Markets have killed the daily newspaper. Let's get creative about the future of journalism

by Steven A. Smith, Still a Newspaperman

The author is former editor of the Spokane Spokesman-Review. This article was originally titled "My rant for the day."

There has been considerable energy spent on industry blogs in recent weeks debating questions that were, in my view, resolved a long time ago. That it is taking some so long to speak honestly to our problems is either testament to our industry’s notorious, self-focused blindness or confirmation that too many industry leaders were constrained from speaking their minds — speaking their truth — because of their jobs, their bosses, their bonuses or simple reticence to step out in front.

My take, for what it is worth:

1. Our industry’s central debate ought not to be about saving newspapers and, in fact, that hasn’t even been an open question for some time. The American newspaper as we have come to know it in the post-war era is not going to survive. I said this at a Washington State University symposium four years ago and was widely attacked for my pessimism, particularly within my own newsroom. But folks, this isn’t pessimism, it is reality. Don’t misunderstand me. News and information will be distributed in print for decades to come. But the contemporary mass-market American newspaper familiar to generations of Americans, is — OK, I’ll say it — already dead.

The shadows of once-great community papers carry on at one level or another. But they are shades. Too many industry pundits, focused on the big-5 or even the big-10, continue to think of the American newspaper industry in terms of the giants. Even as they suffer their own declines, their pain is as nothing compared to what we’re seeing outside the Northeast.

This isn’t about the Post or the Times or the Journal. The tragedies of which I speak are taking place in Wichita, Spokane, Seattle, Denver, San Jose, Tucson, and countless other communities. I am not suggesting great journalism is dead in those places. Nor am I suggesting papers are dead, at least as credible businesses.

And good journalists carry on. They continue to do good work, to fulfill their obligations to citizens and community. But we must be honest. How can we suggest a newspaper is fulfilling its fundamental responsibilities to a community when there is, for example, one education reporter instead of four, one statehouse reporter instead of three, one public safety reporter instead of two. Publishers will say it’s not about the numbers. Bullshit. When it comes to journalism that serves community, it is all about numbers.

One good reporter can do a good job covering some aspects of a state legislature. But one good reporter simply cannot do the work of three. Something is going to be uncovered, unreported. And it will be something important.

Publishers who continue to argue their papers are strong despite massive cuts in newsroom staff, are twisting the truth in order to save their businesses. They talk about the migration to niche products, to smaller, leaner papers and efficient websites. Saving journalism isn’t part of their agenda. To be fair, especially in the current marketplace, they can’t save both. They always will default to the money side, they have no choice. So a niche website devoted to golf may generate revenue for the business. But it will not serve citizens who rely on journalists to reveal civic truths.

2. Did the industry make a mistake giving away for free on the web content generated for a profit in print? I don’t know if it was a mistake or not. It really doesn’t matter anymore.

I was an advocate of a web pay model in Spokane, a model we adopted. But it didn’t do anything for us and so I began to argue for a free model. But, to be honest, that wouldn’t have changed anything.

The pay-no-pay issue already has been resolved by consumers. Readers will not pay for online news content provided by traditional mass-market news organizations. I doubt they will pay for it from non-traditional sources, either, but that question remains open for now. For traditional newspapers, the genie is out of the bottle. No organization can hold on to its information long enough to make it a viable commercial commodity in the digital world. Once published anywhere or in any way, the information is out there, for free, for everyone.

I’m amused by those who suggest the problem is the quality of the web content. Better journalism, indispensable journalism that people simply must consume, will generate revenue, it is argued.

Sorry. Spend some time cruising the nation’s best newspaper web sites. The critical, indispensable journalism is there. In many cases, it is better written, better researched, better presented and more relevant than ever before, although there isn’t enough of it. And it isn’t selling. The problem isn’t the content, it’s the medium. The Internet is a free medium. That’s it. And that is why traditional mass-market newspapers have failed in their efforts to successfully transfer their print business model to the Internet.

3. If there is any good news in the inability of publishers to properly fund and supply content for existing websites, it is this: The “traditional” Internet newspaper is as doomed as the mass-market print variety. The era of the newspaper website designed for a desktop computer is passing and fast. The future, for the short-term anyway, is in mobility.

Not only do people want their information for free, they want it right now, wherever they might be and from whatever source they can tap. Oh, did I say this already, they want mobile news for free, too.

One of the things I’ve learned quickly working on a college campus is the insane futility of the “traditional” web model. Old farts of my generation may hold on to their desktops or their laptops. But the rest of the world is trying to figure out how to install information aps on their 3G phones. They are experimenting with the Kindle. They are waiting for the portable, roll-up flat panel.

I have heard from any number of publishers who say they are just hanging on to their businesses for now so that when the economy turns, they can come back and reinvest in their papers, rebuild gutted web operations.

They will be too late to recapture their markets. They need to be investing right now in mobile information platforms that will be the mass-market tool for the near-term future.

4. All of which really brings us back to the core question: How do we save the qualities and values of newspaper journalism when the businesses that have supported it are losing their grip on the future, selling their future for a few more years of business survival?

This is where industry debate is most helpful and most needed.

I have argued before for multi-platform newsrooms that generate revenue from a variety of different streams that, collectively, might help support those newsrooms. Let’s find the newsrooms where multi-platform innovation is possible and argue about ways to support that innovation.

Partnerships between newspapers to share content are good short-term steps and they are growing. But the partnerships that would help more would involve same-market newspapers, radio and television outlets. Newsrooms could become news wholesalers rather than retailers, producing content for all available media in any market and charging the providers rather than or in addition to consumers.

I believe partnerships between professionals and academics hold promise. Programs that blend professionals with academics and students in an “institute” environment could bring quality journalism built around select topics to select geographic or interest communities. Could an institute for legislative journalism hosted by a major university and utilizing professional and academic resources produce quality legislative coverage for a state? Sure. Are their ethical issues? Probably. Are they any worse than the ethical dilemmas posed by profit-desperate publishers trading legislative reporters for yellow-page salesmen? No. We can figure this out.

I believe there will be a place for low-overhead news products, mostly digital, produced by a small number of like-minded community journalists who will derive a livable wage from voluntary consumer support, from grants and low-overhead advertising. Turn-key (and free) digital platforms that do for online publishing what Blogger did for blogging will happen. Such platforms might make it possible for half-a-dozen laid off Silicon Valley reporters, for example, to combine to produce a mut-read Silicon Valley report without having to worry about buildings, distribution, IT experts or ad sales staff.

Even without such platforms, it may be possible for a single journalist, operating on her own, to cover a legislature somewhere in a format as crude as a newsletter or pamphlet and generate enough from her efforts to make a modest living.

The market — and panicked publishers — are killing, have killed, the traditional mass-market newspaper. But they ought not to be allowed to kill the vital public-service journalism that serves citizens. It’s time to stop debating the obvious. It’s time for journalists to take back the debate and save themselves.

article originally published at http://www.stillanewspaperman.com/2009/02/24/my-rant-for-the-day.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey