links for 2007-06-05
A Warm Welcome to Marc Ambinder

Hoisted from Comments: The Future of Journalism

Hoisted from comments: A Modest Anonymouse writes:

Grasping Reality with Both Hands: Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: Neil Henry vs. Jay Rosen Future-of-Journalism Smackdown!: I often enjoy finding the future of my chosen profession -- that which places food on my family's table, as Mr. Bloomberg likes to point out to those in his employ -- up for debate by people who have all the best intentions and not the best of clues.

So before I call it a night, let me spray some posticide on these blogweeds.

(1) Brad was doing pretty well with his penny newspaper history timeline until he got to the part about laziness. Anyone who has spent sufficient time in newsrooms knows that lazy isn't a defect, it's a design feature.

Being lazy -- winning the time and freedom from oversight to piddle and paddle around writing as you please -- was one of the top rewards a writer could aspire to at the 20th century newspaper. Before that old century closed, there were still several columnists who pulled these gigs. The trick was to produce just enough, with just enough quality, to keep readers interested. Johnny Apple was their patron saint.

Those posts have pretty much beeen washed off the industry by successive waves of buyouts and layoffs. The problem with newsrooms today is that there's too much information to process and not enough hands to do the job right.

(2) Higgs bosons, ivory-billed woodpeckers, the financial link between news and readership -- all long sought after wonders of the natural world that may not exist. Hundreds of journalism Ph.D's -- they do exist in the wild -- have spent hours searching for the statistical links between the quality of a newspaper and the readers it attracts. To date, they have failed and failed terribly.

Today's most sucessful papers tend to be accidents of markets and geography; there will always be a huge daily newspaper in New York, and a similar-sized item in Washington. But the quality of those publications have more to do with traditions and willpower than anyone really wants to admit. The LA Times probably reached its peak under Times Mirror when it won a sack of Pulizers, but those didn't add much to the sale price when Tribune came calling.

It's those from roughly 4th or 5th in size on down through 200 that feel the breath of the Reaper warmest. Here's an analogy: Forty years ago, your parents likely shopped at a regionally owned department store. It was fancy, upscale and local; everyone went there not just for style, but because it was the best option available.

Today, those deparment stores are gone, and there's maybe three or four big chains left. The regionals built in cities lost out in the population shift to the suburbs; those smart enough to move to the suburbs lost out because they couldn't match the economies of scale that the chain stores garner.

News used to be fancy and a little upscale. It's now available 24 hours a day in any wished-for format. If you don't have the resources to add value to a widely available commodity, you're bound to lose market share.

(This is why people should not worry as much about Murdoch messing with the Wall Street Journal; it has competitors pounding on the door every day, and any sign of Murdochian malfeasance will send customers running.)

(3) Newspapers do hate on technology too much, because they tend to attract people who don't understand it, and who learn quickly that a balance sheet targeted to return 30% margins doesn't handle risky tech investments well. Had newspapers been a little smarter, they would have realized about 1993 or so that it made no sense to put news on the Internet for free and charge exhorbitant prices for their archives; the best model would be to give away the stale stuff for free -- to give people an idea of what they missed -- and charge for what's freshest.

Now, 15 years later, we can either reverse that decision in some fashion, or we can start saving up for all our future going away parties.