I’ve been thinking and talking a lot recently about the future of journalism, and of newspapers. It’s something that I’ve touched on once or twice here, and for a number of reasons I suspect that it will be a growing focus of mine going forward.
But in my conversations I found myself relying on a number of shorthand assumptions, and at some point I started wondering if some of those assumptions could be examined in greater detail. And the more I poked and prodded at them, the more I became convinced that in order to write about this in the future, I first had to set down what I think is going on now.
This post, then, is an attempt to define my current thinking – about journalism in general and newspapers in particular. Some of this I know to be true. Some of it I suspect to be true. And, near the end, I’ll offer some thoughts on what I believe will prove to be true in the future.
I pick on the New York Times and the Press Democrat throughout because they’re the newspapers I read the most. I feel that they’re broadly representative of other national and local papers, respectively.
I’ll start, as perhaps I always should, with the obvious.
Newspapers are in a great deal of trouble.
On this point there is complete (well, nearly complete) agreement. There isn’t a newspaper in the country that isn’t staring at the same array of unpalatable phenomena: falling advertising revenue, increased operating costs, online competition from faraway papers, and a sharp drop in readership across the board. A quarter of American journalists have lost their jobs in the last decade. Formerly-major newspapers, with circulations in the millions, have been forced to shutter their doors – among them the Rocky Mountain News and the Baltimore Examiner. The Paper Cuts blog keeps track of layoffs and closures across the country; clicking through their maps, with colored pins representing entire vanished papers, is a sobering experience.
Journalism is expensive.
Mother Jones took a look at a recent investigative report that ran in The New York Times Magazine and concluded that it cost in the neighborhood of $400,000 – and that only for the salaries for the various editors, reporters, and lawyers involved. Those costs are dwarfed by the other operating costs of the newspaper: the land it owns or leases, at the headquarters and at various field offices around the world; the printing, manufacturing, and distributing of the dead-tree version; the server, bandwith, and maintenance costs for its online services. All in all, it is a phenomenally expensive affair.
Many newspaper articles are poorly written.
I’m not speaking from a purely stylistic perspective, though offenses against the mother tongue are hardly rare. Instead, I’m talking about the increasingly-archaic conventions of proper newspaper form that a) wordily provide context while obscuring recent events and b) insist on filling column-inches with recycled quotes from people I’ve never heard of. This problem was detailed by Michael Kinsley in last month’s Atlantic Magazine, where he deconstructed an article from November about health-care reform:
The 1,456-word report begins:
“Handing President Obama a hard-fought victory, the House narrowly approved a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health care system on Saturday night, advancing legislation that Democrats said could stand as their defining social policy achievement.”
Fewer than half the words in this opening sentence are devoted to saying what happened. If someone saw you reading the paper and asked, “So what’s going on?,” you would not likely begin by saying that President Obama had won a hard-fought victory. You would say, “The House passed health-care reform last night.” And maybe, “It was a close vote.” And just possibly, “There was a kerfuffle about abortion.” You would not likely refer to “a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health care system,” as if your friend was unaware that health-care reform was going on. Nor would you feel the need to inform your friend first thing that unnamed Democrats were bragging about what a big deal this is—an unsurprising development if ever there was one.
Providing this kind of context used to be important – when people only read about a given issue once every couple of months, they would understandably need a refresher course before diving headlong into the subject. But that’s not how most people consume news today. Even the most casual observer knows that the Democrats have been trying to pass health-care reform and the Republicans have been trying to block it, and when they pick up a paper in November they’re looking to find out what happened in November, not six month’s previous. It’s like having to sit through all of A New Hope again when you want to find out what happens in The Empire Strikes Back.
Newspapers offer a great deal of redundant content.
I recently browsed through the front page of the Saturday edition of the Press Democrat, my local newspaper. Out of the twenty-three articles in the section, only four were written by Press Democratstaff. The remaining nineteen were reprinted from larger institutions – like the New York Times Company, which owns the Press Democrat – or from wire services like McClatchy or Associated Press. The articles written by the staff predictably focused on local stories (“Unsafe to Swing? Injury to Marin County teen has reignited debate over metal baseball bats“), while those from larger services all concerned national or international issues.
This arrangement is absolutely unique to newspapers. I don’t subscribe to a magazine called The San Franciscan that reprints features from The New Yorker and The Los Angeleno, plus some original stuff. Magazines don’t work that way; only newspapers do. It’s a system that was worked out when it was difficult for me, in Northern California, to read a newspaper published in New York City. But that’s not true anymore.
The relationship between a reader and a news organization is based on trust. I trust that the New York Times is going to give me accurate information on what’s happening in the Middle East because I know the Times is a vast organization with thousands of reporters across the globe. Similarly, I trust the Press Democrat to give me accurate local news because I know that most of their staff is based in the immediate area and is deeply conversant in local issues.
In the same way that I would never rely on the Times to inform me about what’s happening in Sonoma County, I would never turn to the Press Democrat to give me an good picture of what’s happening in Kabul. Yet the Press Democrat continues to devote the vast majority of their publication to reprinting national and international news – a product that virtually no one is asking them to provide.
That certain things have always been done is not justification for continuing to do them.
Until very recently, readers paid for the news every single day – sometimes twice a day.
This simple but oft-forgotten fact is, I think, the best rebuttal to the people who think that the subscription model is inapplicable to online news sources. Far from being entrenched, the idea of free news is actually very recent. For the first several centuries of American journalism, readers were accustomed to paying for each and every scrap of newsprint they read. Only in the last fifty years did scraps of news start being beamed into people’s homes, and only in the last decade did the average reader come to expect all of the vast amounts of journalistic work produced in America to be available instantly and free of charge.
There are a number of people who will pay to read content that is currently free.
There are a lot of reasons why people will pay for online news. Publications like the Wall Street Journal have proven that when a publication is renowned for its reporting on a particular subject, interested consumers will pay for that content. People are often willing to pay for the feeling of legitimacy – it’s the reason why people buy mp3s from Amazon or iTunes instead of downloading them from PirateBay. People are willing to pay for ease of use and access. And people are willing to pay for features above and beyond the baseline.
The number of people willing to pay for online news content is greater than many people realize.
However, subscription proceeds were never the main revenue stream for the newspaper industry. In fact, the newspaper business model has, for the last century, sought to conceal the true cost of journalism from the reader.
Despite what Dave Eggers may tell you, the newspaper industry has always been built upon advertising dollars; it’s why Craigslist was such a poison pill. By some estimates, 70% – 80% of newspaper revenue comes from advertising.
For centuries, then, the newspaper industry has been underselling their own product – charging the reader ¢25 for a $3.75 product. This has created a fundamental misconception in most people’s minds about journalism’s true cost. Readers are used to paying for news – but they’re not used to paying very much. And having first been given something for very cheap, and then having been giving it for free, it’s wishful thinking to suppose that readers will now shoulder the full cost of journalism.
Given that subscription fees didn’t support the old newspaper business model, it’s unlikely that they will support the new one.
This is the fundamental truth that most news publishers are unwilling, or unable, to accept. It doesn’t mean that they’re wrong to move toward a subscription-based model, exactly. But it does mean that subscriptions are a stopgap, and not a solution.
Despite being among the first organizations to have a web presence, newspapers have done a poor job adapting to the internet.
Check out these screenshots of the New York Times website in 2000 and in 2010.
The formatting has changed. The functionality is identical – down to the stock ticker in the right-hand sidebar.
Though a remarkably transformative decade has passed, the online version of the Times is still little more than the print version copied wholesale into a webpage. They’ve had a web presence since 1995, three times longer than YouTube (2005) or Facebook (2004) and significantly longer than Google (1998) – yet each of those companies manages more innovation in any six month period than the Times (or any other newspaper) has in a decade and a half.
What is missing here is an acknowledgment that people interact with the Times in different ways. I’ve been a member of NYTimes.com since it looked it did in the above screenshot; except for Amazon, it’s the oldest logon I have. Yet the New York Times knows nothing about me. It doesn’t know if I’m a 55-year-old woman living on the Upper East Side or a 22-year-old Texan man. It doesn’t know whether I’m interested in the NFL or NASA, the Metropolitan Opera or Myanmar, cricket or Cuba, or all of the above – despite the fact that I have been feeding them this information, through my reading habits, for over a decade. The Times has even built an experimental reader with a comely interface, but it is as dumb as the web interface is.
Of course NYTimes should recommend articles based on my reading history. That’s not a new idea. But I should also be able to hide sections of the Times that don’t interest me, custom-tuning their homepage. If I read a story that interests me, I should be able to request to be shown more stories like it in the future. I should be able to subscribe to stories or topics – so that if I was interested in, say, Michael Moss’s October 3 expose of the beef industry, I could have some way to be notified when he published his December 30 follow-up.
Articles should link to prominent bloggers who have used it as a jumping-off point, supporting (instead of merely putting up with) the conversation. I should be able to link my preferred social networks to my NYTimes account, so that this thing can actually become useful. And so on.
The point is not that the New York Times should cater to my particular whims. But it needs to be scalable – that is, I should be able to engage with the Times website as much or as little as I like, without being limited to superficial interactions.
I have little sympathy for an industry that has so completely failed to figure out how their customers want to interact with their product.
The newspaper business model, in its current form, is not robust enough to justify its continued existence.
This is very bad for newspapers, especially in the short term. But I think ultimately it’s good for news readers.
Journalism itself is in no immediate danger.
Changes in distribution rarely result in changes in content – music didn’t die when cassettes did. Unlike many art forms (like, say, sculpture) there is nothing about journalism that is anathema to online distribution. (Rather the opposite, in fact.)
The publishing industry is in straits at least as dire as the newspaper industry, yet it would be absurd to talk about the “death of literature”. Similarly, reports of the “death of journalism” are little more than hyperbole.
Most newspapers will adapt, not disappear.
Most sources (the aforementioned PaperCuts included) equally mourn newspapers that have closed completely (like the Rocky Mountain News) and those that have moved to an online-only model (like the Seattle Post-Intelligencer). That’s not quite the right way to look at it. When the Post-Intelligencer stopped producing a dead-tree edition they were forced to let go over a hundred employees – talented people, editors and layout designers and plant managers, who spent years honing their crafts and whose lives were thrown into upheaval. That’s bad.
But today, the Post-Intelligencer still exists. It has a robust website, with dozens of blogs for different neighborhoods of Seattle, and customization options not unlike those I was asking for above. In their unfortunate situation they discovered a new sort of agency, opportunities and areas into which they could expand. And in doing so they have rediscovered their relevance in a way no one expected last year.
To treat their story as only a tragedy is to very much miss the point. And in the next few years most people will accept that they were ahead of the curve.
A few final predictions.
There won’t be any single product that will save the industry.
Personally, I think the iPad will be a revolutionary product on par with the iPod and iPhone before it – the sort of product whose power, features, and design raise the entire industry onto an entirely new plane.
What I don’t think is that it will save newspapers, magazines, publishing houses, or any of the other businesses whose executives have, in casting about for a messiah, lit upon Steve Jobs. The architecture they’re looking for has to be larger than a single product; the revolution, when it comes, will be platform-agnostic.
The latest system to change how I read content online is Instapaper. Instapaper – which was developed by Marco Arment, the same man who developed Tumblr – elegantly solves what was a vexing problem: there was no easy way to save articles for later reading. When I came across an article on the internet, I could leave the tab open (messy), email the link to myself (clutters up my inbox), bookmark it (overly permanent), or print it (environmentally detrimental). Instapaper gives me a button in my browser that, when pressed, scrapes the article text saves it for me to browse through later.
What’s great about Instapaper – and what’s led to its enthusiastic adoption – is that it lends itself to a variety of platforms. There’s a web interface. There’s an iPhone (and soon, an iPad) application. There’s a Kindle application. There are various Android applications. And – best of all – Arment has made the Instapaper API freely available, so various other designers have started to integrate Instapaper compatibility into their applications.
People want to be able to interact with media in their own idiosyncratic ways, and the best path to widespread adoption for these sorts of services – Instapaper, Twitter, Flickr – is to support as wide a userbase as possible. Anyone who’s talking about tying their business model to a single product is trying to disguise their deficit of real ideas.
Readers will benefit from the coming innovations.
After a long period of denial, news organizations are finally engaging with the new media landscape in a serious way. This means more smart bloggers working at national newspapers; more incredible visualization tools to interact with; and high-quality niche publications that deliver absolutely relevant content. After decades of being promised that the content revolution was just around the corner, we have finally made our way to the cusp of it. And it’s exciting.
There are more people consuming more journalism than at any other time in history.
This, to me, is the greatest reason for optimism. We’re living through a revolution, and that’s unnerving; uncertainty begets insecurity. But industries don’t disappear when demand is high. We may not recognize the journalism of the next decade, but rest assured: it will exist.
(Top Photo Credit: Marcel Germain, Flickr)