This week, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer printed its last issue. Last month, the Rocky Mountain News ceased to exist. Across the country, newspapers and magazines are cutting staff, reducing coverage, and scaling back.
Journalists feel like they’re living in a crisis, and rightly so. A respected profession that has been supported by a stable, profitable business model for more than a hundred years is about to be upended.
But it’s the business model which has been given the death sentence — not the profession. The end of print is not the end of journalism.
In a brilliant essay published online this week, Clay Shirky writes:
Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.
The future offers plenty of alternatives — we just don’t know what they are yet.
The newspaper business is dominated by the fact that owning and operating a printing press is an enormously expensive endeavor. Those production costs are so high that newspapers rely on a combination of advertising and paid subscription to turn a profit.
The Internet poses an incredible threat to print journalism because it reduces production costs to nothing. That in turn provides competition for both advertiser dollars and story coverage.
Classified advertising — which used to be the lifeblood of newspapers all over the country — has been replaced by Craigslist. Print journalists are so frequently scooped by online competitors that many newsrooms have shifted their production schedules to meet the demands of the Internet (which means publishing stories online immediately), and it seems like every beat writer in America has her own blog and Twitter feed.
Perhaps no fact better demonstrates the absurdity of print production than this: The New York Times could buy each of its subscribers a new Amazon Kindle — the popular e-book reader which offers Times content — for half the amount of money that it costs to print and deliver its newspaper each year.
Given those economics, it’s no surprise that print journalism is struggling.
But the Internet has created a paradox: news is more popular and widely read than at any time in history. Websites for newspapers large and small attract visitors who would never read the publications in their physical form.
In at least some areas, the production of news has already improved far beyond the capabilities of print media. There are thousands — if not millions — of websites dedicated to reporting the latest information about sports, technology and politics, and while the quality of these outlets vary, the original coverage produced by sites like Talking Points Memo and Ars Technica rivals and often surpasses that reported in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
Other fields of journalism are on the verge of the same kind of evolution.
At a speech over the weekend at South by Southwest that has drawn a lot of attention, writer and entrepreneur Steven Johnson argued:
[In the future] there is going to be more content, not less; more information, more analysis, more precision, a wider range of niches covered. You can see the process happening already in most of the major sections of the paper: tech, politics, finance, sports. Now I suppose it’s possible that somehow investigative or international reporting won’t thrive on its own in this new ecosystem, that we’ll look back in ten years and realize that most everything improved except for those two areas. But I think it’s just as possible that all this innovation elsewhere will free up the traditional media to focus on things like war reporting because they won’t need to pay for all the other content they’ve historically had to produce.
That view is exactly right.
For those who are interested in technology, sports, or politics, there is a world of information that now exists which no one would have been able to access even a decade ago. And the freeing of information is already moving into fields that old media warns us will die without their cultivation.
The Small Wars Journal provides incredible, daily analysis of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq from soldiers, academics, and researchers. And journalists like Spencer Ackerman are doing fantastic war reporting for outlets like the Washington Independent — itself a model for where media is going.
In Chicago, Geoff Dougherty is making good on his plans to set up a local, investigative news organization that rivals the Sun-Times or the Tribune, and the Chi-Town Daily News is doing it for less than $2 million a year.
None of that, however, is to say that old media is going to give up this battle without a fight.
In a cover story in Time Magazine in February, Walter Issacson — a dean of the traditional media establishment — wrote a story that runs four pages online where he advocated for news outlets to begin demanding their readers offer small micropayments in exchange for the right to view online content.
Ten days ago, David Carr — a business reporter and columnist for the New York Times — suggested that media organizations should form a cartel to stop the practice of sharing free content with readers, to protect their content from aggregators like Google and Yahoo, and to abolish ad markets and remnant sales.
The old guard of the Fourth Estate is desperately searching for a way to extend the original newspaper business model, and that is preventing them from coming up with new ideas.
Micropayments is a notion which has been tried and proven not to work. Advocates will say the model succeeds for iTunes and music — but op-eds and exposes aren’t like music. Most of us feel little need to read even the best work that journalism produces more than once (and those who do buy will buy The Best of Sports Writing 2009 when it comes out this fall).
And on the Internet, information wants to be free.
If the New York Times throws up a wall, I’ll spend more time reading Gawker.
If the Washington Post charges for content, I’ll spend more time reading Politico.
If traditional media bands together and removes itself from the Internet altogether, then I’ll likely just forget about it.
But what happens when new organizations try something else?
In many cases, they succeed.
Some of the best state house reporting in the country right now is being done by reporters for the Center for Independent Media — a nonprofit founded by David Bennahum which manages sites in Colorado, New Mexico, Michigan, Iowa, and Minnesota (national reporting is done by the Washington Independent, whose good work we’ve already addressed). The Center is a nonprofit — the return for investors is not a dividend but the production of a high quality journalism that has a point of view.
Talking Points Memo is a profitable venture, and at a time when many outlets are closing down DC Bureaus, Josh Marshall has added a new subset of his original website — TPMDC — focused on covering the Obama Administration. To help run it, he has hired Matt Cooper — a veteran political reporter with decades of experience. TPMDC and all the TPM sites practice a kind of dynamic journalism, covering stories as they happen with frequent updates.
Om Malik began his career as a business reporter, writing for Forbes about telecommunications, venture capital, and entrepreneurship. Then, Malik became an entrepreneur himself, launching a start-up media organization. The GigaOM Network of sites employs writers who follow topics ranging from greentech to high speed broadband to video games. Individually, the popularity of these seven different sites varies, but together they feed a massive audience — nearly 2 million readers visit the sites each month. By following a slew of niche topics, Malik has built a media company stronger and more poular than the some of its parts.
The New York Times isn’t going anywhere — in part because it has shown a willingness to experiment and innovate, despite its status as an icon.
But in a time not long from now, many of the newspapers that have served their communities for generations and magazines that once enjoyed a national reach will not exist. Others will have changed the very definition of what they are.
As we move from now to then, great writers will lose their jobs, brilliant editors will be looking for work, and all kinds of institutional knowledge will be lost.
Those facts aside, the future of news in general and professional journalism in particular is anything but bleak.
The infinite capacity of the Internet will generate a never-ending stream of new media ventures. Some will become popular and others will fail. Some will adhere to a rigorous standard of professionalism and others will print the most thinly-sourced of rumors, while some will simply make things up. But the best of these sites will have always chance to succeed on their own terms.
The talented writers and thinkers who populate the Fourth Estate will have an opportunity to help shape and cultivate this future. But not if the best minds in print stay focused on perpetuating a non-sustainable business model.