Linus, reporter

Howie Kurtz minced no words in today’s Washington Post writing about the state and fate of American newspapers:

Why a once-profitable industry suddenly seems as outmoded as America’s automakers is a tale that involves arrogance, mistakes, eroding trust and the rise of a digital world in which newspapers feel compelled to give away their content.

Neither did former SF Chronicle editor Phil Bronstein:

“Most of the wounds are self-inflicted,” says Phil Bronstein, editor at large of the San Francisco Chronicle, which Hearst Corp. has threatened to close unless major cost savings are achieved or a buyer is found. Rather than engage the audience, he says, “the public was seen as kind of messy and icky and not something you needed to get involved with.”

As the newsroom staff has shrunk from 575 when Bronstein took over as editor in 2000 to 275 now, “it’s objectively true that there’s less in the paper,” he says. “You can’t deny a loss is a loss.”

Neither did I:

“Years ago,” says Jeff Jarvis, a blogger who has worked for the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Examiner and the New York Daily News, “why didn’t we take more aggressive action and use the power of our megaphone to promote the product and change the organization?” The answer is that newspapers were “a cash cow,” he says. “We thought too much about trying to preserve what we had.” . . .

Some newspaper executives say Google is eating their lunch by appropriating their content. But Jarvis, author of the book “What Would Google Do?,” says the software giant is adding to newspapers’ value by linking to their stories. “Google is the new newsstand,” he says.

Jarvis, who now reads the New York Times on a Kindle electronic device during his subway commute, says print publications are the past. “Paper has become the comfort blanket for newspeople, and it’s time to snatch the blanket out of the kids’ hands,” he said.

  • Jeff, heard you on NPR today. Great interview! Very insightful. Immediately went and bought the book.

  • jeff:

    this isnt reinvention. do you(or they) think they will make anywhere near the profit of ten years ago on an “e-reader?”

    why on earth does the times think it will be quicker on its feet than any number of tight, driven ensembles?

    the theory that, years later, people will now pay for the times, is wrong. no one know what to sell or to whom.

    when they shrink their newsroom costs to nothing by creating hyper-local blogs they unleah the beast of free labor. when there is no hope of $$ from the times ythe brand will die. as long as the times brand is strong they will be a player. but no old guard entity will be quick enough to keep pace.

    what is necessary is a brutal overhead analysis of running various levels of newsroom staff. find one that can survive. chop NOW to that point. then you have a chance. unfortunately it wont be with old guard journalists. some institutional knowledge will be lost.

  • self-promotion

    Umm, Jeff, don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back. It’s painful, and really unattractive.

  • Great insights.
    B-t-w, I bought the book after watching u host a DLD session the Age of Internet Politics.

  • “tale that involves arrogance, mistakes”

    Thought I was reading a bio of Howie Kurtz there for a moment

  • Danny L. McDaniel

    There is no way electronic media will take the place or achieve the status of newspapers. I think the demise of newspapers is a force that no one understands.

    Danny L. McDaniel
    Lafayette, Indiana

  • Steve – UK

    Why would Jeff want to pat himself on the back? How about hari kari?The free modelhe advocates will never sustain the quality and breadth of content currently provided by print newspapers. Instead we get a million bloggers and failed hacks all rehashing the same dwindling store of fact and opinion. For journalism – and the public – the overall bottom line is a massive net loss.
    Way to go, Jeff!

  • Tom Davidson


    Why, yes, Steve. This is all Jarvis’ fault.

    The brilliant Gary Larsen has a classic far side about this situation: “The world was going to hell. People needed a scapegoat. They found Wayne.”

    Wayne’s looking out the window, of course, at a mob with flaming torches, pitchforks (!) and signs with phrases like “Destroy Wayne!”

    The demise of newspapers isn’t a story about “print.” It isn’t about “failure of the business model.” It isn’t about “traditionalists” versus “triumphalists” (I’ve been accused of being a member of that species; funny thing is, I’ve never met a single example of it).

    The failure of print is a story about our industry’s inability to understand that all economic good flowed from the audience. The audience adjusted to a world of near-infinite choice – and we refused to acknowledge it.

    Fix the audience problem, folks. Don’t try to patch the old model by walling off the audience from your work, or trying to get them to pay for something that they don’t value that much (because it can be easily replaced – that’s another discussion, tho). Find out how to engage them with meaningful work* and the rest will take care of itself. Not easily, but it will.

    (*Potts, as usual, has fine suggestions: )

  • Steve – Uk

    Tom – point taken, but it was Jeff and his ilk who encouraged print newspapers to create a world of “infinite choice” by publishing their expensively produced content for free on the web. Setting aside the selfi-interest of individual newspapers, Jeff has yet to produce a cogent argument that this willl benefit anyone except Google. Journalism suffers and ulimately democacry suffers. Jeff himself of course had the good sense to sell his own work in a book, using his free-access blog as marketing collateral. Good short term move, but I suspect his services as a media consultant will no longer be in such hot demand. Time to find a new business model Jeff?

    • If you can charge for content, great. But I’ve made this argument frequently – latest here – that payment is not the solution and the reality of online economics dictates new models.

    • Andy Freeman

      > Tom – point taken, but it was Jeff and his ilk who encouraged print newspapers to create a world of “infinite choice” by publishing their expensively produced content for free on the web.

      Feel free to argue that things would have been different if newspapers had not put up “free content”.

      News is a commodity. Absent friction, commodities go for the cost of production+distribution and the internet virtually eliminates both friction and distribution costs.

      Newspaper revenues and costs are no where near the cost to produce the news, so they’re unsustainable.

  • Steve – UK

    Jeff – a new model would be great. Er, so what is it? Surely you must have an idea after years cogitating, consulting, pontificating and lecturing on the issue?
    The economic reality is this: publishing quality journalism free of charge on the web ultimately leads to less quality journalism being produced.

    • Tom Davidson

      I continue to believe that journalism will survive. It will be different to be sure – but I’d love to be a 26-year-old reporter again*, with a netbook computer instead of a wire-bound notebook, but the same evil grin and glint in my eye.

      Reporters and journalism will be fine. Newspapers? Not so much. “Associate deputy managing editors for furniture, lunch and going to meetings”? REALLY not so much.

      Again, Steve: We suffer from an audience problem. We’ve deluded ourselves for the past 35 years that we could preach down to the audience – isn’t that what we all learned from Watergate? Public affairs reporting as a priesthood?

      I’d argue no: Watergate was a great cops story, just as Blago is today. But given infinite choice, the audience is going to select what it wants, and it will consume public affairs information the way it wants to consume it – in discussion boards, or on community blogs, or muckracking sites, wherever. And that infinite choice would exist with or without what Alan Mutter calls “the original sin” of posting newspaper content online for free.

      The new model? Surprise: There isn’t one yet, at least not with the degree of moral and financial certitude that the last 40 years have wrought. And the several models that will emerge will likely be far more transitory and less lucrative than the past. Which will only matter a little to the best reporters.

      (*Upon further review, I’d happily skip the netbook and settle for the 26 part.)

    • Look at the tag “newbiznews” and you’ll see my thinking.

  • James Seddon

    And surprise, surprise the good old paywall debate keeps on trucking: FT deputy: ‘Papers might start considering charging online’

    I for one enjoy paying for a product I can get elsewhere for free.

  • Steve – UK

    Tom – I too was a 26 year old reporter – on a UK national – with a Tandy 100, battered passport and limitless air travel card. Those glorious days are truly gone for ever. However, my lament is not for my expense account but rather the loss of professionalism and the triumph of PR. No business model I can envisage will support the level of painstaking investigation – the legal checks and the editorial balances- required for ground-breaking journalism on a regular basis. Sure, the odd blogger will stumble on a scoop from time to time. But they will be no match for corrupt politicians, crooked businessmen and phoney celebs with their PR batallions (of sold -out journalists!).

    • Andy Freeman

      > No business model I can envisage will support the level of painstaking investigation – the legal checks and the editorial balances- required for ground-breaking journalism on a regular basis.

      The problem with that sentence is that newspapers gave up that work decades ago.

      > But they will be no match for corrupt politicians, crooked businessmen and phoney celebs with their PR batallions (of sold -out journalists!).

      That’s assuming that they’re willing to try. In the past they didn’t. Why is it the internet’s fault that it is unlikely to change that?

  • Print is the past, but newspapers aren’t going away. They’re going full steam ahead into the Internet age now. Yes, they are realizing it’s time to focus on the Internet product several years late, but the important thing is that they are shifting their focus in the right direction.

    However; all this talk about revising the business model with charging for content is focusing on the wrong thing, because the real focus should be on the kinds and quality of the content being presented. What can truly make newspapers a wanted and needed product again is high quality content that interests people.

    I’ve boiled all this down to five ways newspaper Web sites must change: