The Problem With Newspapers: Lack Of Innovation, Lack Of Engagement... And Lack Of Reporting

from the it-doesn't-look-pretty dept

And here we go again, with yet another post about the troubled business of the newspapers, but this time I've got three separate articles that, combined, give a pretty good explanation for why the newspaper business has been in trouble. Basically, the newspapers failed to innovate, they failed to engage with their communities -- and worst of all, they failed to actually do much reporting.

First up is Frank Rich's column on how the American mainstream press is on "suicide watch." He does a decent job describing the problem, in discussing the industry's fear (or outright disgust) towards any sort of innovation, while others did the innovating for them. He compares how the newspapers have acted to how the movie studios acted when TV first became popular.

But... then, he falls into the same old fallacy. Assuming that those who are talking about new models mean "citizen journalists" with no business model:
Reporting the news can be expensive. Some of it -- monitoring the local school board, say -- can and is being done by voluntary "citizen journalists" with time on their hands, integrity and a Web site. But we can't have serious opinions about America's role in combating the Taliban in Pakistan unless brave and knowledgeable correspondents (with security to protect them) tell us in real time what is actually going on there. We can't know what is happening behind closed doors at corrupt, hard-to-penetrate institutions in Washington or Wall Street unless teams of reporters armed with the appropriate technical expertise and assiduously developed contacts are digging night and day. Those reporters have to eat and pay rent, whether they work for print, a TV network, a Web operation or some new bottom-up news organism we can't yet imagine.
Indeed. But no one has ever said otherwise. No one has said that "unpaid" reporters will replace all of the paid ones. We're just saying that the paid reporters may end up doing their jobs in a different way and getting paid via other business models. And, Rich also seems to be underestimating the ability of the people who are already in those places to be a part of the journalism process -- not necessarily the core component of it, but certainly a part of it.

The second article worth reading is Robert Niles discussion of how the ruling in the 1995 lawsuit Stratton Okamont v. Prodigy scared newspapers away from engaging in online conversations. The ruling effectively found Prodigy liable for anonymous comments on its message board because it had hired a moderator for those boards. While the passage of the CDA the following year -- and specifically section 230 of the CDA granting safe harbors -- effectively erased that decision, "risk averse" newspaper feared to actually engage with readers in comments or forums for fear that it would suddenly make them liable for the content written by the community. Thus, they ignored their own communities and did little to really interact with them.

The final piece may be the most interesting. Walter Pincus talks about how so many newspaper reporters have stopped reporting and really started repeating the messages being handed to them. For all the talk of "investigative reporting," there's very little of that being done. Most reporting isn't reporting. It's not digging up the details and presenting an informed piece that gets at the facts. It's simply parroting what someone told them, and then perhaps presenting an alternate point of view (what Jay Rosen has referred to as "he said, she said" journalism) without any effort whatsoever to actually determine who's right. It's as if journalists have figured that "balanced" reporting is to present two sides to any story, and then leave it up to you to do the actual work. Pincus seems to be one of the first we've seen in this ongoing debate to make the point that we've been focusing on for a while: the newspapers aren't adding value.

Pincus also highlights another point that we've mentioned, but which is almost always ignored in these discussions: the big newspapers put themselves into massive debt over the past two decades. Many are still profitable, but not profitable enough to service the debt. And when they top that off by not innovating, not engaging with their community (which is their most valuable asset) and not actually doing real reporting, but just acting as stenographers, is it really any surprise the business is struggling?


Reader Comments (rss)

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    Dave Barnes, May 11th, 2009 @ 4:02pm

    Debt is killing newspapers

    "the big newspapers put themselves into massive debt over the past two decades."

    Not just big newspapers. The second largest chain of alternative weeklies (Creative Loafing) took on $31M in debt to expand. The result is that CLN is currently in bankruptcy.

    Many newspapers will declare BK this year and most will survive after they give their creditors a haircut (think Marine recruit style). The creditors have no recourse. The assets are not worth much. No one would buy the business and assume the debt.

     

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    SteveD, May 11th, 2009 @ 4:47pm

    Charlie Brookers Newswipe

    Professional British cynic Charlie Brooker did a series called Newswipe on how TV and Paper journalism had changed over the last few decades. Its all available in pieces on youtube; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TnI4VlHKdmo

     

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    Bruce, May 11th, 2009 @ 5:37pm

    Problems with reporters

    Not only are newspaper reporters not doing "investigative journalism" but they also seem to spend way too many inches on what I call "personal stories", e.g., the troubles that one person or family is having or some snippet of information about a celebrity. These stories seem like little more than small town gossip. I can talk to my neighbors if I want to hear about families having problems. I would buy a newspaper if reporters were better trained in science, the law, statistics, economics, and social psychology.

     

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    Marak (profile), May 11th, 2009 @ 7:10pm

    Bruce imho you have hit the nail on the head. We can trawl the net for the information we need on any subject we want, but when i pick up a paper, i want an informed article. I dont want to read a paper full of half truths(due to lack of knowledge about the subject matter).

    Shame Techdirt does not run a news paper everyday :P

    - Marak

     

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    Ray, May 11th, 2009 @ 9:04pm

    Lack of Subscription Innovation?

    I have been challenging my local paper to run an editorial or to simply ask its readers if they might be open to 'alternate' subscription plans.

    My local (M-Sat.) paper only offers a 6 day/week subscription nothing less. Who has time or wants the guilt of not being able to read the paper every day of the week. It's simply wasteful on so many fronts.

    I have simply asked for a 3 day/week plan, however, they are unable to accommodate my wishes. (Turning a potential customer away!)

    I believe Newspapers must experiment with alternate subscriptions plans that tailor to the lifestyles and demographics of current non-readers. (40 something & business owner here). Current options only serve the newspaper's desires and caters to an old business model that serves to falsely inflate readership numbers.

    How about you? Might you subscribe for a 2 or 3 day/week subscription?

     

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    yogi, May 12th, 2009 @ 5:50am

    hit the nail on the head

    From the article:

    "Meanwhile, we have turned into a public-relations society. Much of the news Americans get each day was created to serve just that purpose—to be the news of the day. Many of our headlines come from events created by public relations—press conferences, speeches, press releases, canned reports, and, worst of all, snappy comments by “spokesmen” or “experts.”

    This is exactly why I stopped reading newspapers.I want to know what they're not telling me, not what they want me to know. But newspapers don't do that anymore, they're just as happy re-writing press releases as they were actually digging for news.Probably more since this way they don't actually have to work.

     

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    yogi, May 12th, 2009 @ 5:59am

    This is funny

    "Yet at the same time, owners, editors, and reporters should push issues they believe government is ignoring. They should do it factually and in articles short enough to read daily, but spread over time. That is how Americans absorb information—by repetition."

    Isn't that what blogs are for? In fact, I think he just described techdirt.

     

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    scruffy, May 12th, 2009 @ 6:30am

    When did this reporting utopia ever happen?

    I'm not sure when newspapers ever had more investigative reporting compared to now (or, I should say, maybe a year ago before they started shrinking drastically). Newspapers (and all reporting) have always been filled with half-truths. I'm also amused by the implication that if they were doing more investigative reporting that they wouldn't be losing money.

    The newfangled internet is the real problem for newspapers and news in general. It will take some time, creativity, and luck to figure out how to make money.

     

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    Michael, May 12th, 2009 @ 9:03am

    The internet is the real problem for newspapers

    Doesn't have to be ... if they adopted a "simple" convergence strategy. When we developed our offline to internet keyword link system, thought was newspapers and magazines would jump all over 1) an easy method for readers to get news updates, and / or expanded coverage 2)More readers to their websites, the real currency of the web is eyeballs. 3) a new revenue stream that can very accurately match advertisers desired demographics.

    A keyword is a simple word or phrase used in place of a URL ... when typed into a keyword enabled "search" like box, the associated page opens directly.

    A story tagged with a keyword link that is typed at the newspaper home page provides an easy path for readers to find the information they want ... How many of the 70 + million Susan Boyle views originated from a newspaper website? I recently told a newspaper publisher that when Susan Boyle next appears I could guarantee the website a spike in visitors equal to their daily circulation ... Is it just me, would it make sense to have a direct keyword link in the movie section of the paper to an online trailer of the movie? Publishers really have the ability to be huge internet portals, just not sure about desire.

    An effective solution doesn't need to be complicated, the lightbulb is just electricity running through a thin wire.

     

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    Mike Green, May 12th, 2009 @ 11:13am

    Newspaper industry

    Excellent post. Your point about the industry's failure to report has been an ongoing debate and source of consternation within the media industry for years. I have also written a number of articles and columns about it. E&P has written about it, as have other trade pubs. I read an article a while back entitled, "Death of Investigative Journalism" which hit the nail on the head ... as you did three times with this post.

     

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    ridder, May 15th, 2009 @ 7:46pm

    Newspapers aren't the only ones parroting

    Recently on the morning news here in Seattle, they cut to the reporter in the "satellite center" who then reported on some breaking story of national importance. The punch line came at the end when the reporter suggested we stay tuned because they would be "scouring the web" (his exact words) for more information on the story...

    It seems that the "investigation" in journalism consists of searching the web, and "reporting" on what it says.

     

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    Washu, Jun 12th, 2009 @ 10:33am

    Or maybe we just prefer to watch cable news.

    I'm sure there are quite a few reasons newspapers are declining -- and look forward to reading your article applying the non-scarce business model to newspapers.

    If I may (: the non-scarce is the news itself, while the scarce is the physical newspaper. Assuming the scarce / non-scarce model, we can say that the non-scarce news offered by the paper is insufficient to attract enough consumers to the scarce newspaper itself.

    No news there. For decades, alternate non-scarce sources of news information have competed against newspapers. Cable TV is an overlooked example. Ten or twenty years ago, we didn't have the variety of cable news we have now, which is an obvious source of competition.

    Likewise, twenty or so years ago, we had more local newspapers. Twenty years ago, we had a local newspaper that covered our own city. The so-called local newspaper here rarely covers events in city I live in.

    Of course, that assumes we want local information. Do we really? There's quite a bit of information out there, and we can't consume all of it. A new administration... the economy... international events... there's quite a bit going on out there that overshadows the local this-or-that.

     

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