a fair buck, and was never out of work for longer than I wanted to be. In those days for everyone who ‘made it’ there were perhaps 20 or 30 who didn’t. I worked (among other things) full service tations and busted my bump to make sure our listners were informed and entertained, and took what I saw as my job very seriously. Gained a lot of respect from my peers, and those folks I spoke of that I admired.

    Now, all that’s changed. With satalite delivery (Both direct and indiriect through terrestrial stations) as well as automation, only one station in 10 has any live people running the place anymore, and that means there’s now 200 or 300 hangers on for every person who’s ‘made it’.. and the ones left are not making all that much, trust me.

    And what I did all those years, running a hot control board manually, is an art that is all but lost.

    But you know what? It wasn’t till near I dropped out of radio that it started occurring to me more frequenly that this was all about selling ads, and the content as automation and ‘da bird’ took over, meant less and less to owners. I was in the advertising business all those years… and here I thought I was in the radio personality business.

    And the reason for the changes? The costs of the old model were far too high. Someone doing a loacl radio show manually, and taking care to do it right, will get more listeners, perhaps, but will never be able to make enough money for the station to justify his being there, on most stations today. the woners can make as much money letting the machine do all the work… and most, alas, do.

    A lot of the reason for the shift was lower listenership across the board. Television.

    I’m sure the reader will see enough of the parallels I’m playing to to suit their own vision of the thing.

    Old radio, (And old radio PEOPLE) like old newspapers/old newspaper people, I think, hastened their own ‘death’ by way of their own image of themselves and what they were doing. In short, they over-valued their own importance to the effectiveness of the finished product… remembering, again, that the finished product was advertsising.




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