Ted Bobrow

The Future of News

By - Jul 16th, 2009 08:49 am

Hey, check out the new look of Third Coast Digest! What do you think? Pretty cool, huh!

Which is a great way to introduce today’s topic; the impending demise of newspapers and all that is good about journalism.

We’ve all heard about the decline of newspapers as more and more people go to the internet for news but study after study suggests that people feel very strongly about the value of news.

The challenge facing journalism isn’t one of relevance but revenue. Once people get used to not paying for something, it’s hard to pry the cost of a subscription out of their penny-pinching paws.

This, of course, isn’t a new problem.

Radio and television were each a threat to print news when they emerged as new technologies in the 20th century. Newspapers remained a viable product as long as advertisers were willing to shell out serious bucks to reach the eyeballs of potential customers.

And readers continued to purchase newspapers so they could read about their favorite teams or struggle with the crossword at their leisure.

But that was then and this is now. Newspapers and other traditional media businesses have been hit by a double whammy of epic proportions.

First of all, there’s the matter of the internet revolution which has dramatically transformed the way people expect to get information. Until recently, publishing a newspaper was an outrageously profitable enterprise.

Not only did people take it for granted that they had to pay two bits or so to get the information they wanted but every business that had a product to sell needed to buy ads to reach their potential consumers.

A mere eight years ago or so, the profit margins at the Tribune Company, Gannett, The Washington Post and other media giants of journalism were well into the double digits which was reason for envy by just about every industry. Most retail businesses, for example, scrape by with much lower margins.

But now more and more people expect to get their news, sports, comics and just about everything provided by newspapers online and free and there aren’t very many business models that make a profit by giving something away.

When you add the catastrophic financial downturn to these challenges, you have an industry in crisis.
I remain extremely optimistic about the future of journalism. The corporate geniuses who grew complacent raking in huge profits without much thought or effort now have to figure out a new paradigm.

There are a number of interesting models being tested. One is the micropayment option by which people agree to pay a minor fee each time they read a story. Another is the non-profit model by which foundations or some kind of endowed funding mechanism is set up to support the public interest work of journalists.

Some also hope to see government play a role in saving journalism but I take a dim view of this given the huge importance of independence to newsgathering.

Interestingly, one model that seems to make a lot of sense is the one developed by public broadcasting. Supported in part by grants and corporate underwriting as well as by memberships and individual donations, PBS and NPR are both doing great journalism and have grown into fundraising behemoths.

For certain, journalism is an industry in transition, like many others including automobiles and energy, and we really have no idea where this is all heading.

But one thing seems indisputable. Successful organizations are going to be the ones that recognize the value of inviting readers and viewers to interact with them in a substantive and meaningful way.

Accepting comments and holding chats have already become de rigeur but that only scratches the surface. For example, some are exploring the concept of crowd-sourcing, by which people are encouraged to participate in the creation of the news by contributing what they know.

Most people are familiar with the pros and cons of Wikipedia. At first, I was extremely skeptical of relying on the contributions of every Joe, Dick and Harry, yet this has grown into a fairly reliable source of information.

In the case of journalism, there will always be a role for an editor, someone who reviews the information and ensures certain standards of quality and sourcing. But the insistence that the traditional practices of newspapers are the only legitimate way to collect and distribute news is bogus and doomed to failure.

It is illuminating as well as entertaining to listen to some of the wizened veterans of old school newspapering who dismiss bloggers and other new media types as untalented upstarts who threaten to dismantle all that is good about the fourth estate.

Check out this discussion between the Reader’s Representative at the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the online editor. The Readers’ Representative got into some hot water by dismissing bloggers and their ilk as no-nothing “pipsqueaks.”

The bottom line, as news organizations have always known, is that you have to give people what they want while maintaining the integrity of journalistic standards. Think of it as P.T. Barnum meets Edward R. Murrow.

Stay tuned because it’s going to be interesting to see how this all shakes out.

0 thoughts on “The Future of News”

  1. Anonymous says:

    first, the new look is great. Seems to organize the information much better, i really like it. There is something weird though, once i click a story it opens a new window with no border on the left edge, putting the words right up against the edge of the window, and a HUUUUGE right side of blank nothing i can scroolllll wayyy over here for. I don’t know enough about webdesign to better describe this.

    Second, print media stuff is interesting. I recently wrote about this on my blog. http://rwinsome.blogspot.com/2009/07/what-if-freedom-is-free.html

  2. Anonymous says:

    Newspapers and other organizations contributed to their own demise by making themselves irrelevant to their readers. The vast majority of television reporters have little in common with the average U.S. taxpayer. They make hundreds of thousands of dollars, and sometimes even more, and have no clue about what it is like to exist within this economic reality. Newspapers are no better. More concerned with ad revenue than truly discovering what is relevant to their audiences, papers began to back away from investigative work. Their solution to their economic turmoil was to make themselves even more stagnant by closing foreign bureaus and recalling and laying off reporters. This is a significant time for news organizations, to be sure. How to create a viable economic structure while competing with free content online. The only way to do that is to offer quality writing to attract readers, which will attract revenues. This is mobile markets at work, and an organization that doesn’t adapt is doomed by the collective clicks of the abandoning readers.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Ultimately, the marketplace rules. Folks who think that the news media are free from the constraints of supply and demand are sadly mistaken. We want to believe that journalists are driven by a higher calling but if their publications, shows or websites can’t raise money somehow or someway, they are destined to go the way of the horse and buggy. Thanks for your comments.

  4. Anonymous says:

    hey ted, all foundations have agendas, so any monies supporting newspapers is going to be tainted. thomas jefferson saw newspapers as ideal when they were “united in opinion.” can you image how boring that would be?

  5. Anonymous says:

    I hope the formatting on this comment works. I’m getting the wide right margin, too.

    I think there will always be a demand for news, so no matter how it all shakes out there’s going to exist some type of news organization, probably relying on specific niches. Two different models that I find interesting are the Chi-Town Daily News and The Bond Buyer.

    Chi-Town has started calculating their per-article cost, which, if anything, at least gives the reader a better
    understanding of what they’re reading for free. The Bond Buyer charges either $2,850 or $3,300 per year because the information they report is extremely valuable to its readers. Both models stress value, which our old-media friends haven’t quite caught on to yet. Along that line, the JS’s problems appear to result from the decline in classified ad revenue and, overall, their parent company taking on excessive debt (financed at an interest rate around 2% until 2011) in order to finance their expansion in other mid-level markets. Look how well that worked out for households.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Yes foundations have agendas but so does everyone. Objectivity is a nice ideal but honesty and fairness are much more realistic standards.

    If this topic interests you, check out this new development. The New York Times is apparently exploring seeking foundation grants to support some of its reporting.

    The Times are indeed achangin’.


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