Thursday, July 31, 2008

We Interrupt This Rant

Everything that's been said here having being said:

This could be the month when the newspaper business as we know it dies.

Newhouse says that if it doesn't get concessions, it will sell The Star-Ledger and close the Trenton Times. Well, there's still The Trentonian. Whoops, it's owned by Journal Register, which may be in technical default. So the state capital of New Jersey could wind up without a daily newspaper and simply get whatever attention NJ.com gave Trenton local news without having a Trenton newspaper to support. (That's assuming NJ.com still exists, if Newhouse sells the Star-Ledger. Why would it?) There would still be some journalism being done, but would anyone who isn't already involved in government or civic activism really care? (UPDATE: While the New York Times story said the Trenton Times would be closed, the Star-Ledger story says the papers would be sold "as a unit." Whom to believe?)

Gatehouse, which owns 98 dailies and was a Wall Street darling not 18 months ago, is down to selling for peanuts and is seen as likely to default. Journal Register is selling for less than a peanut. Both of these companies not only own dailies, they own tons of weeklies that are usually the only sources of news for their communities. The only sources. There's no citizen journalism in Cinnaminson. There might be someone who would want to rant about trash collection or fourth grade teachers. My biggest problem with online journalism is those who see no difference between news and ax-grinding, indeed who feel there should be no difference. It's all information, it's all content, and none of us needs mediators. If you think it's just peachy to have someone who was fired by the city and failed to be elected to the council as the main source of local political news, that it's just another voice in the debate and that readers know enough to discount the bias, you have a faith in discernment and involvement that makes the concerns about the New Yorker's Obama cover look small.

Newspaper companies have churned over the years. Remember Ingersoll? Panax? Daily newspapers have disappeared from troubled markets. Remember the Metro-East Journal in East St. Louis?

This didn't use to be a problem because someone would have bought these papers. But who will buy them now? Who will step into the void, as the Belleville News-Democrat did in East St. Louis?

People have been talking about how some metro newspapers may not make it. Forget that for today. Lots of county-seat newspapers, which were immune until now, are owned by companies that may just blow away. This is not just going to two-day-a-week publication and updating the Web site and saying your main problem is going to be older people who won't see online obituaries. This is, gone. Look on Topix or Yahoo News for "Palmyra, N.J." or "Norristown, Pa." and see what you get, and from where.

This is not just the disappearance of classified advertising to the Web or the migration of readers, who in print still greatly outnumber those on Web sites. This is not small-town merchants who can't afford to advertise in metro papers. These are small-town or small-city papers. This is newsprint price rises and high-priced gasoline and collapsing retail sales and big-box stores that don't advertise. This is newspapers getting declining shares of local online advertising. These were decent bets for which loans were taken out in 2006 and that have gone bad. This is panic, and its result.

And there's nothing one can do about it, short of lots of people falling on their swords. But somehow, I don't think that this is what those predicting the glorious death of printed newspapers, replaced by a cornucopia of online information, exactly had in mind. One can imagine how one would replicate most of the functions of the Los Angeles Times online in some form or another and make actual businesses out of them, because of the scale of the market and the Times' emphasis on national and world news and stories affecting a vast region. One can imagine creating a Web site in Los Angeles serving an affluent neighborhood or one filled with goo-goo activists and making it into a business.

One struggles to say the same of Trenton, Ewing and Hamilton. At that point, it's someone's hobby. We have not yet come to terms with what happens when local journalism becomes a hobby.

6 comments:

Doug Fisher said...

David:

Again, you come to the edge and see -- nothing. But what's to say that some entrepreneurial journalists don't start an online news site in Trenton? The marginal cost compared to starting a paper is very small. And maybe they eventually get to reverse publishing.

I agree with you that the death of those papers would be a travesty. But it is not the end of the world.

And I think the opportunities also exist in Parsippany, N.J., and Hartsville, S.C., and New Ellenton, Ind., and many other small places. You set up a straw man: "If you think it's just peachy to have someone who was fired by the city and failed to be elected to the council as the main source of local political news, that it's just another voice in the debate and that readers know enough to discount the bias, you have a faith in discernment and involvement that makes the concerns about the New Yorker's Obama cover look small" without seriously considering alternatives. (BTW, more than a few local papers were set up by those same types. Only difference was that some had enough coin to buy a press. And more than a few of them have been "celebrated" in journalism history.)

I do agree that one of the major unknowns and troubling parts of all this is how to form a countervailing force to what is increasingly a centralized and entrenched bureaucracy at the local, state and national levels. But I'm not willing to say yet that it won't happen. Evolution is a funny thing ...

Davisull said...

Doug:

The end of the world, no. Yes, something would happen eventually, and in the interim there would be a lot of trying to adjust to a more chaotic order. There would be even less sense of community, and more of subcommunities jostling each other.

My point -- which may not have been too coherent at 11 p.m. last night -- was that the expectation had been that small dailies and weeklies would make this transition, albeit a bit more slowly, whereas metro papers would not, but it would not matter as much because metro areas would have an L.A. Observed or the like rapidly springing up. But now, somewhat unexpectedly, weeklies and small dailies are in the same crisis at the same time, thanks to the economic climate.

Anyone can create a news and information Web site in a town -- but if a newspaper company known for paying next to nothing cannot make a successful business out of it, the reason for getting into it for someone looking to make a living from it seems pretty thin right now. Something would happen eventually, there would be new models, but there would be many dry years ahead. There would be fits and starts. This may be inevitable, but it is not optimal.

You are right that many papers were founded on a political basis. My example is not a straw man. Change the type of agency covered and it was the person covering a major government agency for one of our local weeklies. Well, you rightly say, so what does this have to do with online? Because the other local weekly and the three area dailies covered the same thing with actual reporters, and so it became clear in the town that this paper's reporting was out of whack. If news coverage simply falls into the realm of people with an ax to grind -- "Joe's prejudiced view of the board is once again on display" -- or people for whom it is a hobby that lets them wander around town and note that the trees are turning, then there is no keystone and in the mind of the reader, it ALL may be out of whack.

It may be information, or it may be content. It may even be more emotionally compelling. But we do not yet really understand what it would mean if there was no designated objective watchdog that everyone in the room understands to be such, merely civic gadflies and hobbyists drawing attention to what they were interested in. We don't have agreed-upon rules yet for this era. And in the interim, we will have a lot of chaos.

Davisull said...

Ah, here's the added thing, Doug:

We're about to find out what happens when most of the print media serving a metropolitan area, urban and suburban, are effectively bankrupt without having made any sort of full online transition, regardless of who's right about the future. The future is here and we will just have to see what people make of it.

Doug Fisher said...

"Anyone can create a news and information Web site in a town -- but if a newspaper company known for paying next to nothing cannot make a successful business out of it, the reason for getting into it for someone looking to make a living from it seems pretty thin right now."

The reason may be that you continue to define it as the newsPAPER business. One of the reasons they are struggling is that even the smallest newsPAPER company has fairly large sunk costs.

I see entrepreneurs -- the same types of drunks and gamblers and even journalists who decades ago founded many small town papers -- stepping in unburdened by those sunk costs.

Yours is a straw man because it assumes a priori that only the "people with an ax to grind ... or people for whom it is a hobby that lets them wander around town and note that the trees are turning" will be the ones doing this.

I have a much more sanguine view of things. Change and disruption provide opportunity - and as a society we seem to be pretty good at adapting to those opportunities.

"But we do not yet really understand what it would mean if there was no designated objective watchdog that everyone in the room understands to be such, merely civic gadflies and hobbyists drawing attention to what they were interested in. We don't have agreed-upon rules yet for this era."

Who, pray tell, gets to agree upon those rules? Maybe society doesn't agree that you need an objective observer in the room. As you say, who knows? But you come at it with some assumptions I don't necessarily agree with.

If people want that objective observer, they will vote with their feet and their dollars -- and those who can create businesses out of this will hear it, too. As was the case in the great era of newspaper creation, some may be journalists.

Doug Fisher said...

I recommend Robert Picard's latest.

If one rationally looks at the industry, however, one sees that it is fundamentally sound, but that a unique, financially golden period in its history is ending. It is that change which is creating the bulk of the turmoil in the industry, but the biggest problem is that those working in the industry have short memories about the newspaper business and don't remember it any other way.

Doug Fisher said...

One other from Picard (who I think should be read regularly anyhow).

Underscoring all of this is a fundamental power shift in communications. The media space was previously controlled by media companies; today, however, consumers are gaining control of what has now become a demand rather than supply market. And media consumers are not merely content to be passive receivers any longer, many are now participating in production through the variety of forms of interactive and user generated content. This shift is apparent in the financing of contemporary initiatives in cable and satellite, TV and radio, audio and video downloading, digital television, and mobile media, which is based on a consumer payment model. Today, for every dollar spent on media worldwide by advertisers, consumers spend three. In the U.S., that ratio is 1 to 7.

Fascinating that the one thing that some people in the news business continue to call for, making people pay, seems to actually be happening elsewhere in the media biz. What does that tell you about newsrooms and journalism as we currently practice it? (And if you want to say, essentially, that people don't know enough what's good for them to vote their dollars intelligently, then you are making the case for an inherently elitist nonprofit model.)