American Journalism; Still Crappy

by Brien Jackson

It seems some people in the news business have a dandy idea for fixing their leaky boats:

Keller said the best evidence of the soaring demand is that websites that do “dependable” reporting are winning readers; he noted that the New York Times’ website gets nearly 20 million unique monthly visitors. “The law of supply and demand,” he said, “suggests that the market will find a way to make the demand pay for the supply.”

Entrepreneur/journalist Steve Brill agrees, and this week told the American Journalism Review that “newspapers have basically destroyed themselves by giving it away for free.” He called the unwillingness of most to charge for visiting their websites “totally insane.”

Two major newspapers — the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times — charge readers tiered fees to view their online journalism. The rest of the industry has decided there’s more money to be made in charging advertisers for the larger audiences that free content attracts than in selling online subscriptions.

That’s wrong, in my view, but it’s hard to argue with as long as some major newspapers are giving their online journalism away; until they stop, nobody can risk charging for theirs. That’s where the antitrust exemption would come in: It would allow all U.S. newspaper companies — and others in the English-speaking world, as well as popular broadcast-based sites such as CNN.com — to sit down and negotiate an agreement on how to scale prices and, then, to begin imposing them simultaneously.

In other words, they’re asking for an anti-trust exemption so they can all get together and set prices for consuming the news on their websites. The fact that they’re asking for an exemption tells you they know this isn’t a viable business model, meaning that if only one or two of them did it they’d lose traffic to free sites. But apparently that’s not deterring these super rich masters of the universe dogged public serving journalists.

This is all getting a bit absurd. Frankly, we know why newspapers are having trouble; while the internet has enabled them to get more readers online, site’s like Craig’s List have taken away advertisers and classified space buyers, which are the print paper’s main source of income. So the problem is figuring out how to keep the news stream going while losing your traditional source of income. Charging people for the news is one venue, I suppose, but realistically speaking that’s not a very good avenue either. When major blogging sites buy access to your site and turn around and write about your stories, now the mass public has a way around the cost, and the blogosphere really would be killing the news industry.

Ultimately the problem here is pretty simple; the news media is still dominated by people with a romanticized view of their profession, and so these proposals never really include any kind of sweeping change to the industry. So, for example, no one ever really wonders if its time to stop incurring the cost of printing a bunch of (physical) newspapers when most of your readership is digital, or any other structural change to the way print media operates.

And it’s not like there’s a lack of ideas floating around, I’m pretty sure everyone has at least a couple of ideas as to how you could update print media to the 21st century. I’ll even toss one out for you right now; eliminate the Op-Ed page. While I think the “blogs killed newspapers” meme is mostly wrong, it’s hard to argue with the idea that blogs have rendered Op-Ed columnists largely useless. In effect, a column in The New York Times or The Washington Post is most likely to operate just like a longish blog post in the daily conversation, albeit one without charts or links, and covering a topic that’s likely 2 or 3 days old by the time it’s printed. This makes no sense whatsoever, especially when you consider that the newspapers are paying millions of dollars annually for these things. I like Paul Krugman as much as the next guy, but there’s no reason to be paying him that much money for a twice weekly column in this media market.

Instead, why not give them blogs? And don’t pay them very much money to generate content. One thing I’ve never understood was the idea of paying large sums of money to columnists to write for you  and, for all of his talk about supply and demand, Bill Keller doesn’t really seem to grasp it in action. To wit, the pages of the Times are very valuable space. They give a writer an audience, prestige, and a certain level of credibility with the average reader. There are literally thousands of people who would write Op-Eds for them weekly for a fraction of what MoDo and Tommy Suck on This are paid for their nonsense, and I’d wager there are a lot of people (myself included) who would gladly do it for free. So why exactly, should media companies be paying them when demand is high among writers and publishing space (supply) is low? That’s a seller’s market if ever there was one.

So, to this end, papers ought to offer, instead of shelling out massive sums of money for 2 columns a week in print, to host a blog for their stable of writers which should be updated 2 or 3 times a day Monday through Friday which the writer will receive no direct compensation for. It’s not a huge workload, so it’s not preventing anyone from doing other work to make plenty of money (and it’s not like writing Op-Eds does now either), and the papers won’t suffer from a lack of smart, talented writers desiring to fill the positions. It will, however, save the papers a lot of money, increase the quality of their content, and move the industry into the modern times; even if it doesn’t fit the stereotype that journalists still think the business must embody.