McGuire on Media

Musings on newspapers, journalism and innovation

I apologize for my absence.  Every semester about this time I am shocked at how overwhelmed I get with grading. I hope I eventually figure out how to spread that burden throughout the semester. I am going to spring back into action by commenting on several fascinating items I’ve seen on Jim Romenesko’s blog in recent days.

Business Week’s Jon Fine wrote an excellent analysis of the difficulties facing newspapers and the Associated Press. Fine correctly makes it clear that those problems are more intertwined than they are different.  I was especially taken by this concluding sentence: “But you don’t get to choose the collateral damage major changes to the media landscape bring, as legions of other news entities have been finding out.”

The clarity and power of Fine’s observation seems to be lost on many media players. The dominos that are going to fall because the business model for newspapers has been disrupted are not well understood or appreciated. The single-mindedness of media titans trying to achieve a better bottom line and the public apathy about newspaper’s plight puzzles me. The demise of the American auto industry is ballyhooed and recognized as a threat to the overall economy. The battle to save commercial journalism is going to have dramatic implications for democracy and business. The tsunami should not be underestimated.

This story details the phenomenon of Nate Silver and his remarkable web site Fivethirtyeight. Editors and news directors who think this is the tale of another interesting geek are missing the point. This is journalism pushing the boundaries. Silver has taken his baseball statistics skills and applied them to polls and political news. His inquiry methods are different than we’ve known, but they produce stunning and insightful journalism. Once again, I am concerned and disturbed that Silver and his partner Seth Quinn developed their innovative approach outside a mainstream media newsroom. Here at Arizona State’s Walter Cronkite School we are constantly telling students journalism has to be reinvented and they need to do it. It would be really nice if mainstream media could facilitate their efforts.

It is fascinating to me that the passion of journalists is becoming such a curiosity. This Q  and A with Buzz Bissinger treats Bissinger’s passion for the written word as a bit quaint. I know it is not his proudest moment, but I love to show students Bissinger’s face-off with Will Leitch because it is such a raw, human display of passion for journalism.  None of us from earlier generations should ever be embarrassed about that passion.

This rush on newsstands for commemorative newspapers after Obama’s election is, for my money, being viewed with too much shock and not enough perspective.

  1. The tangible newspaper product still has, and perhaps, will always have value. Newspaper folks are not going to find an historic election every month, but tangible may be a mantra worth thinking about.  What needs can be filled by having a product you can hold, squeeze and rip?
  2. This newspaper crisis is a business model crisis, not a mass rejection of newspapers. Newspapers are still an important part of our society. Sure, the long-term trend line stinks, but current value is still admirable.  As I others have said before, if newspapers stop publishing in a market substitutes will spring up in nanoseconds.  The differences will lie in their cost structures.
  3. The engagement level is high and news outlets need to figure out how to sustain it. After 9/11 we talked about this same thing and we didn’t figure it out.  Hope and attention to news seems at very high levels. Mainstream media must figure out how to maintain that level of urgency with readers. 

MinnPost is celebrating its first birthday this weekend. That prompts me to comment on how proud I am of  my financial contributions to this innovative effort to provide serious news. The business model’s reliance on public support is still not proven, but their news coverage certainly is. During the last two weeks that site has been an invaluable lifeline to Minnesota for an Arizonan with “land of the Loon” affections.” The work of Jay Weiner, David Brauer, Doug Grow and Eric Black have been wonderfully illuminating for someone who doesn’t live, eat and drink the Twin Cities every day. Each time I have gone to MinnPost recently I have told myself, “damn good investment, Tim.” And, I don’t have many of those these days!

Finally, Steve Outing nailed it earlier this week when he wrote about the foolishness of newspapers chasing younger readers at the expense of older, dedicated readers.  I said something very similar this summer in a speech to the American Association of Independent News Dealers Association. I wrote this in that speech:

“The key differentiation point has to be demographic. In my humble opinion, it is certifiably nuts to continue to try to make the print product work for all readers. We have spent too much time and effort in the last 10 years chasing non-readers. The net result of all that chasing has been to chase away core readers.

Yes, I know those readers are going to die off eventually and there will come a time when all readers are best served online. That is a given. The question becomes how do you best profit from current readers and how do you cement newspaper quality journalism in our culture.

Do you a) continue to cut the quality of your print product to the point that loyal print readers are angry, anguished and apathetic? Or, b) do you entice young readers with your online efforts and make that print product work really well for the baby boomer reader with lots of cash and target the paper to their needs. I think B is a no-brainer.”

I hope I can be more consistent and reliable in the coming weeks.

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