Monday, November 24, 2008

Competition vs. Migration

Cuts at the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot -- perhaps America's best-designed newspaper, and led by Denis Finley, a terrific editor and terrific person -- well, it's happening everywhere, of course. My former Inquirer copy desk colleague Phil Walzer had to do the story. But bless Phil, he used the right word:

"Already struggling with Internet competition, newspapers nationwide have suffered further declines in advertising and circulation with the shriveling economy this year."

Yes, Internet "competition." It's not that standard newspaper phrase, "migration to the Internet." That was nice to use when newspapers believed that we and the readers were simply moving from one savanna to another and that our only problem was how to manage the, as it is always known, "transition." Papers had to say this because they believed they were going to clean up there just as they had always cleaned up in print. Some probably still do. Implicit was the belief that newspapers would BE news and information (and even classifieds!) on the Internet just as they had been in print. Animals migrate, and at a new place resume their accustomed habits. It is simply hoisting our flag at a different water hole.

But as Bob Garfield of Advertising Age noted:

"The model is not there. It's never going to come, ever. Yes, there's an increasing demand for news and information, but newspapers have never been in the news and information business. They don't sell news and information. They sell audience to advertisers. And now that news and information is given away on the web, it's over. It's not going to happen, probably ever."

All these wonderful sites on the Internet are not just part of a cornucopia of riches that newspapers -- and, Garfield's point, the journalists they employ and the journalism they do -- are going to "migrate" to, like animals finding better trees to eat. That doesn't mean that newspaper companies can't make use of the Internet. It means they are not going to find a business model there that will allow them to continue to be newspapers. If you believe that newspapers perform an essential function in convening, reflecting and fighting on behalf of communities, and that part of that comes from their mass, from their ability to say "we speak for the community" and not just "I speak for myself and a few other interested people," this does not look like a rebirth of journalism except that, just as with this blog, we finally get to tell everyone what we really think.

You can't beat the Internet at its own game, even though publishers thought they could. "The model is not there. It's never going to come, ever." Readers do not migrate to the Internet and, once there, retain the same habits -- which is what happens in migration. So, fellow copy editors and others, let's lose that term. Precision in language. Even if you think the presses should be turned off tomorrow, the Internet still provides more competition for newspapers, in terms of readership and advertising, not the successful destination of a peaceable migration. Let's call it what it is and not deceive ourselves by saying what it is not. Perhaps that will help answer the question, "If we can no longer assemble a salable audience simply by providing news and information, and if clearly we cannot do such online, what can we do to finance the sort of journalism we want to do?"

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think you're right that newspapers as media institutions are, largely, not going to make the "migration." I do think that a lot of individual journalists are making it. (I did.) Not all will be able to continue to practice the kind of journalism they love, but many will.

I wrote about this here a while back.