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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Newspapers: murder or suicide?

Alex says: Perhaps harshly, a few weeks back, Maureen Dowd’s mopey piece about the unfair behaviour of Google and other aggregators toward poor suffering journalists became the focus of a piece I wrote that bid an unemotional goodbye to the newspaper industry. Since then, we’ve seen The Wire creator David Simon appearing before congress to claim, amongst other more sensible points, that the internet parasite has eaten the news-gathering host. Interestingly, his presence at the hearings can only be because he was the maker of a hit TV series, not an old-fashioned journalist; conclude what you will from that.

My view, as I stated before, is that journalism is not what's at risk here, and we'd all do well to distinguish journalism from newspapers. Journalism – professionals investigating the news of interest to the public at large – will prosper even if newspapers die a terrible death because this kind of professional work meets a real public need.

One of the persistent myths put out by the newspapers is that their troubles are caused by a public no longer willing to pay for the valuable work they do, that the internet has somehow made consumers into tightwads and skinflints who don’t care about the public good and aren't willing to pay for quality. “The tragedy of the commons,” journalists murmur quietly to themselves as they rock themselves to sleep in their plush city pads. No, more than that, we the public are actually criminals, stealing content, or in Simon’s words, parasites. Quick note, guys: a fairly reliable indicator that a business is out of touch is when it starts abusing its customer base.

I think the internet has just made consumers able to pay only for what they actually wanted and valued in the first place. The great revelation is that a whole load of stuff that publishers thought was first rate has been exposed as fluff.

The Victim Number One of the internet is, and has always been, the practice of bundling. As with albums, your traditional newspaper included a few tracks of real quality and a whole pile of filler. Back in the 1970s, when you had confidence in the bands you loved, this wasn’t a problem. But when the producers started forcing the cash cows to release half-finished albums every year just to keep up with their production schedules, things started going wrong. Remember when Michael Jackson released Thriller and virtually every track was a hit single as well? When was the last time that happened?

Same goes for bundling in the newspaper industry. Bundling wasn’t necessarily a bad thing – in fact, it could even be valuable if you had intelligent editors who understood their audience. This kind of editor could bring you stories on topics you hadn’t gone to look for but turned out to be interesting all the same. But quality bundling is increasingly rare, not least because editors simply ended up chasing the stories from their rivals’ headlines. Most of the time newspaper bundling became little more than a few pieces of expensive, quality journalism squeezed between a whole bunch of generic filler taken virtually wholesale off the AP feed and marginally repackaged. I presume that editors consoled themelves that this was the price they paid: that the fluff subsidised their true calling - the occasional Woodward and Bernstein piece. Actually, this was a way of reconciling themselves to spending less and less time on the thing that really mattered.

The best example I know of this is the British Sunday newspaper. Convinced that quality was measured by quantity, editors just kept adding crap, so that today you need a small wheelbarrow to get one home from the shops, and most of the rest of the day free to discard the 30-odd sections of absolutely no interest to you. (I briefly did some strategy work for a major international press chain which shall remain nameless about ten years ago, and the frame of discussion at that point was even about eliminating the journalist altogether from the newspaper production process. Troublesome, argumentative, and really not doing much that a news wire and copy editor couldn’t do as well, was their – now exposed as utterly self-destructive – view.)

As long as the distribution mechanism was controlled by a few businesses with a monopoly on the print and circulation of newsprint, editors could convince themselves that their bundled product was more valuable than most people actually felt it was. Their little self-regarding bubble could persist long enough to pay for their long expense account lunches. But then the internet offered people the opportunity to read the two or three articles they wanted from a newspaper without paying the bit they didn’t want. Instead of getting the price of the whole thing, newspapers were suddenly forced to live with a tiny share of ad rev from eyeballs on that page alone. To an insider, this looked like daylight robbery, but only because they misunderstood what their customers valued in the first place. Adding every topic under the sun to a Sunday newspaper wasn’t making them more appealing to readers, it was making them more generic – and, for that matter, more annoying.

The same could be said about the embarrassing way in which formerly respectable newspapers sought to put buxom film stars on the front page every day and covered the latest goings on in reality TV shows. Formerly high-brow journalists convinced themselves that an attitude of wry disapproval of the content they were covering would fool the public into thinking it wasn’t just celebrity news. Well, it didn’t: celebrity gossip is celebrity gossip. Besides, people who like that stuff don't want to be told at the same time as they're getting their fix that they're shameful and should really be reading Kierkegaard.

All too often, newspapers thus came to believe that their unique value lay in taking a particular attitude or ideological position rather than providing something to the consumer that wasn’t available in a dozen other places.

Now, I can only speak for a sampling of one person – me – but I stopped buying newspapers a long time ago. In fact, I stopped well before I started getting my news from the Internet. I preferred to go to the few good TV news programmes instead (Newsnight, for instance), which didn’t waste my time telling me what ‘Bennifer’ was getting up to, or how I should wear my hair to best look like a Shoreditch journalist. I do read individual news reports from the press online, but never more than a couple of pieces from any single source: for which I think the ad revenue they accrue is probably reasonable. Meanwhile, I subscribe to The New Yorker and The London Review of Books, and regularly buy The New York Review of Books, The Economist, and other news magazines, all of which cost substantially more than a daily paper. So the total pot of money I spend on journalism has not only held up, it’s probably grown. My licence fee to the BBC is still being paid, the magazines are getting a fair whack of my disposable income, it’s just that only a little of it goes to newspapers anymore.

Why still pay for magazines if supposedly the internet's destruction of paying for quality journalism is to blame? Well, in my case the answer is simple: the magazines didn’t run off and try to be all things to all people, the magazines didn’t show contempt or ignorance of their readership. They understood their brand, they understood what their readers wanted, and they focused on delivering it, in a quality format. I know this is true for high end political and international news – what I like – but I'm sure it’s the same for other subjects as well. Why get The Guardian to keep me updated on celebrity tattle when Heat does it properly? Why read The Telegraph’s half-pint technology news section when I can read Wired?

So in the end, I don’t hold to this argument that we're witnessing the death of independent, professional journalism. Sadly, all too often it was the newspapers who squeezed out the good journalism from their workplace. The same newspapers are now trying to wrap themselves in the dead skin of investigative journalism in order to preserve a high-minded image of themselves in a public debate over their social value that they're badly losing.

The good journalists are going to continue to do their work because they believe in it, and the public will continue to value their efforts however the medium changes. I’m not claiming that bloggers are generally capable of producing the kind of ‘pounding the streets’ professional investigations that David Simon talked about. Blogging is about community engagement, not investigative journalism, and whilst they may overlap they're not the same thing. I just don’t believe that’s really what newspapers did anymore, either.

Alex Goodall
Papamoka’s European Contributor
From A Swift Blow to the Head


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Blogger Papamoka said...

Excellent post Alex and I have to agree that a good investigatinve journalist can never be replaced with your bundling theory.

Take for instance the news magazine television shows on MSNBC, Fox and so on, many of the topics they are covering from day to day is based on the work that journalist printed one or two or more days prior.

This is just my opinion buy I honestly believe that most newspapers have refused to grow with the times and focus on an internet paying production. Till they learn to sell the online product then they will continue to decline in their ability to prosper with a paper and ink edition circulation.

5:56 AM  
Blogger Del or Alice Patterson said...

I fear the loss of the Fourth Estate. Without a watchdog how do we keep tabs on our govt? Who watches the spending? Who questions Congress or even oversees the vetting of cabinet post or court nominations.

We now suffer from the fact that most national papers no longer have a foreign correspondent.

9:18 AM  
Blogger Alex said...

Del or Alice - that's exactly my point! I don't think we're going to be losing journalism just because poor editorship has brought crisis upon the newspaper industry. We're not going to stop keeping tabs on government. You're right, perhaps, that we're may stop paying for a Baltimore Sun reporter to be have their jollies in London. But that's only because there is a London journalist who can do the same thing perfectly well ... and vice versa.

11:06 AM  
Anonymous del patterson said...

I was speaking of correspondents in such places as Darfur, Iraq, Mozambique, Bolivia, etc.
A stupid example of not having live reports could be summed up by the great writing in "All Quite On the Western Front" wherein what was reported was a quite, peaceful, and serene place when actually 1000s were dying everyday.
Or how about the Holocaust: where national leaders knew about the horror but intentionally failed to report it.
Hell, our own U.S. History are so replete with lies, one wonders how the publishers sleep at night knowing they control the real history/lessons. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution comes to mind, as an example.

1:26 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

Hi Del -

I'm not sure I follow your argument, because all your examples come from the era of the newspaper that's currently being romanticised and yet all show the failure of newspapers to limit or report on the bad behaviour of governments. In each case, I'd frankly feel safer with a free, unfettered internet than a few foreign correspondents.

Your first example: well, there were plenty of journalists reporting the horrors of the First World War. It's just that the governments on both sides controlled the press. In the US, the Wilson administration passed the Sedition Act and a number of other laws to prosecute any journalists who presented a cynical view of the conflict and the Postmaster General Albert Burleson banned any dissenting newspapers or magazines.

Second: Iraq, Bolivia, Mozambique, Darfur. Well, there's plenty of local correspondents reporting from Iraq and Bolivia which we can easily get hold of on the internet and usually have a much better idea of what's going on than a foreign correspondent who thinks they know it all. Mozambique I can't comment because I don't know the situation well. Darfur, again, the only limit on information here is because of government-janjaweed action.

Third, the Holocaust. As you say, Western governments intentionally kept such information out of the public domain. Newspapers did nothing to stop them.

Fourth, the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. The government lied and the journalists reported the lies with a minimum of questioning.

I'm not sure how any of these can support the argument that we used to live in a world where a healthy fourth estate kept the excesses of government in check and that this world is currently falling apart...?

5:07 PM  
Blogger B.J. said...


I am a retired newspaper editor with degrees in journalism and political science, so I read your post with a great deal of interest. Your conclusions are valid. Other than an occasional dose of BBC news, I don’t know how it is on the other side of the pond, but the same losing factors you attribute to newspapers can now be applied to TV news in the U.S.

As a hopeless romantic about a free press, I do thank you for making the distinction between newspapers today and journalism.

I mentioned the second degree because the most intelligent professor I had in six years of college was an overweight and bearded political science teacher who wore a Cossack hat and was not particularly good company in unventilated spaces. Oh, but he was breathtakingly brilliant. He really had it in for newspapers, said he hadn’t read one in years. You can imagine the conversations he and I had on the subject. Do I detect a little of that same personal vendetta in your musings?

The main topic of instruction and discussion in journalism graduate school (1980-82) was the coming demise of newspapers. On this level education became “uublish or perish,” numbers crunchers vs. historians. It was about this time that newspapers began to try all the circulation tricks you mention. But, as with education itself, none of the new ideas for improving the product worked.

This might be oversimplification, but I believe the death of newspapers, of any quality news coverage, can be blamed on the death of intellilectual curiosity and a populace which no longer finds enjoyment in or invests its time in reading.

I heard Tom Brokaw say that the average Internet visitor today is unwilling to read beyond the second paragraph. I think the emphasis is on “average.” As a blogger, I know this to be true.

You and I and many of Papamoka’s readers cannot base a full explanation of a dying press only on our own intellectual pursuits. A study of the “most popular” links on many Web news sites will yield a clearer understanding of what the general population now expects in the way of “news.”

The magazines you take fill your needs. Comparing their content to that of newspapers and even cable news coverage today is like comparing Jane Austen to a cereal box.

“It was I who killed the old woman with an ax!” And, it was the readership who killed the newspapers.


6:47 AM  
Anonymous Annie Nonymous said...

Well, Alex, with the economy down the crapper and no more Sears catalogues, people may have to start buying those bundles again to use in the outhouse or woods.

It's a fact newspapers aren't worth buying anymore. Apparently there are no editors. Or if there are, they didn't learn to spell or complete a chain of thought. An article will end in the middle of a sentence and you never know the ending.

Letters to the editor are useless waste of the authors time. You still don't know if they caught the one who killed the old woman with the ax!

1:18 PM  

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