Ed Driscoll

Newspapers' Red Queen's Race--The End Game

Michael Malone of ABC and Pajamas Media writes, “The last two weeks saw what may prove to be the tipping point in the history of newspapers”:

The Rocky Mountain News became the first major U.S. newspaper to close in the face of declining circulation and revenues created by competition from the digital media.  Close on its heels may be the equally venerable San Francisco Chronicle, which announced that it would soon be seeking a buyer . . .and failing that, may go out of business.

This bad news is just the latest in what has been a long, sad downward spiral by the newspaper industry through most of this decade.  The newspaper industry gave up denying that anything was wrong about five years ago, abandoned the fantasy that this was a temporary setback two years ago, and now – like a terminal patient completing the Kubler-Ross cycle – has all-but resigned itself to imminent oblivion.

And, if things keep going the way they have, that’s a pretty accurate prognosis.

Which is why Clay Shirky has one another essay in a similar vein, titled “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable.” It’s a lengthy piece, but here’s a sample:

We’re collectively living through 1500, when it’s easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it. The internet turns 40 this fall. Access by the general public is less than half that age. Web use, as a normal part of life for a majority of the developed world, is less than half that age. We just got here. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.

Imagine, in 1996, asking some net-savvy soul to expound on the potential of craigslist, then a year old and not yet incorporated. The answer you’d almost certainly have gotten would be extrapolation: “Mailing lists can be powerful tools”, “Social effects are intertwining with digital networks”, blah blah blah. What no one would have told you, could have told you, was what actually happened: craiglist became a critical piece of infrastructure. Not the idea of craigslist, or the business model, or even the software driving it. Craigslist itself spread to cover hundreds of cities and has become a part of public consciousness about what is now possible. Experiments are only revealed in retrospect to be turning points.

In craigslist’s gradual shift from ‘interesting if minor’ to ‘essential and transformative’, there is one possible answer to the question “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will seem as minor at launch as craigslist did, as Wikipedia did, as octavo volumes did.

Journalism has always been subsidized. Sometimes it’s been Wal-Mart and the kid with the bike. Sometimes it’s been Richard Mellon Scaife. Increasingly, it’s you and me, donating our time. The list of models that are obviously working today, like Consumer Reports and NPR, like ProPublica and WikiLeaks, can’t be expanded to cover any general case, but then nothing is going to cover the general case.

Additionally, just to point out how demassified mass media now is, I found Shirky’s Blog post via a Twitter feed set up by the Free Republic Internet forum, all of which illustrates just how far beyond the mid-20th century model of centralized wire services like Reuters and A.P. feeding mass media such as TV and newspapers the state of news has become.

Michael Malone posits one possible future for newspapers in such a world:

First of all:  Don’t try to preserve what you were.  It’s now too late.  Look instead to what you must be in ten years, and get there in five.  And for the next two years, do whatever it takes to survive.

What does that mean?  Well, surprisingly it means:  Forget computers.  Newspapers have already lost that battle.  Instead, move on – and target the next platform.   My gut tells me that the future of news delivery is to e-Books, like Kindle, and even more, Smart Phones.  So rebuild your paper for those platforms – automatic downloading of the daily news directly to e-books, and powerful new navigation and social networking (i.e., story reporting and sharing) tools for the phone.

It also means a new business model.  The blogosphere has made one major mistake:  it has yet to create a truly viable revenue model.  And that represents a huge opportunity.  Advertisers are still wary of the Web because they don’t see yet a vehicle that produces strong, verifiable results.  That’s also the reason why (besides all of that capital equipment, like presses and buildings) that newspapers didn’t just migrate to the Web two years ago – it would have led to massive revenue losses.  But newspapers have now taken those losses anyway, so accept the inevitable.  A revenue model will emerge for the Web, so take your lumps now, shrink to 10 -20 percent of your original size, sell the buildings and presses, move exclusively to the Web, and get ready for the market to take off.

And, as long as you are thinking outside of the box, go all of the way.  Why doesn’t a consortium of newspapers buy Craigslist, leave it intact, and divvy up the ads by region?  Why not team up with the largest local TV station and become its integrated video-print website?  Or better yet, buy one of those emerging Web aggregators – the Huffington Post, Pajamas Media, etc. – and embed yourselves within them.  They’re going to be your future competitors anyway, so co-opt them now.

Finally, figure out a way to hang on to all of that reporting talent you have so indifferently tossed away.  Turn them into contractors for a couple of stories per month, or put them on retainer.  But don’t lose them – because five years from now there will be land rush on reporting talent to fill the new ‘newspapers’.  So tie them up now.

In the end, it’s all about surviving short term, and starting over under the new rules long term.  We will always need newspapers because we need news.  But as to what form this transformed medium will take is as yet unknown.  But we do have some ideas – and it is those ideas that America’s dying newspapers should now embrace, not wistful dreams of the past.

We do need news, but if it seems like we’re getting so little of it from newspapers, perhaps it’s because of how insular and reactionary they’ve become, Rod Dreher writes:

I never have taken Dowd seriously — she’s the best example I can think of re: the danger of being all style, no substance; she simply has no core beliefs, and is little more than a gossip columnist, though a gifted writer of prose — and Rich, while energetic, is utterly predictable. Herbert is a one-note drone, as Packer said. Agree with them or not, you at least get the idea that Brooks and Krugman are trying to deal with the world as it is, in a real way.

But listen, could there be any columnist of his stature more irrelevant today than Thomas Friedman? He’s just phoning it in now. The current crisis is a direct and devastating challenge to the worldview he’s been propagating for years, and you’d think he’d have something thoughtful to say about it. He has declined as suddenly and as profoundly as the markets. You get the idea that he’s built his entire reputation on flattering elites. I don’t mean to suggest at all that Friedman is cynical — he really does believe this stuff — but that he has become popular because he made himself into a gifted publicist for a worldview that went hand-in-glove with the views of international elites, in whose circles he traveled and was feted. And now he’s really got nothing to say to us.

Of course, providing sclerotic opinions to a sclerotic readership has long been the Times’ modus operandi. Sports journalist Steve Czaban suggests, why not go all the way?

Stop the madness. Just print the paper. Get out of the internet. Keep your core readers, and grow the next generation. Make no apologies. Chalk it up to an experiment tried, and a lesson learned.

You know, once upon a time, McDonalds experimented with selling a “McPizza.” I kid you not. They got smart, and stopped that pretty quickly.

Slim down your journalistic approach to suit this new sustainable reality. Close down far flung foreign offices that track the regional conflicts in East Krapistan. Let an international service do that. Besides, those low level conflicts have been going on forever, and rarely if ever affect your actual readers. You are not National Geographic. Get back to what matters in your hometown.

Newspapers have a tremendous edge over every other quasi-journalistic website out there. It’s called “printing presses.” No website would open a print version of their “newspaper” and invest in printers, ink, delivery trucks, and the like.

This is your world. Live in it. Dominate it.

Setting aside all of the “global warming” and “sustainable growth” handwringing that one hopes such a proposal would likely cause the new puritans in the papers’ ivory towers (especially when they run “articles” such as this), that’s exactly what the classic EPIC 2014 video proposed a few years ago–let the Times go paper only–at least until its luddite readership joins them in the mausoleum.

Update: If you’re unfamiliar with the title, I’ve been using the “Red Queen’s Race” moniker for the old media death watch for a couple of years now–including in a recent Silicon Graffiti video which explains the origins of the phrase right at the top of the clip:



Update: Welcome Professor Reynolds’ readers–and check out this Pew Research item that Glenn links to, titled, “Stop the Presses? Many Americans Wouldn’t Care a Lot if Local Papers Folded.” (Just check out the comments immediately under this post for confirmation.)

As Mark Steyn explains in his speech to the editorial board of the Hillsdale Collegian, at least in the post-WWII era, newspapers have cared far more about their advertisers than their readers–and the readers, whether they’ve started their own blogs or not, know it.