Newspaper Folks Go Crying To Congress For Help
from the oh-please dept
- Advertising has been the real business model for newspapers for ages. Subscriptions have really only covered (maybe/barely) the cost of printing and delivering the paper.
- The biggest problem facing newspapers going into bankruptcy or shutting down these days is not a lack of subscriber revenue, or even a downturn in advertising (though, there has been a downturn), but the fact that they had massive debt, because they borrowed way too much money. Many, many, many newspapers are still quite profitable -- but not profitable enough to service the massive debt taken on by management.
Oddly, David Simon was asked to speak. It's not clear why Simon was asked to speak. He hasn't worked in the newspaper business in 14 years, though he did write a fictional TV show, The Wire, about a newspaper. Somehow that makes him qualified to speak about the industry. Now, Simon's a smart, thoughtful guy, but when it comes to this subject, he consistently seems to get the details wrong, even to the point of disproving his own points. In his testimony before Congress (pdf) he lashes out at the internet, aggregators and blogs for no clear reason:
The internet is a marvelous tool and clearly it is the informational delivery system of our future, but thus far it does not deliver much first-generation reporting. Instead, it leeches that reporting from mainstream news publications, whereupon aggregating websites and bloggers contribute little more than repetition, commentary and froth. Meanwhile, readers acquire news from the aggregators and abandon its point of origin -- namely the newspapers themselves.First, Simon seems to be confusing a number of different things here. He's flat-out wrong that not much first-generation reporting is delivered online. Plenty of it is. It's almost silly to have to start pulling out examples. Second, "it" (being the internet) doesn't "leech" anything. "It" is just a delivery mechanism, just like "paper" is a delivery mechanism. Again, if the internet "leeches" reporting, that's no different (and no less ridiculous) than claiming that reporters "leech" off the people they write about. Third, while some bloggers and aggregators may just repeat stuff, not all of them do. Simon seems to be making the classic mistake that if lots of bloggers do one thing he doesn't like, then it means no bloggers do stuff he does like. That's a pretty basic logical fallacy that you would think such a "great thinker" on these issues wouldn't make. Fourth, even if many bloggers do just repeat stuff, that can actually be quite a valuable service in spreading the news and getting it more attention. Fifth, what's wrong with adding commentary? Isn't that what Simon himself is doing? Sixth, I think plenty of people would argue that the mainstream press is known for churning up plenty of froth itself. Seventh, aggregators send traffic to sites. People don't acquire the news directly at the aggregator, but through the aggregator. Eighth, it's not a "parasitic" relationship if the sites get something back (such as traffic).
In short, the parasite is slowly killing the host.
See? It's amazing how much he gets wrong in three short sentences. And yet he's the expert?
You do not -- in my city -- run into bloggers... at City Hall, or in the courthouse hallways or at the bars and union halls where police officers gather. You do not see them consistently nurturing and then pressing sources. You do not see them holding institutions accountable on a daily basis.Actually, I do see that all the time. Simon apparently doesn't know where to look. Perhaps it's true that not every city has that going on yet, but that's a huge opportunity for organizations to step in. We're seeing it all over the place.
Why? Because high-end journalism -- that which acquires essential information about our government and society in the first place -- is a profession; it requires daily, full-time commitment by trained men and women who return to the same beats day in and day out until the best of them know everything with which a given institution is contending.First, how often is that actually true of newspaper reporters? Yes, there are some, but there are many reporters who don't actually seem to really know much about the beat they're covering or end up getting played by those they do cover.
But, more importantly, Simon still doesn't seem to be reading the right sites. There are some astounding blogs out there that are full-time jobs, that involve people returning to the same beat day in and day out until they know everything. He seems to once again be assuming that "journalist" can only mean "writes for a newspaper" and not "writes for a blog." It's just a delivery mechanism.
He goes on to repeat the myth that "new media" commentators believe that there is no need for professional journalists. I'm still waiting to find out who actually claims that. Almost everyone I know and read believes there's still plenty of room for professional journalists, but that they may be working in conjunction with others. The idea that jouralism or mainstream news organizations just die off is preposterous and no one is claiming that at all. It's just that they need to adapt, and if they don't, other organizations can and will take their place. Journalism will live on.
Yes, I have heard the post-modern rallying cry that information wants to be free. But information isn't. It costs money to send reporters to London, Fallujah and Capitol Hill, and to send photographers with them, and keep them there day after day. It costs money to hire the best investigators and writers and then back them up with the best editors. It costs money to do the finest kind of journalism. And how anyone can believe that the industry can fund that kind of expense by giving its product away online to aggregators and bloggers is a source of endless fascination to me. A freshman marketing major at any community college can tell you that if you don't have a product for which you can charge people, you don't actually have a product.And... so we're back to myth number 1 at the top of the post. The news business does have a product for which it can charge people: that product is the community of readers it brings together, who it then sells to advertisers. That's always been the business of newspapers for as long as any of us have been alive. Repeating the myth that the newspaper industry is "giving its product away" doesn't make Simon sound smart. It makes it sound like he doesn't even understand the news business.
This kind of poorly reasoned logic is coming not just out of folks like Simon, but out of folks like the CEO of Forbes -- who recently blamed Google in one of the most poorly reasoned and factually incorrect statements around. I'd dismantle that as well, except that Danny Sullivan has already done it.
So one would hope that when Google was asked to present a counterpoint to Congress, it would lay out some of these issues. Unfortunately, the actual testimony (pdf) comes off as rather weak. It basically just says "Google is a friend, we help" but doesn't actually counter the myths and falsehoods put forth by those bemoaning the troubles facing the newspaper industry.
What we're seeing before Congress is a scripted play. It's not a real discussion about the problems facing the newspapers. It's not a real discussion on how journalism will work in the future. It's not a real discussion on the role of the press in the public discourse. It's a big scripted play put on by a bunch of bad business execs who made (and continue to make) bad business decisions, failed to embrace certain opportunities, and are now hoping for a government bailout for all the mistakes they made. They don't deserve it.