Jon Anne Willow
Rethinking journalism

let’s get small

By - Mar 26th, 2009 01:19 pm
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It’s been another terrible week for newspapers. Four Michigan cities will soon be without dailies; Reuters reported yesterday that Conley Media is cutting the Monday editions of the Waukesha Freeman and the West Bend Daily News (what will they call it now?); Cox Publications is cutting about 245 jobs at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; Hearst Corp. is relieving about 200 employees of their positions at the Houston Chronicle; the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is likely to see another round of layoffs very soon as well. These cuts represent staff reductions of 10 to 30-percent at their respective institutions, outpacing even the grim overall decline in American jobs exponentially.

This is just one week, not even worse than last week, or the week before. We all get it. The newspaper iceberg is melting faster than polar bear habitat. Many journalists I talk to now have shifted their thinking from wondering when flood will subside to setting up their music stands on deck. This latter carries a certain air of tragic nobility, but it’s really a crying shame. Even iconic Madison newsman and WPRI think-tanker Marc Eisen seems unable to move beyond the mathematics of hopelessness. And that, if you have followed his illustrious and dedicated career, is not a good sign.

Think about it: if the very people who hold our best hope for preserving journalism have given up, then what chance do we have?

It’s time to think small

In the now-notorious TIME Magazine article from February 5, 2009, former managing editor Walter Isaacson proposes that a micro-pay system for accessing online news content could help to rebuild plummeting newspaper revenue and decrease journalism’s reliance on the will and whims of advertisers. Regrettably, the article has been widely dismissed by many in the industry who are dead certain that readers will not pay for content.

I beg to differ. We willingly pay for premium television, for cell phone service, for high-speed Internet, for satellite radio, for GPS service. We buy music on the web. We pay monthly subscription fees for web-based services and to download books to our Kindles. There was great resistance to all of these things at first, but in the end, appetite overtook the reluctance to pony up. I don’t understand why it would be different for news, which has never been consumed in such quantities as it is today. But despite how obvious it seems to me (and other, far more qualified minds), this thinking is widely dismissed by the dwindling journalism community itself as over-simplistic. “People will still find a way to steal it” is one argument, as is “Someone will always be willing to provide it for free.”

So what? What about the thousands of pirate music sites you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting? As far as I can tell, the fact that people will continue to steal music didn’t keep iTunes from selling $3.4 billion worth of songs, 99-cents at a time, in 2008. That’s an $840 million increase over 2007, despite the fact that some reports estimate that 95-percent of all music is still downloaded illegally. I say, if some folks will pay, let them pay, just a little at a time.

But there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. I fear the NY Times is on a bad path with its recently-announced idea to re-institute an annual subscription fee of $55 or so. That is too much per head, and will create too little revenue to put the ailing paper back on track. It’s all about small, as the Obama campaigned recently proved: $5 a week from 20-million Americans is still $5.2 billion a year.

Admittedly, this isn’t a lot of money compared to what it costs to run the current industry. But the keywords there are “current industry.” I assert that we’re most likely going to have to give up many types of local coverage to private and community interests for now and concentrate on what absolutely must be preserved: relevant, experienced, trustworthy local news and investigative reporting. There really is no avoiding the massive downsizing the industry will undergo, but rather than attempt to spread the pain equally, it’s time to establish essential priorities and – well – consider setting aside the rest for now.

Public interest, public funding?

An additional, albeit potentially whimsical, possibility is to create new, leverage existing or convert for-profit news bureaus into non-profit agencies. The Associated Press, for example, already has offices in most major cities, though the Milwaukee bureau and many others have cut staff to a skeleton crew in recent years. If the AP was able to diversify its revenue model to include grant funding to subsidize local coverage (while still collecting subscription revenues and possibly even ad or sponsorship revenue), it could potentially take advantage of its inherent efficiencies as a worldwide news service to more cost-effectively serve local markets with reliable news coverage.

Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Maryland) introduced generally related legislation yesterday, and it’s an idea that bears serious consideration. Wired blogger Betsy Schiffman’s idea to sell the AP to Google, however, does not. A Hail Mary pass at best (the opposite of what she asserts), this kind of move would also prove disastrous to freedom of the press. Remember folks, Potter’s not selling, Potter’s buying. Half is not better than nothing and, more dangerously in terms of the rhetoric surrounding much of the “death of journalism” conversation, “nothing” is not a foregone conclusion.

In the end, there’s no magic bullet. And the closer one is to the problem, the more hopeless it appears. But, like our attempt to rebuild the national and global economies, we have no choice but to start somewhere. It seems inevitable that traditional printed newspapers are going the way of cassette tapes – CDs, even. But the demise of those mediums hasn’t killed music. Our challenge, as I see it, is to repurpose the delivery of what’s important – news.

And we should probably get on that pretty soon.

0 thoughts on “Rethinking journalism: let’s get small”

  1. Anonymous says:

    It is a sad situation – especially for those who have a love for and are willing to make a career out of publishing.

    I “jumped ship” in 2007 while the paper I worked at folded after 95 years. It was recently reincarnated as a Chamber of Commerce rag. Papers run by committee will not work.

    The principles of journalism – seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently and be accountable – are ignored for $$$.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Interesting thoughts, Jon Anne.

    I’m always amused at the use of Jefferson’s quote in reference to the current crisis facing newspapers.

    Remember, until the 20th century newspapers were basically broadsheets filled with one publisher’s vitriol attacking everyone who disagreed with him.

    The founding fathers had little to say about ensuring the profit margins of media organizations.

    The rise of the internet has certainly contributed to the challenges facing newspapers but it has also done more to advance freedom of speech than anything in history.

    Look at what is happening in China and other dictatorships that have always relied on the suppression of dissent? I think Jefferson and his comrades would be amazed at the democratization of expression we are witnessing.

    It is true that the future of the corporate giants who we have come to rely on for high quality, comprehensive and low cost (to the consumer) news is a threatened species.

    But I have confidence in the value of the product, i.e. good journalism, and I have confidence that experimentation and, yes, free enterprise, will eventually identify a business model that will support its production.

    For now, there are many interesting if unproven ideas bubbling up and it will take time. I say, let a thousand business models bloom!

  3. Anonymous says:

    I’m going to take this as a comment on Joe Heller’s cartoon more than my column…

  4. Anonymous says:

    It seems a day doesn’t pass without a new proposal, blog, article or report coming out about the crisis facing newspapers and other traditional forms of journalim.

    One very interesting development is the partnership between the Huffington Post, Atlantic Philanthropies and the American News Project to support investigative news production.

    http://poynter.org/column.asp?id=131&aid=161009

    For a little comic relief, I call your attention to Steven Colbert’s interview of the NAA’s CEO. The poor guy didn’t seem to have a clue. If he’s the spokesperson for the newpaper industry, then it’s no wonder it’s dying.

    http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/223281/march-31-2009/better-know-a-lobby—newspaper-lobby

  5. Anonymous says:

    Well, Ted, you stole my thunder. I was going to use that piece in today’s column, and still may. 😉

  6. Anonymous says:

    Go for it. It’s pratically crying out for comment, in humor and despair.

    And here’s another entry in the “What is to be done?” sweepstakes…

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/04/02/AR2009040203310.html

    Feel free to have at it.

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