By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Not the end of the world

Toward the end of a gloomy assessment of the newspaper business in today’s New York Times comes this:

The paradox is that more people than ever read newspapers, now that some major papers have several times as many readers online as in print. And papers sell more ads than ever, when online ads are included.

That’s more than a paradox. It’s salvation. The consensus view within the business, Times reporter Richard Pérez-Peña writes, is that “it could take five to 10 years for the industry’s finances to stabilize and that many of the papers that survive will be smaller and will practice less ambitious journalism.”

I think he’s right on the five- to 10-year time frame, but wrong that news sites (let’s not call them newspapers) will be less ambitious. Perhaps by “less ambitious” he means more focused on local news. That’s true. With a dozens of national and international news sites just a click away, major metropolitan newspapers are going to have to concentrate almost exclusively on local news, sports, business and the arts. But that’s not less ambitious — it’s just different.

The news business has been through several paradigm shifts since taking on a form we’d recognize beginning in the 1830s. The current one may be unusually wrenching. But it only looks like the end of the world because it happens to be the one we’re living through.

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  1. sketch element

    “With a dozens of national and international news sites just a click away, major metropolitan newspapers are going to have to concentrate almost exclusively on local news, sports, business and the arts.”Isn’t this kind of reporting how newspapers got their start? Maybe it’s not so different; maybe it’s just a return to print journalism’s roots with the relatively new medium of the internet taking the place of the press.

  2. Bill Baar

    With a dozens of national and international news sites just a click away….You get microscopic yet are just a click away from global readership. You have to take your micro perspective and link it to the whole world.It demands a focus on mission that’s hard to define.

  3. Anonymous

    My only real concern is how this online stuff will be archived and accessible. As a history major in college, I spent countless hours at the BPL and other libraries combing over microfilm and microfiche records of Victorian era newspapers for various projects. Once papers go online only (I think it’s probably inevitable) will future historians be able to do any research?

  4. Anonymous

    Two points in the article are worth noting:1) Many newspaper operations are, in fact, profitable. They’re just not profitable enough for shareholders’ expectations. 2) At least a few major newspapers were acquired via leveraged buyouts, where the new owners ladled on extra debt expecting to recoup gains by streamlining operations.These are problems of the CFO office, not the newsroom or the advertising department. Any company in any industry with bad management could (stupidly) paint itself into this corner. It’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the business of collecting and distributing news. Yes, the advertising cycle has gone down because of the real estate fizzle, but that would have happened 40 years ago too. The Internet has come along, but so did radio and TV, and newspapers learned to survive with them as well.I’m just tired of the ‘newspaper is a dying industry’ nonsense, when the proper headline is ‘huge profit machines no longer as effective in churning out boatloads of cash; short-sighted owners caught unawares.’

  5. Anonymous

    If the newspapers become too cute and entertainment oriented in the rush for survival or more profitability, will the end result be a product worth reading? Already, the Globe (I’m a home delivery reader) has been traveling down that path, having ‘Metroized’ their product in the quest of trying to be more exciting to non readers.I use to access online newspapers around the country in the interest of seeing their impression of issues local to them. I can also read news updates online, in a fashion infinitely more timely than waiting for my local rag’s next publication tomorrow. I believe that timliness is the Internet’s critical advantage to hard copy newspapers.

  6. Bill Dunphy

    Hi Dan,Your post’s bottom line – maybe the changes that are coming (more local focus) are different journalism, not worse journalism – is another useful lens with which to view the changes chewing at our foundations. But I think the key, at this point, is this scary stat: “But for every dollar advertisers pay to reach a print reader, they pay about 5 cents, on average, to reach an Internet reader.”Banner and box ads will never close that gap. Neither will simple targeted or contextual ads based on editorial content (a la search advertising).The web is simply washing away our old business model. Our content, information, has been commoditized, and price always wins when you’ve become a commodity – and we’re competing against free.Our audiences for all save a very few newspaper sites, are far two small to kick up signficant ad revenue using existing models.The need for news remains, but I haven’t seen anyone yet come up with a web model that works for anything but the very small (http://www.village or the very large.While print continues to bleed readers and ads, we need to get very creative, very quickly on the web.Bill Dunphy

  7. Dan

    A former newspaper junkie, I now get most of my news from the Web. Why? Because the newspapers just don’t provide much in the way of good news any more. Take the presidential primaries — the New York Times gives us regular fluff features like “analysis” of campaign ads (what a waste of my time!) — so I turn to the BBC News Web site, where I can find detailed reporting on how many delegates each state has assigned to which candidates, and an excellent political blog by Justin Webb with some good hard reporting in it. Or take my local daily newspaper here in New Bedford –lots of fluffy “features,” but they never even reported on who won the school committee elections last fall.The newspaper owners, and newspaper journalists, spend a lot of time telling us how the Web is ruining journalism, and about how no one has come up with a viable business model for Web-based journalism. I can only resply that I can get more facts from the Web than from the average newspaper — and the current business model of most newspapers involves providing as little news as possible, just enough to pad out the advertisements, which is not what I call a viable business model. And having said all this, I will also say that I dearly miss the old Boston Real Paper — and the Boston Globe and Boston Herald of twenty years ago — there was some doggone good writing in those papers, with a depth of coverage I have yet to see on the Web. I believe that if newspapers concentrated more on giving us better writing and more coverage, and less on their business strategies, they might actually hold on the the greater number of readers they find they have!

  8. Dan Kennedy

    Dan: I have a feeling that someone from the New Bedford Standard-Times is going to correct you as to whether it reported on school committee elections. I find it hard to believe there wasn’t any coverage.

  9. MeTheSheeple

    I don’t even have to be from the Standard-Times to find the right page. I just have to remember the poor photographer working on the pier who dropped $30k worth of gear into the ocean, and sympathy and Google do the rest.

  10. Tobe

    Few media ever die. They evolve in their own right or morph into hybrids with other media and technology. Don’t forget to read you McLuhan.

  11. lou

    I thought one line in the story was telling: the papers reported still monster profits of 17 to 21 percent, but a smaller dollar amount. They’re chopping themselves into oblivion. Why not suck up the profit margin for a couple of years and plow money back into producing a good product?I travel a lot for my job and always make a point of reading the local papers. Mostly, I have a sense of deja vu, I’m re-reading stories that already appeared in the Washington Post or New York Times days before. The local section is usually the weakest one and that should be the strongest.

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