Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Cortez, what a killer: New media and the dying bargain

What do you think, too much bile and worry?

An open letter to the folks who don't take their local paper because they can get it for free on the Internet, and any bloggers who quietly smile as the newspaper industry bleeds. Be careful whose throat you help slit.
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The newspaper industry can blame itself.

We haven't come up with a new model. We haven't tied online content to revenue production. Craigslist is giving classified advertising away for free, companies make software specifically to block internet advertising. We are worried.

Only now are we acknowledging that the days of 25 percent profit margins are gone. And we have been terribly slow to adapt because ridiculous profits make you lazy.

And they have been ridiculous. I don't see much of that money, but we spread it around to the folks who need it most, like stockholders and executives.

But it's your fault, too. And, even if I'm wrong about that, trust me, you'll pay the price. When was the last time you heard about a news corporation vice president getting laid off?

We can't get readers to pay for news online. They don't want to register for newspaper sites. And that's free, simple and important. The local Belk doesn't care about Web hits if they're not coming from somewhere near the store.

An commenter on a political story I wrote for The Telegraph recently said he'd been "liberated" because he canceled his subscription to the print version of the paper. Here's a guy interested enough in our coverage that he doesn't just read it, he sits at a computer and comments on it. But $15.12 a month is too much to ask.

What's he going to do when the news isn't cheap anymore? Because I assure you the owners will find a way to keep the profits coming. Advertising allowed it to show up at your door for less than 50 cents a day. That's a dying bargain.

Covering government comes with a steep learning curve. I've been doing it 10 years and I still make stupid mistakes because I haven't been doing it long enough, and because we've cut staff so I have to work faster. If I do this another five years, I'll start looking over my shoulder. I might make enough money by then to to worth firing.

I won't run down the media staffing cuts in this state, or the industry at large. Surely you see that you're getting less from the products.

If this continues, who's going to go toe-to-toe with the governor every day? Or with your mayor? Who's going to watch both campaigns, not just the one they're working against? Do you trust Bloggerguy9 for all that?

I'm a worrier. And as much as logic tells me this is a market correction, and that quality journalism will always have an audience, I'm afraid we're going to wake up one day and realize our media, a crucial element of democracy, is broken.

If you're reading this, you're a die hard. You follow politics and news. You're probably not the reason that pretty much every routine crime story we run gets more hits than the best stuff I churn out.

But are you a newspaper subscriber? And, if not, how do you see this model sustaining itself?

Seriously. I could use the answers.

9 comments:

griftdrift said...

Well, as I think you've figured out I'm not a smile as they bleed to death crusader. And unfortunately I'm not sure I have the answers. But I do think I can help frame some of the lines of inquiry.

One thing I will say is I think you're approach, complete with the frank self-analysis, is the right one. One of the reasons the Atlanta online community is so bloodthirsty is the arrogance of our main dead tree outlet. When the managing editor literally tells you they are going to "show you how its done", it becomes hard not revel in a little schaedenfraude when they fall flat on their face.

We are not the enemy. I'm not even sure we want to be equal per se - but probably on a parallel track where we are recognized for our own brand of abilities.

I think there will always be a place in the ecosystem for the professional journalist trade for many of the reasons you state. But unless all in that class are willing to discuss the problems with the honesty you're putting forth, Travis, and certainly without the arrogance some have shown, your brothers and sisters in ink may all prove us both wrong.

griftdrift said...

And I know. You're should be your. We also make terrible copy editors. ;-)

rptrcub said...

OK, Travis. I respect what you do, and I even spent formative teenage years at the Telegraph which probably warped my mind forever. But getting pissed off at readers/bloggers is not going to help newspapers. I don't like the downward spiral either, and no, I do not have a new model for them. And as a former scribe I don't want to see newspapers go away completely. But you have to look at this with some pragmatism. Idealism about readers needing to pay for all online content, sadly, does not, and will never, meet reality. I know that you must be incredibly mad right now about the situation, and there's no easy advice. But don't blame it all on the readers or the bloggers.

Catherine said...

I don't think it's just economics that draws newspaper readers to the web. We used to take the AJC on the weekends. We would read most of the Friday, 2/3 of Saturday, and about 1/4 of Sunday editions. Every week our recycling bin would fill with newspapers of which we read only portions. Slowly we got to the point where we checked movie schedules on Fandango, book reviews and travel online, and news online - sometimes at the AJC - or TV/radio news. (And my hands were clean all day Sunday, too!)

Meanwhile, the quality and scope of the writing at the AJC began a slow but steady decline. The times I do pick up a hard copy it seems a shadow of it's former self both in weight and range.

As for paying for online content. I don't mind paying. I pay for Salon, so I don't have to read the ads, I contribute to some sites that offer extra search and update tools to subscribers. In these cases, I am paying for additional access, or no advertising. I probably wouldn't pay unless there was some advantage.

-What if online subscribers got an email alert on news stories before non-subscribers? (Be the first to see newborn Panda or to learn about Glenn Richardson's campaign disclosures!)
-Give subscribers some kind of access to searching or expertise.
-what about a "blogger subscription" - for a nominal monthly fee we get email leads, that we can post to our blogs, with the understanding that we provide a link to your paper.

As an amateur blogger, I count on news sources (papers, agencies, TV, NPR, etc) for leads and ideas for posts. Like Grift says, we are not the enemy. We can help direct traffic to newspaper sites, but are less likely to if we are made to feel responsible for the failings of the printed newspaper...

Lucid Idiocy said...

Thanks all for the comments so far.

If I can distill my point: The wild explosion of competition online would have been difficult to combat if we'd been paying attention.

We weren't. So we're behind.

Readers and taxpayers are going to end up suffering for it, because our answer thus far has been to cut staff and newsprint costs to shore up revenues.

We need help.

Victor said...

Petition President Bush. If he can bypass the legislative branch and issue an Executive Order to give his buddies at Bear Sterns a $30 Billion bailout, he can bail out the newspaper industry.

One reason why you guys are under water is that you didn't stand up for workers in other industries that got laid off, just shy of retirement due to the excesses of mergers & acquistions, corporate greed and wildly excessive executive compensation.

Plus, reporters didn't publicly crunch the numbers when McClatchy paid too much for Knight Ridder. The McClatchy acquistion was a train wreck that could have been spotted a thousand miles ago.

Don't worry, someone affiliated with Chamber of Commerce will make a bid for McClatchy's $2.1 billion in below junk bond rated debt when the stock price hits about $3 bucks a share. If you're lucky, Yahoo will make a bid.

Wish I had some encouraging words but with the rolling bank collapses, pretty soon it's going to be tough all over. Good thing Macon has plenty of soup kitchens. Brush up on polishing apples and maybe shoe shining at the Georgia Legislature next year.

In the meantime, maybe take hope in the pre-impeachment hearings that went on in Congress last week. Remember Bush warned America that his chosen people were the "Have Mores." Have less and you're not an American or Patriot.

Sid Cottingham said...

Travis:

Below is a post I did on Cracker Squire on 2-18-07 following the AJC's announcement that it would cut back delivery around the state. As noted in the last part of this post, reading online is not the same as reading a hard copy. If you know what you are looking for, you can find it. But when this is not the case, you miss so much.

The post was entitled "Unlike the reaction expressed by many Georgia blogs, the Other Georgia did not rejoice in the AJC's announced restructuring," and reads:

On February 15, 2007, the AJC announced that, effective April 1, the print version of the AJC would only be delivered to 66 Georgia counties, whereas before it has been delivered to 145 of Georgia's 159 counties.

Publisher John Mellott said in an interview that the newspaper is cutting delivery to where delivery isn't cost effective and where advertisers have limited interest. In addition to such places as Coffee County, this change will result in the disappearance of the print paper in cities such as Augusta, Columbus, Savannah and Albany.

Metro residents (I refrained from saying city slickers) may not realize and appreciate it, but this is big news for the Other Georgia. The "Atlanta paper" has had an important influence over the years in molding opinions in this State, regardless of the derision it has received from the Talmadges on the one hand to the current Governor on the other.

Although I read Political Insider online each morning, I read my hard copy of the AJC when I get home for work, especially for State news.

As an eight-year old kid, I had a paper route delivering The Atlanta Constitution each morning that presented special challenges each Sunday keeping my Schwinn upright because of the extra weight of the combined Journal and Constitution (years later The Atlanta Constitution and it "Covers Dixie like the Dew" The Atlanta Journal would combine).

Also as a kid, I grew up reading Ralph McGill and thinking he hung the moon, just an adult I read Bill Shipp and know he hung the moon.

AJC Publisher John Mellott says AJC plans to shift more resources to focus on digital news. But as a avid reader of both online and hard copies of publications (including the AJC, the Wall Street Journal, TIME, Georgia Trend Magazine and James (which is not online)), I can attest that you have to know what you are looking for to find it online. As a hard copy reader, you just come across it.

All of the above to say, AJC, I am going to miss you.

Lucid Idiocy said...

So true, Sid.

Charles Bullock referred to reading Internet news as "drinking from the fire hose."

Shark Girl said...

Travis, why should people like me read the newspaper?

You guys are controlled by "the powers that be" and will only report what you're allowed to report. You aren't allowed to do a story like mine.

I got a call on my cell phone from a 13WMAZ reporter who claimed she wanted my story. When she found out who all was involved, she refused to report the story and now works for those who are involved. In fact, her picture is side by side with one of them.

All in the name of BRAC.

Newspapers don't report the stories unless the advertisers, the corporations, and whoever else is controlling the headlines, wants you to report.

That leaves us with blogging and watchdog sites that WILL report the news.

I could care less about the newspapers any more. It's all biased news tipped towards the executives, and they don't have the guts to report the news.

Especially not in a town that's afraid of BRAC.

I have a world-wide audience now for the story your paper and 13WMAZ didn't want to write. Blogging gets the news out. You only get out what you're told you can write.

Big difference.

Tell Gene I said hi.