The problem besetting newspapers is not that there are hordes of bloggers giving it away for free. Bloggers are, to be sure, great competition for the op-ed section. But the op-ed section is not a money maker, as the New York Times so painfully discovered with Times Select. As I wrote at the time, the Times confused what people were emailing each other with what they would be willing to pay for. If those things were the same, poems about Jesus and pictures of kittens wearing hats would have replaced gambling and porn as the internet’s most profitable content.
Journalism is not being brought low by excess supply of content; it’s being steadily eroded by insufficient demand for advertising pages. For most of history, most publications lost money, or at best broke even, on their subscription base, which just about paid for the cost of printing and distributing the papers. Advertising was what paid the bills. To be sure, some of that advertising is migrating to blogs and similar new media. But most of it is simply being siphoned out of journalism altogether. Craigslist ate the classified ads. eHarmony stole the personals. Google took those tiny ads for weird products. And Macy’s can email its own damn customers to announce a sale.
This is all very true. And she goes on to write:
We’re not witnessing the breakup of a monopoly, in which more players make more modest incomes providing more stuff, and everyone flourishes (except the monopolist). We’re witnessing the death of a business model. And no one has figured out how to pay for hard news.
Exactly so – which is exactly what I was talking about in my last piece – the method of delivery isn’t working, and the source of revenue isn’t paying the bills, and so a new business model is needed both to adapt to new demand and to pay for operating costs. I think there are ways to do this. I offered up a few, and I think smarter people than myself should be able to step further out of the box to come up with others.
And even more potent, I think, is her warning:
This is a genuine loss for the American public. Cities without newspapers seem to experience a sizeable increase in insider self-dealing and other forms of corruption–one theory as to why the Federal government is less corrupt than state and local governments is simply that it’s more thoroughly covered by the press.
But then this last line confuses me:
I am second to none in my appreciation of new media and its possibilities. But so far, it has proven more effective as a complement to old media than a replacement.
This is true, of course, but wasn’t the rest of the post spent talking about how this really isn’t about “new media” vs. “old media” at all, but rather a problem with changing distribution and revenue sources? So why finish with the new media question again? The topic to address, really, ought to be about new revenue streams and finding ways to scale down operating costs.
And again I’m confronted with the nagging suspicion that even if a lot of these big newspapers end up scaling way, way back – and that’s a loss, to be sure – we’re not going to see the end of journalism. We’re not going to see a drop-off in national political coverage. It’s simply going to take a new shape. What that shape will look like is more difficult to discern.