Two pieces of news prompt this post. First, the Associated Press reports that newspaper advertising was down 29 percent in the second quarter of 2009, a devastating decline that is sure to renew questions as to how much longer the traditional newspaper business can hang on. Second, the Boston Globe’s main football writer, Mike Reiss, is leaving for a new ESPN Web site to be called ESPNBoston.
What do these two events have in common? They are further evidence that media organizations whose business models are relatively healthy have an opportunity to invade the turf traditionally occupied by newspapers. That doesn’t offer much hope for newspaper publishers. But it’s certainly cause for optimism among those who want to see journalism survive — and something worried journalism students should take solace from as well.
ESPNBoston, which has not yet launched, is not to be confused with the radio station of the same name — an also-ran with two bad signals, now reduced to spectator status in the sports-talk battle between WEEI (AM 850) and WBZ-FM (98.5). ESPNBoston, writes the Globe’s Chad Finn, is part of a strategy by the parent company to launch regional Web sites in the most sports-crazed parts of the country.
Disney-owned ESPN, among other things, operates wildly successful cable channels, publishes a magazine and produces a Web site that, according to Quantcast.com, attracts between 14 million and 20 million unique visitors each month. I don’t pretend to know what ESPN’s business strategy is for the new local sites, but it seems logical that company executives would be willing to subsidize them for quite a while if they help cement brand loyalty.
Reiss is not the only local sports reporter to leave for sites operated by non-newspaper companies. Previously, the Boston Herald lost Rob Bradford to WEEI.com, and Globe baseball writer Gordon Edes decamped to Yahoo. The Globe and the Herald have always had good sports sections, and their coverage has helped drive a lot of circulation. Their sports sections are still good, but now they must compete with online coverage produced by companies with fewer financial problems than the newspaper business is experiencing.
And sports is just one example. Tom Palmer retired from the development beat at the Globe last year and kept right on doing his thing for McDermott Ventures, a public-relations firm — a relationship that may raise eyebrows among journalism ethicists, but that is sure to becoming increasingly common.
Also in 2008, Boston.com political blogger James Pindell left to head a national network of state political sites called Politicker.com. The project was ahead of its time, and it folded in the midst of last fall’s economic crisis. But the idea lives on: Pindell is now trying a similar project on his own in New Hampshire.
Finally, and not to repeat myself, but one of the more interesting projects under way right now is the redesigned WBUR.org, published by Boston’s public-radio powerhouse, WBUR (90.9 FM); the site combines local and NPR news into a quality online newspaper. Public radio has not been immune from having to make recession-related cuts. But, unlike newspapers, both its distribution model (commuters stuck in their cars) and its business model (listener contributions, corporate underwriting and grants, supplemented with a small amount of taxpayer money) remain intact.
If the next owner of the Globe keeps on cutting, it’s easy to imagine WBUR.org morphing into a real alternative. And, of course, there’s nothing to stop the city’s television news operations from pumping up their Web sites, though they, like the newspaper business, are experiencing tough economic times.
We often hear that if newspapers die, there will be nothing left but amateur citizen-media sites that, for all their strengths, lack the capacity to do the sort of public-interest journalism a democracy needs to thrive. In fact, there is reason to be a lot more optimistic than that. I hope newspaper companies can find a way of combining their print and online operations so they can thrive for years to come. But if they can’t, it won’t be the end of journalism.