A first-rate overview of journalism’s fate

The week’s best listen is NPR’s “On the Media,” which weighs in with a special program on the future of the newspaper business. At least that’s what they call it, but the show is really broader than that, hitting all the right themes on the fate of professional journalism.

Among the topics: whether the government should play a role in saving the news business; whether newspapers should charge for online content (a tired topic brought to life by a smart interview with one of my über-bosses, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger); a conversation with James Fallows of the Atlantic about his recent article on Google’s news initiatives; and whether a renewed focus on local news will help bolster newspapers’ bottom lines.

Grab the MP3 and listen. It’s as good an overview as I’ve come across in recent months.

One thought on “A first-rate overview of journalism’s fate

  1. Interesting. I was under the impression (and still am) that most newspapers – or at least their parent companies – are making a profit. They’re just not running the 20%-30% game they were 10-15 years ago.

    Layoffs and cutbacks seem more an effort to preserve and increase shareholder value, rather than a last-ditch effort to keep the presses and servers running.

    I think it was Gannett in the late 90’s who did layoffs to keep their margins over 20%.

    Corporate parentage allows for the operational size of many of these companies; and also for the cashflow that allows the individual papers to weather small and large storms.

    But, it seems that these same corporate parents often cannot or will not move quickly and take chances on the pain of losing shareholder trust, the few remaining ad accounts and executive jobs.

    At the same time, it is near impossible for any would-be startup to get the funding to launch a new electronic and/or print volume that can compete against the establishment in the market.

    After all, putting together a web site is a marginal cost compared to firing up a press and buying paper. But the single biggest cost, and the product itself, is the quality reportage that moves the product; be it ad space or subscriptions.

    Why subscribe to the local paper when half of it is wire copy anyway that can be consumed for free from other sources? Even worse, why subscribe to a local paper when they give away the exact same content on their own web sites in a situation where the web ads do not cover the cost of doing business?

    I think the solution is for local and regional publishers to all but turn off the web sites (or kill print and monetize the site however possible) and sell a tangible, higher quality and perhaps less frequent publication. It’s just not possible for most communities to attract the readership to make the ad dollars necessary to staff it.

    Local and regional businesses don’t compete with corporate giants by being less expensive. They cater to a market that, for whatever reason, won’t shop at the national competitor.

    To use another analogy, if I parked a 10 year old car in ok condition next to a brand new car with a $20,000 sticker price, but offered the older car for free, most people would take the free car and not look back.

    The rest of that same group would buy the new car because they have a reason to do so. They may need the greater reliability. They may need a specific model. Heck, they may just have the cash laying around.

    In any case, my point is that news is a product just like anything else. That product needs to be delivered to the appropriate market at a cost appropriate for the market.

    All-things-to-all-people doesn’t seem to be working for most publishers anymore, and the little guys certainly can’t go up against the big guys who can more or less afford to give it away.

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