Friday, October 3, 2008

Fault Lines

Paul Farhi writes in American Journalism Review to say: It's structural forces that are killing newspapers, not journalism. This is a challenge to those of us who believe that it's a combination of structural changes and journalism's own changes in emphasis over the past decades.

Farhi notes that newspapers still have a devoted, affluent, educated audience that is satisfied with newspapers, particularly when opposed to television. He notes the flight of classified to low-cost Internet sites and says, "Classified advertisers didn't desert newspapers because they disliked our political coverage or our sports sections, but because they had alternatives." Which, of course, is true. He adds in the loss of local department-store, clothing, auto-parts and other chains, and the at-least short-term failure of Web advertising to attain anything like a business model, particularly for newspapers. And all of this is true as well. And then he mixes in the unfortunate bets many companies placed on the newspaper business based on 2006 cash flows continuing, and the unpayable debt that is now owed.

As he says: "Can you really blame the newsroom for that?"

Well, no, no more than you can blame the newsroom for the emergence of television. And you cannot blame the newsroom for poor results from the advertising department. You can, however, note also that newspaper circulation began its relative decline in the 1960s and its absolute decline around 1984. You can note that survey after survey in which readers and non-readers alike said what changes they wanted from newspapers were ignored, poo-poohed or followed halfheartedly by many newsrooms. You can note the newspapers that cut back on local coverage while pursuing regional or national dreams. You might make a case that editors should have been willing to give up some of their newsroom budgets for promotion and research, although you could make a case against it as well. And you could note how some of these newspapers and newspaper companies that have encountered problems were led, in the publisher's office or higher, by people who had come up through the newsroom.

So when Farhi says, "... Dear readers: Our disappearance wasn't your fault. And as a journalist, I can safely say, it wasn't ours, either," well -- yes and no. The failure of journalists to take responsibility for the financial underpinning of their profession, through taking into account the actual needs and desires of their readers, is not the fault of individual journalists but of a profession that came to believe it was above such things because of, as Farhi notes, a business model that enjoyed a scarcity advantage -- a natural oligopoly. Otherwise, Farhi's argument could be extended to mean that journalism was essentially irrelevant to the business of newspapers. He would not go there, but if journalism is not responsible for the business' failures, it is harder to argue that it was responsible for their successes either. Your team's play doesn't count only when you're winning.

(UPDATE: In the Guardian, Roy Greenslade says that even though Brits find American papers boring, he agrees with Farhi that it's not journalists' fault here or there, mate.)

At the same time: No, the economic problems that exist today are not caused by second-rate journalism. First-rate and second-rate and third-rate papers are all feeling the same pain. Of course, that means first-rate journalism isn't the solution, either, which brings us to Steve Smith's falling on his sword at the Spokane Spokesman-Review. Smith sees his new freedom as meaning he no longer has to spend any more time on defending the print model and can advocate even more for an online-centric approach. And he notes:

“'It is no longer my job or our job to save newspapers. Our job is to save journalism and the values that underlie newspaper journalism,' such as the free flow of information and aggressive coverage of government."

(I'm not sure who the "our" refers to; perhaps all of our worlds changed at the moment his did. And given the climate, Steve is probably not going to be looking for another newspaper editorship anyway. Steve always has been one to push the envelope; I recall when he was editor of the Colorado Springs Gazette, that they once ran a Sports front that was nothing but, if I remember correctly, strips of photos of eyes, separated by white space, and that it did not go over well with Sports readers or the management. But I disgress.)

Well, who's going to disagree on saving journalistic values? So this is a discussion question: How much does technology dictate values? Television news started with many refugees from newspapers and wire services, on the national level with the Walter Cronkites and John Chancellors, on the local level in many markets as well. And in the 1950s and 1960s TV news held to the same values that newspapers had, because it also was viewed as a loss leader in a protected oligopoly. Then local news became a profit center, and we all know what happened -- no insult to the many people in TV news who do their best every day to maintain journalism in that field, but we all know what happened.

Newspaper journalism values developed as part of the production of printed products -- it's not apotheosizing print newspapers to say that. The emphasis on verifying the first rough draft of history, the very things that newspapers covered, the way they did so, came from the fact that a newspaper was the first rough draft of history, printed through enormous labor, distributed to individual readers in a physical form, ultimately bound into volumes, and looking for an edge against a limited number of competitors by selling, among other things, accuracy and objectivity.

There is no reason to believe that those values cannot carry over into an Internet-based world. On the other hand, there is no reason to believe that they will, either.

Or that they will not be either subtly or radically changed by a medium which anyone can enter at nearly zero cost, at which immediacy means real immediacy and not "immediacy after verification," in which geography no longer need be an asset or a hindrance, in which we have already seen the model of objectivity being challenged and in many cases being deemed irrelevant in a medium in which partisanship and personality draw eyeballs.

Objective coverage of local issues was a strategy that worked to maximize market share in order to gain advertising, by providing a product acceptable to the largest number of people. In the niche world of the Internet, where economies of scale seem not to apply until you get to the level of Google, what is the economic spur for objective coverage? Copy editing rose as a craft not just because stories needed copy editing, but because copy editors had to master the arcana of head counts and column widths and subbing stories on deadline. The current decline of copy editing has many causes -- immediacy vs. accuracy, the idealistic belief that online readership will point out any errors and someone will actually correct them -- but a main cause of the decline is that posting on the Internet is easier than putting something in the paper. A child could do it. So technology has and will continue to have a great impact on journalistic standards.

And, of course, many are the stories in the newspaper that do not concern the free flow of information and aggressive coverage of government. Even the smallest technological change affects journalism; you run different photos on A1 once you have them in color.

To believe that the values of print journalism will or even must be inevitably be adopted by online journalism is to believe that -- well, to believe that none of this is our fault, either. None of which makes print newspapers economically sustainable. It indicates caution in advocating their wholesale abandonment. To turn Mies on his head (CORRECTION: Louis Sullivan, not Mies! What an idiot I am), it is also true that function follows form.


Anonymous said...

You are absolutely right. I am sure that medieval monks once looked at the introduction of moveable type and said it would never match the artistry and craft of their illuminated manuscripts. The illuminated manuscript business collapsed almost overnight.
It is not as if newspapers were not warned. Their readership surveys for years showed readers wanted local news and, yes, local business news. They ignored all of this, and killed off their business sections even while funneling their diminished cash into prestigue Washington bureaus that produced the same copy found in magazines or elsewhere.
Later this month we will see circulation figures, and I bet they are off another 4 percent this year. They have been declining at the pace of 3 to 4 percent a year for the last 20 years, and the industry response is to moan about teenagers not reading their product. Maybe it is the product and not the teenagers to blame. Teenagers don't seem to have much trouble with magazines, but newspapers have made no effort to match those products for fear of alienating their adult readers.
Farhi is right that there will be a shakeup, but editors and journalists can't say they weren't in part participants in the decline of newspapers.

Anonymous said...

When monks wrote by hand no two copies were identical. The only problem with type is that one mistake can be printed a million times before the error is discovered. Which leads me to believe that good journalism is great public relations.

What readers want is more, much more, local content and indepth coverage of business. I believe at the end of one year reading the local business section of a newspaper a reader should have obtained a MBA level knowledge in the subject. People yearn to learn, and newspapers are missing the point completely.

Danny L. McDaniel
Lafayette, Indiana

Anonymous said...

It's so easy to write that this is the problem and that isn't. (Typically, I'm not the problem, they are.)

It's seldom that simple. Thanks for pointing this out by pointing to the past and the present, David.