Posted on July 8, 2008
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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- Future generations will not read newspapers. Ever.
- 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.)
- The business model to sustain journalism in the 21st century has not been seen yet.
- 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.