McGuire on Media

Newspaper critics need to count to 100 and take a sedative

It has been major sport for some time to mock the newspaper business and its executives for failure to act. Now words like “collusion’ and “bullies” and “too late” are pock-marking what should be an intelligent debate.

Jeff Jarvis, a guru way out of my league, is the hero of the critical set whose main message to publisher  is “You blew it.” He hammers that message home and accuses newspapers publishers of a “hissy fit” because they raised the issue of AP and other papers charging aggregators for content links.

It is late in the game for newspapers to try to gain control of their content. Is it too late, is the more important question. When your industry is teetering on the brink of extinction even though you still have millions of readers I’d say it is not too late.  I think critics need to breathe in slowly and consider these crucial points.

While the stock market, media visionaries and critics see the handwriting on the wall there are still a phenomenal number of newspaper readers and content consumers. In some ways that’s a problem, but simply dumping those readers without viable alternatives seems like folly to me.

Forget the monopoly thinking. Newspapers are no more monopolies these days than ice cream parlors. If information is the business, they are not monopolies. If advertising messages are the business, then newspapers certainly are not monopolies.  If Phil Meyer’s term from The Vanishing Newspaper, the advertising “tollgate” is the test, newspapers certainly don’t control that tollgate anymore.

I have heard noises about potential anti-trust actions surrounding some of the newspaper closings and potential closings. I have laughed out loud. I think it will require phenomenal department of justice creativity to find a dying industry guilty of anti-trust behavior. 

In the same way I simply do not see collusion in the meeting Alan Mutter describes in his fantastic Sunday post.  If an industry whose business model has imploded searches for a new business model I don’t see collusion. I see recognition that the light at the end of the tunnel is actually a train.

Dean Singleton said in an interview April 6 that newspapers “have been very timid about protecting our content.” Yes, and it gets hot in the desert too. It has been a while since a more obvious statement has been uttered. Even at the expense of explaining the obvious it is important to understand the reason for that failure to protect content.  Newspapers, unlike any other business in America, have two products.  Newspapers produced content that was consumed by readers for a relatively low price. Newspapers then turned around and sold those eyeballs to our advertisers at a very high price, arguably too high.  And it is that business of selling eyeballs to advertisers that has imploded. We are learning with each passing day that click throughs from aggregators are not being monetized enough to support once-healthy newspaper businesses 

For some time it has struck critics as common sense that newspapers should redo their business model.  Apparently there were parameters around that demand. I am convinced that newspapers’ relationship with people who want to distribute business messages does need to change. However, that does not have to mean only  the advertiser part of that model gets tweaked. Newspapers must look for revenue everywhere, and that content product has value which needs to be captured. When we talk business model we need to talk content and a new form of business messaging.

Jeff Jarvis is ardent and eloquent in his belief that it is too late and the newspaper business blew it. I can agree with him and still ask what would he have the industry do?  Throw in the towel? I have made a lot of mistakes in my life. I have always found that simply leaving them in the past and giving up is a distasteful option. I try to circle back and improve the outcome.

We can be critical of newspapers’ timing in their effort to own their content, but the effort is an important one not only in the interest of protecting the business of newspapers, but in protecting the quality of journalism that lubricates democracy.