Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Lazarus resurrects old argument

Business columnist David Lazarus moved south from the S.F. Chronicle to the L.A. Times, but it hasn't changed much else in his view of the online world. Like the Lazarus of old, he has again resurrected his argument that newspapers need to put their wares behind a pay wall, or else.

His latest column, "Free news online will cost journalism dearly," brings back, though a tad more muted and with some more research, the tripe he was spouting earlier this year while at the Chronicle. (Shouldn't there be at least a one-year waiting period?)

If I may be allowed to distill his argument:
-- News has value, and by extension, therefore does newspaper content
-- We have raised a generation that doesn't think information on the Internet has value
-- Newspapers, by giving their information away, play into this trap
-- As a result, newspapers risk dying.

Let's go back over this:
1) News has value, and by extension, therefore does newspaper content
This is one of the assumptions journalists make that is, when you look at it closely, largely wrong. News has some value, but it is highly time sensitive. And in this 24-hour world, the value drops to zero almost instantly. Go read the research studies. The way most people use news is for reassurance and surveillance -- wake up, make sure the world hasn't blown up and that my family is safe. During the day, perhaps people need some news to explain something they have seen or heard. But again, the need is rather fleeting. In fact, the greatest desire may be for the hyper-local news that large newsrooms really are not designed to produce.

Any journalist worth his or her salt will do some research into history, journalism and economics. It becomes rather clear rather quickly that the vast majority of journalism's value came from scarcity. Consider the eras when there were a multitude of "print" outlets -- from Revolutionary times to the penny press. Now look at the "churn" among those papers. The increasing stability of the press that we have seen in the past century really was rather special, if you look at it.

2) We have raised a generation that doesn't think information on the Internet has value
Actually, we have raised a generation that is pretty smart when it comes to economics. This generation realizes that information, which is the majority of what a newspaper produces, is a commodity with value so low that it makes little economic sense to try to extract it.

Lazarus steps into it with his lede: I don't pretend to understand all the minutiae of the writers strike, but I do know this much: Hollywood scribes want to be compensated fairly when their work is accessed on the Internet, which is increasingly becoming a venue to watch movies and TV shows. So why should newspapers be any different?

Simple explanation: Good -- even mediocre -- movies and TV shows remain a lot scarcer than even the best of journalism. They also have entertainment value. Decry it as you will, but the public in America (and in many other nations) seems to put a higher value on entertainment than information. After all, why do we have so many initiatives like the Readership Institute that produce studies essentially saying we have to learn to engage and inform? (Even as I write this, the featured report on the institute's site is: "The Readership Institute's latest tracking study on reader orientation shows newspapers have made gains over the last three years in understanding and responding to consumers. Despite the gains, newspapers say they are far from what they themselves consider to be an ideal level of reader orientation." If information were so dang valuable, why would this matter?)

This also explains why the students Lazarus talked to were willing to pay for music, but not "news."

Here's a test: Name three TV shows or movies (or songs) that have really affected you and made you think about your life. Now name three newspaper stories. I'm betting most people will have a hard time with the second part of that. That's the intrinsic value part many journalists still don't seem to get. (Put another way: Just because the Founding Fathers enshrined the overall concept in the Constitution does not mean you or your business matter.)

3) Newspapers, by giving their information away, play into this trap.
4) As a result, newspapers risk dying.
Lazarus embodies both concepts in this excerpt:
Rely solely on the Net for circulation and revenue, as some pundits have argued, and the unavoidable fact is that you can't support a news-gathering operation this large or resourceful.

You'd have to make do with significantly fewer people, fewer (if any) overseas bureaus, fewer investigations, less original content, less of the watchdog sort of thing that readers consistently say they rely on newspapers to provide.

There are many problems with his analysis, but most get back to what I will call "the fallacy of no substitutes" coupled with "the semantic trap of 'newspapers'" and "the view from the bottom of the well."

In short, Lazarus uses "newspapers" as a semantic term for the all-purpose, large newsroom and he fails to see or acknowledge that adequate substitutes might develop. Further, he suffers, as do all of us from time to time, of seeing things from the bottom of the well -- thus we can see only that small patch of sky above us. We cannot see what is coming over the horizon. The danger is in believing that small patch of sky is the only reality.

"The Fallacy of No Substitutes": People are generally willing to pay for something when there is economic return. This can be an increase in or savings of real wealth, or a desire for those things that will improve our well-being, from simple survival (food, water and clothing) to stimuli for our psychological self (such things ultimately, it can be argued, improve our psychological well-being so that we are better prepared and equipped to survive and increase our wealth). In reality, there are many good substitutes for the newspaper, and even journalism in general, when viewed in this light.

We've seen it in classified ads, but we see it in the news business, if we look closely enough, even the comics. Why do I pay $15 a year for two online comics services when I can get the same thing in my local paper? In fact, I prefer the first read in the paper as an entertaining way to top off my morning. I am paying online for the access to the archives and for the ability to get a digital copy I can use in lectures, which is more convenient that cut and paste from the paper. In other words, I am not paying at all for the content, but for the convenience. And the comics are closer than about anything else to the type of content Lazarus refers to by invoking the writers' strike in his lede.

And if papers put their material behind a pay wall, what then? Well, let's look back at Mayor LaGuardia and the great New York newspaper strike of 1945 during which he read the comics over the radio (You Tube video). LaGuardia was doing it because he realized the political value, but why might we not expect that some bloggers somewhere might find that the newspaper industry has handed them a business model? They can plunk down a buck or two for the paper or online access (we'll assume this is a model that can actually make significant money for those oppressed newsrooms), then write up a digest of the major stories -- and maybe add some comment and other context. Throw some Google Adsense against that (and maybe sell some local ads).

I that case, why do I as a casual reader need to climb that newspaper pay wall? (Add to that any local broadcasters who might see an opening, as some already are seeing in classifieds.)

(After all, La Guardia did that, too, adding his own comment and context: "So say, children, what does it all mean? It means that dirty money never brings any luck ...)

"The view from the bottom of the well": What says the "newspaper" is the only way to have a news operation adequately staffed to challenge and stand up to society's institutions? Just because we can't clearly see it yet does not mean it won't exist. It's not impossible to conceive of agencies being formed that aggregate "independent" news professionals into fluid but cohesive units for various projects across media and that provide them with the professional services (insurance, legal, etc.) that newspapers now do for their writers and editors. What's to say that the L.A. Times needs a newsroom of 800 people? Perhaps a close look discloses that only 400 are needed, with other "specialists" being brought on as needed. I suspect we are going to see a redefinition to the true meaning of "journeyman" journalist.

Jay Rosen and others have been experimenting with some of these models through projects such as NewAssignment.net, beatblogging.org and the hundreds of community/citizen journalism projects that have sprung up on their own or with the help of things like New Voices. These are experiments, so of course they are rough and far from final form. But we already are beginning to see aspects of what has been learned incorporated into newsrooms and j-school curricula.

Lazarus takes the common dodge: What's the answer? Hell, if I knew that, I'd be making a fortune selling it to newspapers worldwide.

I'd suggest that instead of resurrecting the same old tired stuff, Lazarus use his talents to actually look to the future and think about the multitude of possibilities. Deconstruct them intelligently from a business perspective. That might be something I'd pay to read.
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(Brian B. posted a good comment to this post. Unfortunately, I cannot seem to make my response appear on the browsers I am using, despite clearing cache, etc. It acknowledges three comments, so I don't know what's up. I've posted my response separately in the interest of making sure there is a full conversation. If you can't see my comment below, then tool over there to see it.)

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3 Comments:

At 12/26/07, 7:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post. Great take down.

I could have nothing meaningful to add. You covered it very well.

-- Howard Owens

 
At 12/27/07, 2:39 PM, Blogger Brian B said...

Interesting post. I must take issue with a few points.

First:

Name three TV shows or movies (or songs) that have really affected you and made you think about your life. Now name three newspaper stories. I'm betting most people will have a hard time with the second part of that.

This seems like a false equivalence. As you note, good TV and film are scarcer than good journalism; that applies in absolute numbers as well as volume. I watch maybe 3 TV shows and 1-2 movies (including DVDs) a week, tops, but I read more newspaper stories than that every day. The effect of journalism is more cumulative than episodic.

Also, I've seen a lot of stories about activists who were energized by reading a story in the newspaper. So it does happen, and possibly more than you think.

And if papers put their material behind a pay wall, what then? Well, let's look back at Mayor LaGuardia and the great New York newspaper strike of 1945 during which he read the comics over the radio. LaGuardia was doing it because he realized the political value, but why might we not expect that some bloggers somewhere might find that the newspaper industry has handed them a business model? They can plunk down a buck or two for the paper or online access (we'll assume this is a model that can actually make significant money for those oppressed newsrooms), then write up a digest of the major stories -- and maybe add some comment and other context. Throw some Google Adsense against that (and maybe sell some local ads).

If newspapers put up the pay wall, they'll also go after the folks who are essentially pirating their content for their own sites. The comic publishers during the strike had the opposite motivation: NYC readers didn't have an alternate way to read the comics, so LaGuardia was helping them keep their audience. The blogger you describe would be taking readers away from news orgs, which would use copyright law to come after them. Would any enterprising blogger think a few dollars from Google Adsense was worth the hassle?

As someone once wrote, "AP faces a basic problem -- once it sells the national and international report to a Google or Yahoo, why is there a reason for anyone else to buy it (except, of course, for some specialty sites that might want to finely slice and dice it down only to the stories pertaining to them)?" The scenario you envision would extend the problem to newspapers. They wouldn't stand for it.

I'm not arguing that pay walls are therefore a good idea (I don't know enough to have an informed opinion). But your counterexample doesn't hold water.

You speculated about possible alternative futures as well. It's easy to imagine anything, of course, but so far I haven't seen anything reliably provide more bang for less buck. We would be criminally irresponsible if we didn't keep asking the question: "What if none of these fancy new models work? What do we do then?" You may call that "the same old tired stuff", but I don't see the "new thinking" doing any better yet. (I'm thinking of calling it "the view from under the gazebo" -- seeing all horizon and little or no sky.)

 
At 12/28/07, 4:08 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Brian:
This seems like a false equivalence. As you note, good TV and film are scarcer than good journalism; that applies in absolute numbers as well as volume. I watch maybe 3 TV shows and 1-2 movies (including DVDs) a week, tops, but I read more newspaper stories than that every day. The effect of journalism is more cumulative than episodic.

I think you actually bolster my point here. Unlike an individual book, musical work, movie, etc., The intrinsic value of most pieces of individual work is generally so small that that trying to extract its economic value is almost pointless. This is the point of a newspaper -- it aggregates these small pieces and puts them in an ad and access-controlled wrapper to give them enough value that consumers are willing to pay for them. Here's the evidence for that: Some papers significantly boosted their single-issue price for this year's Thanksgiving issue. Was it because there was more valuable news? No. As one publisher said, it was because there were more ads, and (paraphrasing), that meant more value for the readers!. As for good journalism being more abundant, well, I'd actually dispute that assertion.

If newspapers put up the pay wall, they'll also go after the folks who are essentially pirating their content for their own sites.
And they should. But that's not what I would do. I would write a narrative every day summarizing what is out there and adding context -- and probably amalgamating it with other source, such as TV and radio where available. I'm no lawyer, so take what I saw with that caution, but I have dealt with these issues during my career and have studied the issues with some depth during the past few years and feel pretty certain this would prevail.And, given my assertionm that might be all most people would need. (And I would link, too. But I'm betting that a significant number of readers would find all they needed in the alternative.)

As for gazebo vs. well, pick your metaphor. I'm committed to making it work now, but also finding a way to make it work in the future. Lazarus and his ilk mouth the idea of the future, but largely want to freeze things indefinitely, as near as I can tell.

 

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