Monday, August 04, 2008

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.

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At 8/4/08, 4:17 PM, Blogger -30- said...

Why stop there? Why not remove the "paper" from the newsroom entirely and have the newsroom just concentrate on news?

Let other operations -- internal or external -- worry about producing "papers" or "web sites".

At 8/4/08, 4:44 PM, Blogger Doug said...

Conceptually, perhaps.

But form does have an affect on content, and therefore the output of the newsroom probably will continue to assume some kind of primary form depending on the primary destination. So it's probably not out of bounds to keep the "production" desks within shouting distance as is being done in, say, Atlanta.

Perhaps someday things will be so digitized that consumers will take over that production for us simply by selecting from a stream and telling the device how they want it formatted (markup language like XML would be used to indicate various configurations for various output forms). We're not there yet, however.

At 8/4/08, 8:46 PM, Blogger Davisull said...

Setting up separate printing companies and making newspapers "clients" of them is a sensible approach, although given the type of product, the speed and the need for insertions, most of these companies would end up being owned by newspaper companies at least in the short run. (This is how Bakersfield has organized itself.) For a company like ours that has substantial commercial printing operations, we are in some ways a "client" already, except for accounting. But we have to fit our products in among the other products.

But I am not sure I understand the point about how we would assign stories based on that. The number of pages that we print is going to be based on the number of ads, the capacity of the press, the color positions, etc. It does not matter who prints it, they would have some configuration; and the space budget is tied either to ad revenue or to an estimate of space that is plussed or minused with glue. So I'm missing the point here. Even with ad revenue down, you still have to put something around the ads and you still have to make it a physical section. You can make the decisions as you lay out, or not, regardless of whether you own the press, but you have the same issues as well.

(This may be because we use a space budget instead of a proportion of ad revenue, so we know how much each column costs us to print. We can decide any day to print fewer columns unless we have to for ad reasons.)

At 8/5/08, 12:35 AM, Blogger Doug said...

The calculus here is really more long term than short.

I agree, any daily issue is going to be largely based on ad space, etc., although even there, freed from the tyranny of the press, there might be a subtle change in the calculus. (We tend to equate the capacity of our newsrooms with the capacity of our presses, although I acknowledge that is changing. I think this would speed the process a bit to where newsrooms understand their capacities better across media.)

The idea is really a longer-term mindset -- with costs clearly variable, the newsroom can make a more informed judgment about how much effort it wants to allocate to print vs other media (not even necessarily nor solely online). Those are difficult decisions when you have a co-owned press. No matter how hard you try to allocate costs and expenses, there always is some shared cost and thus the push for cross subsidy, generally in the form of an expectation (even if not expressed outright) that the newsroom and ad department will run the press as close to capacity as possible.

That's a good thing for the press operator but not necessarily for the newsroom, especially in a time of tightening resources.


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