The Future of Newspapers
The NPR Podcast On the Media for July 16th commented on the future of newspapers.
The weekly online report from WNYC radio offered conflicting comments from various experts on the viability of the current business models for newspapers and their struggling transition to online distribution. The consensus seems to be that “things,” i.e. advertising, readership, churn, etc. aren’t as bad as they were last year, but the financial health of newspapers still isn’t good. In the first place, most major daily newspapers now are the part of some chain owned by an outside corporation, most of which are heavily in debt. The debt may be the result of mergers and acquisitions or simply a long-term negative balance in cash flow.
The discussion focused not only on the conversion to online content but also whether or not to charge for it or rely on only on advertising. The rapid decline in circulation of printed papers has not been offset by the increase in online readership. Part of the discussion was in response to a report from a Federal Trade Commission workshop on the potential changes for “saving” newspapers. Aside from production costs, the costs of collecting, writing, and editing “the news” is still a major investment for newspapers whose “news” is being used by online aggregators without any compensation.
“The future is about innovation and not about trying to protect the past,” says Jeff Jarvis. Allen Murray of the Wall St. Journal notes that even print papers had paid subscriptions in addition to advertising and the same applies to online editions. Advertising simply won’t pay the freight. The editor of the Manchester Guardian explained how they have “co-opted” bloggers and shared revenue with them in order to get broader coverage at lower cost. James Fallow at the Atlantic addressed the question of Google and its relationships with newspapers. The deputy metro editor at the New York Times commented on their efforts to focus on generating more local coverage and collaborating with others.
The report was still fresh in my mind when our local newspaper, The Raleigh News & Observer, which is a part of the McClatchy chain, ran a full-page ad from the publisher touting that the “worst was over” and that advertisers were coming back and they were starting to rebuild the paper instead of continuing layoffs and cutting pages. Well, we’ll see. The Sunday edition sort of looked like a real newspaper again, but it still is a far cry from what it was a decade ago when it was an outstanding community paper.
So who cares what happens to newspapers since they’re really not much of a market for freelance writers anymore? Some are using freelancers since they’ve cut their staff so drastically, but many also are relying more on wire service stories. Then there is the question of “citizen journalism,” but that’s another story.