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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The laissez-faire approach to the death of newspapers

NewspaperIt's that time of year again. Buses and trains servicing the country's institutes of higher learning are now standing room only. Campuses have been brought back to life as students fill the halls and lounge on the grass in a desperate attempt to soak up the last rays of sunshine before they are forced to face the realities of another harsh Canadian winter.

And so I found myself sitting in my first journalism class of the new semester, tense with questions of what the coming year will bring. What is the professor like? What kind of workload will I face? The professor wasted little time introducing himself and the course. This week's assignment: read a collection of articles compiled by NYU Journalism professor Jay Rosen.

The articles were all written in March 2009 by a variety of reporters, technology specialists, and media types. The theme of the articles quickly became apparent: newspapers are dying and no one knows how to make money in journalism anymore. Way to go, as if I don't have enough to worry about, I'm now being forced to read about how my chosen profession is in the midst of its death throes. There's already a high rate of suicide among students. Forcing them to spend hours reading about the futility of their chosen career would not seem to be helping the situation.

Nevertheless, there are troubling times ahead in the field of journalism. The fact is that the old business model doesn't work anymore and no one knows what will replace it. There seems to be a general consensus that, despite the mainstream media's many flaws, the fourth estate is essential to democracy. The media is the watchdog of government and without them, corruption will flourish. There is also consensus that the classic business model for newspapers, which are subsidized mainly by advertising, does not work anymore.

The main problem is that advertisers have many more options nowadays. At one time, major markets had one or two newspapers and a handful of television stations. It is no longer uncommon for cable and satellite providers to offer upwards of 500 channels at relatively inexpensive rates. Newspapers no longer hold a monopoly over local markets. The Internet offers advertisers targeted audiences and cheap prices. Moreover, newspapers give their online content away for free. Even if one of them wanted to start charging for their content, they could not compete with the rest of them.

The good news is that there are many creative ideas about how to fund good journalism and how news outlets might make money in the future. The problem is that there is no magic bullet. Journalism, in the near future, will probably use a variety of models to sustain itself. We must, however, remember that news is a business like any other. In order for journalism to thrive, people have to be able to make money off it.

This is also a problem that cannot be solved by government intervention, despite what the political left will tell you. If the media is supposed to keep government honest and if money buys influence, then any government involvement in the industry would be counterproductive. This is a problem that can only be solved by the market and the nature of markets ensures that a viable business model will eventually emerge.

Let's take the worst case scenario where no one is able to find a viable business model before most of our major papers go out of business. Sure we might still have television and radio news broadcasts, but they do not provide the level of in-depth coverage and investigative reporting that have been traditionally provided by newspapers. Furthermore, local television stations are also facing financial hardship. Losing our metro dailies and TV stations would create a void in local news coverage. This situation would most certainly be bleak.

Yet, just because people don't pay for news at the moment, does not mean there is no market for it. I stopped getting the newspaper for a number of reasons. First, I rarely have time to read very much of it and I don't want a stack of unread papers piling up in my bathroom. Second, I can get all the information I need on the Internet at no additional cost. The Internet changed everything because scarcity is not much of an issue in a digital environment. A company can produce a limited number of newspapers in a given day, but a virtually unlimited number of people can consume the same stories online.

This does not mean that people no longer place a value in news. If all the free articles on the Internet were to suddenly disappear, I would certainly pay to gain access to them. I would also pay for a newspaper delivered to me electronically on e-paper. In other words, if the supply of news is reduced by a significant amount, market processes will ensure that there will be money to be made in the news business once again. There is no lack of demand for information and knowledge about the world around us.

Getting back to our worst case scenario, while things may get bad for awhile, the issue will work itself out as long as we don't see significant government intervention in the industry. Again, government intervention would give it undue influence with organizations that are supposed to keep it honest. It would also mean that the government would pick winners and losers, which would stifle the entrepreneurship and ingenuity that is needed to design and implement the business models that will work in the future.

So, am I worried about the future of journalism? No. Am I worried about getting a job after I graduate? I'm terrified.

[Cross-posted at jesse.kline.ca]

Posted by Jesse Kline on September 16, 2009 in Media | Permalink


Thoughtfully written, Jesse.

It's true that the Net is putting a lot of people out of work—record labels, movie studios, publishers—and the fact is that few will miss them much. Many up-and-coming content creators are realizing they can now produce their own works without the middleman, and on their own terms, instead of someone else's. It has brought liberty, in other words.

In the end, however, technology usually creates more jobs than it displaces. Just make sure you don't fall behind.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-09-17 6:49:29 AM

It has been years since I have seen any real investigative reporting in the newspapers and there is little in-depth coverage of anything.

As for being watchdogs of the government, your kidding right? Newspapers here in America are basic defenders of the all mighty state.

They are dying because they deserve it.

Posted by: GeronL | 2009-09-17 9:03:48 AM

Old liberal media is dying, the type of 'journalism' that 'journalism' schools cater towards. But honest media seems to be doing quite well, so there is a future reporting news.

Even the old liberal media may some day convert to the view that their consumers are not stupid cows in need of the correct opinion, and then they too could flourish since they already have the infrastructure. If not, oh well...

Posted by: Philanthropist | 2009-09-17 10:09:21 AM

"As for being watchdogs of the government"

Guess you missed the last election coverage in the US eh?

What or who are they watching out for?

Posted by: tomax7 | 2009-09-17 12:29:56 PM

There's a simple formula for making money in journalism: tell the truth and tell people things they didn't already know.

Really, it's not that hard. If any newspaper in the country tried it, they'd be in the black in a month.

Posted by: Kyle Bennett | 2009-09-17 10:23:42 PM

If we actually had investigative reporting and the reporting of news without pushing an ideology, it would sell. The reason I ceased subscribing and reading newspapers was that they were propaganda mouth-pieces instead of news. That is not news nor is all the sensationalism that usually makes of three quarters of the paper. Mind you it is for the same reasons that I avoid the "news" on television or radio.

Posted by: Alain | 2009-09-18 11:24:01 AM

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