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.