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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

"I'm not even sure who to blame"

Reader-submitted item: Thought you might find this interesting, albeit incredibly sad. I wonder what will happen to our system of checks and balances. I don't think there will be any.

Yes, I am starting to become alarmed at the state of the news industry.

The future of news is online -- I almost never read a dead-tree version of a newspaper -- but the industry has been so slow to react that I'm afraid it might all come tumbling down.

I get my news from cbc.ca, theglobeandmail.com and washingtonpost.com, along with a bunch of local and specialty websites. You have probably already identified the problem here: These websites are successful because they get most of their content from somewhere else. The Globe and Mail's staff work to publish a newspaper, which used to produce profit to pay those employees. The stories from that newspaper are fed to theglobeandmail.com.

Now, what will happen if people stop buying the newspaper?

News organizations have tried to respond to this shift, but they haven't found a business model. The New York Times put its columnists behind a pay wall, but then took them out. Slate and Salon experimented with charging for access to their stories, but their content is free now. The Globe and Mail charges readers for access to older stories. I'm not sure how well that's working for them.

There is a strong sense that online content should be free, and blogs are partly to blame. However, blogs can never take the place of newspapers. Most of us don't do original reporting; we simply provide commentary or personal anecdotes. This isn't bad, but it doesn't give readers the kind of information they can get from newspapers. Even the best local blog can't replace a newspaper.

The infrastructure required to keep a newspaper running is staggering. Costs must be kept to a minimum, so journalists are generally paid next to nothing. I made $250 a week at my first reporting job in 1997. I no longer have a personal stake in the matter, but I still think this is a huge problem. As long as salaries remain low, the newspaper industry will continue to churn through young, inexperienced staff, continually losing them to other professions as they lose their idealism.

This is a problem for all of us: everyone's got to start somewhere, but I think most people can agree that a person who's been on the job for a while is generally more valuable to an employer than a person who has no experience. In the case of journalism, our society is the main beneficiary when we have a vigorous, talented free press. If you have your eye on the bottom line, though, a green reporter costs much less than someone who's been around for a while, and can probably produce the same amount of copy.

You can see how this is a business model that was at least partly founded on a belief that the work serves a public good. So when advertising revenues fall and readers abandon the only version of the product that was ever profitable, where does that leave the industry? I'm afraid of the answer.

Thanks for sharing this link. Now I'm depressed.

5 comments:

The Coconut Diaries said...

It is incredibly sad to see these newspapers folding, especially working on a college campus where journalism students are THISCLOSE to graduating and reconsidering their dream jobs for a McJob that will fund their lives instead.

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting comment, however I don't think it is completely accurate. In the latest State of Journalism report, a study put out in the United States, it clearly shows that online advertising revenue has substantially increased over the past half decade.

The problem isn't that Newspapers haven't reacted to online trend it's advertisers who haven't responded. Although online advertising is on the rise it isn't nearly sufficient to meet the costs to run an operation and pay staff.

The Biggest debate right now, one of the issues you mention, is whether online content should be free. The Washington Post provides all its content for free, but many see this as a devaluation of our services.

I do understand the pay pain though. In 1998 when I started my first industry job I was making something like $18,000 a year. But, most know that when they become a journalist they aren't going to make a lot of money in comparison to other fields.

To answer your question, if people stopped buying the paper it would probably force advertisers to shift to online advertising in greater numbers, which would allow the electronic version of the paper to generate enough revenue.
It would also mean savings in paper and ink.

Chris.

Megan said...

Yes, with the high costs of printing and distribution, I can see how eliminating that part of the budget might be the best possible move if they can keep their advertisers.

I don't think anyone knows how to make online journalism profitable. You might be right. If advertisers are forced onto the online version, they might stick around.

The Christian Science Monitor is about to become a case study. I'll be very interested in seeing how it works out.

Anonymous said...

I think we're still quite a ways off from newspapers going completely electronic. But as the old guard of managers retire or die and the younger generation moves in there may be more confidence in on-line advertising.

Chris

scribe said...

I'd be curious to find out how many people have ever looked at or been influenced by an online ad. I completely ignore them. Here in Detroit the 2 papers are going to 3 day a wk delivery. They may as well fold right now. What happens to things like obits, which cause people to buy a paper (may seem maudlin, but it's the truth) or movie or tv listings. It was a 30-some investigative reporter who broke the story on the text message scandal that put the Detroit mayor in jail recently. Think about all the economic and political news happening now where we desparately need experienced analysts and investigative reporters. Journalists at a big city daily couldn't get rich, but bennnies were pretty good and if you moved up to an editorial position, you could make around 100 g's--not bad. Kiss those days goodbye. And fear for our democracy.