Wishful thinking

I was shocked by the willful naivete of yesterday’s New York Times editorial decrying media deregulation. Engrave this line on their tombstone:

The strategic challenge for newspapers is not cutting costs, but how to attract a larger share of online advertising and make money off the millions of people who read them free online.

They wish.

That has long been the cry of editors of papers including the Times: preserving their newsrooms as they operate now, protecting their ways. But they keep ignoring the obvious fact that most newspapers operated as uniquely profitable media monopolies but those days are clearly over. The internet is a highly competitive market where prices and margins simply will not match print — though audience size is greater. They also keep ignoring the obvious opportunities presented by the networked internet to operate more efficiently and also more broadly (start here and here as well as here). Finally, they keep ignoring the opportunities of crossing media, which leads to the next red herring from the Times as it argues against merging local newspapers and broadcasters:

For all the technological advances that have shaken American media over the last 30 years, remarkably little has changed about who produces the local news. Internet outlets repurpose and comment on the news. A few cable channels provide national news. But in many small and even medium-sized cities there are only two entities that put money into local news-gathering: the local newspapers and the TV stations.

Oh, come on. Local TV stations may put money into local news — and pull money out of it — but they don’t put real reporting into it. Newspapers like the Times used to sniff at local TV news the way they sniff today at blogs: They have long been repurposers, recyclers; they’re not even commenters. Imagine the possibilities of a print newsroom that follows the Rosenblum method of empowering every reporter to shoot video stories — and shoot them in new ways. What if that became the basis of the local TV news? What if instead of four crews on the ground in with expensive satellite trucks you had the hundred reporters of a formerly print newsroom all gathering news across media with small and inexpensive cameras? What if you had real reporting, real stories, not just reading out loud on cold streetcorners (‘police this morning are….’)? I’d start watching local TV news again (oh, it’s on in my house, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything to watch). There’s a benefit of combining, of finding new ways to do things, a benefit for the newspaper, the broadcaster, and the public. Oh, yes, and they can do all these things on the internet, too, proving that it is more than a place to repurpose and comment.

Here’s another herring in this barrel:

But you don’t get one healthy media company by combining two sick ones.

Really? Mergers are, of course, a way to create stronger companies out of weaker ones, otherwise no one would merge or acquire; old companies would just die. Certainly adding a healthy P&L to a struggling one is one way to help the struggling company. Why else did the Times buy About.com, which is just about the only bright spot in its P&L. (Disclosure: I used to consult at About.) But I guess the Times knows what it’s talking about here: It’ learned from the company’s purchase of the ever-sicklier Boston Globe. Not all acquisitions need to be so dumb, though.

One more bullet, one more fish:

Mr. Martin’s plan, moreover, could dangerously reduce media diversity. Not only would the mergers allowed under the rule change eliminate independent voices, but they also might crowd rivals out of the news business. A study of F.C.C. data by consumer groups indicated that less news is broadcast in cities where companies have been granted waivers to the rules to allow them to own both newspapers and broadcasters.

Diversity of voices? What, happy talk voices? There’s no perspective from the community on the 5 p.m. news; the people reading it all came from elsewhere on their way to elsewhere. I could well imagine how that show could have more voices — start with giving some of those cheap cameras out to people in that community. But today, there’s no media diversity because media are homogenized, purposely bland, cherishing sameness, dreading change. You want diversity? Go to that dreaded internet thing, there you’ll find more diversity than the Times can bear.

Oh, and by the way, does New York have less news because it has cross-ownership (and doesn’t the Times Company have a dog in that fight, one it doesn’t mention in the editorial: The NY Post and its WYNY, not to mention the Times’ WQXR)? Does Chicago? Did San Francisco?

Now I happen to agree with the Times about the point of its editorial: FCC Chairman Kevin Martin’s plans for media consolidation are half-assed. We just disagree about what should be done about it. I say he should open up the media marketplace. But, of course, the Times doesn’t want that. It wants protection. It wants sameness. It wants to preserve its ways.

Remember that the editorial page at the Times reports not to the newsroom but to the publisher’s office and then consider this a window onto its strategy or lack thereof. If I owned Times stock and if I hadn’t sold ages ago, I’d be selling now.

LATER: I’ve thought better of that last night. It was wrong and unproductive — to much the old us-v-them mindset. So I retract and apologize for it. Journalism and Times journalism are worth investment. I hope the investment is spent wisely. We need that.

  • Cooler Heads

    Mostly I agree, except for one point: out here in heartland, local newspapers, TV, and radio actually do local reporting. Sure, the local TV news is the not the NYTimes of broadcast. But several local stations have done some fine reportage.

    You live in NJ where there truly is no local broadcast news. It’s an unusual place, so you can’t use it, or the NYC region, as some kind of proxy for the rest of the US.

  • Jeff, The FCC should be phased-out and abolished, and its “regulatees” liberated. Technologically, the FCC is obsolete. Politically, it has always been a disaster, and continues to chill free speech. The center-left/pro-establishment side is represented in broadcast. The far-left, center, center-right, and far-right are not. If the Times wants diversity, that’s the place to start. Thomas Jefferson envisioned a multitude of voices competing in a freewheeling marketplace of ideas, not a controlling, obsessive-compulsive Gray Lady imploring us to be seen but not heard. (Steve Boriss, The Future of News)

  • ‘The strategic challenge for newspapers is not cutting costs, but how to attract a larger share of online advertising and make money off the millions of people who read them free online.’

    The bizarre thing about that statement is that in fact neither of those two things are strategic challenges. The strategic challenge is new competition coming from new news and advertising platforms. It is also strange that they seem to think that cutting costs and monetising online readers are the only options, and also some how that they are mutually exclusive.

    I would really doubt if this editorial is a true reflection of their corporate strategy (or am I just hoping?)

  • Roger

    Jeff, that is an apt mixed metaphor – shooting red herring in a barrel. And I can understand your initial reaction of selling short the NYT Co. – any rational observer would be led to such a conclusion after reading one too many of their editorial board’s rude and simpleminded editorials. You were right to retract it, as the NYT is an asset that everyone should hope fixes itself and I think your relationship with Keller is worth saving. However, it does not bode well for his stewardship that he keeps those boatload of idiots writing editorials.

  • Allow me to rephrase: ‘the strategic challenge for newspapers is producing high quality, credible content that will attract the most discerning news readers despite the plethora of alternative sources available to them. Readers will flock to the best content, so if newspapers can provide it, the advertising dollars will follow naturally.’

    Don’t chase the money. Chase quality.

  • Jeff, the problem for these organizations, where – among other things – technology is not their core expertise, is the relative lack of diverse perspectives among current staff. I suspect it could be characterised by what you might call the top dog syndrome. They need people with experience of being underdogs, not those who are used to others cooing when they walk in the room. Finding and managing genuine underdogs is a particular skill though. They see the world from a different point of view.


  • What an interesting notion–to transform local news into a sort of web 2.0 landscape of mixed media… Journalists with inexpensive cameras shooting their own stories, mixing print with online and television media. What would happen if the Youtube model was brought into the newsroom?

    Obviously, from the success of such sites as Youtube, the quality of production is hardly the most important aspect of news and entertainment to the masses, at least on the internet. And local news often already suffers from poor production, anyways. Perhaps embracing this mentality, and coupling it with a free, blog-like approach to gathering and distributing news could be just the thing to revitalize local (and perhaps even national) media.

    Excellent post.

  • roger rainey

    Can’t wait to see what Jeff has to say about this. The lack of foresight and high-handed defensiveness would be extremely depressing to me if I were a student contemplating a career in journalism.


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