The survival of journalism: 10 simple facts

Today let’s look at the 500-pound gorilla.

“The thing that worries me most at the moment about the condition of journalism is, frankly, who’s going to pay for the journalists and the journalism in 10 years’ time? Teenagers, people in their twenties, even in their late twenties, have now got to the position where they wouldn’t pay for news. They expect their news to be free, they expect it to be in a free newspaper on the underground or at the bus station or, more often, they expect it to be a free good on their laptops. My kids wouldn’t dream of buying a newspaper — and we are a newspaper household.” — Andrew Marr, 48, BBC journalist, quoted in The Independent

In the tradition of Ryan Sholin’s popular “get over it” post (and the recent sequel), allow me to offer a short list of things we should probably skip over in any discussion of this matter:

  1. Newspapers did NOT make a huge mistake by giving the content away for free. Duh, look at the Internet. Everything except the porn and the dating services is free.
  2. Journalism CAN be done, and done well, without newspapers. It’s okay if you love newspapers, but they’re really expensive to produce and the audience is abandoning them, as are the advertisers, so it doesn’t help us much to go on talking about newspapers.
  3. Journalism costs a lot of money to do (and especially if it’s done well), because it requires dedicated people. So we can’t pretend that the work will get done for free. It will not.
  4. Citizens and amateurs and well-meaning whistle-blowers, etc., etc., will sometimes commit wonderful acts of journalism. But they will NOT do so reliably, day in and day out, and there aren’t enough of them with the interest, free time, and goodwill to do everything journalists have been doing for about 400 years.
  5. Newspapers were a nice business. Publishers could make the product insanely cheap (remember the penny press), and the advertising would cover the expenses, plus generate fantastic profits. However, this is clearly over. It’s done. It worked for a long time, but now, like trans-Atlantic leisure travel in big passenger ships, it will never work again.
  6. No one today goes to one spot online as the trusted information source. People don’t even go to five or six. Everyone goes to dozens, hundreds — more. A subscription scheme is therefore not workable. (Update: Many people worldwide are not online. I know that. Many people are illiterate and cannot read newspapers. Let’s move on.)
  7. Future generations will not read newspapers. Ever.
  8. Journalism is vital to a democratic system of government, because without independent busybodies (yes, journalists) sticking their nose into everything, governments and large corporations can cheat, oppress, and starve people. (Nobel Prize-winner Amartya Sen famously said there has never been a famine in a democratic country because the news about food shortages or distribution failures cannot be hidden and suppressed.)
  9. The business model to sustain journalism in the 21st century has not been seen yet.
  10. Newspaper companies, in particular, seem unlikely to blaze the trail toward a viable business model for journalism.

I don’t usually address this subject because I don’t know much at all about business, running a company, generating profits, and so on. I do think, though, that a bunch of smart people could make a lot of headway in discussing the survival of journalism if they could only leap over these 10 points — leave them at the door, place them off-limits — and get on with a fruitful discussion of how to generate revenues to support the work that must continue.

77 Comments on “The survival of journalism: 10 simple facts

  1. Pingback: The sinking media ship — 03.01.76

  2. Usefull list although I’m not sure I agree on all the points. I actually think there are still subscription models to be worked out – they ‘just’ need to be radically reinvented. I also think there is opportunity in redefining media as something really supports the public good and not just publishers and advertisers.

  3. As usual you get the point.
    It’s true that there are new chance. We have to discover them.

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  5. Regarding the point 7) “Future generations will not read newspapers. Ever.”, do you think it is worldwide trend, or just something related to USA?

    Here in Slovakia, which is a Eastern Europe country of 5 millions, we have 5 “big” dailies, two of them are tabloids and 3 are “serious” – one rightist, one in left-middle, and one economy related. And – surprise(?) – all of them are doing just fine.

    Really, why would people not read newspapers? I just don’t get it. It seems to me like you secretly want the death of newspapers.

  6. @Mads – If there are still subscription models to be worked out, then they WILL need to be radically reinvented. I think it’s more likely that if you find a niche with a devoted audience, you will need to find a sponsor who wants to get recognition and credibility with that audience — and is willing to pay for it. The sponsor will pay for the news product, and the subscription will be free.

  7. @quirkyalone – I think this trend is advancing more slowly in many countries than it is in the U.S. But the journalists in other countries are more lucky — they have more time to prepare for the coming Ice Age.

    The decline of newspapers here has many contributing causes, but an obvious one is the popularity of (and widespread access to) the Internet. As the young people in a country get access, they migrate to this medium. In some countries (notably several in Africa), this might not occur for many, many years because of lack of telecom infrastructure and continuing challenges to universal literacy.

    Slovakia is closer to our situation than to Africa’s, I think.

  8. You wrote what I was thinking. If only we had a valid business model. Who is even working on that?

  9. Wow, this is so well said, especially #7 and #10. When I was working in newspapers, I kept saying, “Our product is the news, not the newspaper!” It was like screaming at a wall.

  10. Minday – I’ve loved your blog for some time. It’s almost always spot-on. One thing that troubles me about this post, though, is the implication that we should skip over point 9: “The business model to sustain journalism in the 21st century has not been seen yet.” Isn’t that actually what we should all be focused on and talking about? As you point out, doing journalism right costs money — lots of it to do it really, really well. And while, at some point down the road I might be able to cross newsprint and that big hunk of metal that churns out newspapers off my balance sheet, the fact of the matter is, I’ve got an even bigger problem on the revenue side, given that I’m only making about a dime on the Internet for every dollar I made with dead trees. My own opinion lies somewhere close to the Adrian Holovaty model, in that we have to truly reinvent ourselves as the best providers of contextual information for the people in our communities. That might be a news story, or it just might be a set of tables in a database that users can join to serendipitously discover things. But we need to draw on our core strengths as gatherers, organizers and interpreters of information in ways that might not massage the egos of the great writer in all of us but that satisfy the needs of our audience. I could (or already have) go on and on, but my point is: Your point No. 9 IS the question.

  11. @Vaughn – Great comment, thank you. I agree that the burning, urgent question is:

    What is the business model that will work?

    The reason for No. 9 being on the list is that we need to stop pointing at existing attempts and trying to make them work. I think No. 9 is valid because we do not have anything (yet) that is working.

    In other words, No 9 doesn’t mean “Stop thinking about business models.” It means the absence of any viable model is something we need to accept and (quickly) move past — so we can invent one that will work.

  12. Excellent summary. #10 is the clincher. Incumbent businesses protect their own models to the last dollop of black ink (see: music industry, mainframes vs. minicomputers vs. PCs, etc.).

    Like Steven Johnson’s five points on bloggers vs. journalists, the post is unlikely to move us as far forward as it should. But thank you for giving us these points so concisely and forthrightly.

  13. The death of newspapers is being overstated. They will scale back to a smaller role, but they will not disappear.

    The reason for this is simple: reading the paper is easier and more comfortable than reading the computer screen. It’s more trouble to pop open a laptop in Starbucks than to spread out a paper, which is a pleasant, leisurely activity.

    I watched a similar revolution taking place in office reports back in the 1980s, with predictions that printed reports would soon disappear in favor of online lookups. What happened, instead, was a fusion of online lookups and printing, and for the same reason — a piece of paper is a friendlier user interface than a computer or Ipod screen.

  14. @Plumb Bob – I respectfully disagree that “reading the paper is easier and more comfortable than reading the computer screen.” At least for me.

    I’m at the computer screen most of the time. Leaving it is inconvenient.

    “It’s more trouble to pop open a laptop in Starbucks than to spread out a paper, which is a pleasant, leisurely activity.” Again, I beg to differ. Broadsheets are too big and unwieldy to deal with in Starbucks. Now, a neat little tab like Politico — yes, then it’s definitely comfortable.

    But my laptop is so much nicer — because THEN I have EVERYTHING.

    Books, on the other hand — for me, those are the nicest reading in a Starbucks-style environment. It just goes to show us that different folks prefer different things, yes? But the young’uns … well, count the number of THEM you see in Starbucks with a laptop.

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  16. I think you’re missing something really big.
    I can buy a tv, plug it in, and without paying anything extra, I can get the local news broadcast.
    So obviously, there is a business model that has been working for a while at providing free news. It’s called advertising.

  17. @Edward – Good point, man. I was just reading something about how that is also changing:

    Local stations build audiences through a combination of their own news and the network offerings of news, sports and prime-time programming. The inter-workings of those elements have been under attack ever since the introduction of the videocassette recorder, as people time-shifted programs to when they wanted to watch. But at least they were getting the shows from the local affiliate, and there was always the hope that they might slow the fast-forward to catch an ad or two.

    http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/virgin/367226_virgin17.html

  18. First, transitions are not easy, so journalists and editors who don’t want to carry the extra load or learn any new tools should take early retirement. If you’re too busy to save your job, then you’re wasting everyone’s time. Leave now (seriously).

    Here’s a couple suggestions:

    Why all the focus on local when you can just as easily create something with national reach? Check out Pharmalot.com, a beat blog from NJ. Something to think about anyway.

    Database journalism has the potential to create massive amounts of value. It’s generally low-maintenance and maintains its value throughout its lifecycle, unlike old newspaper stories. See Everyblock.com.

  19. Very good points. I particularly like Nos. 3, 4, and 10. Nos. 3 & 4 sometimes get overlooked in the push to new media as people forget that the new technology won’t do any good for journalism without people who make it their primary living to use that technology to do journalism. I’ve been a believer in No. 10 for a while now. I believe that there is no way any single news company can return to the cash cows that newspapers once were, yet the people who got into newspaper ownership got into it because of that level of profits, and they are not going to be content settling for less. I think that in the long run, it might be better for journalism for the legacy companies to die out or dwindle down to very small operations, thus opening up the market for new media companies built with a new business model and new financial expectations.

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  21. Re: #6
    There are a hell of a lot more people who don’t subscribe to a newspaper and can read just fine. We never reached everybody from the paper and won’t online, either, but we did (and do) affect the conversation. Remember Katz and Lazarsfeld’s two-step flow? The medium doesn’t matter and is beside the point.

  22. @Kelby and everyone else

    Your product isn’t the news, no one’s paying for that. Your product is the audience who reads the news. Get to there before you start thinking about business model innovation.

  23. @Plumb Bob

    Until devices like Kindle supplant paper.

  24. Let’s not leave magazines out of the picture. Newspapers are dying, however magazines, according to the latest reports, still capture more advertising than online (up more than $1.5 billion from 2006 to 2007 for a total 2007 ad revenue rate of $25.5 billion). Only three media showed increases in 2007 vs. 2006: consumer magazines, Internet and cable TV. They’re doing something right. When I poll my classes, zero read newspapers, more than 50% subscribe to some type of magazine, and more than 80% read them on a regular basis.

    According to recent studies from the MPA, they discovered:

    “When comparing magazines, the Internet and TV,
    magazine advertising was the most powerful medium in increasing purchase intent.”

    “Magazines, in a media mix that included online and TV, contributed 67% of the total increase in purchase intent (9.0% of a total 13.5% shift)”

    Synergy between different media might be the key to the survival of journalism, but it’s going to take a concerted effort by the industry and by committed journalists to make it work. Like Mindy, I’m not a business major, and I don’t have the answer, but the conversation needs to start soon.

  25. Mindy, this post is amazing. I’m with you on all your points, but especially No. 10. Existing newspaper companies are not where we will find effective business models for new media. John Zhu is right: The decline of legacy companies is a necessary part of journalism’s rebirth. A few of these companies, such as the NY Times, might survive the transition in good shape, reorganized as online-first publications. But, in general, most legacies will be liquidated as their owners finally realize the days of printing money are over.

    But here’s the good news: While all of this is happening, the really bright young people who want to do journalism will shun the print dinosaurs. They’ll start their own sites and companies, or they’ll join existing ones that are on the rise. They will embrace new technologies, refine them, apply them, and invent a few of their own. Above all, they will take risks, think big, and not realize how crazy they are until it’s all over. They are the ones who will discover, through their trial and error, the ways to produce good journalism that will survive in our very interesting new times.

  26. I’ve worked at two newspapers that are seeing increases in their circulation so I don’t think newspapers can be written off completely.

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  28. After reading this, it struck me, that the vast majority of the time, I read “used” newspapers. Most restaurants, coffee houses, cafes, etc, even McD’s, stack the used copies up somewhere, or put them in a rack. At work, there’s usually a copy or two in the break room that everyone reads. Even my own Grandmother, when she reads the paper, walks down the street to where my Mom lives, and leaves the newspaper.

    I wonder how many people “read” the newspaper as compared to the number of people who “buy” the newspaper?

  29. Pingback: Myopic papers lose readers « Satsueisha

  30. @Plumb Bob: Thanks for making me feel like a prophet.

    Two and a half years ago, I wrote a business column about the newspaper industry. Having become very familiar with the steel industry through coverage of a major bankruptcy, I compared the two. In both cases, I wrote, a major industry on the way down was misled over and over into thinking it had reached a “plateau” when it was just one more step on the stairway to oblivion.

    Fact is, newspapers have been in a decline for about a century. Sure, several measures showed growth over that time. But it’s been a century since there were significant numbers of new U.S. newspapers born. Once an industry passes that point, it’s downhill — very slowly at first, but things always go faster toward the end.

    The biggest problem with the illusion of plateaus is that it prevents newspaper owners from panicking. Instead of firing the bosses and swinging wildly at new kinds of ventures, they keep the same people in place but cut jobs below, they make noises about change but cling cautiously to their old core.

    I don’t agree 100% with every one of Mindy’s points, but I concur completely that these are 10 things not worth the time or effort to dispute any more.

    Now, Mindy, how about 10 points that are worth it?

    I’d offer:

    — One difference between successful startups and unsuccessful old companies is that the best startups tend to have a much higher percentage of people who actually know what they’re doing and how to do it well. Is there any hope of reducing a newsroom to its capable and willing workers, or is it inevitable that any job cuts will fall on the wise and unwise alike?

    — This source says adapting to cellphones and other small mobiles is crucial. That one says it’s social media and using Twitter. Here you’re told your sites have to be customizable; there the message is that you have to get your users to provide your content. How can a newsroom sort out the fads and flukes from the changes of lasting value?

    — Since there’s no real expense to providing several different “home pages” pointing to essentially the same content, why are newspapers still sticking to the one-size-fits-all model that print necessitated? Why aren’t we offering liberal and conservative versions, with story selection and slight editing in the British model? Loud, busy home pages and quiet ones?

  31. My father is a journalist (Cincinnati enquirer) and he can say for a fact that newspaper subscriptions are on the decline. It is a dying thing, but hopefully the news industry is better than the film industry and music industry at adapting to modern culture and can learn to make the internet profitable (as can be very well done)

  32. Point #5 is interesting: Aren’t there still cruise ships on the oceans? Operating differently, perhaps, but they’re still there.

    Now I know most metaphors don’t bear close examination but newspapers may survive in the same way ocean liners have. For example, people in their 20s who have long fallen out of the habit of buying a daily paper will still buy one on Saturday or Sunday. Daily papers may soon be reduced to commuter giveaways that are extensions of websites but weekend papers from the same media groups can be successfully marketed as premium products. Besides, I think relaxing in bed or on porches on Sunday mornings with laptops is like wearing work clothes on weekends.

    To put it in context, I’m a print journalist in his early 30s who made the switch from papers and magazines to a news portal about 18 months ago. We get the vast majority of our traffic during business hours on weekdays, yet newspapers have their best circulation on weekends. I think coexistence is possible.

  33. @Wade O: It’s good to look closely at metaphors — it can be instructive!

    You’re right, there is still a cruise ship business. I don’t know whether it’s thriving, but certainly a lot of people I know have taken a cruise vacation. So, big ships are still doing a passenger business.

    But the once-common practice of people traveling between North America and Europe in big passenger ships was eventually killed off by air travel. Fares, speed, safety, convenience — all played a role.

    So, for that particular application — crossing the Atlantic (which enabled 30 million people to immigrate to the United States between 1815 and 1914) — passenger ships are no longer a viable business.

    But millions still travel across the Atlantic.

  34. Mindy –

    A big part of my gig the last couple of years has been to seek out, identify and explain newspapers around the world that are experimenting with new digital products and new revenue models. There are some very successful newspaper companies, such as Schibsted in Norway and El Tiempo in Bogota. I did case studies on both of these for the NAA. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the newspaper of the future is going to look radically different from what we have grown accustomed to. It seems the macroeconomic forces that are affecting other industries – surprise! – also apply to newspapers (and TV too, although they haven’t started feeling it yet).

    I wrote recently about what we might see happen as newspapers start to fold: http://tinyurl.com/5l4vne Like I say, I’m hoping that it doesn’t come to this (“this” being an utter & complete collapse), but even if it does, we need something in our media ecosystem that fills the niche that newspapers have. Ergo, we will have something. What that something is, and how it works is only dimly visible right now. But I’m trying to see the form & the function…

  35. I too like this shipping comparison to newspapers, but let’s flesh it out a bit here.

    The history buff in me would like to point out that a little thing called U-boat warfare during WWII put a wee ding in transatlantic shipping. Reliable transatlantic air travel didn’t really come around for the masses for at least another 20 years after World War II, but the war did irreversible destruction to the industry (not to mention the European economy being left literally in ruins by the war).

    Now, that said, I think the industry parallel holds true, glossing over a few details in how we get from point A to point B. Newspapers/trans-oceanic shipping was a wildly profitable and dominant business for a long time, a huge disruption occurs (war for them, the current economy plus a long shift in reader preferences for us) and a technological improvement comes along (because, remember, WWII advanced long range aircraft development more than any single event before or after). Add those things together and a once dominant mass industry gets turned into a much smaller industry.

    But lets explore this “no longer viable” notion. Carnival Cruise Lines has a market cap of about $26 billion, with annual revenues around $14 billion. Yes. Billion. 17% profit margin too. Who goes on cruises? People with enough money and time to go on cruises, that’s who. Viable? Very much so, for them and for many others. Same as it was before WWII? Not hardly.

    Who will read newspapers in the future? People who have money and time to read newspapers. Viable? Profitable? Probably. Same as it was? Not hardly.

    Far, far more people will fly/use the web. And there will be far fewer ships/newspapers because of it. But that’s not to say the ones left won’t be doing very nice business.

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  37. Thanks, Matt. I like the historical perspective.

    Here’s the crux of my metaphor: crossing the Atlantic.

    The Caribbean cruises, and cruises to Alaska and Antarctica, etc., could be compared to niche publications, hyperlocal, etc. So, yes, there still exist big passenger cruise ships. (There are also big container ships, particularly the ones that carry goods from China to California.)

    But the metaphor for the decline and eventual disappearance of the daily newspaper, as we knew it in the 20th century, is passenger boat travel across the Atlantic — which has been replaced by air travel.

    The reasons include technology (of aircraft, etc.) and economics, but also the personal preferences of travelers.

    There remain people today who prefer to hold a printed newspaper in their hands.

    I’m sure there were some people remaining in 1960 who preferred sitting on a ship for a few weeks to sitting in an airplane for several hours.

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  39. In the interest of flogging the boating metaphor to death, may I offer this: Dan Pacheco, the genius behind the mini-MySpace “Bakotopia” described their internet strategy as being the difference between trying to entice everyone onto a one-size-fits-all cruiseliner (newspaper), as opposed to constructing a flotilla of customized ships (niche sites).

    Pacheco recently did a mea culpa on the enduring value of print, but I still think he’s onto something. Hyperlocalism is really just “back to the future,” in that newspapers are going to have to disaggregate to get as small and targeted as they were when they first started. Those niche products can then either band together on their own, or operate under an umbrella of a larger organization. The network of niche sites that El Tiempo has grown dominates not only the ad market in Colombia, but also in El Salvador, Costa Rica & Panama. Some papers know how to make money (lots and lots of money) from the internet. Some journalists know how to adapt their content to the changing conditions, and open up true & vital conversations with the readers. The curmudgeons will fight to their last breath to prevent anything like that happening here in the U.S.

    Meanwhile, over at Jessica’s latest post, the old-school dinos are still yammering away about how great Woodward & Bernstein were. Wow. How relevant to today’s under-30 readers. Living in the past is a quick way to get consigned to it.

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  41. Newspapers are history, however much journalism and commentary will likely combine into paper/online journals. Richard John Neuhaus is sometimes honoured as the first blogger http://firstthings.com/ with his Public Square section in this conservative Christian journal. While this journal provides reflective commentary it also reports on events as they relate to a thoughtful conservative Christian (RC/Evangelical) political position.

    Often the answer to future questions has already been answered but we have yet to sort through the massive chaff of culture to see it happening. The solution to the need for paid “busybodies” is a combination of journal/blogs which help sustain a certain income so those who are in love with rooting out the truth can follow these vocations. As with any love, where there is a will, there is a way.

  42. […]This all comes up because of the ongoing bruhaha over Jessica DaSilva and her blogging about plans to blow up the Tampa Trib newsroom. She has been hit with a shit-storm of criticism about being naive, unintelligent or unsuited for work as a journalist. Much of the noise is the same type I heard a few years ago when discussing things like the Harvard study on disruptive innovation. The circumstances are the problem, so rather than innovate around them, lets figure out how can we eliminate them. And if we can’t eliminate the circumstances, let’s kill those who are a) talking about them or b) suggesting that we embrace and innovate around them.[…]

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