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    Serious Journalism Won’t Die as Newsprint Fades

    by Mark Glaser
    March 19, 2007

    i-5912f88335f2d83a03f0d91c4b7a8780-Dead Sea newspaper.jpg
    I was reading my local newspaper today — yes, I still read it in print — and came upon this unfortunate passage in an otherwise nice report on a maverick newspaper publisher in rural California: “With classified advertising usurped by the Internet, newspapers across the country are facing mounting losses and, in many cases, cuts in staff and resources. First Amendment scholars fear that investigative journalism may die as newsprint fades away.” It is an echo of so many newspaper veterans who are so chained to the notion of print uber alles that they can’t see the potential for that same work in other media, namely online.

    Change is hard, change is wrenching, but change can be good. The old-schoolers would have you believe that we are in a time of horrible crisis in the news business. But when you look at the numbers, they are not as simple as “mounting losses” at newspapers. More precisely, newspapers are losing their monopoly status as the local news provider and their profits are going down. Readership is going down for print newspapers, but readership is continuing to rise — along with digital revenues — at newspaper websites.

    People who should know better are coming up with desperate-sounding measures to save newspapers (from themselves and their poor digital planning). At the forefront is David Lazarus, an outspoken business columnist who writes for, again, my local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle. His column re-processes that old notion of newspapers coming together in unity to charge everyone for access to newspaper content online. But that kind of consortium would result in an antitrust violation, right? Lazarus thinks an exemption would help:

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    My thinking is that this is approaching a life-or-death struggle for newspapers, and an antitrust exemption may be the only way that the industry can smoothly make the transition to a digital future. Put simply, we need to charge a fair price for our products, and we need to do so together.

    So let’s see, our readership is fleeing to blogs, TV and cable, citizen journalism and millions of other online outlets and our idea to stay competitive is to get together and charge everyone for access? If that isn’t bad enough, Lazarus goes further and thinks newspapers should sue bloggers and news aggregators Viacom-style:

    First off, there are the aggregators, sites like the Drudge Report and Huffington Post that pull together stories from a wide array of media sources (and charge advertisers a fee to appear beside links to content that they had nothing to do with creating). Just as Viacom is arguing that Google/YouTube shouldn’t have unfettered access to clips from ‘The Daily Show,’ MTV and other copyrighted material, newspapers should insist that a licensing fee be paid for aggregators to have access to their content. Then there are the blogs and other online venues that piggyback on the work of the ‘mainstream media’ that they frequently deride as antiquated and obsolete.

    Those horrible aggregators and blogs are also providing a great service for newspaper sites — they are driving traffic to the stories there. That traffic can then be monetized with online ads. Charging licensing fees to bloggers for citing your story or charging people to read your stories online is not going to save newspapers from some sort of doomsday scenario. News veteran and journalism professor Doug Fisher rightly skewers Lazarus thusly:

    What are they smokin’ by the bay?…It’s important we stop drinking the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s Kool-Aid. The horse has left the barn, the train has left the station, and all the cliches and antitrust exemptions in the world won’t change that. So let’s dismiss it as a weak moment of fancy [from Lazarus] and get back to figuring out how to make it work in the new economy, the one that’s reality.

    So right. What might save newspapers (from themselves and old thinking) is to get out of the doomsday mentality and actually look around at the ways that serious journalism, even investigative journalism, are happening online, and consider how they can make that work in their newsroom.

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    It took Hurricane Katrina to flood the town of New Orleans and send most of the Times-Picayune newspaper staff packing before that newsroom realized that its website could help produce Pulitzer-worthy work. In that case, the newspaper couldn’t physically print copies of the newspaper, so the website became the newspaper, and started a ground-breaking online forum that helped guide emergency workers to stranded residents. Later, the work at the paper’s website and blogs made up part of the entries that won the paper two Pulitzer Prizes.

    Small-staffed websites such as The Smoking Gun and TMZ.com have dug up dirt on public figures using that old shoe leather investigative work that requires digging through public records.

    Liberal blog communities have sprung up to gang-tackle investigative work, like the folks at Daily Kos or TalkingPointsMemo and its TPMmuckraker pro-am site, with professional journalists working with amateur tipsters. And the conservative side of the blogosphere, led by Power Line and Free Republic, helped investigate questionable documents tied to a “60 Minutes II” report that led to Dan Rather’s departure.

    And if you sneer that the blogs just have a political agenda, how can you respond to an effort like the bi-partisan blogger push that resulted in the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act? That law, which passed Congress last year, calls for a public online database detailing how Congress is spending our tax money.

    My argument is not that investigative journalism will jump from newspapers to the web. My argument is that investigative journalism will take place in many mediums, from the web to cable TV to network TV to blogs to any place where people congregate to ask important questions and team up to find answers. Rather than an either/or equation, keep your eye on the hybrid projects, like NewAssignment.net, harnessing the wisdom of experts and of veteran editors and reporters.

    Want a good hybrid example of investigative work? Look no further than ABC News’ The Blotter, a mainstream media blog that helped break the Mark Foley scandal last fall. Did a blogger break the story? Did the mainstream media? Both!

    Rather than looking at ways of trying to squeeze out more money by charging for content online or creating a consortium, journalists should start opening themselves up to new ways of newsgathering, hybrid pro-am efforts, and get readers involved. If they don’t, they have only themselves to blame for readers going elsewhere.

    Photo of Dead Sea newspaper reader by Kevin Lim.

    Endnote: If you need a visual view of what’s going on with professional and amateur journalists, this great graphic of the “Emerging Media Ecosystem” shows the symbiotic relationship quite well.

    Tagged: investigative reporting newspapers
    • Lazarus was way off base in his column, but at least the SF Chronicle is thinking about the issue, instead of hoping it will go away. Other folks over there have been writing about it too, and I’ve been blogging it to deatha as well.

    • What about Nick Carr’s arguement that newspapers subsidized investigative journalism with the ad revenue they made on pop culture fluff content – something that’s far less viable with the move towards niche publications online? I think that’s an interesting arguement.

    • Brian Robinson

      As someone who has been “online” since well before the Web appeared, I’d like Mark or anyone else to tell me how this brave new world of online journalism is really benefitting the masses?

      I can see the advantage for information elites, people such as myself whose job it is to ream through stacks of information of all sorts to glean tidbits for stories. But how does this benefit the average reader who has but a few minutes in a busy day to get their information?

      Broadcast news — mainly TV and some radio — is how they’ve gotten it up to now, with ancillary input from the daily newspaper. If this really is being displaced by online stuff then I don’t see what the advantage is going to be for those people, as broadcast is being replaced by niche, narrowcast news.

      Of course, if you’re of the mentality that “it serves them right” — along the lines of the poor are poor through their own lazy fault — then it’s their own fault if they can’t get online for just an hour a day to scroll through their RSS feeds, read their favorite mouthy blogs etc.

      Of course, that ain’t going to happen. What will happen is that people will start giving up the news altogether. That’s already been happening with the move to entertainment news, and I don’t yet see the Great Online reversing that.

      We are elites talking to elites about all of this, but I don’t see any realistic debate about the broader implications.

      Like I said, that’s from someone who’s been a part of this online world (as well as print) for over 20 years. I just get the feeling we are being buried in hype, here, and reality is getting a little lost.

    • rba

      Side note on the “graphic” from hypergene: twenty-three people listed @ Corante MediaHub (“parent” org), all male. Odd, that.

    • Marshall,
      I understand Nick Carr’s argument about fluff helping to subsidize investigative work. So why can’t that work online or on TV on in other media that figure out how to make money with digital content? Note how Yahoo used the money it makes in display and search ads to send Kevin Sites around the world to report on war zones. Not that this effort was a huge winner, but it is one attempt at doing that same thing online. Just because niches rule online doesn’t mean someone won’t roll them up to gain greater efficiencies with a network such as FM Publishing.

      Brian, good point about the digital divide and it’s important to keep in mind in all these arguments. However, research from Pew shows that the highest growth rates in Internet penetration are in poorer, rural and ethnic demographics, so that is changing somewhat in the U.S. — though far from perfect. Though all my examples were around the web, there are tons of examples of investigative work being done on TV, radio, magazines and other media. Just look at PBS and NPR. That’s a model that reaches the masses and doesn’t require monetization outside of pledge money.

    • Paul

      Broadcast (TV) news sucks these days because:
      – it’s too focused on the “celeberities” presenting it than the content in it
      – the content is given to us in ways that insult our intelligence
      – it’s loaded with advertising that gets in the way, both the stories themselves (corporate PR) and the actual ad segments

      Internet News is starting to suffer because:
      – it’s getting overloaded with video, which means I have to watch the 30 second video and ads instead of scanning it for 5 seconds. In short, it’s getting turned into TV. I like internet news because it’s *NOT* TV
      – I can’t read it unless I’m online

      The beauty of Internet news is it’s 24×7 (at least, not bound to print deadlines). But then 24×7 TV news gave us the all-day mostly worthless pap that is CNN.

      Maybe the new model is that all that online ad content will pay for the *PRINT* version to be free, and ad-free…

    • Mark, I think Kevin Sites is a great example. I wonder though how many situations we’ll see like that due to the granularity the web makes possible. I think an arguement could be made that there were so few media sources available in the past that there was a greater imperitive to include fluff and investigation in the same publication. Distribution costs are so low now that pure fluff proliferates. I don’t know how much Carr’s arguement holds water – I just think it’s interesting. I hope he’s wrong.

    • Marshall,
      It’s very easy to get into an all-or-nothing argument about the future of journalism. “Print will die!” “All media companies will go out of business” etc. etc. More likely, there’s going to be big changes but the old media companies that are nimble and try to really live in new media will survive in some way. It never makes a neat headline to say: “Change Will Come to Media Business But No One Knows What It Will Look Like.” Thus you get a lot of screaming and angst on both sides, old and new.

    • Wow, that Lazarus piece is old media thinking at its worse. One of the big things he overlooks is that newspapers like his are essentially repackagers of other people’s content. Between wire copy and syndicated columnists, at least 50% of a midmarket paper’s content isn’t owned by that paper.

      Why would I pay to read AP content I could read elsewhere for free? Yahoo! and AOL aren’t likely to start charging for that content.

      The original content that gets put up is, for the most part, put up in a way that has limited utility beyond the current day.

      Newspapers need to focus on creating compelling experiences for online users, instead of repackaging the print edition. Some, like the Washington Post, have done a good job. Most, unfortunately, haven’t.

      My prescriptions for the industry here:
      http://blog.agrawals.org/2007/03/04/taking-newspapers-beyond-tonights-fishwrap/

    • Eric Newton

      Good and serious thoughts, Mark.

      On the one hand, it’s quite possible that on a large scale investigative reporting is actually growing in volume, migrating to non-fiction books, independent documentaries, the non-profit arena, public broadcasting, magazines and still remaining strong at the local newspapers where it is valued. The human need to know drives the curiosity that pushes for ever more reporting.

      That said, there is an important challenge on the community level in places where traditional commercial media has decided to take on a “cash cow” strategy.

      If a community loses its electricity or its water, it knows about that immediately. But if it loses its investigative reporting, it may not know it for a long time — exposes are by definition things you don’t know. If they aren’t there, you can’t miss them.

      Somewhere in America 10 years from now, a bunch of citizens might well be discussing malaise in their community, talking about how their city just seemed to stagnate, or fall into corruption, or fail to innovate or attract new investment, or even worse, fail to attract good candidates for public office — and those citizens might never realize that the drying up of the local news stream played a role in that.

      To avoid those kinds of situations, public broadcasters, citizen journalists, student journalists, non-profits and entrepreneurs might need to develop new ways to quickly identify those communities and rapidly step in to fill any voids.

      Such activities, and public policies that encourage them, could be much more productive than trying to argue with companies that have decided to cut back their news coverage. And in the digital age, such activities are far less expensive and easier to organize than ever before.

    • Great conversation – and that’s the first point – this is a “conversation”, not a monologue. Are these types of multi-participant, living, accretive conversations enabled by the new media model harmful or helpful to serious or investigative reporting? Also, we tend to inaccurately portray this a a zero sum game with a winner taking a share from a loser – I don’t think any of us really think it is a zero sum game? The future of investigative journalism includes changes, but I think it should be brighter – in a world of almost infinite content supply and content access, won’t the premium content stand out even more, in almost any discipline? We still each only have 24 hours in a day. Won’t we take the premium content given a choice, and isn’t that choice one of the key components enabled by the new media model?

    • as long as people have the desire to wrap fish or clean their windows with newsprint, there will always be a market for the traditional newspaper medium.

    • Investigative journalism die? Huh??? Where in the world do people get that hand-wringer ya-ya from? The entire U.S. Attorneys Generals fiasco/scandal/whatever story about lawyers and Harriett Whatshername, the story I’ve been woken-up by on NPR, watched on ABC/NBC/CNN as the lead, for freakin’ weeks now it seems, was a classic spot of investigative journalism. It just happened to have a genesis in the blogosphere (Talking Points Memo).

      Someone needs to put these print whiners and wringers out to pasture. They simply can’t keep up with a news cycle that’s right in front of their faces.

      You can lead an old newsman to the Internets, but you can’t make ’em click a damn thing on apparently.

    • len glaser

      I’m pulling for the newspapers to make a comeback. I still don’t get my news online and rely heavily on the local newspaper and Wall street Journal.

    • len glaser

      I’m pulling for the newspapers to make a comeback. I still don’t get my news online and rely heavily on the local newspaper and Wall street Journal.

    • Eric

      The idea that investigative reporting is suffering because of the internet is absurd. As Glaser and so many others have noted, much of the best investigative work is being done on the internet, and with increases in citizen journalism, it’s only going to become more prolific. If fingers are going to be pointed for deficient investigative reporting, media corp’s such as Scripps and Gannett are much more culpable. Understaffed and underfunded is no way to produce quality reporting.

      So what can newspapers do to improve?

      I see two ways: Focus on internet content and change the format of the newspaper.

      Glaser pointed out the work done during Katrina online and it’s commendable quality. Another post noted the high quantity of shovelware and wire news. Improvements on these are in the process, and ESPN is a good example. ESPN has columnists that produce columns only for the internet, and news would be wise to model themselves after sports in this case.

      Because of pressures from TV, newspapers went from publishing morning and evening papers to daily’s, even weekly’s. It’s time for newspapers to change again.

      They should cede hard news to the TV and online communities, and become more like daily magazines.

      It could take several forms, but I suggest running each section once a week. Run a full Sunday paper, Monday feature sports, Tuesday feature science and health, Wednesday do politics, Thrusday do business, Friday do sports again, and Saturday do entertainment.

      Running only once a week allows for more in depth reporting, longer features, a smaller budget, and more time and resources on internet reporting.

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