One of the interesting paradoxes of journalism is that journalists often have the some of the least accurate perspective on that which they are most familiar with. I already poked holes in the excessively poorly written op-ed by Richard Cohen this week, but his writing isn’t the only romanticization of newspapers I’ve seen floating around recently.
Johann Hari, in a commentary in The Indepedent (a London newspaper), called newspapers the most underrated phenomenon of 2008:
Newspapers. Here’s a weird paradox. If you include the internet, more people are reading quality papers than ever before. Yet they are – as the bankruptcy of the LA Times and the Chicago Tribune show – dying. We don’t just want it all, we want it free. Does it matter? As good as some bloggers are, they don’t have the foreign correspondents and investigative teams necessary to make sense of the world. If newspapers – for all their flaws and corporate biases – die, there will be an aching hole where newsgathering used to be. Newspapers: buy them or lose them.
But the problem with newspapers isn’t that they’re underrated, it’s that their monetization system is falling apart given new innovations that render it obsolete. As described by Andrew Sullivan in The Sunday Times, in an column expressing similar thoughts to Hari’s, newspapers get a lot of their revenue from their classified advertising services as well as other ads, not so much from the subscription itself…much of that actually goes to the process of delivering the information (the materials, the printing process, the shipping of the product, etc.) rather than paying the reporters and staff or padding the newspaper’s endowment.
So, while the services a Newspaper provides are just as valuable in and of themselves, to most people, the system that has been traditionally used for turning a profit for the newspaper company from that service, is falling apart. Sure, giving in to Hari’s call to buy more newspapers may provide them with a minor stop-gap against the current trend, but it won’t fix the ultimate problem: that the Internet has changed the dynamics that newspapers used to keep themselves afloat and it’s ultimately up to them to find solutions.
These solutions seem most likely to involve finding a way to increase their reader base in such a way that advertisers feel that they are likely to be successful in investing in the newspaper with advertisements, which is basically the current paradigm of newspaper monetization, spread to include the new medium of the Internet.
But by its nature the Internet is a tricky beast to work with, since the feature that makes the Internet so popular–high volumes of information and low barriers to entry for content producers–makes the schemes that newspapers are currently using less effective than the schemes of the past. Users, jump to numerous papers and media outlets. Here’s an arbitrary list of possible sources that one could use to get information (there’s a lot of overlap in the sets of information they offer, too):
The list could go on, but I think you get the point. Why would anyone want to stick around your newspaper in the same way that they did in years past?
Another aspect of this new empowerment that the Internet offers is the ability of users to determine what they see. Ad-Block Plus is currently listed as the most popular Firefox extension on Mozilla’s add-on’s site. The annoying ads that attempt to sell users things they don’t need for problems they don’t have can be vanished with no effort on the users part.
So, no, newspapers are not underrated any more than they were in years past. The issue is that the system that existed during their golden age either isn’t there or is falling apart. Things aren’t going to be how they were. Perhaps publications will have to rely more heavily on donations (a daunting prospect given the economy), or find more innovative ways to advertise, or cut staff, or go out of business, but the system is not going to come back no matter how much those in the media business whine.
The devil’s bargain that media outlets have had with advertisers is changing and that’s really what’s at stake here.