Save Journalism. Not Newspapers.

March 23, 2009 at 6:00 am 6 comments

Photo by curtzsi, via FlickrThis is the year that the newspaper, as a business model, dies. The Rocky Mountain News closed last month. The San Diego News Tribune has been narrowly saved, for now. The San Francisco Chronicle is a dead man walking.

What’s odd is that the combined national readership of print and online news is actually higher than ever. So journalism could be saved. But how?

First, let’s agree that we need to save journalism, not newspapers. The clock cannot be turned back. Some people are writing that the solution is to force people to pay for content again, perhaps in the form of micropayments. But this idea will fail, because it’s built on the newspaper model of scarcity. The bundling of subscriptions, newsstand sales and advertising worked because only a few had the means of production, and we had no other choices. Today, we do. Tomorrow, only a special class of media (e.g., Wall Street Journal, professional and trade journals) will get away with this. The horse is out of the barn, and news is abundant and free. Move on.

So what business model will allow journalism companies to thrive? The goal should be to create business models (note the plural) that attract investors and make it financially feasible to be a lifelong, professional journalist.

We really need those veterans. In the recent HBO series, “The Wire,” a 60-ish reporter is about to be laid off. There’s a breaking story at Baltimore City Hall, and the callow, 30-ish reporter who gets the assignment isn’t up to the job. So as the final act in his career, the veteran picks up the phone, sweet talks the person on the other end of the line, and gets to the bottom of the story. It takes him about two minutes. If we lose that in journalism, the nation suffers.

Online pure plays could work, because their required ROI is a fraction of a newspaper’s ROI. But with newspapers’ huge capital costs – those iconic printing presses – perhaps only bankruptcies will set them free and allow them to compete successfully with the pure plays. Bankruptcies cause pain for all involved, but I don’t see any other way out of it.

A fresh start would allow journalism companies to focus on the news business, not the printing business. They could then be creative with new business models and test new bundling models that combine news with what people value today – services and products.

Think: What do you value and pay for today? Your answer could save journalism.

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Entry filed under: newspapers. Tags: .

I’m Coming Up For Air What Business Are You In?

6 Comments

  • 1. Peggy Hoffman  |  March 23, 2009 at 10:25 am

    Great piece Frank. Over at PRSA MD, we’re talking all about the changing landscape and too often its focused on the loss not the opportunity. Journalism, like so many other important roles in society, has to learn how to work in the new day. Reminds us of associations, yes? We need new models (with an s) for associations so they can provide the critical role in the new day.

  • 2. Frank Fortin  |  March 23, 2009 at 10:29 am

    Yes yes yes! The lessons for associations are inescapable.

  • 3. Anthony Zinni  |  March 23, 2009 at 11:05 am

    I just read a great article on this exact subject coming from a 30 year veteran of the newspaper business, and unfortunately can not remember the link.

    The basic jist of the article however is that the newspaper publishers have known about this for a long time yet chose to ignore it and label anyone who was be logical about the situation as a heretic. Newspapers are not out of business because of their business models, but because of radical change. The internet has made information shareable by anyone for almost no cost, and news papers only existed because they were the gatekeepers to sharing that information. They solved a problem that no longer exists.

    The problem we now face is that Journalism was so tied to newspapers and publishing that if those systems no longer exist how do we maintain it? I think this is where enterprising journalists will begin to leverage their own value. It is change like this that forces innovation that would otherwise have gone unnoticed or underutilized. I am personally very pumped to see what comes out of this situation.

    I would personally pay smaller amounts to subscribe to journalists who’s opinions I value rather than a broad publication that I only read 10% of. Maybe the kindle and its subscriptions program will make this economically feasible?

    Great article!

  • 4. Lisa Junker  |  March 24, 2009 at 6:29 am

    Great post! Clay Shirky also has some thoughts that might interest you: http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2009/03/newspapers-and-thinking-the-unthinkable/

    I do have to say, the thing that worries me the most isn’t just the loss of those two-minute phone calls to City Hall (although they’re important). What worries me is the loss of things like Gene Weingarten’s painful Washington Post magazine article a few weeks ago, on parents who forgot their children in the car. That kind of in-depth look at a difficult subject takes months and months of a writer’s time; what business model will support that kind of investment when the newspaper model finally dies? Or will it just remain the purview of the few surviving newspapers?

  • 5. Elizabeth Engel  |  March 24, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    Lisa, I agree. The Internet can take over the “dog bites man” kind of stories (see local fave DC blog Frozen Tropics) and the weather and perhaps even reviews of books, restaurants, theater, movies, etc. But bloggers and citizen journalists aren’t going to break the next Watergate or write the types of intensively researched and written pieces that win Pulitzers. And TV gave up on any pretense of actual journalism years ago. And I don’t see how that can be supported by subscriptions to particular journalists.

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