Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Who's to Blame When A Newsroom is Decimated?

UC Berkely journalism professor Neil Henry opines in the San Francisco Chronicle about the Chron's decision to cut 100 newsroom jobs and suggests that Google and Yahoo should do something to subsidize journalism since they benefit so greatly from it:
"It stands to reason that Google and corporations like it, who indirectly benefit so enormously from the expensive labor of journalists, should begin to take on greater civic responsibility for journalism's plight. Is it possible for Google to somehow engage and support the traditional news industry and important local newspapers more fully, for example, to become a vital part of possible solutions to this crisis instead of a part of the problem?

"Is it not possible for Google and other information corporations to offer more direct support to schools of journalism to help ensure that this craft's values and skills are passed on to the next generation?

"Is it not possible for these flourishing corporations to assist and identify more closely with the work of venerable organizations, such as the Society of Professional Journalists, in support of their mission and to preserve this important calling?"
I am worried about what may happen to journalism if its custodians fail, and I will take no consolation if it is their own damn fault. I lose either way.

Jeff Jarvis at BuzzMachine takes an opposing view, arguing that Google doesn't really make much money off news and that Yahoo! pays for content and that both drive traffic to originating sites. "Google is far and away the most productive means of sending audience to news sites," he says. (
I don't know if it is still the case but in the early days it was an open secret that some content owner paid Yahoo! for the right to be on their site. How things have changed. But I digress).

Entrepreneurial Thinking in the Newsroom

It's true that Craigslist is dining out on a diverted revenue stream from newspapers but generally I don't think revenue is leaving newspapers and finding its way to Yahoo! and Google. It is more liekly that because the rules are changing there is less money to be made -- perhaps part of the price for setting information free -- and that newspapers think they must, for the time being anyway, support a top-heavy mortar-and-bricks newspaper infrastructure which their digital businesses are unable to sustain.

And that's what makes the problem somewhat intractable. It requires entrepreneurial thinking in the newsroom and even more so media corporate suites, places which are not synonymous with agility and adaptability. Even so, there are no guarantees: for all the griping that newspapers aren't being clever enough nobody has a bullet-proof business plan that travels anywhere and scales. So maybe there is a model that will enable the transition of media companies who happen to own newspapers, and maybe there isn’t. Maybe we are witnessing the early days of extinction for newspapers as we know them, to be replaced by something which serves the public better.

Or not nearly as well. I'm struck by the similarity of the death of small-town Main Street businesses at the hands of Big Box stores. The loss of Annie's Dress Shoppe is lamented but the charge is taken up -- suitably replaced -- by Abercrombie and Hollister. Is it the same when The SmallTown Gazette goes under? I believe in evolution and the market even in the news business but there is something more at stake worth fretting over as nature takes it course: the new publishers of record create no content and have no journalistic tradition. Isn’t this extraordinary and historical?

Revolutionary Bifurcation

I don’t blame Google or Yahoo for being successful or excuse newspapers that aren’t monetizing their inherent and inherited monopoly on local. But when journalists — and I do think that still means something special — are hurting and aggregating publishers regard journalism as just another widget it’s clear that something is going to have to give. It is this bifurcation that is revolutionary and I think journalists and newspapers and anyone who depends on a free and flourishing press has to come to grips with it.

It is more than a little amusing that there is any "tsk tsk" about the impact on journalism with a Thomson-Reuters combination or a Murdochian takeover of DJ but what seems like reflexive neutrality bordering on an invitation of anarchy about what is going on in the business long term. What happens when there isn’t the structure to do enterprise? When institutional knowledge dies? When the public thinks my take on the Supreme Court is as insightful as Linda Greenhouse’s? When there isn’t anything unique to link to?

I think it is possible to take a macro view of this without taking the bait or when lawsuits are threatened. I am worried about what may happen to journalism if its custodians fail, and I will take no consolation if it is their own damn fault. I lose either way.

1 comment:

John Duncan said...

I have to agree with your very thoughtful piece about who's to blame. It's us. We in newspapers have been far too slow and timid and lacking in ideas.

Your shop example is a good one too. In truth a great number of the shops killed by bigger stores just weren't very good or weren't able to offer something above and beyond selling the same stuff more expensively than their bigger competition.

But I can think of good shops that did survive. That were special in service, or product knowledge, or relationships, they also sensibly gave up trying to be the cheapest.

Newspapers should do the same. Understand why so many people love newspapers and work with that rather than trying to become online producers of free information with high costs and low revenues. Newspapers will certainly have to askreaders to pay more than they currently do for their product. And there won't be as many advertisers either. But those are not insurmountable barriers and with a thoughtful restructuring of what we deliver to people as newspapers and how we can give them more, I still believe in our future.