Thursday, December 25, 2008

Newspaper workers of the world unite!

Ever since the Lewinsky affair, I've been an occasional reader of that cardinal right-wing news aggregation site, The Drudge Report. I've noticed during the current decline in newspaper readership and profitability that links to this or that dire news about newspapers rate top billing on his site. I sense that Mr. Drudge relishes the "imminent demise" of this nation's old gray ladies. He is, I'm sure, in his own imagination the future of news, the doorway millions will take to their daily news fix. I wonder whose links will take up his white space when all the newspapers go away.
I read on "Newspaper Death Watch" and kindred blogs that newspapers have fallen down in not seeing the benefit of news aggregation that Mr Drudge represents. Why should Drudge have all that success and newspapers suffer? That question misses the point. I'm sure the paltry advertising on Drudge provides a nice income for him and the handful of computer geeks he likely employs, but the income would make little impact on the bottom line of the Post or the Times.
An article in New Yorker this month, James Surowiecki accurately notes that at a time when more people than ever are reading newspaper content, the profit model for newspapers is breaking down decisively.
I have always worked at newspapers with a solid wall between the finance/advertising side and the news side. The two sides employ very different types of workers, people who are usually antipathetic to each other. Over the entire operation is the publisher, who almost universally comes from the finance/advertising side. It is his job to ensure the viability of the business model. But in 2008, thousands of newsroom employees have lost their jobs. Is it because their work has been rejected by the American news consumer? Hardly.
Ten years ago, as a reporter, I would go to the police headquarters and find a report about a stupid criminal who showed his driver's license to steal a case of beer, and a few thousands among the readers of my print edition may have read it. Today the same story may be picked up by Mr. Drudge and millions may read it and get a moment of mirth from my handiwork. Ten years ago those few thousands of readers provided a viable business model to keep me employed. Today, those millions of Internet readers get me fired. Ten years ago those few thousands paid a quarter to read my story. It was an audience of interest to the hardware store down the street that bought an ad on that page. Today, millions pay nothing to read my story and are of virtually no interest to any advertiser anywhere.
So what brilliant publisher thought it was a good idea to give Mr. Drudge and millions of people my story for free? Evidently all of them.
It's a business model that doesn't work and must be abandoned. If there is a future in the news business, it has to be a paid model. We can no longer rely on advertisers to carry the burden of financing the news industry. Too many corporations see too little value in newspapers, or any medium for that matter. The Internet has given them the idea that they can go straight to the consumer, by letting them record their own Web commercial for Butterfinger or Budweiser and posting it on YouTube. They may be right or they may be wrong. I don't know; I'm a newsman not a publisher. But I do know there is inherent value in my work, and I deserve the benefit of that work.
It is a notion that the music industry came to terms with long ago. As damaged as they have been by music sharing, they know there is no future in giving everything away free. That is the genius behind iTunes. Many millions may be lost to free downloads, but many millions can be made by appealing to the better angels of our nature. For a small fee, $1 a song, I can download my favorite song and keep my conscience in tact. This evidently works for Apple. Why can't it work for the newspaper industry?
If Yahoo! wants to publish news, let them hire reporters and set up news bureaus. We can no longer allow them to publish our best stories and give people no reason to come to our sites. If someone wants to read our newspaper, let him pay 50 cents ... every day!
According to, on Dec. 24, 2008, about 7.5 million people went to the Web site of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a newspaper with 326,000 daily circulation. Certainly, not all 7.5 million would be willing to pay 50 cents. How many would? I don't know, but the profit would be more than they are getting now. And those who did pay the 50 cents would largely be locals, the kind of people local advertisers care about. Local readers of local news who are attractive to local advertisers is the only route to profitability for newspapers. I like the idea of someone in Mumbai reading my police report, but the hardware store down the street can't make a dime off of him.
At the turn of the 20th century, when workers were being exploited by greedy bosses, people sympathized with unionization to protect rights. At the turn of the 21st century, when newsworkers are being expoited by overextended corporate ownership and, yes, stingy readers, who can blame newspapers for colluding/unionizing to force pay for content?

No comments: