McGuire on Media

The newspaper demise is accelerating; the market must respond

I’ve been away from this blog for about five weeks and it seems like five years. The pace of the newspaper business demise has become so dramatic, it defies clever description and articulate expression.

Sunday night, a non-newspaper friend brought me Michael Hirschorn’s unequivocating Atlantic article saying the New York Times could shut down by May. I casually tossed it on the end table with an expressive expletive. As I thought about it I decided I was unclear whether my expletive (which concerned a bull’s excrement) pertained to my disbelief of the story or if it expressed my frustration with the downward spiral of newspapers and the slightly suppressed glee I perceive.

I can’t say I am surprised by the news out of Seattle about the P.I, nor was I surprised that the Detroit papers announced a Weekend -only product.  And, I talked about the Star Tribune’s potential bankruptcy before I broke for the holidays. That process seems to be moving inexorably forward.

The progression of bad newspaper news is not surprising, but the lack of concern is mystifying and frightening. Hirschhorn wrote this: The collapse of daily print journalism will mean many things…….  And it will seriously damage the press’s ability to serve as a bulwark of democracy.” Ya think? Hirschhorn tossed off in one dismissive sentence one of the most crucial potential developments for journalism and democracy since the First Amendment. I think brass bands are required to force a focus on the democratic implications of what’s happening.

Despite the general lack of debate and concern about the subject, I was taken by the insight of a blogger for Science News who made this observation: “What we have to keep in mind is that true journalism is the closest thing most adults have to formal continuing education. Each newsroom that goes dark, then, amounts to another school closing.”

At least someone is worried about the implications of what’s happening. I think about it all the time and it’s going to be one of the key themes for  my two classes this semester: The Business and Future of Journalism and a graduate seminar called 21st Century Journalism. I am going to spend a lot less time in this year’s classes this year discussing the demise of mainstream media and try to focus more on what’s going to replace the floundering corporate media model to which we’ve all become accustomed.

The “market” will supply some of those answers.  As mainstream media outlets struggle and flop around like beached whales I am convinced creative entrepreneurs are going to find new openings in the competitive landscape.  For example if the Detroit papers leave a hole in the front part of the week, I will be shocked if somebody doesn’t start a weekly web/print publication to cover sports in that market. (Insert your own damn Lions joke!) With big players scrambling out of the picture, the landscape will change and so will business models.

Here in Phoenix several newspaper refugees are trying to fill content  holes they perceive in the market.  One grouo has put together a state capitol news site called The Arizona Guardian. Their site is open right now, but they plan to make it subscription only.  For my money, that’s the wrong business model, but the significant thing is they are experimenting and trying something different.

Some of these new efforts are going to be the product of out-of-work journalists desperately searching for a place to land quality journalism. That can be good, because quality will win out in the marketplace and high-quality stuff may find a means of support.  Other new business efforts are going to respond to holes in the marketplace created by mainstream media cutbacks. Those efforts stand to be well-rewarded.

For months, I and others, have been saying journalism is in a desperate search for a business model.  That search is actually going to become easier as so many newspapers abandon coverage and business markets. The media entrepreneur’s challenge is to find those holes in the marketplace and exploit them.

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19 Comments

  1. Joe Puchek
    Posted January 14, 2009 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Good thoughts. As a guy who got started in newspapers while a high school senior back in 1974, I’ve never thought newspapers themselves would die because no one ever leaves their laptop on a city bus. The idea that when a newspaper closes it’s like a school closing hits home. I was not good student material and instead taught myself how to write, edit, design and picture edit by reading every word in the Chicago Tribune every day for more than a year. After reading it, I “read” it again with a pica pole. That was my education. Now a Web Content Editor in Northwest Indiana, I don’t have a good feeling about the future of newspapers or for the people who need to read them.

  2. Bruce Adomeit
    Posted January 14, 2009 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    Alas, my former boss at the Star Tribune has been spending too much time in the Arizona sun. He says that journalistic “quality will win out in the marketplace.” Ha! Just look at http://www.startribune.com: Despite a never-ending U.S. Senate recount that continues to draw national attention, what’s topped the Strib website’s Most Viewed list every day for the last several weeks? Instead of Al Franken vs. Norm Coleman, the winner has been “Cutest Canine: Vote for your favorite pooch.”
    Quality, indeed.

  3. Tony LaRoche
    Posted January 14, 2009 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    I hope you are right about high quality winning out — and I do think you are. Unfortunately, what I have seen up close is many papers making decisions that have nothing to do with quality issues. Beyond the economic realities, I fear that the kingpins in charge of our newspapers have lost the desire to be newspapermen/women. The flash of the web has confused them as to what is good journalism, trading in well thought out developed pieces that enlighten to quick hit stories that merely in inform.

    Also, I have long wondered why I have not read more about the demise of this great industry in the pages of these great papers — and I’m not just talking about the daily drumbeat that has quickened of late. I think an in-depth piece as to the dynamics behind this demise and what it means needs to be done. Maybe it has and I have just missed it.

  4. Ed Sylvester
    Posted January 14, 2009 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    Quality never has to win out, it has to endure. That isn’t a sure thing, either but I think it’s a mistake for those pushing to create and maintain the best journalistic standards in new media to go for home runs. If we look at the best journalism of the past — or the best fiction writing, for that matter — wasn’t it marginally profitable compared to shlock?

  5. Posted January 14, 2009 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Tim, Like you I left newspapers (Akron Beacon Journal) for academia (Kent State U.) Like you, I’m worried about what the demise of media means for a free press in a democracy. Like you, I’ll focus lessons on new media models. What worries me is not how to encourage students, but how to get audiences to care. It’s true that people are worried about jobs, retirement, college costs, war, health care, global threats and more. Will they be surprised when they realize these and worse problems festered because no one examined such issues? When people ask where were the watchdogs, will they care that there are fewer journalists to do the watching? I’m not yearning for “the old days” in newsrooms. I’d like a media model, any model, that people would embrace with passion.

  6. Solitude
    Posted January 14, 2009 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    “The newspaper demise is accelerating; the market must respond”

    You have the cart before the horse.

    Readers have left the newspapers for other outlets. The market followed readers away from the newspapers.

    The newspaper collapse is not happening because of an unresponsive market. It is happening because the sluggish market finally noticed that another bin had more grain in it.

  7. Posted January 14, 2009 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    Regarding a comment from my co-worker Bruce Adomeit, If I am correct, the “most read” at the top of the Star Tribune listings — previously the Senate recount “ballot challenge,” and now the “Cutest Canine: Vote for your favorite pooch” — are fixed at that spot regardless of page views. I don’t know that to be a fact, but I believe it to be so because — regardless of what tab you are under (Vikings, St. Paul, Style+People, whatever), the Cutest Canine contest is at the top of the most read, and it was the same with the ballot challenge a few weeks ago.

  8. Libertarian1
    Posted January 14, 2009 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    The collapse accelerated as alternative media rapidly became readily available and the stodgy MSM refused to budge. Honestly it has now come to the point where I no longer believe what the NYT chooses to publish.
    They have a political goal and selectively publish only those articles that fit in with their grand scheme.
    Still today the young journalist believes his purpose in life is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Now that he can no longer find a job I am comfortable. This is the 21st Century,that thinking may have been appropriate 75 years ago but times have changed.

  9. Ray Weiss
    Posted January 14, 2009 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Funny thing, Tim. We never worried about these issues back at The Ledger. Journalism was simply fun, free of any monetary concerns other than what our next raise would be.
    I find it laughable now that we’re scrambling to figure out why traditional journalism is blowing up. Everyone in chain-newspaper management rushed to help light the fuse the day they were seduced by Wall Street.
    Editors made big bonuses and received lucrative stock options in return, selling out. Now an ugly divorce is occurring with Wall Street and the chains are crumpling.
    It really doesn’t take a genius to figure out why. Newspapers sold their souls to the devil long ago.

  10. Posted January 14, 2009 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Tim.
    I started my career with newspapers with zero resources, so I know we can do a lot with little money and lots of imagination. But I fear that’s our current deficit: Most of our experiments are variations of what we’ve always done. As painful as this era is, I wonder if it’s the seed for a new kind of journalism. As for me, I have been experimenting like crazy (such as news poetwittery). In the end, I’d bet on your students inventing something better.

  11. Mark Wollemann
    Posted January 14, 2009 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Is the demise of the “floundering corporate media model to which we’ve all become accustomed” really such a bad thing? Does it signal the demise of print journalism as we know it? Like most of us in this business, I have closely followed news about our industry’s struggles. But I’m left with one thought: The sooner we take the “corporate” out of the media, especially the newspaper media, the better.

    True, we’ve enjoyed some of the fruits of corporate ownership in years past: big newsroom growth; bigger papers (bigger newshole); more expansive coverage of all things, from politics to gardening. We all enjoyed, to some extent, increases in salary and retirement accounts. All in all, those were pretty good times.

    But what we lost was an ownership connection to the community. Maybe I’m wrong, and surely you know this better than I, but didn’t we have owners back then who were happy to take their profits from the newspaper, but also concerned about how their ownership was viewed within the community. The newspaper was first a LOCAL asset. Newsgathering and opinion-shaping were paramount; satisfying shareholders wasn’t the goal. As with most pro sports franchises these days, newspaper owners knew that even if they didn’t make obscene profits now, they could sell the paper at any point and realize great financial wealth (as the Cowles family did in 1998, right?).

    So in Minneapolis at least, we have to ride the rollercoaster downward and hope that we don’t crash. We have to hope the economy turns around, because just like most businesses, we are subject the fluctuations in the local economy. And when we reach bottom, wherever that is, perhaps a local buyer will emerge. Someone who is independent, community-minded – really wealthy — and someone who believes in the value of journalism and its role in our democracy. They’ll get the paper at a bargain price and it’ll work for them. It’ll make money, but it’ll also raise their standing in the community. And they’ll be seen as saviors of a valuable local property.

    It’s possible, I realize, that might mean fewer Home and Garden stories – and, yes, perhaps even fewer sports stories (horror of horrors!), but also a newspaper that remains vital to the local marketplace of ideas.

    It’s also possible that I’m full of it – or just very naive. But I wonder, if we hold on for just a little while – and if those corporate geniuses pass from the scene – might we be OK? I sure hope so. I remain bullish on us, at the very least.

  12. Dave Lawson
    Posted January 14, 2009 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    “The progression of bad newspaper news is not surprising, but the lack of concern is mystifying and frightening.”

    Why should it be mystifying? The quality of the reporting, the writing and the expressed intelligence level of the reporters in most newspapers has gone straight downhill for two generations.

    If you don’t believe me, put the front page of a major urban paper from January 14, 2009 on a table next to the front page of the same paper on January 14, 1959 and 1984.

    Count the misuse of the language, the grammatical errors and — more than anything else — the examples of outright political bias in the three.

    Newspapers are dying for two reasons: One, the internet is a better delivery system than the printed page. And second, because today’s product absolutely sucks.

    As opposed to a benighted past, the profession today is rank with an unearned elitism, an embarrassing ignorance (of the world…and the subjects they’re asked to write about) and an annoying political bigotry that puts off fully half the audience.

    I ask you: Why shouldn’t these newspapers be failing?

  13. Oscar
    Posted January 14, 2009 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    Newspapers will be going out of business: good riddance, I say!

    The fact of the matter is that most Americans don’t trust what journalists write these days. Pick any article you care to mention, and I guarantee that it will be rife with inaccurate comments, abysmal ignorance, or political bias.

    While inaccuracy and ignorance can be forgiven, the blatant political bias demonstrated by news organizations in the past year has been conclusive for many Americans. As a profession of honest inquiry and self-dedication to the truth, journalism is a dead letter. What remains is for the body to stop twitching.

  14. Falter Cronkite
    Posted January 14, 2009 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    The press has not served as a “bulwark of democracy” for quite some time now: rather, they serve their masters in the halls of government and the democrat party. Readership is down because everybody knows they can get the real news from the independent blogosphere, the real “bulwark of democracy”. They broke the stories on Monicagate, Rathergate, Hamasgate, and many other stories; while the msm just repeated the same old, same old.

  15. PJ
    Posted January 14, 2009 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    “Newspapers are dying for two reasons: One, the internet is a better delivery system than the printed page. And second, because today’s product absolutely sucks.”

    BEST COMMENT.

    No, the media is not a ‘bulwark of democracy’, but rather shills for their favored politicians/point-of-view and attack dogs against those they disfavor. In the past, newspapers were partisan and open about it. Today, the liberal MSM is partisan by dishonest and hypocritical about their own abject bias.

    Want to win back half the audience you lost? End the liberal bias.

  16. PJ
    Posted January 14, 2009 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    “What we have to keep in mind is that true journalism is the closest thing most adults have to formal continuing education.”

    Wrong. My continuing education is now occuring via the internet. Maybe that’s why ‘true journalism’ is dying. It has become superfluous in the age of googling.

    Either you are an original, insightful, content creator or … you are just in the way. Most ‘journalism’ is not deep enough to be the former, so it is the latter.

  17. amyg41
    Posted January 14, 2009 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    Actually, the subscription-only model can work — if you do it right. I work for a small niche media company that targets very high-level readers. Sales have shown double-digit increases even in the midst of a recession. We don’t even sell advertising, and our company supports (on its own revenue) the salaries and health insurance for a couple dozen reporters and many other associated staff people. So don’t write off that business model yet.

  18. John LaPrelle
    Posted January 14, 2009 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    Your comments reflect so clearly the attitude that the work that is being done by “journalists” is worthy and that “information” flows most freely and accurately with the assistance of those folks. Many of us, however, find that “journalists” mainly see themselves as prophets of social change and the improvement of mankind.

    Things have changed. Educated people prefer a varied diet of perspective and philosophy. Some of us are religious. That perspective is neglected or buried in all the urban newspapers that I know of. Some of us organize our lives around family life and our parents, children and grandchildren. I have never read an article that recognized those preferences as a legitimate interest. A preference for family life is invariably presented as intolerance of somebody or other.

    You would achieve a better understanding of the decline of “journalism” if you could see clearly that what you mourn is not your job, but your priveleges. To you “journalists” are good guys. To me, you are usurpers, desperate to maintain your thrones of cultural power.

    You are engaged in a revolution– On the losing side. The people have risen. Your effete aristocracy of information has lost one of its provinces. It sounds like you now work at a university. Be warned that the same sort of obstinate ignorance about people and their concerns will lead to the same revolutionary outcome in academia as in the press.

    There is no monopoly on information. Anybody who pretends there is, will be exposed to the consequences of a more open system.

    When the aristocracy of land ownership was replaced by more open markets, much was lost. Beautiful buildings, great houses, art, gardens– all fell into disrepair.

    There will be a lot of good things lost in the fall of the urban newspapers, I think. That is sort of sad. Despite a bit of sadness, I don’t want to go back to feudal times and patriarchal land ownership systems. I don’t want to go back to the graphocracy that ruled U.S. cultural and political life for the past 70 years, either.

    Buh-bye. Get a nice city apartment with enough wall space for your books and journalism awards. My children will come and visit you for tea and stories. We love you. We just are tired of being ruled by you.

  19. Posted January 16, 2009 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    Sorry politically motivated bloggers. The demise of the newspaper industry is not caused by bias. It is caused by the loss of lucrative ads, especially classified ads moving to Web sites. It is also caused by too much debt. Problems will be exacerbated by a noninnovative business culture that has relied on a monopoly product. Alleged bias, even if it existed, had nothing to do with a disruption in the business model. You should be worried about this because your thought leader, Rush Limbaugh, is going to have no material to work with if newspapers die off.

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  1. […] My colleague Tim McGuire of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University sees it the same way: […]

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