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?

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  1. identicon
    scruffy, 12 May 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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