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. I have a question. I am truly a curious reporter at heart. However, journalism could not pay the bills or at least sustain the basic standard of life that I wanted for me and my young family. I am only 25! I have since moved to PR. So my question is..If journalism in its traditional since is dying, what will be the best way to reach the media? Alot of the PR books I read suggest putting your news out directly through an online newservice and not relying on print reporters anymore? What do you print guys and gals think.

  2. @Kandis – The gigantic sea of information makes it very likely that one message from one source will be lost, or seen by very few people. Without a system of filters (or “gates”), how will valuable information find its way to the attention of the public? It’s a big question.

    Unfortunately, many p.r. professionals act as if every little widget their client produces is Page One news. That only adds to the depth of the ocean.

    Everyone whose job is communicating is facing the same questions.

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  8. Unless you know the insides of the newspaper business it is difficult to understand why newspaper are unable to respond to fierce competition. Most have been monoplies in their territory, and owners expected, and got, margins of up to 30 percent of income. That is money that was not re-invested in the newspaper monoply that created it. The result is that the papers were severely weakened before the internet came to town. Now the internet is challenging products weakened by decades of unbridled greed on the part of owners. For the most part the chains used the money to buy more papers and did the same to them. There are a few large newspapers that are prospering–as in Little Rock where staffs are increasing, local, national and international news holes are larger than ever, and THE PAPER SELLS ITS NEWS, and does not give it away to its competitors. Imagine another company spending millions on staff and equipment that give for free its product to a direct competitor in its own town, or even weirder, directly gives away the product to its own potential and current customers. That’s the plan, born in stupidity and arrogance, that the top newspaper brass has come up with. Then they reward themselves with huge salaries while firing their staffs and bemoaning the “economy.” As usual Shakespeare knew the situation when he wrote: “the fault dear Brutus is not in your stars but in ourselves.” It’s an insight that newspaper managers will never acknowledge.

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  12. I am still surprised.
    the list is accurate and the observation reveals truth but again. Press is one media, Web is another one.
    The market share regarding users, readers or customers is progressing in some ways and journalists must adapt.
    As far as we can consider as the whole media situation and competition, then the observation will became more accurate by practicing a different journalism according to the media differences.
    Yes you can write or express news in similar ways as the actual newspapers do it online BUT then you might kill your previous business.
    a media needs its own authorships’ways, and journalism practices.
    NYTimes Online or Le Monde has to be different from their primary paper version cause it’s a different medium, with it’s specific form and ways to interact with its readership.
    As far as each news editors will finally understood it then finally solutions will come up by itself, nourishing or not from one media to the other one and reverse.
    The readership has increased, learnt better an more, and deal with a more complete understanding of information, news and communication.
    KEEP THE MEDIA DIMENSIONS AND CONSTRAINS OR FEATURES IN MIND and the whole picture or the future of journalism will became bright and more accessible but it needs some fine tunes to be adapted. Press, TV, Online desktop or mobile, so much to share and in a different ways. It is obvious but it needs to be taught and learned.
    the media differences 🙂
    so don’t worry, don’t cry, there are just now new ways of making journalism

  13. BTW: How such a brilliant journalist from BBC could be trapped and blinded by his traditional practices?
    Is journalism not about learning from life and events?

  14. I love this list, but I disagree with # 9. I *do* think the business model for 21st century journalism has been seen. It’s advertising.

    What hasn’t been seen yet is whether *traditional* news organizations (ie: newspapers) can figure out how to a) draw enough readers to their sites in order to earn ad revenue, and b) structure their newsrooms so they have the right number of staff (and the right skill sets) to deliver online news.

    There are non-traditional news organizations that are doing just fine financially. Talking Points Memo is one example.

    The reason why newspapers think online advertising isn’t a sufficient business model to support journalism is because they’re asking the wrong question. They’re asking: “How can we make enough money to fund the way we used to operate in the past?”

    Instead, they should be asking: “What do we need to do to attract and retain readers online?” and “How should we structure our organizations in order to deliver news in the ways that attracts and retains readers?”

  15. There’s a kind of snake-biting-its-tail aspect to the online advertising conundrum.

    People come into the news site from all kinds of directions — Google searches, blog links, RSS feeds. They land on any one of thousands of pages. They stay on a page for (average) less than a minute. Then they move on.

    Which people will land on which pages? Hard to say.

    Who will see your ad? Very, very hard to say.

    Yet lots of people are landing on those newspaper Web site pages. Lots of eyeballs. The numbers are there, but in the aggregate. Single-copy numbers are blown to smithereens.

    So if Company X could buy a space on every single page of a news Web site — woot, what a lot of eyeballs that would be!

    But that ad would have to cost about $1 million to support all the work that produced all those pages.

    The Long Tail is working against the advertising business model.

  16. As always, great post and discussion, Mindy! With apologies for the plug, but something that is mentioned in this debate is crucial and its what I tried to explore in the research for my Media Work book: all media professions and practitioners are dealing with the same issues.

    Of course it is easy to agree on the necessity of moving “beyond”, that is: beyond ways of thinking that reify the existing ways of doing things, that function to solidify entrenched loyalties to routines and practices that served traditional models and relationships (between owners, editors, reporters, sources, advertisers and audiences) so well.

    And yes, the key to the “new” mixed media ecology is starting from the basic premise that all those roles and players are still here, but that they are converging, mixing, becoming more fluid or liquid.

    That also means that new business models cannot be premised on a notion of structural stability. We need to embrace liquidity as the foundation for moving beyond.

    That said, we cannot forget that all these news and media companies to a large extent are not just governed by journalists or owners or advertisers, but also by investors and stockholders – and THAT is a system that seems particularly locked into a 19th century industrial-capitalist way of thinking (with a fixation on growth and increasing R-O-I).

    I am not anti-capitalism, but as someone smarter than me said to me recently: why are we never critically discussing the underlying issue determining most of our concerns about the survival of quality and creativity in media work: capitalism (more specifically: its dark side).

  17. I’ll just focus on No. 2.

    Newspapers are not expensive to produce. In fact, even with the cost of people, newsprint, delivery fuel, etc., etc., the per-paper cost is still relatively small. I’m going to guess that circulation revenue comes close to covering the nut. Well managed operations can still make a vast piles of money.

    I believe the underlying problem is that each new generation in the United States READS less then the previous one. Not just newspapers, but magazines, books — yes, even Internet pages. More and more people USE the Internet, sure, but most people don’t READ on the Internet.

    We are raising generations of observers who want to be entertained by the mass media, not informed by it. They want to WATCH non-sensical content like “American Idol” and most of what passes for programming on YouTube.

    READING requires effort. People in the U.S. just don’t want to be bothered.

  18. Journalism survives through people dedicated to keeping people informed about the happenings in the world. These people are not trained journalists, so their work has a tendency to be sub-level with obvious favoritism being displayed. Now, the news can be shown by anyone with a camera, or half a brain. “Half” stories are everywhere, and people are feeling the useless news, ruining their days.

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  23. I think one of the biggest problems in the journalism business is one of scale. I like the analogy to Cruise Lines. They used to be big and dominant and served a mass audience. Now, they are smaller and serve a niche.

    Right now, there are too many journalists doing essentially the same thing. Look at news conferences and media events with their microphone bushes and rows of video cameras and reporters. Waste.

    The Internet is an organism that prunes waste. It finds the best providers of something and rewards them, but it ruthlessly rids itself of those who duplicate uselessly.

    Back 20 years ago, you needed multiple newspapers and many stations, etc. Today, we only need one. I’m only going to read one, maybe two stories on a subject, not dozens. But yet, dozens of reporters show up. I don’t think we are seeing an industry dying. What we are seeing is one that is being ruthlessly pruned of duplication and waste.

  24. The ten things are abolutely correct. The things are changing and some people thing they loose something but things only getting more perfect!

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