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July 28, 2014

Press One for News Emergency

Imagine you'd left the planet some time just before the election and
just returned. You'd find that suddenly someone's sounded a Press
Emergency! First, it was Sarkozy calling his people to rally 'round the failing press — aux barricades, mes freres. Now, though, it's serious.

Time Magazine certified the emergency with Walter Isaacson's
"How to Save Your Newspaper." The newspaper pictured below that
catchable headline: the New York Times. And that tells us a lot about
the siren call of emergency we're hearing. The Power Corridor, from
Boston to D.C., has woken up to the fact that daily newspapers are
dying out. Maybe they've been distracted by the all-consuming 2008
Presidential campaign or the financial smackdown we've experiencing. 

Yes,
the news(paper) industry is in a world of hurt, but it's hardly a new
2009 development. That said, everyone's jumping in the act. Stephen
Brill is giving the New York Times the benefit of his paid content
experience, through "secret" memoranda. The New York Times itself offered six writers some digital space
to opine on the question of "Battle Plans for Newspapers."
Micropayments are again being raised and satirized. It's all enough for
those of us on the other side of the country to urge a deep Left Coast
yoga breath.

What may appear to be a sprint to fix (where is SNL's Keenan Thompson's
Mr. Fix-It when the news industry so badly needs his exhortation?) the
press is really much more a marathon. And many of us feel like we've
been running it for a long time already.

Here we are, though, and it's a good time to take stock of the recent spike in save-the-press plans.

Overall,
I'm struck with the similarity of the save-the-press gambits to the
questions Barack Obama is facing. He's quite properly, and
optimistically, told us to make lemonade from the fusillade of lemons
being shot at us. He urges us to "fix it" and build for the future.

Similarly,
we who care about journalism need to keep that same dual focus. Yes,
the rapid flow of reporters out of the nation's newsrooms should be
staunched. Yes, as well though, we should recognize that the
destruction we're seeing is a creative one and offers great promise for
remaking journalism in our time. It's just there's so much more
destruction than creation, at this point.

Just as similarly,
the President has talked about the recovery package as a stool, with
several legs, not a one-trick fix. That's just as true of the news fix
– simply extracting new funds from readers isn't enough, though much
of the recent flurry of missives have focused on that. The fix needs
more legs.

As we collectively look to journalism's future, from
the vantage point of a dark February, 2009, I think we should have the
following in our sights:

  • Remember the old 80/20 rule: Yes, we love to talk about
    readers and how the Internet has broken the publisher/reader
    connection, but it's not really true. US papers have long depended on
    ads for 80% of their revenue. Circulation revenues have paid for
    printing and distribution. Yes, it felt good to hear "my paper" from
    readers, but those reader dollars were not what funded the huge
    post-WW2 newsrooms. It was classifieds, department store ads and then
    circulars. 

         So even reestablishing some kind of direct reader revenue — iTunes for news, micropayments, some Little Rock-on-steroids plan to charge for online news — will only help a bit, as Michael Kinsley has economically pointed out. It won't staunch the flow.

Brill's memo is well-constructed, but it misses the point of the web.
As the New York Times itself found out with Times Select, the Times — no matter how good or seemingly unique — can only turn a handful of its 20 million unique visitors into paying customers.

  • Go upstream to get more reader revenue: I'm one of those who
    believe that indeed the Genie's long left the room and ain't coming
    back. Corralling enough now-free content behind some kind of pay wall
    is going to be near-impossible in a wider world of "free" news. That
    doesn't mean though that reader revenue is unobtainable. 

        I go back to the old world, to the old BBC model of taxing
UK TV sets to fund the news enterprise. Why not a further tax on
broadband service (where do the
current taxes go anyway?) that would go into a pot to fund local
journalism. Yes, deciding how to divvy it up would be torturous, but ACAP is a tagging method that could underlie such a system, and the
Associated Press itself has figured out a lot about "universal tagging"
through its emerging Digital Coop. 

      
Pot disbursements must include journalism start-ups and not just
newspaper companies. Just as readers have paid the cost of print
distribution,  they can pay it in the new world, too. Since newspaper
companies (and others) have had insufficient leverage to compel carrier
payment for content, taxation may be the best route. Or might this
involve an updating of FCC/common carrier/public interest policies,
rules that might better fit the realities of the 21st Century? (Some
other thinking on fed regulatory changes that may address the times, here from John Chachas.)

  • Don't act like the greenhorns you are: Almost all of us writing about "saving the press" are immigrants, "digital immigrants" in the terminology
    of Marc Prensky. Digital natives, those under the age of 30 or so, do
    have different habits. Primary among those is that they take in news
    digitally as their first preference. Hey, maybe they figured out,
    unlike the rest of us, that it is really the newest news. So any plan
    to push them back to print — to yesterday's news — for the sake of
    saving reporters' jobs completely misunderstands the way the world has
    changed and how that change will only accelerate.
  • Master the new business of advertising: Just as newspapers
    were stuck in reader browser mode for so long, as search and
    aggregation enveloped them, now they're stuck in a display ad world, as
    pay-for-performance (led by paid search) threatens to swamp
    less-measurable advertising. Sure, get as much money from readers –
    somehow — but remember that the ad business in the US is worth close
    to $300 billion annually. Newspapers used to get 20% of that pie, and
    news sites need to figure out how to get an equivalent percentage (at
    least) going forward.
  • Think news, not newspapers: We should be clear on this
    distinction by now. Newsprint — pummeled by cost, resource concerns,
    implicit delay in delivering information and Kindle-like devices — is
    obsolescent. Yes, newspaper companies should milk the revenues the
    hybrid approach of print/online for as long as they can. Still,
    hybridization is rapidly happening even through the deep recession, and
    probably accelerated by it. Just as one data point, take a look at this
    Howie Kurtz piece on
    the changing face of D.C. coverage, a piece that shows all kinds of
    hybrid models in progress. The future won't look remotely like the past
    – though it can be built on the same values — and we must stop trying
    to re-create halcyon days that never were.
  • And, lastly, don't tell me how much you value the press, but won't pay for it unless someone forces you to. The
    line I found most odd in Walter Isaacson's piece: "Even an old print
    junkie like me has quit subscribing to the New York Times, because if
    it doesn't see fit to charge for its content, I'd feel like a fool
    paying for it".  How does he feel about NPR, surely one of the greatest
    public information bargains of all time. About one in six or seven NPR
    listeners, I believe, pony up? Do we let wait for someone to compel us
    to pay?

         The Times, as a profit-seeking institution, hasn't found a
way to put out the tip jar yet, but that's still another means of
funding we'll soon see as newspapers move from profitable to
profit-seeking to unprofitable. They are all trying to grok how that
rapid movement meshes — or doesn't — with the non-profit world. But
as they, and we, figure it out, let's not let our old world notions of
paying only when forced drive us forward.

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