Why print nostalgia won’t save the news business

New York Times newsroom, 1942. Photo via Wikipedia.
New York Times newsroom, 1942. Photo via Wikipedia.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Editor & Publisher, a trade magazine that covers the newspaper business, posted a story last week predicting a startling technological change in the way we consume news. Believe it or not, it would involve grinding trees into pulp, transforming that pulp into paper, printing news articles, photos, and ads on that paper, and then loading the finished product onto trucks so that it could be delivered hither and yon.

“With the saturation of news, the toxicity of online harassment, and the amount of poor Web experiences, readers will soon want to come back to print,” wrote Nu Yang in an article headlined “As Digital Fatigue Sets In, Readers are Waking Up to Newspapers.”

Yang’s yearnings aside, print newspapers are no more likely to come back than the proverbial horse and buggy. Yes, they have proved more enduring than we might have expected 10 years ago, and Yang may be right they they’ll persist as “a premium, boutique product” for some time to come.

And the shortcomings of digital news that Yang describes are real enough. Too much information really does leave us feeling overwhelmed. Ad-blocking software is depriving digital news publishers of one of their very few routes for paying for the journalism they produce.

At root, though, Yang’s article represents little more than an assertion that because the post-print era has proved disastrous for the economics of news, then the answer must be to dial back the clock.

I wish I could be more optimistic about the road in front of us. In January I sketched out a starkly dystopian future for newspapers headlined “Print Is Dying, Digital Is No Savior: The Long, Ugly Decline Of The Newspaper Business Continues Apace.” Most of it had to do with the collapse of advertising-funded news.

Recently Nicco Mele, former senior vice president and deputy publisher of the Los Angeles Times and the incoming director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School, spoke at a Shorenstein seminar and outlined just how grim the advertising situation has become. Consider some figures he offered:

  • The cost of a full-page weekday ad in the print edition of the LA Times, reaching 500,000 people, is about $50,000.
  • The cost of an ad on LATimes.com to reach the same 500,000 people is about $7,000.
  • The cost of an ad reaching 500,000 people that’s served up by Google and appears on LATimes.com might be as little as (are you sitting down?) $20.

“Digital advertising rates … have done nothing but decline for a decade, and they’re only going to keep declining,” Mele said, “because Google has basically arbitraged the price of advertising to such a bargain basement.”

One possible solution, Mele added, is for Google and Facebook to pay for the news content they make so much use of. But there are obvious problems with that, starting with the fact that Google and Facebook don’t want to pay, and that news organizations don’t dare withdraw from such massive distribution platforms.

A more promising possibility is to charge digital advertisers for time spent with an article rather than on how many times people click. The Financial Times is one of a growing number of news organizations now trying out this new model. “The only way you can actually look at the amount of value someone’s placed on content is how much time they’re spending with it,” the FT’s Brendan Spain was quoted as telling the International Business Times.

Given the challenges facing news organizations trying to get by with digital advertising, many newspapers in recent years have switched from free websites to an online-subscription model. Yet here, too, success has been limited.

The New York Times reported last week that it now has 1.2 million digital subscribers, which is far more than any other general-interest newspaper. But because print and online advertising revenues continue to fall, the paper lost $16 million during the first quarter of 2016.

The New York Post has reported that the Times may lay off hundreds from its newsroom of 1,300 people later this year—and though executive editor Dean Baquet denied it, Emily Jane Fox recently observed in Vanity Fair that on other occasions Baquet has acknowledged the need to get smaller (as it recently did by eliminating 70 jobs in Paris).

Given all this, it’s understandable that some people in the newspaper business are nostalgic for print. You can charge quite a bit. It’s finite and self-contained, which means that the advertising has maintained some value. And a lot of people like their print newspaper.

A lot—but not enough. The paid print circulation of virtually every newspaper continues to plummet. Overall, print advertising revenues dropped from about $47 billion in 2004 to about $16 billion in 2014, and there’s no bottom in sight. The digital share of that total has been stuck just north of $3 billion since 2007.

Back to the Future was a fun movie—but it was also a fantasy. In the search for a sustainable business model for journalism, there is no going back to print. Nor is there any substitute for the hard and painful work of experimenting in the hopes that a new idea or a combination of new ideas will stop the financial slide.

Boston-area publisher honored by E&P

The trade magazine Editor & Publisher has named Karen Andreas, regional publisher of four daily newspapers and several affiliated publications north of Boston, as its Publisher of the Year. The dailies: The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, The Daily News of Newburyport, The Salem News and The Gloucester Daily Times.

The papers, known collectively as the North of Boston Media Group, are owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. (CNHI) of Montgomery, Alabama.

28 years later, still thinking about a shield law

With Congress once again wrestling with proposals to create a federal shield law (see this by Josh Stearns), I thought I’d try to dig up an essay I wrote for the trade magazine Editor & Publisher in 1985 — my first published piece of media commentary. It took me a few weeks, but with an assist from a helpful research librarian at Northeastern, I tracked it down.

I read it with my hands over my eyes, but it holds up better than I had expected. Essentially, I believe today what I believed then — that the First Amendment is for everyone, and that professional journalists deserve no greater protections under the Constitution than does the average citizen.

The only real difference is that, currently, I support efforts to try to carve out some limited shield protections for clearly defined acts of journalism, whether those acts are carried out by “the large metropolitan publisher who utilizes the latest photocomposition methods,” as Justice Byron White put it in Branzburg v. Hayes, or by an unpaid amateur blogger.

SHOP TALK AT THIRTY
Reporters and the shield law — a differing viewpoint

Editor & Publisher, Sept. 28, 1985

By Daniel D. Kennedy

Screen Shot 2013-09-23 at 7.27.12 AMEvery few years a group of self-appointed leaders of the industry in which I work takes it upon itself to assert that news reporters have or should have rights that go far beyond those of the average citizen.

I suppose I should be grateful. I’m not.

Earlier this year the Massachusetts legislature wisely defeated a shield law proposed by a panel of journalists. The law would have given reporters the right to impede criminal investigations by refusing to identify their anonymous sources before grand juries.

The legislators showed courage — a trait that is usually in short supply in Massachusetts politics. The vote came just days after a popular television reporter barely escaped going to prison. She got off the hook when her confidential source agreed to speak with law-enforcement officials. [Note: I was referring to Susan Wornick, who this summer announced her retirement from WCVB-TV, Channel 5.]

The problem with a shield law is this: For journalists to be granted such a protection, an uncomfortable distinction must first be made between us and the rest of the American people. And the government, by necessity, would be the institution making that distinction.

Freedom of the press, as defined by the First Amendment, is a right granted to everyone. News organizations and their employees are protected no more and no less than the citizen who writes a letter of protest, circulates a petition or holds a sign at a demonstration.

When officials investigating a crime believe someone has information they need, they may compel him to tell a grand jury what he knows. The U.S. Supreme Court has clearly stated that professional journalists have no special privileges that would exempt them from this responsibility.

Those who advocate a shield law are tacitly admitting that reporters who withhold names from grand juries are breaking the law.

Other, more extreme press advocates assert that a shield law is not needed because the First Amendment already guarantees reporters the right to protect their sources.

But the First Amendment says only that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

All that means is that a newspaper or magazine publisher may print what he chooses. It would be difficult to read into the simple language of the First Amendment a clause that says obstruction of justice is legal when done by a reporter.

The Supreme Court, in Branzburg v. Hayes (1972), ruled that the First Amendment does not grant to journalists the right to keep their sources anonymous. The court had this to say about the consequences of a shield privilege:

The administration of a constitutional newsman’s privilege would present practical and conceptual difficulties of a high order. Sooner or later, it would be necessary to define those categories of newsmen who qualified for the privilege, a questionable procedure in light of the traditional doctrine that liberty of the press is the right of the lonely pamphleteer who uses carbon paper or a mimeograph just as much as of the large metropolitan publisher who utilizes the latest photocomposition methods.

A shield privilege, in other words, would lead to government regulation of the news business. Government officials would determine who is a reporter and who is not. The press would be made less free in the name of increased freedom.

The Supreme Court added in Branzburg that state legislatures are free to pass shield laws, and several have. But I think such laws are a mistake, and that legislators in Massachusetts acted properly.

At a time when the press is accused of elitism and arrogance, shield laws are another wall between us and the public whom we are trying to serve.

My views, I’ll admit, are not popular with my colleagues, most of whom favor a shield law. The concern they raise is that, without protection, they will not be able to do what is a normal part of their job. They fear their sources will dry up if they can’t keep them anonymous.

But shield protection has nothing to do with the way journalists usually work. Reporters can and do promise anonymity to some of their sources. The information these people provide — whether it is about an impending lawsuit or hazardous fill at a housing development — may be true or false. But in all cases their names may be protected.

Refusing to reveal the name of someone whom investigators need to question as part of a criminal case is another matter.

I would argue that a reporter should not promise anonymity to such a source and that he should cut short the interview if agreement cannot be reached.

But, while that may be a good guide for most situations, it is impossible to make a rule that would cover all cases. Occasionally a reporter may have to have a piece of information and need to make a pledge of anonymity to get it.

A number of reporters have paid the price, serving short stretches in jail on contempt-of-court charges for refusing to name names.

There is no easy solution to cases such as these.

As one who has never been in jail and would be less than enthusiastic at the prospect, I hesitate to make this suggestion. But perhaps jail is the price reporters occasionally have to pay as a cost of doing business.

I would contend that jail is a better alternative than asserting a right that is not granted to persons who are not employed by news organizations.

Freedom of the press is a right to be enjoyed by all. It is too precious to split into one set of privileges reserved for those of us who work in the news business and other, lesser set for modern Tom Paines working in their basements, alone and unheralded.

Kennedy is senior news editor of The Daily Times Chronicle of Woburn, Mass.

BostonGlobe.com wins two major Web awards

A little more than two months after its launch, BostonGlobe.com has won two major awards from the trade journal Editor & Publisher: Best Daily Newspaper Website and Best Overall Website Design. The Globe’s Boston.com site also won an award, for Best Entertainment Website. All three prizes were in the category of newspaper sites with at least one million unique visitors a month.

The so-called EPPY Awards are a recognition of the Globe’s innovative approach in designing its new paid site — a reliance on “responsive design,” based on HTML5, that allowed programmers to put together one website that adjusts itself to fit a variety of devices, from computers to smartphones.

In using the site, I’ve found that I have to do more clicking and scrolling than I’d like. It’s fine for reading a few stories, but not necessarily the whole paper. I’ve even reverted to GlobeReader on occasion, despite its being somewhat long in the tooth. But BostonGlobe.com is startlingly fast, which makes the clicking easier to deal with, and the design and usability have been improved here and there since its debut.

The real story, of course, is how many readers have signed up for paid digital subscriptions. And that’s a story that, so far, has yet to be told.

Editor & Publisher lives

The venerable newspaper trade magazine Editor & Publisher lives after going dark at the end of 2009. But editor Greg Mitchell tweets that neither he nor staff writer Joe Strupp were offered jobs at the new E&P. The new editor will be another E&P veteran, Mark Fitzgerald.

Will Mitchell and Strupp’s Web site, E&P in Exile, morph into something else now that the magazine is being revived without them? Stay tuned.

The end of the beginning

Steve Outing, who’s been writing about online news for Editor & Publisher since 1995, submits what may be his final piece. I’ve been hoping someone would swoop in and save E&P, keeping it alive as an online-only publication. At the moment, though, that seems unlikely.