Monday, February 19, 2007

Solving the Newspaper "Crisis"

In today’s Utah Policy Daily, LaVarr Webb wishes, “As a former journalist and lifetime avid newspaper reader, I hope the good old print newspaper never goes away.” He touts the unparalleled quality of a well laid out newspaper in delivering an in-depth story in a way that no other medium achieves. But he can see the writing on the wall. He says, “I recognize that I’m part of a dying breed that still likes printed newspapers. I hardly know any young people who spend time with a printed paper.”

And this is more than simply instinct. Media investing mogul Steven Rattner writes in this Wall Street Journal op-ed piece that across the newspaper industry, “circulation has been dropping for 20 years, and worse, the pace of decline seems to be accelerating.” Rattner notes that this decline began long before there was a media presence on the Internet.

Webb says that the solution is for “newspapers [to] evolve and become the premier information source for young people. And that’s only going to happen on-line.” But that evolution would have to be major, because just shifting from paper to electronic delivery doesn’t address the core problem. Rattner notes that the time the average American spends paying attention to news or doing news analysis from any source has been steadily dropping as well. So Webb is not just imagining things when he opines that the breed that likes to curl up with a good newspaper is disappearing.

Rattner asserts that the problem is as deep as a shift in what Americans consider news. He says that the media’s slide from substantive news to “entertainment, gossip or lifestyle info” merely reflects outlets “providing what their customers are demanding.”

It’s not as if Rattner is oblivious to the effects of diversification. For the true news junkie, he asserts, “quality news … is arguably more available today than ever before….” But when Rattner couples this with the declining percentage of the population that fall into the analyst category, he finds reason for alarm.

I only partially share Rattner’s concern. I think Rattner misjudges breadth of the scope of diversification. Americans are more affluent than ever. The potential outlets for their time have exploded over the past several decades. And these ever-expanding possibilities compete for our finite time resources.

It’s not just that the newspaper and the evening news aren’t the only news games in town any more. It’s that there are so many others ways in which one can spend his/her time. From scrapbooking to online gaming to watching poker on TV, there are more things to do than ever.

I have two teenage sons that create and mix their own music, producing near professional results. This used to be the domain of experts with lots of expensive equipment and a sound studio. But these guys can do it with a keyboard, a PC, and a couple hundred dollars worth of software. And diversification happens in almost every aspect of life. When I was a kid there were three little league sports we could play: football, basketball, and baseball. Today my kids are assailed with seemingly endless sports possibilities.

We value shared experience. It’s how we relate to other people. We talk with each other about our common points of interest. These make up the points that connect us with others in our human relations. There used to be far fewer common contact points. The newspaper and the evening news were among those. With ever broadening choices, we have far more potential contact points. As the average American tries to sample an increasing number of these points, they have less time for depth in any one of them.

The news industry is part of this. Busy Americans today catch a few news snippets here and there. They peruse a few headlines and look for something that they think might apply to them. News is almost always obtained more quickly from sources other than the newspaper. But depth sometimes suffers. Americans seem willing to live with this.

Both Webb and Rattner seem quite nostalgic about traditional newspapers. Unlike these two, I see nothing particularly special about newsprint media. The basic purpose of news can be achieved through other media, even if its format differs. The nostalgic types see the differences in method and delivery as deficiencies, when in fact, they are merely trade-offs that are the common lot of any technological or cultural shift.

I strongly disagree with Rattner’s proposed solution. He seems intent on saving the newspaper industry for the good of society. After exploring the possibilities of privatizing and appealing to philanthropy, he finally floats the trial balloon of shifting to a publicly funded model. He cites the New York subways as a necessary and successful example of this.

For one thing, I am afraid that I do not see newspapers quite in the same light as public transit. For another, I’m not sure that creating an American version of Pravda would be a model of enlightenment and success. Having a print version of NPR — that paragon of publicly funded objectivity (note: sarcasm) — would hardly result in a product that would increase readership, unless we also have bands of brown shirts that run around making everyone read it. I simply cannot generate any excitement for putting government bureaucrats in charge of newspapers.

The fact is that the basic rules of Econ 101 apply here. Demand will ultimately determine supply. Government intervention to support the waning buggy whip industry, regardless of how wonderful it might seem in the eyes of some, is ultimately going to fail and cause all kinds of market mischief along the way. Memo to newspaper companies: Your heyday is over. Get used to the idea. Morph to meet the changing market or dry up and blow away. It’s harsh, but it’s that simple, folks.


y-intercept said...

Odd that public funding pops up when prices for collecting and publishing information is falling through the floor.

The main thing that the old newspaper model that the web does not is that wonderful feeling of "official news." What gets printed in the tribune is what officially happened. We can all feel well and satisfied with that. We can all make decisions based on a common pool of official information.

Of course, we were a little bit more prone to manipulation with that model.

Of course, the problem with the net is that the editorial page is way out of proportion with the size of the real news pages.

Jesse Harris said...

Newspapers have been used to being able to pick what is and is not news. That's much more powerful than any amount of editorializing. Now they're faced with the harsh reality that we aren't willing to let them choose what news we do or don't see. We can jump online and grab exactly the information we want about the topics we want from the sources we want. About the only thing keeping newspapers afloat is coasting along on their good reputations of yesteryear.

No longer the gatekeepers of what will or will not be news, they have to resort to desperate attacks upon the new sources they don't understand. Much like the movie and recording industries, they're being blindsided by The Next Big Thing(TM) and have reacted in violent opposition instead of embracing it and riding the wave.

Anonymous said...

I must be old, because I still like reading the paper over reading news on the Internet. My biggest problem is that I think subscription prices are terrible. Everyone know that newspapers make money of the advertisements. The subscription price is just to create a elite reader status. They can charge more, because the readers are invested in the product.

If you wanted to save the newspaper, reduce the subscription fee. Why should I read the paper when I can get it on the Internet for free.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Actually, studies show that subscription fees barely cover (and sometimes don't quite cover) the cost of printing and distribution. Advertising covers the cost of gathering, reporting, editing, layout, etc. But newspapers have had declining advertising revenues as well as declining subscribership.

Some have opined that if papers could figure out how to eliminate printing and distribution without threatening advertising streams, newspapers could thrive again. That's a very tall order. The online ad model is very different than the print ad model. Its nuances make pursuit of a successful model exceedingly elusive.

Newspapers aren't going to completely disappear. We have a significant portion of the populace that wants access to news but doesn't want to become tech savvy. But newspapers have to face the reality that they have real and serious competition. Their relevance is necessarily diminished.