The Atlantic has a must-read essay from James Warren, “When No News Is Bad News” (h/t @guykawasaki), that does an excellent job of putting into perspective how the Internet played a role in the death spiral of newspapers. Most interestingly, he makes it crystal clear how precarious the road ahead is for real journalism’s survival as a result, while calling bloggers out on their exaggerated self-importance and understated reliance on traditional media.
Newspapers have been and remain by far the largest source of news coverage and analysis in any city or town. Without the local paper, the TV and radio stations would be in difficult shape, despite the good work they often do. The most popular websites—Yahoo, the Drudge Report, MSNBC.com, CNN.com, the Huffington Post, you name it—also rely heavily on the work of newspapers, more often than not appropriating and linking to their stories without providing a penny in payment. As I write, the headline on the lead Huffington Post story is about the Bush administration “Burrowing Political Appointees into Career Civil Service Positions.” Upon closer inspection, this Huffington Post Story turned out to be a truncated version of what was in fact a quite interesting Washington Post story. (And upon even closer inspection, the actual story made clear that this had been common practice among all administrations in their final days and cited about 50 examples of the Bill Clinton administration doing the same thing.)
The cooption of that Post story serves as a clear reminder of the extent to which newspapers serve as daily tip sheets for other media outlets. The Chicago Tribune has—or at least had—many more reporters and editors than all the TV stations and radio stations in town combined. Far more than CNN or Fox or CBS or ABC News. Traditionally, it brought in $100 million to $200 million more in revenue annually than all Chicago’s radio stations put together. But now a stunning decline in advertising revenue has broken the traditional business model for all papers. (There were weeks in the early part of 2008 when the Tribune began to fall behind conservative weekly revenue projections by more than $1 million. And in seemingly no time, its editorial department has gone from 650 employees to about 470.)
Classified ads, once the mainstay of newspaper advertising, are scarce—headed to Craigslist.com and other websites, where you can place your ad for free or for pennies. Other key advertising categories, notably auto and real estate, have also plummeted. Meanwhile, the price of newsprint is skyrocketing, despite declining demand.
The combination of a one-legged business model (expensive advertising), devaluation of their content (dirt-cheap subscriptions), and an ill-conceived approach to the Internet that devalued their content even further (by giving it all away for free) created a perfect storm that will continue to capsize an alarming number of venerable news-gathering institutions over the next couple of years. Magazines, of course, are also feeling the effects of this storm, many for the exact same reasons.
Warren illustrates the stupidity of giving away content for free in a way that’s difficult to argue with and lays some of the blame on the ego of journalists themselves:
The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune are among those organizations that have spent many millions of dollars covering the Iraq War, with each outlet paying for multiple reporters, translators, full-time drivers, guards, bullet-proof armored cars, year-round office space, office managers, and security consultants with intelligence backgrounds to provide threat assessments. And all of them give that work away for free online.
A friend of mine who was at dinner with a top Times executive asked why the paper had stopped walling off and requiring paid subscriptions for some of its online content. One factor, the executive said, was that a prominent columnist had voiced chagrin about fewer people reading his work. My friend wonders why, if the paper was giving away the columnist’s work for free, it shouldn’t have had him work for free. Perhaps he’s got a point.
Ironically, The Atlantic itself is guilty of this very same practice, making available online, for free, the full contents of every issue of the magazine I just renewed my paid subscription to for three years, making me feel like a bit of a sucker. (They claim access is limited to subscribers only, but I’ve never had to log in to view anything listed on their Back Issues page. I’d love to be proven wrong about it.)
I’m all for supporting real journalism, and The Atlantic is one of my favorite sources for long-form journalism by far (not to mention Andrew Sullivan and Ta-Nehisi Coates‘ excellent blogs), but it’s not a non-profit company, and as I noted a few years back in reference to the comic book industry, and as Warren concludes his piece, I don’t know if there are “enough people out there who care whether the light of serious journalism is allowed to fail?”
Honestly, I don’t think so.