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:
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.
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.
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.