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Why the Newspaper Business Is Doomed

Sorry, but it was never the "news" business.

by
Charlie Martin

Bio

October 11, 2013 - 12:30 am
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newspaper_graveyard_10-10-13-1

Based on a modified Shutterstock.com image.

News periodicals, “newspapers,” printed on paper are dying.

Not that this news about the news is news — not after Newsweek was literally sold for a dollar. Understanding why the newspapers are dying isn’t hard either; it’s the internet that’s killing them. Where it gets interesting is why the internet is killing newspapers.

If we want to understand that, first we need to dispose of some media mythology. Since the ’60s (at least) journalists have wanted to proclaim themselves a sort of secular priesthood, above bias, unaffected by politics, objective and aloof; most news organizations took great pains to say they had completely disconnected the newsroom from any hint of mere trade — although journalists took much pride in doing things that sold papers.

Well, forget it. As a business, newspapers do one thing: they sell advertising. All the content in the newspaper that isn’t advertising is just there because, the company hopes, it will attract people who will then see the advertising. All of the journalism-school preening about how Journalism Is A Profession is a self-important fantasy. So if we want to understand what’s happening to newspapers, it’s the advertising business we want to understand.

Stripped to its basics, advertising is simply a way to let people who might buy your widget know that you’re selling a widget. The smallest, simplest form of advertising is the guy going door to door selling vacuum cleaners. (Younger readers: yes, they really did that. Honest.) You had vacuum cleaners to sell, so you went door to door, asking for the lady of the house, and demonstrating how well your vacuum cleaners, well, sucked.

Now, anyone who has tried this knows that a pretty large proportion of the ladies of the house just said “no thanks.” A good salesman learned what neighborhoods to visit and what houses to choose to have the best chance of making a sale, and a really effective salesman learned how to make their product so attractive that they got from simply getting in the door to leaving with a check. And every salesman learns you have to expect a lot of “noes” for every “yes.”

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Top Rated Comments   
Looks like the readers hit most of the high points. There is the dishonest reportage, the advocacy. Huge turnoff. There is the problem of business model. There is the problem of Journalism school.

I would like to add a couple more things:

1) Literacy -The writing is often poor. Grammar, spelling, and punctuation are atrocious. There is a distinct lack of editing, of oversight by the editor. The editor no longer edits, I guess. The articles are written at a low reading level;

2) Literacy 2 -The public is less educated, now. Oh, more have college degrees, but they are still less-well educated. That means they are less inclined to actually read a newspaper or magazine. They seem to prefer a pretty picture with a blurb attached, rather than a good article with a nice picture attached;

3) Divided Culture -We no longer grow up learning the same materials. We do not have the same foundations. We used to all learn the Bible and the Classics. We had the same reference points of understanding. Quotes were recognizable and meaningful. No longer. It's the curse of Babel. We do not speak the same language;

4) Value - Business is all about providing maximum value to your customers for their dollar. More bang for the buck. When your writers write like children, rather than like adults, when they use the more common patois, rather than sophisticated style, when the articles lack culture and sophistication, fewer people are willing to buy them.

News should be truly informative. It should still be entertaining, but in a sophisticated way, not in a vulgar way. The richness of the presentation should be the entertainment. It should engage your mind. It should draw you in, and keep you there. When you are done reading, you should feel you'd gotten something worthwhile.

Look at Krauthammer's writing. He can turn a phrase. He offers real insight and understanding. Even if you disagree with his political viewpoints, he is still very much worth reading, because he offers perspective. He is compelling, because he is knowledgeable and authoritative. He is an adult. Even his jibes are sophisticated, not snarky. Adults don't like snot.

So, if papers were to offer that better writing and reportage, rather than the childish style of J-School, they would still be completely viable enterprises.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I always loved books and I always subscribed to one or more newspapers and several magazines. For most of my life, my houses had extensive bookcases, part book snobbery and part because I loved them and I wanted them near.

I don't know how much was their growing irrelevance and how much the internet but the magazines fell away by the '90s and the newspapers not long thereafter. My wife and I had intermittant fights about how much space my books were taking up and from time to time I did make trips to the used book store, but sometimes came back with more than I took there.

Then I bought a Kindle, the big, now out of production one that has wireless download and the hint of some other internet capability but which is really just an electronic book and an electronic library. Other than highly specialized stuff that isn't available for Kindle, I haven't bought a physical book since. The only bookcase in my house now is more display case than working bookcase and it houses leather-bound classics that I've had for thirty years or more. In my job I loved those walls of books, the legal reporters and all the specialized research stuff. I kept the books and bookcases because I couldn't bear to part with them and I knew they only place they could go was the dump, but I just replaced it all with the various electronic services like WestLaw. When I retired in '06, the last real book on the shelves was from '99; they were just decoration.

Here's the thing I wonder about though, Charlie, and I'd love to hear your thoughts. We have physical books and other written records going back thousands of years. If I can't charge the battery to my Kindle, it has the same information in it as a brick. Storing all our knowledge electronically is putting one Helluva lot of faith in the electric grid.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (66)
All Comments   (66)
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Since the ’60s (at least) journalists have wanted to proclaim themselves a sort of secular priesthood, above bias, unaffected by politics, objective and aloof;

Nosir, you haven't got the news, but that died about circa 1980. The Columbia School of Journalism reasoned thus: everyone needs a perspective, therefore there is no ideal perspective, therefore don't even try to be neutral and hide your bias. Really. That's what they preach and teach.

It's a postmodern, deconstructive theory - it's a dumb and simplistic deconstructive theory, I like Derrida who "invented" deconstruction and don't think he ever thought it meant that every news reporter should PURPOSELY bias their writing. But the neo-leftist pomo litcrit crowd think their socialist position is neutral and natural and contra their own theory they brook no opposition.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Except when someone calls them on it. Then they're a secular priesthood above such things again.

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Agree that at some point newspapers became ad-sellers. Daytime TV dramas are called "soap operas." Newspapers today could be called "soapsheets."

But I believe in the beginning, newspapers sold news. People bought the paper for the content and the paper made a profit by selling papers, not ads.

It probably wasn't long before ads appeared, but it would be interesting to find how long it took for that first blacksmith or general store owner to buy the first ad in the local paper.

Then again, network TV news, sitcoms and Important Dramas all are there to sell ads. Even going to the movie theater we have to sit though ads. Like professional sports, ticket sales are not enough.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"At some point"?

Yes, at some point. That point is well before their first piece hits the streets.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Oh, and get a look at some of Ben Franklin's newspapers. He sold ads.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Oh golly, it's not like that's different from newspapers, especially in their real heyday. My great-aunt was a reporter for the Hearst paper in Atlanta in the 30's and she did all the "sob sister" stories.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
How much of "journalism" is the regurgi... processing of press releases written by graduates of both journalism and public relations schools being highly paid by companies, corporations, NGOS, community organizers and con artists. (Redundant am I not?)

I had the pleasure (?) of working in production at a hip weekly in the 80s. The drama! the politics! And that was just in the advertising department. Then I went on to a small ad agency, (when I became the one pushing the press releases) where I learned what my grand-dad meant when he said "never trust the media" and "if it bleeds it leads."

I still live in the same town, pop. now about 120,000, and a few years ago it was reported that our local liberal daily ragloid was paid a quarter million bucks a year by our local guvment for publishing those pages and pages of 8pt legal announcements and records and stuff... in an ostensibly conservative city in the more conservative part of a conservative state. Talk about getting rooked by the liberal pirates... or elitist NWO types.

MOOOOooooo.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The front section of today's Houston Chronicle is fourteen pages long. Of those fourteen pages, six contain nothing but ads. Ads cover more than half of the remaining eight. Would you watch a television show which was 60% commercials?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
People used to read papers with that many ads. I remember pages of the Pueblo paper that had one column of non-ad text.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
True enough. It used to be a 60-40 ratio of ads to news space was a profitable operation. Circulation was supposed to pay the overhead and the ads paid the rest. It worked well. In other comments here, they refer to the low pay. That was also correct, and still is on the small newspapers. It is the excitement of being the person bringing the facts (NOT "true facts", which is an oxymoron) to the reader and being on the scene of what is going on that was the reward. How many here, I wonder, remember what was told to new reporters? "You'll be someone important -- your name will be on the public's mind. Oh, and all the type you can eat . . . "
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Yeah. We're back to the business model. Paper news can't continue to pay Thomas Friedman's unlimited expense account with Google eating their lunch in the real business by a factor of 10,00 to 1.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"The decade of the 1960s was one of continued struggle and decline for newspapers. In 1909 there were 689 cities in the United States that had competing daily newspapers; by 1963 that number had shrunk to 55."

........................................

"Cities were increasingly left with one newspaper because that was all that the city could support economically. Cities such as New York saw the number of daily newspapers drop because the major advertisers—such as Macy's or Bloomingdale's—could no longer afford to buy huge advertising spreads in both The New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune, for example. New York papers were also faced with union troubles, some papers having to deal with as many as ten unions when renegotiating a contract."

http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3468302379.html
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Looks like the readers hit most of the high points. There is the dishonest reportage, the advocacy. Huge turnoff. There is the problem of business model. There is the problem of Journalism school.

I would like to add a couple more things:

1) Literacy -The writing is often poor. Grammar, spelling, and punctuation are atrocious. There is a distinct lack of editing, of oversight by the editor. The editor no longer edits, I guess. The articles are written at a low reading level;

2) Literacy 2 -The public is less educated, now. Oh, more have college degrees, but they are still less-well educated. That means they are less inclined to actually read a newspaper or magazine. They seem to prefer a pretty picture with a blurb attached, rather than a good article with a nice picture attached;

3) Divided Culture -We no longer grow up learning the same materials. We do not have the same foundations. We used to all learn the Bible and the Classics. We had the same reference points of understanding. Quotes were recognizable and meaningful. No longer. It's the curse of Babel. We do not speak the same language;

4) Value - Business is all about providing maximum value to your customers for their dollar. More bang for the buck. When your writers write like children, rather than like adults, when they use the more common patois, rather than sophisticated style, when the articles lack culture and sophistication, fewer people are willing to buy them.

News should be truly informative. It should still be entertaining, but in a sophisticated way, not in a vulgar way. The richness of the presentation should be the entertainment. It should engage your mind. It should draw you in, and keep you there. When you are done reading, you should feel you'd gotten something worthwhile.

Look at Krauthammer's writing. He can turn a phrase. He offers real insight and understanding. Even if you disagree with his political viewpoints, he is still very much worth reading, because he offers perspective. He is compelling, because he is knowledgeable and authoritative. He is an adult. Even his jibes are sophisticated, not snarky. Adults don't like snot.

So, if papers were to offer that better writing and reportage, rather than the childish style of J-School, they would still be completely viable enterprises.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
" Even his jibes are sophisticated, not snarky. Adults don't like snot."

True, by definition.

Which says something about the success of Ann Coulter, and the legions like her.

The fact that she has (mostly) right values doesn't change the truth about her delivery. It's juvenile.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I would add that there are far fewer adults now, no matter the age of the person in question. Peter Pan syndrome is rampant. Just look at the President. He has never, and never expects to be treated as an adult. Part of that is racism, of course, on the part of all the fawning press who can't see any black person as an adult, but it's also partially based on his experience as a Neverlander.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
How do you come by renaissance nerd as a handle? Performer? Playtron? What?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
On the punctuation issues, I would suggest that you remember newspapers generally conform to AP style, which has some differences both with punctuation and with grammar from what we were often taught in school.

Frankly, most English teachers are morons.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I generally agree with Charlie's analysis.

I would like to add: A couple or three generations ago the grizzled old newspaper man, with his fedora pushed back on his head, probably had a high school diploma and advanced degrees from the streets. He was a blue colllar scribbler who had learned his craft (trade) a step at a time, writing obits and classifieds until given a chance to write a couple of column inches as 'staff'.

He was cynical Very cynical.

Those of us who did HS and college in the '60's, know that newspaper writing does not require any sort of degree, much less a graduate degree in Journalism from and Ivy. (sheesh!)

The old guys made a living and wrote, a lot. About anything. The current crop of J schoolers expect, and sometimes get, 6 figures right out of school and produce nowhere near the quantity of their predecessors. They 'specialize', they "tell stories that make a difference' or they simply regurgitate the stuff handed out by the press agent (and former classmate) on the way to the cocktail party de jour.

The writing side of the internet is wide open. Over credentialization no longer needed Just write, write and write, hopefully gaining a following based on your hard work and interesting stuff.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I'd really like to know where those guys are getting six figures right out of school. I can tell you as someone with 20 years in the business, print pays for beans.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I defer to your experience, though here in DC the few ( admittedly few ) I know do quite well....are they on the take from some politico?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
You're talking about a major metro in that particular market, the vast majority of graduates aren't going to work for major metros but for small community papers where they'll be lucky to start at $20k.

Salaries like that are part of the reason major metros are in the deep doo
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
20k? That's less than 10 bucks an hour, just above minimum wage. You can get 12 at McDonalds, with some benefits, after a short probation period. McD managers, (after a some more time) get up to 50 or 60k. No college needed.

And journalists are ... smart people?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Some of us are certainly. Some? Not so much. I will say this, after you've done this for a while, a regular job just ... well it's boring.

Reporting gets in your blood and it's kind of like being a cop, once it's in your system it's hard to get out, at least if you're any good at it.

I will also say that most community journalists are good people trying to do a tough job for lousy money. Those are different than the idiots at the metros.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
They're "good people," "cool people," so that makes up for making less than the fry cook at Mickey D's. I dealt with a fair number of reporters in my time in government, it was a Bush League job with the daily newspaper in a city of 30K, Juneau, or the public radio station, or the one AM station that did local news, then there was a reporter from the McClatchey-owned Anchorage Daily News and sometimes an AP reporter was assigned to Juneau. The only time in 20 years of dealing with them that I had a reporter pick up the tab was when a Chicago Tribune reporter showed up in town wanting to talk to people who knew and had worked with Sarah Palin.

They were uniformly poor, not very bright, and not very interesting. All had heavy biases against Republicans and a general leftist point of view but they wouldn't consider themselves leftist; they were centrist, moderate people who thought just like everyone else they knew. 'Course all the people they knew were young, right out of school, and mostly working either for government or some interest group trying to influence the government.

There leftist education had taught them that unions were an unalloyed force for good and since I represented the employer and was often in conflict with unions, they mostly viewed me as evil incarnate. I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of informed or fair stories about things I was involved with. When I was head of the LR function, I took to listening to public radio on the way to work in the mornings whenever I was in negotiations with our unions. I could count on some union rep being on public radio telling the world how awful the administration was and how unfair we were being to them. The Juneau Empire, the AP, and the ADN NEVER called me during my three and a half years as head of the agency and they never ran an unedited line from a single press release we sent them. The public radio station called me a time or two, but I never got anything resembling equal time with the unions.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
At every actual event I personally witnessed that made the news, they got it wrong. Every time. Makes me tend not to believe what I read from AP and the rest of the MSM.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I was once interviewed and they misquoted me twice out of two quotes. I used to think that at least the quotes were usually correct, but now I don't trust even that. They'll change it if they need to if it fits the template of the prewritten story they're working on. And let's face it, they're all prewritten according to the universal guide to perfect news story templates they learned in J school. It's always just a matter of filling in the blanks in their mad lib booklet.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
You're both right and wrong Charlie. The major metro newspapers are dying. The community dailies, weeklies and multi-days? Not so much.

Those papers still serve their communities and mostly do so fairly well. Of course they're also the last bastion of real reporting left in print...
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I dunno, Craig's List and such and governments putting their public notices online have put a real hurt on them too.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
At some point there was a graf saying that. I wonder what I did with it?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Revolutions happen in all industries. The fact that we even notice that newspapers are going the way of Ma Bell is precious only to the journalism profession.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
As an older person, I do find it kinda creepy when I look at something somewhere on the interwebs and presto I start seeing ads or getting email, directed at me, concerning the same sort of products and related items. I'm sure the younger generation finds it cool, though.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I actually long for the day when I only see ads I'm interested in. Doesn't mean I'm going to be running out to buy it that moment (or more likely click it) but the thing I hate about ads is all the wasted time of it. Sorry I won't be buying 'miracle grow' for my, um, ulterior motives, nor will I be buying Geico insurance under any circumstances. I would enjoy seeing ads about books by authors I love, or interesting new gadgets etc, and wish lists where I can stack them away until I can buy them are marvelously useful. I used to rate items by the hundred on lots of sites trying to help them get there, but so far no joy. Still mostly crap.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I find it really cool when I download Adblock Plus for free, install it in Firefox, and the ads mostly disappear. https://adblockplus.org/en/firefox Originally did it to make surfing the web faster on a old, slow computer. I'm definitely on the pull information via search side of the internet vs. having information pushed to me.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Dunno if I am an "older person" yet, but I don't find it cool. It is annoying.
It might be cool if they actually advertised something I want...
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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