Sometimes You’re The Iceberg, Sometimes You’re The Titanic

titanic_newspaper_lg

The on-going debate on the future of newspapers, what the internet does to the future of newspapers, do we need newspapers, etc…

Jack Shafer in Slate:

The barriers of entry into the journalism business have been battered down, making it easier than ever to enter the profession. That will read as small consolation to the journalists who have had their publications shot out from under them—the Rocky Mountain News, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Ann Arbor News (come July 23), and magazines too numerous to tally. But please notice that I’m not saying there has never been a more lucrative or prestigious time to become a journalist. The cash and status associated with the profession are fairly recent. Until the early 1970s or thereabouts, the average journalist made an average salary (if that), and his societal standing was modest.

If the downside of the battered-down barriers to entry is less pay and lower status, the potential upside is that a flood of new entrants into the field could portend a journalistic renaissance. No, I’m not saying that every junior blogger and pint-size videographer will immediately stand as tall as Barton Gellman and Errol Morris and that the Washington Post and NBC News should be flushed. But journalism has generally benefited by increases in the number of competitors, the entry of new and once-marginalized players, and the creation of new approaches to cracking stories. Just because the journalism business is going to hell and it may no longer make economic sense to maintain mega-news bureaus at the center of war zones doesn’t mean that journalism isn’t thriving.

Andrew Sullivan on Shafer:

I share his enthusiasm. And I don’t think it is that terrible a thing if most journalists start earning less money. I wrote this blog daily for years for nothing because I love what I do. I’ve been really, really lucky to have landed at the Atlantic but the dirty secret is that I’d do this because I want to know more about the world and bring that information to as many people as possible, to advance those causes I believe are just and expose those lies that I think need exposing. And to have a great time. That this opportunity is now available for countless more people than ever before does indeed make this period not one of media decline but of media renaissance. From the tweets of revolutionaries to the testimonies of women who have had late term abortions, the potential for understanding more and deeper and better is real.

So why all the long faces and wrung hands? All change is wrenching and I know that many are struggling. But struggle is life. And this is America. Go for it.

Megan McArdle:

This seems to me to rather precisely miss the point.  The problem besetting newspapers is not that there are hordes of bloggers giving it away for free.  Bloggers are, to be sure, great competition for the op-ed section.  But the op-ed section is not a money maker, as the New York Times so painfully discovered with Times Select.  As I wrote at the time, the Times confused what people were emailing each other with what they would be willing to pay for.  If those things were the same, poems about Jesus and pictures of kittens wearing hats would have replaced gambling and porn as the internet’s most profitable content.

Journalism is not being brought low by excess supply of content; it’s being steadily eroded by insufficient demand for advertising pages.  For most of history, most publications lost money, or at best broke even, on their subscription base, which just about paid for the cost of printing and distributing the papers.  Advertising was what paid the bills.  To be sure, some of that advertising is migrating to blogs and similar new media.  But most of it is simply being siphoned out of journalism altogether.  Craigslist ate the classified ads.  eHarmony stole the personals.  Google took those tiny ads for weird products.  And Macy’s can email its own damn customers to announce a sale.

In a related point, there’s quite a debate over Chris Anderson’s Free: The Future of a Radical Price. Malcolm Gladwell reviewed the book in the New Yorker. Matthew Yglesias put a post up on the subject and then a second post. Yglesias also links to Seth Godin and Tim Lee, as well as Anderson himself at Wired. Matt Y:

Once upon a time, a media business—whether it charged a nominal price for content (newspaper) or not (broadcast television)—could take advantage of massive barriers to entry to generate monopoly rents. That then created not only big money for owners, but also a huge surplus that could be thrown around in all kinds of goofy ways (Roger Cohen informs us that he was once reprimanded for flying business class to South America on the grounds that “The Wall Street Journal flies first class”) that were fun for the key stakeholders in the industry. The same factors that are pushing things toward Free are, I think, basically just making key sectors of the economy less lucrative than they used to be. That’s a good thing, overall, but at the same time there’s no sense in trying to deny that many current stakeholders have every reason to be sad about current trends.

Freddie at The League, responding to the debate and the Matt’s post specifically:

Cutting! You know what those high profit margins allow the WSJ to do, besides keep its reporters in luxury? Send them to South America! Let me all techno-utopians in on a little key fact: good journalism is expensive. Yes, it’s true. It costs money to have a London bureau. It costs money to dispatch good reporters to Iraq or Indonesia or the Arctic Circle. I have heard so many Pollyanna-ish notion about the collapse of the print news media that I can’t keep track of them. “Oh the New York Times is gonna fold, but hey! Talking Points Memo….” You know what TPM isn’t going to do anytime soon? Be able to fund a system of international bureaus that offer on-the-scene reporting about international events. Deadspin isn’t about to start sending out beat reporters. Oh, they’ll snark and snort and gibber about the dinosaurs at the Washington Post and their outmoded models, all the while using the Post’s reporting to generate their own content. But they won’t replace that content, not ever. Yeah, I agree, it seems like the newspaper industry is doomed. The idea that everything that newspapers provide can be replaced by blogs is nonsense; the idea that nothing that won’t be replaced isn’t valuable, disgusting. News, actual, real, reported journalism, is important, for any free and just democratic society, and those who deny that we will lose anything of value are either blinded by optimism or profiting by saying so.

Will at The League:

Maybe this is a romantic view of news gathering, but I think we’re guilty of buying into an equally romantic vision of the future of new media. Twitter, YouTube videos, first-hand accounts of clashes with riot police circulating around the blogs; these are all fascinating nuggets of information. But taken individually, detached from any broader context, they mean very little. In some cases, they’re downright deceptive. Does anyone think Twitter users in Tehran represent an accurate cross-section of Iranian opinion? I suspect rural farmers are slightly under-represented, though perhaps they’ve got a hashtag floating around somewhere (Reactionary Rural Iranians on Twitter – RRIT?). More significantly, does anyone think the spectrum of tweets highlighted on Andrew Sullivan’s blog represents an accurate cross-section of Iranian opinion? This is not to criticize Sullivan, but he’s one man with two interns, not a news agency with access to credible sources on the ground.

New media enthusiasts started out by criticizing the way newspapers report the news, but in recent years the debate seems to have shifted from a critique of their methodology to a critique of the very notion of professional news-gathering. We’ve gone from conservatives criticizing the media for liberal biases to conservatives criticizing the need for a “mainstream media” in the first place. So now we’re saddled with ridiculous outfits like Pajamas Media, which purports to replace newspapers but is in fact parasitically dependent on their reporting. Original commentary is all well and good, I suppose, but there’s not exactly a dearth of opinion floating around the blogosphere.

E.D. Kain at The League:

In the end, I just fail to see how all this will end in disaster.  Sure, we may miss the mark here and there from time to time.  Cars were certainly an improvement over trains, but we made a big mistake in not building up high speed rail as an alternative.  Similarly, I think news delivery should remain diverse – not reliant on print, or online, or television solely, but some combination of all possible sources.

When we speak about “old” vs “new” media, we’re really only speaking about modes of delivery, at least when it all comes down to basics.  Old media can remain just as important and vital as ever, but it’s going to have to adapt and learn from its junior counterpart.  The two work together now, building off of one another.  There is no reason that partnership can’t continue.  News organizations will have to cut back, but not so much that they can’t provide the news.

The death of Big Music Labels means only the death of Big Rock Stars, after all.  It doesn’t mean the death of rock, or music, or anything like that.  The same is true of the news.

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Filed under Books, Mainstream, Media, New Media

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