Murderer of the News?

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newspaper twn.jpg
TWN blogger and syndicated columnist Brian Till has a piece that is making the rounds where he admits as a free-riding news consumer who rarely pays for anything he’s reading to his own culpability in destroying the newspaper industry.
I think he is too hard on himself — and without ginning up the entire net neutrality debate today — I think he’s looking at too few dimensions of the news media industry in his analysis. (My limited understanding of the net neutrality debate is that some want all bits to be treated equally in the web world — sort of a completely socialized commons — without tiers of “bit flow” in which some might pay for faster connections and greater volumes of data transfer.)
First of all, he’s right that newspapers in their classic form seem to be dying, and the on-line version of these papers don’t yet have a business model that can support the job base that they currently have. A friend at Newsweek told me last night that with the exception of a couple of sales offices, the entire writing/editorial team (for the most part) of the magazine will work from their own homes on laptops. Even the DC bureau is apparently planning to shut down — or most of it, according to this source.
Cheap news, or free news in newspaper or print form may be becoming a thing of the past. However, unlike Till, I pay plenty for news, analysis, reports — from very high end sources. The budgets I spend on financial, political and policy reporting runs into five figures. What I think is happening is that new media, low or no cost media (like blogging) is circumventing the lower end of the news business — but the higher end of the specialized media establishment is still doing well.
I think that we should be concerned that much of the media establishment is going to disappear. There are some best practices in that environment that blogs would be good to absorb — but essentially, the time for concern was a few years ago. My contacts at senior levels of news organizations had little interest in changing the way that they did business and made little effort to understand the web and its implications.
So, if free-riding, as Brian Till calls it, expedited their fall — then they had it coming.
— Steve Clemons

Comments

18 comments on “Murderer of the News?

  1. John B. says:

    “People are willing to pay for news from people who have well-developed contacts among the powerful, who are able to achieve access to information that others cannot achieve, and who have well-honed skills and fact-checking methods for achieving factual accuracy.”
    agreed, and this sounds alot like our host, Steve C.

    Reply

  2. Dan Kervick says:

    I suppose the worry is that certain kinds of news gathering are traditionally very expensive, either because of the cost involved in traveling to the source of the news and operating a bureau there, or the costs involved in training people in the skills of news gathering and reporting, or hiring people who have already received this training. So if an economic model is not developed that allows resources to flow to the bearers of these costs, people won’t continue to bear them, and important and socially valuable work will not be done.
    But the internet has now enabled huge cost savings in the gathering of news. Why should a paper in New York pay a person to travel to Bosnia and live there to report news back to New York, when that same paper can pay somebody who already lives in Bosnia or thereabouts, who knows most of the important people in the neighborhood, and is a native speaker of the language to report into a consortium subscribed in New York? Why do the news organizations need a bureau when the means for rapid electronic transmission are ubiquitous? Editors need not work where the reporters are located. And the reporters need not work under a private contract with one organization.
    And news consumers, whether they realize it or not, are rapidly developing globalized tastes and sensibilities. There is less demand for a reporter who “thinks like they do”. It matters less and less whether the reporter’s name is Emmett G. Applewhite III or Prakesh Yergalin-Huang.
    My sense is that reportorial skill is now also becoming widely diffused, and can be learned on the job much more readily than has been believed by the operators of schools of journalism. There are differences, certainly, in the quality of reportage. But I suspect that in the future the news organization will not find it so necessary to have reporters who each bear the organization’s private brand. They will be experts in the collation, bundling and distribution of news from a variety of multiply branded reportorial sources. Their own brand will be in the richness of their offerings and skill and timeliness of compilation.
    I don’t think people are going to continue to pay excessive premiums for polished literary style in the mere reporting of news. News is news, not literature. If I want elevated or polished English prose, I will buy a novel by Ian McEwen or repair to my old volumes of Gibbon, Wilde or Johnson. I am not going to repair to the New York Times to get my factual information on the war in Iraq just for the pleasure of reading Dexter Filkins’s elegantly turned lines on the aesthetic experiences to be had in viewing falling incendiary bombs.
    Have you ever heard Seymour Hersh speak? His thoughts are a jumbled mess and he can barely put a coherent sentence together, but there is no better reporter in the business. That’s because he continually tells us important things that we have not heard before, and he has a proven track record of being right.
    People are willing to pay for news from people who have well-developed contacts among the powerful, who are able to achieve access to information that others cannot achieve, and who have well-honed skills and fact-checking methods for achieving factual accuracy. Surely economic models for the delivery of such information can be found. But the problem is that many traditional organizations have not yet succeeded in cultivating the demand needed to drive these models by delivering a demonstrably better product in a suddenly more competitive marketplace for information. What people want is information that is reliably believed to true, perceived as important and representative of something they haven’t already heard elsewhere. Why pay the New York Times to get so many stories utterly wrong when I can get cheaper deliveries of wrongness from a variety of half-assed bloggers?
    I don’t agree with other commentators who say people will pay a lot for opinion. Opinion is cheap and widely available. We are already drowning in opinion, and in my view a lot of news organizations only succeeded in diminishing the credibility of their brands by entering so freely into the opinion business a few decades ago. Most people enjoy spreading their opinions and will do it for free if not compensated. What needs to be compensated is the perfecting of the opinion-givers’ cognitive skills and knowledge base so that they are in a position to offer better-than-average opinion. But in the case of someone like Krugman, that knowledge resource is subsidized by Princeton University, not the New York Times.
    News organizations should place a renewed focus on getting things right and revealing things that have not yet been revealed. In the extraordinarily congested and noisy welter of rumors and rapidly disseminated “facts” on the internet, there is an increasing demand among discerning people for someone to reliably and rapidly determine which of these items are signal and which are just noise. If someone proves to me that they can play that role, I may pay for their service, even if the truth-detector doesn’t deliver his results with the politesse of the old-fashioned newspaper.

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  3. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Personally, I will miss the NYT crossword. As to the rest of the pages, I suppose I can find something else to light my morning fire with.
    I read the front page of the LA Times today, over breakfast at a Bakersfield diner. I can’t stand sitting idle, waiting for food to arrive, gaping into outer space. Also read a coupla things on the opinion page. Seems the asshole Max Boot is lamenting the fact that Monkey Boy and Dick Satan Cheney didn’t manage to attack Iran and Syria too. The dumped Robert Scheer to bring on Boot? What are they thinking? Cripes, the plastified paper they switched to doesn’t even light a fire decently.
    But in a pinch, it beats the shit out of reading the Bakersfield Californian, who just reduced its size to that of a coupla squares of cheap toilet paper, then brilliantly raised the price to 75 cents. Ya gotta love it; diminish the content, and raise the price. Perfect. Exactly what you’d expect from the red-neck capital of California. Is there a requisite amount of brain cells that have to be missing before you declare yourself a Republican?
    If I need toilet paper, I’ll buy Charmin’. If I need news, I’ll surf the net. So, uh, why do I need a newspaper?

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  4. rich says:

    Steve,
    I agree that several trends you identify are important factors in old media’s decline . . . but you ignore the major thrust of thirty years of incisive media criticism.
    Why argue with newspapers or editorial boards when you can just buy them and put them out of their misery? There’s a murderer, and it’s hardly the consumer.
    Newspapers have historically reaped a very small profit margin. Yet nothing resisted the reckless embrace of now-standard but never realistic or sustainable market practices. New owners demanded a LEVEL of profit that newspapers were never capable of satisfying in the first place. So the goose that laid the edible egg was sacrificed because it couldn’t deliver the golden egg, to which today’s titans of what passes for industry somehow felt entitled.
    Buying up businesses you can’t really afford in any sane or consistent world, stripping them of every asset for auction on the open market, and tossing the carcass by the roadside—that’s what murdered the news.
    The thing of value was never the annual profit, and certainly not the sale price, but was the continued existence of a viable business—and the product it delivered.
    Granted, one (corporate actors, media conglomerates and captains of industry) CAN buy and sell what they wish—but that’s no reason lenders, pundits, business leaders or anyone else should go along with it. Whether that means abetting such practices, failing to shame or ostracize, or just looking the other way is really irrelevant. This is not a moot point: the fault is just as much the editorial boards’ and publishers’ who actively affirmed these practices out of self-interest and muddy thinking, as it is those who actively slit the bellies of stable businesses to walk off with still-steaming golden coin.
    Consider: everybody thought it was a bright idea to let Sam Zell buy the Tribune Company — for $8.2 BILLION. Even though the guy was only willing to ante up $315 million of his own money. Everybody was gonna profit, right? But recent events are making that look like chump change, from a chump.
    How? They ‘had to’ “rely on a complicated arrangement that uses employees’ retirement funds to borrow billions of dollars. The Cubs are to be sold to help pay down debt.”
    As our dear newspaper watchdogs are belatedly figuring out, raw profit from loan packages or ‘investment vehicles’ ‘so complex no one can understand them’ just can’t substitute for actual jobs at a company that deals in actual cash flow.
    Thing is, this isn’t new. Charles Hurwitz was allowed to float junk bonds to finance the purchase (and disassembly) of Louisiana Pacific. Hurwitz’s Maxxam commenced clearcutting and layoffs, as the end of LP’s sustainable timber cut spelled the end of sustainable jobs at a stable business in a stable town.
    Point is, this behavior is the antithesis of traditional conservative, Main Street businesss practices.
    There is literally more economic value in using a slower, sustained timber cut to maintain the town, the business, the jobs and the forest.
    Same is true of the Chicago Tribune and the L.A. Times. Why trust dealmakers who obviously don’t know what they’re doing and can’t explain what they’re selling?
    It’s true that newspapers need to revamp and restructure.
    But we’re all better off with the original operation whole and intact. With an employee pension fund that’ll be, I don’t know, there for employees and no one else. And a newspaper that functions in the public interest–even though there’s a valid argument that many newspapers have tacked right-wing-ward to please vested, ideological, and establishment interests.
    Let’s leave aside the increasing concentration and corporatization of newspapers and media–and the intrinsic and calculated bias that brings. The financial shenanigans are eviscerating vital civic institutions — and the stability of the wider economy.
    And Steve, that’s no accident.
    http://www.boston.com/news/local/connecticut/articles/2007/04/03/tribune_accepts_82b_offer_from_zell/

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  5. questions says:

    Recently came across a note that most news organizations would be totally fine if their owners could/would tolerate a lower rate of return. They don’t lose money in other words, they just don’t make enough to please shareholders and CEOs.

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  6. Joe Klein's conscience says:

    I think that we should be concerned that much of the media establishment is going to disappear. There are some best practices in that environment that blogs would be good to absorb — but essentially, the time for concern was a few years ago. My contacts at senior levels of news organizations had little interest in changing the way that they did business and made little effort to understand the web and its implications.
    The TradMed brought a lot of it upon themselves with crappy reporting and a crappy product. Why they think it is a good idea to insult their audience is beyond me. Just look at Obama’s presser today. The TradMed is PO’ed because he wouldn’t answer any more questions about Blago and he took more questions from the kids then he did from them. They never held Dubya to that standard. It’s about time the TradMed gets off their high horse, or else they’ll die off completely(and deservedly so).

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  7. JohnH says:

    As one who has mooched newspapers for decades, I have no regrets. Advertising is what pays for the newspapers, and advertisers should count moochers.
    Problem is that advertisers’s money also goes to limit the scope and integrity of news stories, which is why I have to mooch so much. If the New York Times would simply report the news without class, corporate and government screens, then I could simply read the Times. And I would pay for it.
    The way it is, I have to range far and wide to glean the nuggets that news organizations let slip through the crack (often in the final 2-3 paragraphs of Times stories.) And I can’t afford to pay for all the newspapers and magazines I read.

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  8. Linda says:

    Wigwag et al.,
    Where do you think the content comes from? The cost of having bureaus around the world, experienced journalists who are held to standards in what they publish and print (The majority are not Jayson Blairs, Stephen Glass, or Judith Miller.) And that includes photographers that take memorable photos.
    Sure, Josh Marshall and Arianna hire people to be reporters, but their experience and abilities and resources are limited. They and people with cell phone photos have a place. But it seems to be almost entirely in U.S. and in safe places. And they seldom do in-depth investigative reporting that can take many months on a story.
    WigWag, Paying $100 for Times Select was not paying for the content, and you know that. I paid $500-600 a year for the content to get the print edition delivered to my home, and they gave me Times Select for free. If you want to support the NY Times or any paper, subscribe to it.
    And don’t tell me that you are retired and can’t afford it because I’m retired, but I couldn’t afford to sell short and play the market as you do.
    And those journalists in war zones and unstable countries deserve to be well paid because they are risking their lives to tell us the news.
    Newspapers and media haven’t figured out a new business paradigm yet, but their workers are no more to blame than auto workers.
    There’s no such thing as a free lunch or free news.

    Reply

  9. dirk says:

    Some thoughts, musings, because I also don’t understand the business model of sites/papers like the NYTimes. Maybe somebody can fill me in on the details.
    First, there is news — sort of a true commodity — i.e., what happened today, in the last 30 minutes . . . whatever.
    Second (and far different) is comment, critical analysis, forecasting/prediction, etc — Paul Krugman’s column is a good example.
    I don’t want to pay for the former, but I will pay for the latter. The former is content that will be carried on all sites (CNN, MSNBC, NYTimes, Yahoo, Google, etc) — the latter is proprietary, and monopolistic, i.e., there is only one Paul Krugman who writes for one paper. Also, the newspapers can forget about most of the classified adverts since craigslist came along!
    However, web sites that provide only (reliable) news, and do it well, can probably get reasonable levels of advertising revenue. Sites that provide both news and analysis, can probably get advertising revenue AND subscriber revenue.
    So, naively, I suppose . . . what’s the problem? I assume there are smart people in the newspaper industry; why can’t they figure out a way to make money on value-added commentary and analysis?
    Similarly (on the upstream end), newspapers can hire somebody in Bombay to write type for news incidents, but again there is only one Paul Krugman for the real value-added stuff. In a sense, it seems like the internet is wreaking havoc in the form of disintermediation in the newspaper industry, and they don’t know how to deal with it. Many of them still have the relatively high costs of printing presses and a logistics/delivery system for hard copy, but also are putting their content on the web for free — the old bricks vs clicks conundrum is still at work, and it’s difficult to have it both ways (e.g., if Amazon started to open Amazon stores).
    I live in a spot where I can’t get the NYtimes delivered to me same day, and would be happy to get it on-line for a reasonable fee (I’m very happy to get it for free now, but I would pay something for it!).
    On a side note, I was in Europe 2 weeks ago, and like I do on every trip, I picked up the Intl Herald Tribune each day for about 2.50 euros — and it wasn’t more than 30 – 40 pages long. I would hope they made a profit on that!
    It seems obvious that newspapers haven’t really re-segmented their markets; haven’t responded well to the destructive/rejuvenative forces of the internet; and continue to rely on old business models that no longer work. I would bet that supplying NYCity residents with hard copies of a newspaper, is much cheaper per copy than supplying newspapers to residents, say, in Bangor, Maine.
    Cynically, perhaps the newspapers are just setting the stage for a government handout!

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  10. Michael says:

    Steve – I would be interested to hear more about the “very high end sources” that you pay five figures to for news and analysis. While I shouldn’t be surprised, I wasn’t aware of this higher tier of news access that you seem to be buying. Dish the details!

    Reply

  11. ... says:

    in reading the letters to the original article you quote i realize i was saying much the same in my post above…
    >>As long as Western Media feels biased enough to only report one side to a story, I have no worries about not buying a subscription. If they were to provide the whole truth that would be worth paying for. If they go bankrupt that is their problem. There is always the Gov’t to help them with a bailout. And why not, they helped who wins the presidency by not putting all the news in print for the public to make an informed decision.<<

    Reply

  12. antiphone says:

    ”So the Washington Note ends up bumped down, harder to access, slower than, say TMZ unless Steve coughs up some money to pay the extortion — strike that — the user fee.”
    It’s more likely to work the other way around. Taking into account this:
    ”The New America Foundation, a nonpartisan ten-year-old think tank headquartered in Washington, D.C., announced today the appointment of Dr. Eric Schmidt, the chairman and chief executive of Google, Inc., as the new chairman of New America’s Board of Directors.”
    http://community.techpolicycentral.com/_Google-CEO-Eric-Schmidt-Appointed-as-Chairman-of-New-America-Foundations-Board-of-Directors/blog/27058/11451.html
    And this:
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122929270127905065.html
    ”Google Inc. has approached major cable and phone companies that carry Internet traffic with a proposal to create a fast lane for its own content, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Google has traditionally been one of the loudest advocates of equal network access for all content providers.
    At risk is a principle known as network neutrality:
    […]
    ”Google, with its dominant market position and its perceived ties to the Obama team, may hold the most sway. One of President-elect Obama’s most visible supporters during the campaign was Eric Schmidt, Google’s chief executive officer. Mr. Schmidt remains an adviser during the transition.
    Eric Schmidt
    Google’s proposed arrangement with network providers, internally called OpenEdge, would place Google servers directly within the network of the service providers, according to documents reviewed by the Journal. The setup would accelerate Google’s service for users. Google has asked the providers it has approached not to talk about the idea, according to people familiar with the plans.
    Asked about OpenEdge, Google said only that other companies such as Yahoo and Microsoft could strike similar deals if they desired. But Google’s move, if successful, would give it an advantage available to very few.”

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  13. questions says:

    One of the net neutrality issues I’ve seen is not user-paid speed, but producer-paid availability. So the Washington Note ends up bumped down, harder to access, slower than, say TMZ unless Steve coughs up some money to pay the extortion — strike that — the user fee.
    The internet should be more like electricity than like a luxury at this point. Subsidization for breadth and speed would serve us better as citizens (and, yes, as porn consumers) than would letting gossip sites and the like take over.
    The service providers already get a decent chunk of money from subscribers, they don’t likely need MORE from content producers to market the content. And they probably don’t need to raise fees either. The ‘net is the new post office, the new town hall/public square, and the new newspaper. Wider access, not pricier frills, please!

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  14. ... says:

    rigidity is a hall mark of wall st as well… it is wall st, not main st that is being bailed out presently… sooner or later main st is going to see they have been taken by wall st… that time is already upon us in the new media world..
    btw, when do the major newspapers ask for a bailout given their conformance with the bush administrations overall agenda? nyt, wp, latimes all of them were doing the goose walk for bush… seeing how they and wall st are built on the same platform, i suspect they will be asking for a bailout in the not to distant future… meanwhile main st is getting a ‘free ride’ with the internet! give bush and his nsa agenda more time!!!!!

    Reply

  15. Steve Clemons says:

    WigWag — Perhaps I am too harsh and should be circumspect. Someday I’ll relate some stories of the arrogance and rigidity of the corporate managers of large news enterprises I have dealt with in the past. It’s not just a collapse of ad revenue that has driven the trends we are seeing.
    But I take your point that I may be too severe. I’m not wishing them gone. I’m just irritated by their blindness to what was coming.
    Antiphone — with all due respect, I think you are off key on that criticism. I really do understand and support the objectives of net neutrality advocates. I have just come to know about three or four different versions of net neutrality regimes….and there is a side of me that thinks that there is something wrong in the current debate that penalizes infrastructure and subsidizes the users of that infrastructure. I don’t see what is wrong with some forms of differentiated access that doesn’t harm present levels of general service.
    If you can add value to the discussion and not just be flippantly dismissive as I think you are trying to be — then engage the issue seriously. I am always interested in learning more and look forward to the opportunity when I get more time after the inauguration.
    best, steve clemons

    Reply

  16. Paul Norheim says:

    Wigwag, of course the NYT has excellent op ed writers and
    journalists. But the point is that papers like NYT, WP and LA
    Times are in trouble.
    I can`t count all the articles I`ve read about this during the last
    years, mainly due to internet and new reader habits, and I can`t
    remember where I read them.
    But here is just a quote from Wikipedia re. NYT:
    “So far the company’s dual-class ownership structure has
    deterred outside investors from pushing for change in Ochs-
    Sulzberger control. But in 2008 two hedge funds, Harbinger
    Capital and Firebrand Partners, bought 19% of The Times.[25]
    On September 10, 2008, it was reported that Mexican Carlos
    Slim, one of the world’s wealthiest men, had acquired a 6.4
    percent stake for $120 million. These moves are seen as putting
    increasing pressure on the company, whose advertising and
    circulation have faltered recently. The downturn in print
    advertising sales has recently spread to the internet, and some
    observers speculate that the recent acquisitions of Times
    Company stock might put increasing pressure on the family to
    sell, or take the company private to escape Wall Street’s
    unwanted attention.[25] The newspaper is currently over one
    billion dollars in debt.[26]”

    Reply

  17. antiphone says:

    “I pay plenty for news, analysis, reports — from very high end sources. The budgets I spend on financial, political and policy reporting runs into five figures.”
    Let’s take a look at the end result of all that expensive (and very serious) consumption.
    “My limited understanding of the net neutrality debate is that some want all bits to be treated equally in the web world — sort of a completely socialized commons — without tiers of “bit flow” in which some might pay for faster connections and greater volumes of data transfer.”
    Not getting much bang for the buck there.

    Reply

  18. WigWag says:

    “So, if free-riding, as Brian Till calls it, expedited their fall — then they had it coming.”
    That’s a little harsh don’t you think?
    When newspapers are bad they can be very bad, but when they’re good they can be very good. Take the New York Times; their reporting on Iraq was awful but their reporting on the current economic crisis has been extraordinarily good (their recent expose on Bob Rubin, for example, should win a Pulitzer Prize). And Paul Krugman’s column and blog are literally indispensable.
    The NY Times used to have a product called “Times Select.” For $100 per year it allowed readers to access certain parts of the newspaper online that were unavailable to readers who didn’t pay the fee. I happily subscribed to this service and then for some reason I don’t understand, they abandoned the subscription service and started offering everything in the newspaper free to everyone.
    Most of the newspapers I read on line now have advertising but they have a button you can click to skip the ad. I find myself not clicking that button and instead watching full ads I am not interested in with the hope that these ads will keep the newspaper/website financially viable so that it can stay in business.
    As much as I like the Washington Note, it isn’t the New York Times. I need both. So does everyone else who can’t afford “five figures” to get their news from elite sources.
    The world will not be a better place if we reach a situation where we get all of our information from John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, the Daily Kos, the Washington Note, Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and Larry King (to say nothing of Fox News or talk radio). They may all have financial models that work. But having a viable financial model isn’t enough to keep members of the great unwashed, like me, informed.
    If you think newspapers had it coming, does that mean you think that the automobile manufacturers had it coming or that American workers had it coming?

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