Optimism amid the newspaper gloom

espnboston_20090828Two 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.

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15 thoughts on “Optimism amid the newspaper gloom

  1. lkcape

    Journalism will survive as long there are people (The Public) interested in having information available to them.

    The question has never been “if”, but what form it will take.

  2. Michael Pahre

    While the Globe might be worried about losing their top football writer, media outlets have been poaching each other’s talent for many years. Just like other industries.

    It would be much more helpful to have context for the extent to which this poaching from print media to broadcast media is happening now compared to 10, 20, 30 years ago. I can hypothesize that it’s worse now than in the 1980s, but can you back that up with any numbers?

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      Michael: No, I can’t, and even if I could, it’s not germane. When the Globe lost Peter Gammons to ESPN, for instance, it lost him to another medium — television — at a time when the newspaper business was thriving. Now newspapers are losing people to Web sites that compete with them directly, at a time when newspapers are fighting for survival. And, of course, now Gammons writes for ESPN.com, too.

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  5. Ari Stern

    What you have to remember about WBUR is that most of their self-produced programming is derived from print. They don’t do much original hard-news reporting locally, and none at all in their national shows. They’re making money by ‘repurposing’ newspapers’ output.

  6. Ari Stern

    What you have to remember about WBUR is that most of their self-produced programming is derived from print. They don’t do much original hard-news reporting locally, and none at all in their national shows. They’re making money by ‘repurposing’ newspapers’ output.
    Oops…forgot to say great post! Looking forward to your next one.

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  9. Aaron Read

    Ari, that was a lot more true 10 years ago…or even five years ago…than it is today. Paul LaCamera has made it a mission to beef up the newsroom there.

    Granted, all radio news outlets do rely heavily on print outlets to find out what to report on for the day. But it’s not as bad as it was.

    BTW, Dan, as for ESPN Radio, http://www.espn1260.com was recently registered. However, I think this is a false trail…a common occurrance in format changes. Radio Disney has nothing to do with ABC/ESPN anymore, so I don’t see them changing the format on 1260AM.

  10. Aaron Read

    Whoops – I stand corrected, espn1260.com was registered five YEARS ago, I thought it was reported that it was registered five WEEKS ago. Oops…nevermind.

  11. ben

    Cosmo Macero is probably a better example of where a talented journalist can land. Tom Palmer was a guy who published press releases from the mayor’s office so not sure where you go with that skill set.

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