The Death and Life of Newspapers and Journalism

The Boston Globe, Minneapolis Star Tribune, and Tribune Company (owner of LA Times and KTLA) are all recent examples of traditional media on the brink of closure. 

Circulation is down more than 30% at the Boston Globe since 2000, which is only representative of a trend hitting the print media market – people avoid buying newspapers if the news they need is online.

The online world of journalism and blogging is generally free, forcing media companies to deal with two sticky issues:

1. How to make money online
2. How to live in a world where everybody on the internet can become a blogging journalist

David Simon, former Baltimore Sun reporter and current producer of mini-dramas such as “The Wire,” believes: 

“…the only hope for major news outlets to find a way to collaboratively impose charges for reading online, and to demand fees from aggregators such as Google News, which profit from their journalism. “

Simon goes on to make the analogy that in the past, all television was put up for free.  Most television revenues were produced by advertising in commercial spots scattered throughout normal broadcasting in the form of frequent commercials.

While free television is still around for local broadcast channels, a majority of Americans pay monthly fees to cable companies which not only give many more options to viewers, but also provide much more in-depth specialized reporting such as cable news, financial news, government news, and other non-broadcast channels.  Simon continues:

“If you don’t have a product that you’re charging for, you don’t have a product,” he says. “If you think that free is going to produce something that’s as much of a cost centre as good journalism – because it costs money to do good journalism – you’re out of your mind.” (The Guardian)

As local and regional newspapers fall to the attraction or need of selling out to large conglomerates such as Gannet, NewsCorp, and the Tribune Company, more changes are implemented which have a huge impact on local news. After acquisition, many newspapers are forced to reduce staff, offering packages to reporters – often reporters with the most experience.

Local articles and journalism also begins being gradually replaced by news service content (such as Associated  Press and Reuters).  All content of course that is already available online – and for free. 

While the local newspapers may take a stab at producing an online version of their news, this is difficult, as mashup sites like Yahoo and Google carry the same content, as well as many other value-added services for readers.  This may even include a newsfeed directly from the local newspaper, further diluting the value of the newspaper’s print and online versions.

Once local content becomes part of a mashup, the local online edition will lose whatever advertising revenue may have been on the home site, accelerating potential financial crisis for the local company.

Rick Daysog of the Honolulu Advertiser believes that newspapers must change to both understand and embrace new media.  People are online, and they want to take advantage of all opportunities to be informed. 

Hawaii may be a special case, as there are two competing newspapers (The Honolulu Advertiser and Honolulu Star Bulletin).

“The local news is very complex,” say Daysog.  As a reporter you “have to compete in the local market, and that competition is in reporting the local news.”

Readers in Hawaii look to online wire services for national and global stories, and buy one of the local newspapers “because people in Hawaii are interested in what is happening at home.”

The Long Beach Press-Telegram follows a similar model.  While the LA Times produces a global news product with LA and California features, the Long Beach Press-Telegram is focused on delivering news highlighting Long Beach and surrounding communities.  National and international news is limited to a couple pages, and some  news in the sports section.

For the same reasons, the Long Beach press-Telegram continues to survive because they know their readers, and provide a product relevant to residents and those interested in the community.

Once a newspaper falls under the umbrella of a large media company, the chance of losing that local touch declines, as veteran reporters move on to other careers.  David Simon explains you are left with a model “such as USA Today, which boils down local news to one or two paragraphs.”

Daysog remains optimistic about the future of journalism and local news.  He is positive about technology, and lays the burden of change on the media companies. 

He cites the example of society pages in the old newspapers.  “Long gone, but I frequently read through the society pages in Honolulu newspapers from the 20s and 30s, and see how much change has occurred in past 30 years.  In the 20s, people were actually interested in what clothes a local debutant might wear.  Today’s readers have a very different requirement.”

The Internet is not going away, and the news industry simply needs to creatively apply themselves to using the tools a global Internet-enabled provides, and develop news models of using that technology to build sustainable value to the news industry.

Next in this series – the conflict and roles of journalists -vs- bloggers.

John Savageau, Long Beach

Rick Daysog is a staff writer with the Honolulu Advertiser.  Interview for this article conducted via telephone on 9 June 2009.

About johnsavageau
Another telecom junkie who has been bouncing around the international communications community for most of the past 35 years.

One Response to The Death and Life of Newspapers and Journalism

  1. Bill says:

    Wow, I am surprised that David Simon thinks that something like cable television should be taken as a model for the direction in which journalism should be heading. The cost of cable is fairly astronomical, and increasing at an obscene rate, while the actual valuable content seems to plummet more and more with every derivative channel they add. It certainly doesn’t seem that Simon has taken the message of the internet to heart. The answer isn’t to take your old business model and somehow transpose it onto the internet and “force people to pay”. One reason for the internet’s power in so many industries is precisely because smart people can always find a way not to pay. The future of journalism, I believe, rests in adapting to the internet rather than trying to resist change. Both subscription and advertising business models for journalism are failing, I think it is time for something new that fits the new medium better. Check out http://www.ourblook.com/component/option,com_sectionex/Itemid,200076/id,8/view,category/#catid69 for some interviews with top journalists about the future of journalism. I have found it an invaluable source.

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