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Weep Not For The Newspaper Industry

Weep not for the newspaper industry. As Bob Dylan might say, now is not the time for your tears.

Sure, the Rocky Mountain News is dead and the San Francisco Chronicle is on the ropes. I'm sorry. I am. But as Michael Miner said at a Chicago Headline Club get-together last week, newspapers have been dying my whole life.

When I was growing up, we had four dailies in Minneapolis-St. Paul. I lived through the death of two of them - the afternoon Minneapolis Star and St. Paul Dispatch. The Star was the best of the lot, the paper that inspired me.

And, of course, those of you who grew up in Chicago had even more dailies to choose from.

In fact, when I got out of college in the late 80s and began looking for a job, I found that newspapers were shutting down nearly en masse. The afternoon papers were dying, morning papers were consolidating, and hiring freezes were endemic.

Even then I might have wondered, Why are there fewer papers every year? But then, A.J. Liebling asked that in 1949.

Now is not the time to weep over our fallen comrades. Now is the time to celebrate, because we finally have something to replace those dead newspapers. We finally have the Internet.

Consider:

* "The Rocky Mountain News may be closed, but its former staffers are still producing quality journalistic reports, thanks in part to IWantMyRocky.com. The newspaper staff started the Web site several months ago in an effort to rally support for the struggling paper. Eventually it morphed into a de facto news site as well, and now contains reports and features that previously would have been in the Rocky."

* "One start-up thinking bigger is San Diego News Network, populated with former Union-Tribune journalists and backed by entrepreneurs Neil Senturia and Barbara Bry, who expect nothing less than to take on the local daily when their news site launches March 18."

* "Baristanet, run by former New York Times New Jersey columnist Debra Galant, is one of the best-known local blogs in the New York area but supports only one full-time employee, Ms. Galant, bringing in 'six figures' in ad revenue last year."

* "The McCormick Foundation is looking to hire a 'beat' reporter on First Amendment issues."

* The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is going online-only.

* MySpace just sent me an e-mail asking if I watched last night's Family Guy. A premium alert system might notify me that more tickets for the Twins series against the Cubs were just released, or that Wilco just added a second show.

* "Barack Obama's presidential campaign spent over $16 million on online advertising in 2008. John McCain's camp spent a fraction of that: around $3.6 million."

And:

* Ezra Klein is right, and that's why the new business model is a new content model. Bloggers have shown the way. Maybe you don't have a movie critic - or maybe you have a fleet of them, or a movie blog, who knows - but you own sites like Pitchfork and MLBRumors and CTATattler. This is our chance to remake the news. How great is that?

* Ezra Klein is wrong. Who cares if Politico is "reliant on the Congress-section of their print paper, which can extract huge rates from lobbying organizations and pressure groups"? Part of the new(ish) business model is to have an array of revenue streams from a variety of products you can spin off your brand. Plus, is instant success the only kind of success that counts, or can we give some new ventures some room to breathe? My God . . .

Simonize
David Simon is almost entirely right - passionately, articulately, heartachingly so - about newspapers, but I have to take issue with his conclusion in a Washington Post piece that is getting a lot of attention. Simon writes:

"There is a lot of talk nowadays about what will replace the dinosaur that is the daily newspaper. So-called citizen journalists and bloggers and media pundits have lined up to tell us that newspapers are dying but that the news business will endure, that this moment is less tragic than it is transformational.

"Well, sorry, but I didn't trip over any blogger trying to find out McKissick's identity and performance history. Nor were any citizen journalists at the City Council hearing in January when police officials inflated the nature and severity of the threats against officers. And there wasn't anyone working sources in the police department to counterbalance all of the spin or omission.

"I didn't trip over a herd of hungry Sun reporters either, but that's the point. In an American city, a police officer with the authority to take human life can now do so in the shadows, while his higher-ups can claim that this is necessary not to avoid public accountability, but to mitigate against a nonexistent wave of threats. And the last remaining daily newspaper in town no longer has the manpower, the expertise or the institutional memory to challenge any of it."

1. Just because newspapers are dying, it doesn't mean that reporters will also disappear. And I'm not talking about citizen journalists or the dreaded stereotypical blogger that so many have in their imagination and whom I've yet to actually meet . . . Simon is falsely equating newspapers with journalism.

2. I included his comment about the lack of Sun reporters on the case in question - and covering police adequately in general - to be fair, but here I think Simon really gets it wrong. Newspapers abdicated these responsibilities years ago - and many never met them to begin with. Simon was lucky to work at the Baltimore Sun at a time when it apparently took its work seriously, but something like 80 percent of America's dailies have circulations under 75,000, and even among our biggest metropolitan papers you will find very little marrow in the bone.

When I was at the Chicago Tribune in 1993-94, they had no interest in reading police reports. My habit of incorporating public documents into routine daily reporting - as I had been trained to do both in Minnesota and Florida - ended here in City News Bureau-tough Chicago. My understanding is that City News reporters didn't read police reports either, by the way.

But lo and behold, we now have folks like Jamie Kalven and the Chicago Justice Project pressing the police for documents that the dailies haven't bothered with. Add Adrian Holovaty's EveryBlock to the mix of loosening up public data for all to see.

Let's just be clear that crappy police reporting - and reporting of all kinds - has nothing to do with the rise of the Internet. As I've written before, when I arrived in Waterloo, Iowa to work the police beat there, the paper had never looked at reports. My predecessor, though, went to all the cop parties.

And that's more the rule than the exception in our industry. The Internet has nothing to do with it.

Carr Crash
To the best of my recollection, I've never met David Carr, the New York Times media columnist, though we traveled in nearly the same circles back in the day in Minneapolis. (We share an acquaintance, for example, with Beachwood music writer Don Jacobson, who helped Carr research his recent book.) And I'm a big Carr fan; he's a tremendously talented reporter, writer and columnist. If you aren't reading him, you ought to be.

But I think he got a couple important points wrong on Sunday with the wish list in his column "United, Newspapers May Stand." Let's take a look.

CARR: "No more free content. The Web has become the primary delivery mechanism for quality newsrooms across the country, and consumers will have to participate in financing the newsgathering process if it is to continue. Setting the price point at free - the newspaper analyst Alan D. Mutter called it the 'original sin' - has brought the industry millions of eyeballs and a return that doesn't cover the coffee budget of some newsrooms."

RHODES: Consumers are paying - with every ad they see. And the original sin wasn't a free price point. In fact, in the early days you had to pay to read, say, the Tribune and New York Times online by subscribing to AOL. The industry's original sin was letting nearly everyone and their dog settle the Internet when newspapers had the natural advantage from the start.

*

CARR: "The big threat would be that newspapers could lose the readers they have, lots of them. The mitigating factor is that a lot of those readers aren't paying anyway. And keep in mind that people are already paying for quality content all over the Web: The Wall Street Journal, Consumer Reports, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Tiered Web access - from a bare-bones free product to a rich, customized subscription - could be among the solutions."

RHODES: You're really scraping the bottom of the barrel when you have to dig down to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to find a third example, but these examples don't fit anyway. Consumer Reports has always not only been a subscription product, but a high-priced one because it never carries ads. The Journal has a uniquely wealthy audience looking for uniquely specific information. These aren't models. But I agree that newspapers can - and should - create subscription products along with their free websites. But you can't charge for news, and creating a bare-bones product for the serfs is a terrible idea.

*

CARR: "No more free ride to aggregators. Google announced that it would begin selling ads against Google News, with almost no financial accommodation to the organizations that generate that news . . . Google, The Huffington Post and Newser have built their audiences and brands on other people's labors."

RHODES: If newspapers were really so upset with aggregators, they wouldn't crave getting links from Drudge and they wouldn't be optimizing their keywords for Google searches. If some aggregators go beyond fair use, fine. But aggregators in general are bringing your product to even more eyeballs, and sending a fair share of those eyeballs to your product. Instead of accusing aggregators of stealing content, newspapers should be asking aggregators how they can do a better job serving their needs.

*

CARR: "Most aggregators are not promoting newspaper content; they are repurposing it to their own ends. Newspapers' audiences are harvested and sold divorced from the content that attracted them in the first place."

RHODES: Let's say that 50 percent of readers who see a New York Times headline and summary on Huffington Post don't click through to the story. Well, 50 percent did! Plus, the 50 percent who didn't weren't going to the Times site anyway. No customer has been stolen. They weren't customers to begin with.

*

Instead of swimming against the tide, newspaper folk should spend more time thinking about how to make the new technology work for them; forming partnerships with folks like those at Google who clearly know what they're doing; and exulting in the virtual blank slate that has opened up a new realm of possibility, from content to revenue streams. It would get us all where we need to be a whole helluva lot sooner.

-

Comments welcome.



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Posted on March 10, 2009


MUSIC - Did Chicago Drill Change The Game?
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BOOKS - Macmillan Screwing Libraries.

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