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    Killing Trees and the Future of News Online

    by Benjamin Melançon
    June 4, 2008

    Seth Godin on the news buiness versus the paper business:

    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.

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    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.

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    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.

    Tagged: advertising bankruptcy Godin idea law intellectual property IPR Rushkoff trees
    • This is an international blog, so I should mention that Internet equality needs saving in Canada, too (with the disclosure that Agaric Design Collective made that site) and probably other places as well.

    • Your explanation is refreshingly lucid, Benjamin. The difficult situation facing journalism right now won’t solved completely by plucky entrepreneurialism, as some high-profile ‘net pundits seem to believe. Do journalists and their professional orgs need to start speaking out for policy reform?

    • A Role for Related Content:

      Every time there’s an article on foreclosures or any other credit problem, someone should be – I know I would be – linking it to the one perfunctory article that a news organization probably managed to provide on the evil bankruptcy-restriction bill during its slow, terrible passage into law.

      This is the space of connection that is not only far easier to do than writing a comment about the connection, but it is potentially more powerful if its prominence and directness drive more people to read the related content and draw their own conclusions.

    • Well Emily,

      I’m glad you asked!

      “Do journalists and their professional orgs need to start speaking out for policy reform?”

      I will be at, and trying to report for Idealab on, the National Conference for Media Reform, which comes at the problems with media from exactly that approach.

    • (And before that, also in Minneapolis, The New Pamphleteers, on local news with a focus on individual-maintained or small web sites.)

      Currently streaming online.

    • Print vs. online is often painted in a simplistic black-and-white way that fails to factor in the unique attributes of both mediums. And they can, and do, work together when done right.

      The objective of our Printcasting project in Bakersfield isn’t to kill more trees. The purpose is to get more niche printed and “printable” (via PDF) products into our local market that leverage online user-generated content and local self-serve advertising. But not to discount the environmental argument, I think you could argue that a niche-print models uses less newsprint since your press runs are smaller — more in the 10,000 – 25,000 weekly range versus 100,000+ daily.

      A significant amount of our audience and revenue growth in Bakersfield is coming from niche social networking sites and accompanying print products (we have 6 now). Consumers understand and appreciate being able to submit content online and interact with their network of local friends, and then see their content in print. And the print products have a marketing aspect that brings new users to the online community. In some ways they’re like smart flyers for the online brand.

      But most importantly, we see that local advertisers REALLY prefer affordable print advertising to online ads. This leads me to believe that the fundamental problem with printed newspapers is the one-product, mass-distribution model, but not print itself.

      There will always be a daily newspaper, but at the same time we will and indeed already are seeing more and more niche printed newspapers, newsletters and magazines in town. The daily newspaper is becoming more like a really large niche product (uber-niche?) that is flanked by an increasing number of targeted print and online niches.

    • (Note: The original title was “I don’t report because I like news, I report because I hate trees” but was probably edited as way too cryptic, as well as too long.)

      I’m not trying to make an environmental argument. Rather, the irrefutable statement that the current business models are in trouble and the irrefutable response that new business models are needed has a space between them rich with implications, starting with what enables current business models: government policy.

      Policy can be changed to support not the killing of trees nor the moving of electrons but news in the public interest itself.

      This isn’t anything we can do as individuals nor immediately. Nevertheless, as we try to find ways to make investigating and disseminating the facts jobs enough people can afford to take, so that truths that can make other progress as a society possible, it’s important to keep an eye on the big picture.

      People should be rewarded for what they contribute to society, and there’s a strong case for finding ways to compensate creative workers, from cartoonists to scientists and including journalists, more directly.

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