The nightmare, worst-case scenario for U.S. journalism finally began to unfold in earnest today, as the Rocky Mountain News became the first of the expected congo line of major daily city newspapers to publish its final edition and cease operations. The tabloid format Rocky was the plucky counter-voice to the somewhat stodgier Post. At least Denver has a voice left, but how long before it, too, is silenced?
This of course is the question being posed in every city, even nationally and internationally, and the discourse over which recently has gone into overdrive. In Seattle, which is facing a similar scenario with the Post-Intelligencer within the next three weeks, the Communication Department at the University of Washington and Online News Association (ONA) hosted on Wednesday a panel discussion, “Journalism on the Brink,” that provided ample illumination, but scant little positive news for the newspaper industry.
I initially blanched at the inclusion of Monica Guzman of the Seattle P-I and Kory Haik of The Seattle Times because they represent the patient on the table who simply hasn’t been pronounced yet. There is no saving newspapers, and the sooner we get past that discussion, the sooner we will begin to resolve some important issues for the next iteration of U.S. journalism (eg., ethics and standards, economic models). In retrospect, I am glad for their participation because both unwittingly briefed those new to the newspaper death watch as to exactly why daily print journalism is starting to heave its last breaths.
(Note to the hand-wringers: It’s the newspaper industry that is on the endangered-species list, not journalism itself, which merely is undergoing a transformation).
Haik has done some important work, especially around Katrina, but The Times probably isn’t the best place for her. She made two telling, and related, comments that describe the manner in which newspapers contributed to their own demise: one, the oft-repeated notion that content needs to remain free, and, two, that newspapers tried to “put content behind a wall” (in other words, charged) and were unsuccessful at doing so.
OK, the next journalist or supposed journalist who cites TimesSelect as an example of a failed attempt by a daily newspaper at charging for online content gets her or his notepad revoked. First, the New York Times’ mistake was trying to charge for what I call “celebrity opinion” (more on that when we move on to Guzman). Secondly, how much of a “failure” was TimesSelect when it actually earned more than 200,000 subscribers at $7.95 per month or $49.95 per year?
Really, how many subscribers would TimesSelect have collected had it included what the New York Times did best, which is report, analyze and present news that people want or need?
I left The Seattle Times nearly 10 years ago for Rivals.com, then Scout.com, two companies still in existence, and owned by Yahoo! and NewsCorp, respectively, and built subscription revenue models. Both are built around the inspired notion that a sports fan’s lasting and most passionate affiliation is his (mainly) or her college, and both have content that mostly is provided by non- or wannabe journalists and users. When I was editor-in-chief at Scout, my daily fear was that daily newspapers were going to wake up, smell the profits and start selling their college-sports content, which was being produced by a newsgathering infrastructure including professionally trained journalists whose fulltime job was covering those beats and who had access to teams and administration that we largely did not.
What Haik was expressing was an attitude held by daily newspaper managers that their publications have to be everything to everybody. What are newspapers if not buffets full of niche content? There’s nothing wrong with charging a little extra for the best dishes. If I were the king of daily newspapers, I’d have, 5-10 years ago, turned my printed sports section into an aggregation of wire content and busted up my various sports coverage into online premium content. Let’s say I charged $54.95 per year for The Seattle Times’ Mariner coverage, that would include the inspired multimedia content of beat writer Geoff Baker, as well as all my other staff coverage, including columnists, plus, through a revenue share, access to premium content from the lively blog, U.S.S. Mariner? Think I couldn’t get, say, 20,000 subs, or roughly the number of Mariner season-ticket holders, and generate some $1.1 million in annual gross revenue? Plus whatever I could get for University of Washington athletics, Seahawks coverage and so on?
In response to a question from the audience, Haik said Arts and Entertainment was a section that made money for The Times online (she said Entertainment ad inventory was “oversold”). So what has The Times done about that, besides having eliminated almost all of its arts and entertainment coverage and criticism via buyouts, layoffs or reassignment?
(In case anyone wonders why I believe the P-I and Times (though not their individual reporters, editors and other employees, of course), as well as other newspapers, deserve their fate, re-examine the sentence above).
As for the notion of content having to be free, and the other ideas regarding use of social media tools that Guzman represented, I’ll hit those in another post, since I’ve been told I tend to ramble on too long for people to digest.