Monday, August 04, 2008

Nostalgia, newspapers and nutty ideas

Sometimes a wave of stuff just comes at you from the online world that makes you sit and think a lot about journalism and its future.

  • David Sullivan and I are having quite a good exchange over at his blog. David looks into the economic tea leaves and announcement the Star-Ledger might be sold and sees a far grimmer future than I do. He writes: People have been talking about how some metro newspapers may not make it. Forget that for today. Lots of county-seat newspapers, which were immune until now, are owned by companies that may just blow away. I'm a bit more sanguine on the eventual outcome without seeing the long period of chaos. He sees the potential of local journalism just becoming a "hobby." I see it as a viable business, just not necessarily as we know it today.
  • So does Robert Picard, one of the leading economic thinkers in the media space. If you do not read Picard's relatively infrequent blogging, you should. Picard brings some reality to the table. One of his central themes is that if you actually know the numbers, the newspaper industry is far ahead of where it has been even in the recent past.
    • Aug. 1: "Before the extraordinary profitability of the last quarter of the 20th century, newspapers were relatively unprofitable and breaking even was the primary financial goal of most publishers. ... Contemporary developments are taking us back toward that situation, but even with the u-turn in the business, we need to recognize that newspaper revenue today is better than it was in 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. In fact, adjusted for inflation, newspapers in 2007 had two and a half times the advertising income that they had in 1950. In terms of employment, there are still twenty percent more journalists working in newspapers than in the highly profitable years that fueled the growth of corporate newspapering."
    • June 24: "It should be no surprise, then, that the form of legacy news provision is no longer as successful as it was in the past. Those who own and work for legacy organizations see the changes as cataclysmic, but the shifting of functions to more forms is natural and provides significant benefits to those who want news and information. ... We have seen this type of displacement before, even within our lifetime." (He goes on to cite Life magazine and the replacement by local TV news of many of the functions that originally were part of networks.)
    • March 18: "Everyone is pointing the finger, but most of the blame for killing traditional media is laid on the Internet, mobile media, and young people. ...
      There is just one problem with their scenario. IT’S NOT TRUE. We have deluded ourselves into thinking that well established media are dying and that young people are uninterested in traditional text and audiovisual media. ...Suddenly there is competition. Suddenly there are financial losses. Suddenly there are company failures. Suddenly audiences are no longer satisfied with the “take content on our terms when we want to deliver it” approach that traditional media have offered. Only it wasn’t really sudden. Those factors have been growing incrementally for at least three decades. The problems were certainly compounded by the arrival of Internet and mobile content distribution, but they were not caused by them."
  • Steve Smith, the Spokane Spokesman Review's editor, pens a nostalgic look at "the newspaperman" while acknowledging the breed's time may have passed. There's a certain amount of rose-colored schmaltz here, but it's worth reading because this may become the iconic "passing of an era" piece. (Sample: Newspapermen worked hard and played hard. The bartender at the dive across the street knew how many beers each reporter could consume between editions. And after the last edition went to press, the bar lights would be turned up just enough to let the newspapermen read those papers pulled fresh from the press.The newspaperman was respected in the community. There was a mystique, a glamour that really didn't exist but which the newspaperman happily cultivated. In the movies, the editors were Cary Grant. Or Clark Gable. Or Jack Webb. Or Humphrey Bogart, the greatest of all.)
    • As interesting as the piece are the comments. One I think sums things up well -- Half the commenters: It is change that's killing newspapers. So there was no problem to begin with? The other half: It is the reluctance to change that's killing newspapers. So the solution is working? It would be great to report that research shows that readers left because of staffing/content declines. But I'm pretty sure it was declining readership/revenue that came first. For every person reacting to a drop in quality, there are many more who "don't have time" or "can get it free on the Internet" or "don't care about local news". So while one side dabbles in nostalgia, the other draws on fantasy.
  • Then there's the nutty stuff that keep floating up from journalists who seem to think shaking their fists at the wind will work. The latest is from Ted Rall, who basically says newspapers should abandon their Web sites, drop their wire services and aggressively enforce copyright on every article (though most newspaper articles contain facts that can't be copyrighted). Greensboro Editor John Robinson has an effective rejoinder to this silliness, not the least of his points being that people are not likely to go flocking to papers just because the newspaper is not on the Web.

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