Jason wrote in to ask why I thought that the newspaper industry was in a Dip. In my book, I point out that with classified ads disappearing and the web thriving, the days of newspapers as we know them are clearly over. That shouldn’t mean the industry is in trouble. In fact, there are more people reading more news every day than ever before—without the cost of printing and distributing a costly piece of newsprint every day. Happy days…
But (many of) the people in the industry have built their lives around the trees. As a result, the industry is over. A new industry is being built in its place, often with new people doing work that might be done far better by the old hands, the ones who are stuck defending the wholesale slaughter of trees.
If you think your job is to keep the printers busy, then you see the world differently. You focus on per issue sales, you worry about people sharing a paper (!), you don’t count online readers as valuable (even though they’re more valuable). You focus on one edition, not a thousand different versions. You focus on having one front page, not dozens based on who is reading.
If you work for a newspaper that feels this way, every day you stay is a day wasted.
Godin often disclaims that he offers solutions. He says he tries to get people to see the right problems. That leaves a lot unanswered here- far too many unanswered questions to be of immediate use to people like ourselves who are already grappling with this situation. But as a bracing outside voice, maybe the above quotation can shake up our thoughts a little.
Personally, I want the future of news to be online because – as long as we retain net neutrality – the barrier to entry for starting a news operation is much, much lower on the Internet than it is in print. (A new Knight News Challenge funded project could vastly reduce this divide between online and paper, Printcasting.)
However, disregarding the difficulty in developing a financially sustainable business model online to replace the longtime easy-money paper business model is folly, and not because wringing our hands is useful.
The difficulty with building content-producing businesses around digital media shows some critical problems with the current and future media landscape. Government policy determines the economics of media, and the current model is based on either controlling distribution or getting a third party (mostly, advertisers) to pay.
In both cases the result is less than optimal for meeting the needs of a democratic society. With restricted distribution, news gatherers withhold important information from people who need it. With outside (advertiser, government, even foundation) subsidy, reporting on critical concerns is distorted by the perspectives of those who pay. (This helps explain why buying and borrowing are important to media, while bankrupcty law and surviving the sinking of a skewed economy is not.)
The fact that both models are weakening gives us a chance to replace them, but we’re only have a chance of gaining something better if we both acknowledge, first, the role of government policy in shaping the economics of media and, second, the flaws of the current model apart from the current risk of financial insolvency for journalism.
To kill trees or not to kill trees isn’t the most important issue from the perspective of investigating and disseminating the hard news we need. Instead, my takeaway and starting point is this:
Laws that try to treat information as property are harmful to journalism in the public interest.