Should the newsroom own the press?
My column this month tackles a question that I think needs to be raised more often:
"Why would I want to work for a newsroom that owns a printing press?"
It's a question I've pondered for a year or so, and more so in recent months now that some of my students have begun asking it. And no matter how I look at it, my answer is the same:
"I'm not sure I do."
Before you grab the pica pole (or worse) to run me out of town, I am not – repeat, not – advocating the death of newspapers. It may happen by sheer dint of economics; I don't think so, however, and expect the "paper" paper to be around for some time.
But I'm not sure I want to work for a newsroom that owns a printing press because I think we get too caught up in the "paper" part to the detriment of the innovation, flexibility and reality we need to help strong journalism evolve.
Many smaller newspapers have had their printing done by contract for years. Headlines have come recently, however, as big-city newspapers (think San Francisco, Boston and now New York) explore outsourcing or consolidating printing, even in the absence of a joint operating agreement. Chains such as McClatchy and Media News are also consolidating printing, even if it means earlier deadlines and longer truck routes.
They should go one step further: Move their printing operations into a separate subsidiary with no ties to the newsroom. Newsrooms would pay to print the paper and be free to take their business to a less expensive or more responsive competitor.
This would get the albatross of "big iron's" debt and depreciation off newsrooms' backs. It would position those printing operations better for sale. And it would make the pressroom and the newsroom more efficient in accounting for costs and generating new business.
But, you might say, those printing operations' commercial work now helps subsidize the newsroom. And there's this fear that if I don't own the press, "the news" is at the mercy of someone else.
Hundreds of publications, including almost all magazines, are not tied to a pressroom. And cross-subsidies work well only when you have market control. That era has passed in U.S. journalism. Newsrooms need an honest accounting of the costs and revenues associated with producing, distributing and selling the news. The best way to do that is to make the newsroom pay market price for all its necessary services.
That may be scary because the economic value of most journalism, in other words individual stories, photos, etc., as practiced today is slim and fleeting, having come generally from aggregation into a newspaper that enjoyed monopoly status in most markets. That fixation on "the paper" has hindered newsrooms that desperately need to innovate, reorder priorities and learn to work with their advertising departments to create enough income across media while maintaining the integrity of the journalism.
Freed from owning a press, most newsroom costs become variable, which should encourage editors and reporters to a more honest assessment of what stories to cover and how to present them.
I can imagine something like this: "Given the cost, we can only afford limited space in print. But for smaller marginal cost, we can expand it with multimedia, maps, online chats, etc. Several experts blog on that; let's see if we can get them into the mix." But for another story it might be: "That's better for print where readers can have more time with it and it fits our "print" demographic more closely; let's take some time on that and see what we can do to augment it online." Or it might even be: "We can't afford to cover that, but what community resources do we have that can help us?"
In short, it could completely change the conversation.
That's why the experiments in Atlanta (a bit more than a year under way) and starting at Media General's Tampa operations are important. Those newsrooms haven't been freed from the tyranny of the press, but the reorganizations have split off production of the newspaper. It's a small start.
I have a black spot on the bridge of my nose from years of rubbing inky hands on the skin. I can still smell the pressroom. And I get a tear every time I think about Humphrey Bogart holding up the phone in "Deadline U.S.A." and telling the mob boss: "That's the press, baby, the press. And there's nothing you can do about it. Nothing."
I'm just not sure I want to work for a newsroom that owns one anymore. And neither are some of my students.
Update, Aug. 6: And now comes word that The Washington Times is outsourcing its printing of the paper to the Baltimore Sun and its commercial printing to another operation.