Breakfast of Champions 4/8: Newspapers are dead (long live the newspaper)

Everybody's talking about media layoffs lately. With good reason: the news has generally been bleak, the country's in a recession, and journalism is in a state of flux. Witness Eric Alterman's long piece on the fate of newspapers in this month's New Yorker, "Out of Print: The death and life of the American newspaper."

(Though this isn't an issue just for newspapers. Check out Jason DeRusha's recent "Good Question" segment for a discussion of layoffs in the TV industry.)

It seems like every time we write about layoffs at the Strib or someplace, people want to know about how alternative weeklies like City Pages are doing. Turn to the Project for Excellence in Journalism report about alternative weeklies for a balanced perspective. Shorter version: no media organization is exactly crowing about the state of the industry, and newspapers generally continue to hemorrhage ad revenue, but alt-weeklies are in less dire shape.

This isn't to say our papers aren't buffeted by the prevailing winds. With the rise of the Web, papers are facing more and more competition for eyeballs -- the eyeballs that are in turn sold to advertisers for profit. Blogs have certainly cut into the core of newspaper audiences and revenue streams, and papers have been slow to adapt.

In general, weeklies have been better about transitioning to the new journalism economy -- because, I think, of our necessarily local focus, our easy embrace of the give-the-paper-away-for-free mentality, and our slightly better attitude toward online media -- but we're still behind, too.

That means the revenue isn't what it was, which in turn means fewer jobs. The effects include creating a freelance economy with more and more writers not protected by health insurance -- which also highlights how scandalous it is that we're the only industrialized democracy without national health care.

The main potential for growth lies online. Given how you're reading this, that should be a fairly easy sell. People are always, I hope, going to want to read. It's more a question of the medium adapting to the audience. Where print readership is down, online readership is way up and continuing to grow. Ad revenue has yet to catch up, but that's why they call it a "transition."

As a sidenote, I've often thought that the blogs-vs.-papers dichotomy was largely false. The reality isn't so stark as one outlet being good and another being worthless. It's a question of what blogs do well, and what papers do well, and how to maximize the strengths of each while undermining the weaknesses. One fact Alterman cites that I think is underreported:

And it is true: no Web site spends anything remotely like what the best newspapers do on reporting. Even after the latest round of new cutbacks and buyouts are carried out, the Times will retain a core of more than twelve hundred newsroom employees, or approximately fifty times as many as the Huffington Post. The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times maintain between eight hundred and nine hundred editorial employees each. The Times’ Baghdad bureau alone costs around three million dollars a year to maintain. And while the Huffington Post shares the benefit of these investments, it shoulders none of the costs.

Tempting as it is to rail against the mainstream media, this is a fair point. Everyone benefits from having original reporting to draw on, which is why it's great to have multiple media outlets covering the same locales. Even if we disagree. Let a thousand bickering flowers bloom as we slouch toward the new media economy.

So how is that new media economy going to look? No one is 100 percent sure, but we can be certain that online media will continue to grow in importance. With less print advertising, there will be less of a "news hole" in the print paper, meaning more and more content will find its way online.

Which is actually good, since papers should have been doing that long ago anyway. From Alterman:

Arianna Huffington and her partners believe that their model points to where the news business is heading. “People love to talk about the death of newspapers, as if it’s a foregone conclusion. I think that’s ridiculous,” she says. “Traditional media just need to realize that the online world isn’t the enemy. In fact, it’s the thing that will save them, if they fully embrace it.”

That's just right.

The newspaper industry is changing, but the "newspaper" as we know it is far from dying. Papers have unique staff resources to offer, especially local papers that focus on stories that matter in their communities. Almost everyone has been late to the dance on the Internet, but embracing Web-based reporting just might be the best hope for the American newspaper's future vitality.

Of course, I would say that, now, wouldn't I?

Speaking of getting more content online, here's what we've got today.

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