Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Curioser and Curioser

Martin Langeveld at Nieman Lab revisits his study of a year ago, of time spent with print newspapers as opposed to online, and finds that other than a decline in the number of people using print newspapers, things are basically as they were -- the people who use print newspapers still spend as much time with them, people do not use newspapers online to any great degree, and people get news online from non-newspaper sites increasingly. This matches with circulation declines and research showing slipping use of newspapers online, so Langeveld's point seems correct even if someone wants to go after his statistical method, which apparently, from his comments, many have done.

What I found most interesting was that Langeveld felt he had to include this:

"I began with the readership counts derived as above, and assumed average time spent with printed newspapers to be 25 minutes on weekdays and 35 minutes on Sundays. Now, this assumption got considerable comment flak last year, and no doubt will have its doubters this year. For those who say 'I don’t know anybody who reads a newspaper at all, so how can the average be 25 minutes?' let me say that more than 40 million newspapers are still sold every day and someone is reading them, whether you know them or not."

Which could lead to more meditations on how the webbed world is leading us all further into the sort of siloing of ourselves, as shown by the divide in Wilmington, N.C., over a planned cement plant as reported in the Journal. By golly, people who moved to Wilmington because it has cute neighborhoods and an arts community and you can surf at the beach a few miles away don't want those cement-plant jobs near them. They envision themselves being in Austin-by-the-Atlantic. But Wilmington, which spent decades as a declining seaport -- it once was the largest city in North Carolina -- still has a large group of people who look at factory jobs as a good thing. I guess the feeling is that all those people should move to Hickory or Lumberton or somewhere that software entrepreneurs don't want to live, where they can also read newspapers among their own kind, and leave Wilmington to those who "get" the new Wilmington.

But I digress. Langeveld closes with this:

"Meanwhile at newspapers, much effort and much dialogue continues to focus on getting readers to pay for content and battling aggregators — energy that might better be spent figuring out how not to lose the sizable remaining audience for newspaper content, not by 'protecting print' but by keeping the current print readers in the fold as they, too, gradually migrate to reading news online."

Had Martin said "keeping the current readers in the fold until they are supplanted by those reading news online" -- i.e., until people like me die -- I might disagree, and say there will always be some audience for newspapers, but the trend lines are clearly there. But in the end, Langeveld assumes that nearly everyone living now will eventually come to his or her senses and get news online, because, well, that's just what people will do, it's just that some are slower than others.

The fact that there might be an audience that says, you know, this printed newspaper thing, I really like it -- and I want to stay with it -- as Martin points out, in his town in Vermont he lives among people who read newspapers faithfully, but he probably doesn't invite over to the house people who would admit that they will keep doing so. Just like the people who are my close friends, who tend to be people who read print newspapers, even though they use the Internet all the time. My silo is not your silo.

I am again reminded of the incredulity in our newsroom in the 1990s that only 3 pct. of the Philadelphia area read the New York Times in print. Why, everyone we all knew read the New York Times! And indeed, everyone we knew tended to be in that 3 pct. of people who read the New York Times and not in the other 97 percent, let alone anyone who wanted to work in a cement factory in Wilmington, N.C.

I should end here, but always go for the low-hanging fruit. In a blog post picked up and reprinted by Online Journalism Review, David LaFontaine -- whom I would say more about, except that the link to his "Technorati Profile" doesn't work -- decides to draw a link between GM and newspapers. As someone who draws links between department stores and newspapers, and who knows that GM has been a large newspaper advertiser -- and who used to live in Flint, GM's Depression City Central -- this was of major interest.

LaFontaine starts out promisingly with this bullet point:


And admittedly, GM's cars of the '80s and '90s left much to be desired. His comparison in the newspaper business is zone feature stories. I worked in Neighbors for years, and admittedly many stories left much to be desired from a capital-J journalism sense. But then we work our way to:


"Reporters that dared to try to make suggestions about long-term changes (like less coverage of O.J. Simpson, and more of things like the erosion of middle-class opportunities) were ignored. Newsrooms have always been 'simmering cesspools of cynicism,' but this morphed into outright nihilism and rage."

Really? But we press on:


"In the newspaper industry: the subprime mortgage/real-estate boom created a huge advertising windfall for newspapers. The Homes section of the LA Times was often larger than the rest of the newspaper combined. Thousands of pages of expensive classified ads, paid for by realtors who were so awash in free money that they didn't care what the cost was. Of course, the rest of the classified business was absolutely cratering at this time. When the real-estate market imploded, and advertisers abandoned newspapers, looking for more efficient ways to sell their products, newspapers were also left without a viable product to sell."

Really again? So the solution would have been to cover the erosion of middle-class opportunities, but without real-estate advertising there was no viable product ... OK, I'm not sure that's what he means, because I'm really not sure what he means. But what I do get from this is that he is outraged that the L.A. Times decided to take the revenue Realtors were shoveling over the transom instead of doing what was needed for change, which seems to be a mix of both missing Internet opportunities and covering O.J. Simpson, real estate, and Neighbors features instead of covering "news."

In other words, the Los Angeles Times acted like a business instead of like a high church of journalism. Hey, here are advertisers, they have money, they want this, readers want to buy it! We should tell them all, "No! Read our exhaustive coverage of middle-class workers' lives in Pacoima online instead!" We are back once again to the point of so much criticism from Recovering Journalists all over the Internet, which is: If newspapers would just stop making short-term business decisions and realize that their real job was to subsidize ace reporting -- particularly the sort of ace reporting I did until some hackneyed city editor, dollars-mad publisher, or whatever took me off my important beat and told me to write about a woman who collects sponges shaped like George W. Bush -- all their problems would have been solved! Because the readers are, and always will be, people like me. But business is a business.

And news, it seems, is not much of a business by itself. Robert Picard wrote last month:

"News has never been a commercially viable product."

He notes:

"The Mass Media Finance Model appeared in the late 19th and 20th century, made possible by the industrial revolution, urbanization, wage earning, and sale of finished goods. In this model news was provided for the masses at a small fee, but subsidized by advertising sales. Because most of the public was uninterested in day-to-day events and 'hard' news, the bulk of newspaper content was devoted to sports, entertainment, lifestyle, and features that increased the willingness of the public to spend pennies for the product.

"This mass media financing model remains the predominant model for financing news gathering and distribution, but its effectiveness is diminishing because the 'mass' audience is becoming a 'niche' audience in Western nations as those less interested in hard news continue abandoning newspapers for television, magazines, and the Internet. This is creating a great deal of uncertainty how society will subsidize and pay for journalism in the twenty-first century."

His solution is to replace the tons of cash from Realtors with tons of cash from selling tickets or books.

I suspect Dave LaFontaine would shake his head. But unlike GM, a lot of newspapers were giving their readers what they wanted at that time. That was why they had massive household penetration rates and tons of money. I suspect they were not giving LaFontaine what he wanted -- a news product aimed at news junkies and wonks -- even back when they had tons of money, let alone now. But then we're back to the 3 percent of Philadelphians who took the New York Times.

Whatever newspapers' future is -- in whatever medium it is -- appealing to news junkies will provide simply a small niche. Whether that niche can be monetized is still up for grabs. Meanwhile, keep watching the print publication schedule of Politico.

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