the Web has a lot less to teach the print media than you think


Freddie deBoer used to blog at, and may again someday. Now he blogs here.

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32 Responses

  1. Jaybird says:

    This, strangely, reminds me of the situation with GM.

    Focusing on the wonderful things that GM has done in the past, how many people it employs now, so on and so forth seems to miss the point.

    Insufficient numbers wish to purchase the product. Without a sufficient base of demand, the business is unsustainable… whether you’re selling two lines or twenty words for twenty dollars or Hummers.

    If it’s unsustainable, it falls in the “this too shall pass” category.

    To complain about needs/demand changing strikes me as similar to complaining about the outfits the kids at the mall wear.Report

  2. Freddie says:

    First of all, a big part of the reason insufficient numbers want to purchase the product is because now they can get it for free! Second of all, it’s not a question of saying “newspapers have to survive”. It’s a question of pushing back against some of those who think that there was some other path for the newspapers to take, or that Web companies have a lot to teach about profitability.Report

  3. r. f. stinson says:

    Slow day?

    Also, you might want to look up the difference between “effect” and “affect.”Report

  4. Freddie says:

    Slow day?

    I’m trying to imagine a day in my life so slow that I spend my time correcting word usage on a blog’s comments.Report

  5. Jaybird says:

    “First of all, a big part of the reason insufficient numbers want to purchase the product is because now they can get it for free!”

    Interestingly, this sentence would have fit (and perfectly!) within my comment.

    “It’s a question of pushing back against some of those who think that there was some other path for the newspapers to take,”

    I’ll go back to the whole “sustainability” thing. It doesn’t strike me that newspapers had a sustainable model… having half the journalism paid for by the selling of two lines for twenty bucks in a completely different part of the paper and the other half paid for by advertisers who care solely about subscription numbers.

    “or that Web companies have a lot to teach about profitability.”

    Anyone who sees Google (or Amazon) as an example to be followed without seeing the 99.9% of failures strewn about probably deserves what he or she gets a few months after taking out that small business loan.Report

  6. Dynamic says:

    “So I can’t understand lauding the brilliance of Craigslist when they have in essense taken an established business model and rendered its profitability a tiny fraction of what it once was”

    I think you miss the point here – the brilliance of Craig’s list is in taking the profit potential inherent to any change in circumstance and making it their own, at the expense of the traditional media and, yes, at reduced rates.

    I can generally agree with the content of this post, but I think you may underestimate both the profit potential of web-based media and the truly miserable degree to which the old media business model was flawed. As Jaybird astutely notes, the newspapers were marketing themselves as source of news and information – and making money off of completely unrelated segments of business. This inherent disconnect between their service and their profit driver didn’t matter pre-internet; but with the rise of the net, there was no longer any need for classifieds and advertisers to tie themselves to a loosely related delivery system. And away they went.Report

  7. Marshall says:

    When a product is produced at a cheaper price and sold at a cheaper price don’t we normally call that an increase in Productivity?Report

  8. Will says:

    In Shirky’s defense, the main thrust of his post seems to be that the decline of old media platforms is inevitable given the rapid pace of technological change. I know he comes off like an Internet triumphalist in other forums, but I read this post as pretty dispassionate analysis of the quandaries facing professional journalism.Report

  9. raft says:

    newspapers have never actually made money off the print copies themselves. The $2 dollars or whatever or so they charge is nowhere near the costs of the ink, the paper, the machinery, etc. The real money comes from selling ads; it’s just that when people can put classifieds for free on the internet that’s a lot fucking harder to do.

    I’m not sure what your beef is with the forecasts about the death of print newspapers when, of course, those forecasts were totally right. It’s true that there was no other path for newspapers to take. That was the whole point, that it was a dying industry made obsolete by technological change. But we don’t care about newspapers (or at least we shouldn’t). We care about reporting. While the newspaper executives were running around like cockroaches with their heads cut off, the journalists should have been trying to figure out to save investigative reporting in a world where exposes of a secret CIA torture program are no longer subsidized by T magazine and Sunday Styles. That’s a conversation that’s only just starting now, years late.

    yes, there’s schadenfreude. There are people dancing on the graves of the newspapers. I am personally one of them. It’s sad that good, wonderful and important reporters are losing their jobs. But the reality is that there were never that many of them. For the last few decades the vast majority of newspapers have been a colossal failure. They chased easy profits instead of doing the hard reporting of challenging power or investigating the deep social corruption which (it should be clear to all now) has brought this country to the brink of economic, political, and moral collapse. This is especially true for the the crappy local papers that have folded so far. When the New York Times goes bankrupt (as it well may) that’ll be a whole different story. But the Seattle Post-Intelligencer? A hollow corporate product stuffed full of stories stolen from the wire services, useless sports coverage, and douchebag right-wing columnists? Good fucking riddance. The death of the corporate MSM media may be the best thing that ever happened to real journalism.Report

  10. Freddie says:

    But that’s just it, raft– no one is going to replace quality reporting. News blogs don’t actually report on anything near the scale of newspapers. Nowhere close. And they aren’t going to start. That’s a big part of my anger: people act as though the web is just going to jump up and provide this quality reporting. Not going to happen. That’s the tragedy, and that’s what drives me crazy, people celebrating the death of extensive reportage.Report

  11. raft says:

    wow, fast response.

    you should do another post on the way forward for journalism, i’d love to hear your thoughts. I don’t think the situation is as pessimistic as you make it out to be. On the national level there are basically only 5 or so U.S. papers that do serious investigative journalism and all of them are hugely famous brands that will be able to survive the coming newspaper purge. Steve Coll’s thoughts on nonprofit newspapers are well worth reading. Even now there are enough rich people out there to fund multibillion dollar endowments for the WashPost and New York Times. And this may be a pipe dream, but I always thought that universities could get into the reporting business; they already subsidize student newspapers and many of them have journalism schools. Why can’t they run some papers, too? The “size” of most newspapers is, I think, somewhat illusory. Even a staff of just 5 full time reporters can do very serious and impressive work. Remember that the raw mechanics of reporting are actually far easier than they used to be, before there was the internet, blogs, email, wikipedia, etc.

    Local beat reporting (a la The Baltimore Sun in Season 5 of The Wire) is a tough one and I admit it is in deep shit. David Simon has a great article about that here. I’m not sure what will replace papers like the Sun except that it’s absurd and ridiculous that in a 21st century information age–when reporting is easier and less expensive than ever, and the audience for that reporting is bigger and more informed than ever–we won’t be able to figure out some means or another to save the industry. I guess I’m an optimist.Report

  12. James says:

    It’s becoming increasingly hard for anyone to sell information. Be it a music file or the latest weather reports, the growth of IT has meant that my generation expects these things for free. What chance did newspapers ever stand?Report

  13. Clay Shirky says:

    “That’s a big part of my anger: people act as though the web is just going to jump up and provide this quality reporting. Not going to happen.”

    This is exactly right, which is why I’m curious about being called out so directly earlier in your response. My essay wasn’t just written for newspaper people, its written for internet people as well. I’m as tired as you of hearing the happy talk around instant replacements for what will be lost, and I used the print revolution to point out that during real media revolutions, old things break faster than new things get fixed.

    Since we agree, and since I specifically refused to propose that the Web will instantly replace quality reporting on paper, I don’t actually think your anger is around this point (at least not as directed at me.)

    Instead, it seems as if you want me to somehow rail against the Gods that this fate has befallen these noble men and women etc etc. But here’s the thing: I’ve been writing quite matter-of-factly about the inevitable destruction of the classified market by the internet since the mid-1990s, so if I don’t seem sufficiently riled up, its because I think the change is not merely fundamental, its absolutely unsurprising. It would be like shaking my fist at the sun for setting to have been anything other than analytic about this change, even a dozen years ago, much less now.

    That’s probably the same attitude that infuriates you, but if you believed what I believe, you wouldn’t be jumping up and down either. The newspapers were an interesting historical accident, now ending. Spending a lot of energy lamenting that fact risks using up the very energy we’re going to need to put into a whole lot of new experiments, simply we don’t have any idea what good new models for journalism are, and we won’t know for a decade or so which of those experiments will be of any use at all. Between nostalgia and innovation, I think innovation is the bigger imperative right now.Report

  14. Pat T says:

    Easy solution, fred: we’ll teach journalism in kindergarten. That’s not a dig at journalists. It’s a nod to the importance of the problem.Report

  15. EngineerScotty says:

    One interesting phenomenon is that the blogosphere IS starting to replace the traditional beat reporter in sports journalism.

    You want to know what’s going on with my favorite pro sports team, the Portland Trail Blazers? A couple years ago, print media was your best bet for information. Three papers in the Portland area covered the team with beat reporters/columnists–the Oregonian, the Portland Tribune (a free biweekly), and the Vancouver, WA Columbian. Nowadays? By far the best Trail Blazers coverage comes from the SB Nation blog BlazersEdge. This blog is hosted by two bloggers, one of which is credentialed by the team and does the same reporting that the paper beat writers do FTMP. And since the blog isn’t trying to sell newspapers, it is far less sensationalist than the dead-tree columnists in town are.
    An interesting question is, of course, how dependent a blogger is on the goodwill of a subject to maintain credentials. A few years ago, the team and them Oregonian were in a very public spat over coverage (with some unprofessional behavior on both sides)–but the team couldn’t simply yank the credentials of the town’s daily newspaper. If Ben Golliver were to piss off the team, however, the team might find it easier to tell him to get lost. One thing that the institutional newspaper does provide reporters (besides salary and expenses) is access–in a post newspaper world, it may be easier for corporations or politicians to simply ignore those reporters or blogs or whatever they don’t like.

  16. LL says:

    Newspapers and publishing in general has always been in a large part paid for by advertising. Look at any periodical from the nineteenth century, well any periodical that the advertising hasn’t been removed from in the process of either binding them into volume form or in the process of putting them on microfilm. (This is a huge problem with the Google book project, but that’s another issue.) Advertising takes up a large part of the papers and magazines of the period. And yes, it was problematic for newspapers and periodicals. The monthly family literary magazine has all but disappeared by the 1890s for a variety of reasons having to do with shifting reading practices to changes in printing that made it possible to put out editions at more rapid rate. But declining advertising revenue formed a large part of their decline.

    What worries me and intrigues me about the debate about where journalism and periodical publishing is going is the question of whether we can separate medium and message. The web is a medium that privileges shorter kinds of stories. I’m not sure the investigative journalism that we expect from newspapers can occur on the web. On the other hand. W.T. Stead’s 1885 “Maiden Tribute to Modern Babylon,” one of the most sensational investigative series of the late nineteenth century, was only possible because of the new rapidity of the newspaper press; Stead’s Pall Mall Gazette printed several editions. I think it is possible to present the kinds of information and investigative reporting we need online, but it is going to require reimagining how the message and medium fit together. Now making it a viable business is another story.Report

  17. A.R.Yngve says:

    I always thought that even now, we should see a revolution in citizen journalism: i.e. anyone with a mobile phone with a camera could suddenly start reporting local news, dramatic events, invetigate foul play in his or her neighbor hood, etc.


  18. gah says:

    The problem with craigslist classifieds is that they suck. if you have to advertise an apartment for rent, as I do every so often, you’ve got to do a lot more work to keep it in front of people, a lot fewer of whom show up. your listing keeps falling to the bottom. when i advertised my rental unit in the Wash DC free weekly, every time I counted the responses in the dozen. with craigslist, you’ve got to keep refreshing it and figuring out ways to thwart its ban on re-posting. yes, you can delete your previous ads, but more than a few people have told me they bookmarked the earlier ads only to find them gone. with a newspaper, you open it, hunt for apartments you like, check them off and check them out. it’s all right in front of you and you can carry it in your pocket. I’ve done it both ways numerous times and there’s no comparison–newspapers always got me a better volume of responses.Report

  19. R. Deaver says:

    I’m trying to imagine a day in my life so slow that I spend my time correcting word usage on a blog’s comments.

    You are correct. People who who think misusing words is unimportant should not be corrected. They should be ignored.Report

  20. R. Deaver says:

    So I can’t understand lauding the brilliance of Craigslist when they have in essense taken an established business model and rendered its profitability a tiny fraction of what it once was.

    The point your are missing is that the advent of instantaneous, paperless publishing rendered the value of the business model a fraction of what it once was. Craigslist did not do that, the inevitable march of innovation did that. As surely as gravity sucks down.

    This is the same lesson the record companies, after spending enormous sums to buy politicians to defend their business model, after spending enormous sums to buy researchers to develop DRM schemes that were doomed to fail, and after spending enormous sums to spy on and sue their customers, have finally learned; their business model is obsolete, and the market value of their product is now a fraction of what it once was. It took Apple — after years of to experiments, most of which failed — to discover a new, workable business model and force the record companies to face reality.

    The newspaper business model is based on one thing, selling ads. When an advertiser’s access to “eyeballs” was dear, the value of that ad space was valuable, and the business model sound. Now that access is ubiquitous, ad space is worth a fraction of what it once was, and the business model is no longer viable. Gravity, sucking down. Again.

    If a hundred years ago society had done everything possible to save every buggywhip making job in America, there still wouldn’t be any buggywhip making jobs in America. The newspaper business is not any more sacred than any other industry whose time has passed. Deal with it, and stop shooting the messenger.Report

  21. R. Deaver says:

    And heeding my own wisdom, “your” is not “you’re”. Mea culpa.Report

  22. pwb says:

    Freddie, when marginal costs are zero you have to go with “free”.Report

  23. pwb says:

    Newspapers only need to do one thing to be profitable: try.Report

  24. anonymous says:

    “I’m trying to imagine a day in my life so slow that I spend my time correcting word usage on a blog’s comments.”

    Freddie, please take a walk and get some sunlight tomorrow. Commenters will make mildly nit-picky corrections all the time. If you’re the blogger, it’s best to keep it mature and not make a veiled reference to what a loser the commenter must be. I’m really not saying this to be mean, but you come off as quite a bit angry in both your posts and comments (ie more than just passionate about your arguments). You are also sometimes needlessly disparaging of the person with whom you’re arguing. I really suggest that, no matter your beliefs, you avoid allowing political arguments to consume you and make you so visibly angry at others. You’re a good writer, but I really feel that this is affecting your writing.Report

  25. Freddie says:

    Pretty simple, anonymous– input=ouput. Same as it ever was. And I don’t think I’ve ever been rendered angry by something on the Internet.Report

  26. Devo says:

    “Many journalists aren’t just whistling past the graveyard, they’re chortling past it. Perhaps I’m misreading, but I don’t actually see grim humor in the face of great sadness.”

    I think this is true BUT, as the partner of a journalist, most of this “chortling” is simply frustration. They’re frustrated by the changes, uncertain about their future, but most of all, enormously angry at perceived incompetence by various levels of management. Many of them have seen changes coming for a long time, and many of those have tried to do something about it, either by blogging, retraining to shoot video as well as photo, or developing multimedia packages and projects. At the same time, the insitutions themselves, with some notable exceptions, have been extremely slow to invest the kinds of resources it would take to make these new technologies work. They’d love a working revolution, as long as it doesn’t cost any more money, involve hiring more than a handful of new people, and involve more than a week of retraining. It’s like relying on a week-long seminar to transition train conductors to airline pilots. I think for many, a healthy dose of that schadenfreude is directed at the people within their organization who get paid more money to make bad decisions. Take the San Francisco Chronicle; it’s been in the red for a decade, and Hearst squeezed various other network papers of profits to subsidize it, without any long-term solution to how they would turn it around. It was money down the drain that could have been spent girding up for the digital push. And if you’ve been working for them for ten years, at this point, it’s just pointless to get angry anymore. Why not laugh? It doesn’t get any more “grim” than that.Report