But why is the business model dying?
Competition is a factor, and blogs are obviously part of that mix. But again, if I'd started a business and someone else opened up down the street and offered a more appealing product, and I lost customers, would it be fair to blame the other guy alone for my problems?
In a free market, we have competition. Yes, it can suck when you're not on the winning side. But there's nothing saying that you can't start a new business, or reform your existing one to compete.
Newspapers remain wedded to print in a market that is switching to an all digital model. Newspapers offer a variety of news in a market that has moved strongly towards specialization (not exclusively, but more so than in the past.)
If more and more people are no longer buying newspapers because the content has no appeal vs the competition, wouldn't at least some of the blame lie with the people who produce the newspaper content that fewer people now want to read?
I know that I may be sounding a bit Talmudic by spending so many blog posts on this one bit of information, but examining how these Post editors have dealt with it has proven to be very revealing. They never bothered to check with scientists about the validity of a statement in a column, and after thousands of people have complained, they recognize that there was something so amiss that should have called the scientists. But they still can't manage to make a decision about whether the statement requires a correction.
What's more, they continue to ignore the broader, more important problem with Will's discussion of sea ice: the facts that picking out two days from a thirty-year time series is not a meaningful way to look at climate trends, and that climate models do not, in fact, lead you to expect a decrease in global ice cover. And they have not even taken any notice of all the other errors in Will's two columns.
A wide variety of scientists, journalists, bloggers, and pundits has refuted Will's arguments many times over in the week and a half since. A comprehensive list of those rebuttals, including an early entry from CJR, can be found here.
But his point about the wiggly, lawyerly language is especially germane because this is a classic case of evidence versus inference. The Post can argue that, technically, all of the evidence Will presents passed fact-checking; and Will can then infer what he wants about that evidence--even if his inferences differ drastically from those of the scientists who collected the evidence--without journalistic foul.
Some bloggers seem to think this piece is hard on them; precisely the opposite was intended. I think it's amazing that bloggers have basically destroyed the credibility of both George Will and the Washington Post editorial page. Both seem to deserve it; bloggers gave it to them. Bravo. But I also lament the decline of our newspapers--even though much of it is their own fault, as in this instance--and worry that without them, we won't be better off.
Something striking has happened over the past week in the dynamical relationship between the blogosphere and the rather gaunt-looking "mainstream media," or MSM, with respect to a science controversy. And watching it unfold makes one wonder if we aren't seeing a kind of turning-point moment in the transition--for better or worse--away from newspapers as the dominant source of opinion, commentary, and thoughtful analysis in our society.
I guess I don't understand editorial pages. The laws of physics must be different there.
First, contrary to what many non-journalists seem to believe, George F. Will is a journalist. Just because he gets to add interpretation and value judgment to the factual material that serves as his raw material doesn't mean he gets to flout the ethical parameters of the business. In other words, he is obliged to represent the source material he cites fairly and accurately. If he doesn't then he's violating his contract with his employer and his obligation to his readers.
I was trying to be polite, but the conversation quickly slid into the frustration so many in the room, not just me, have with climate science denialism. Here's the thing: If Will is right, and there is no global warming, then much of what we think we know about chemistry and biology and ecology and thermodynamics and geology and physics is wrong. If Will is right, then thousands of climatologists are not only wrong, but participating in a global conspiracy to conceal the truth about the state of the planet's ecosystem. The climatologists have nothing to gain from perpetuating the "lie" of anthropogenic global warming, but they're doing it anyway, just to be mean.
And if that isn't the silliest idea since the 8-track tape, I don't know what is.
There are many problems with this philosophy, but those are irrelevant, since George Will made factual errors rather than debatable inferences. Once again, he wrote that "according to the U.N. World Meteorological Organization, there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade." There is no inference there. Will isn't saying he disagrees with the WMO's interpretation of the data, he's saying the WMO thinks there's been no recorded warming for more than a decade. The WMO doesn't think this. No serious scientific organization thinks this.
It's a sad display from one of our great papers. The Post still has a lot of talented and hardworking writers; this is a slight to them all. In these difficult times, the paper ought to be striving to show it's still relevant. Instead, it shows us that at least at the editorial/oped page, they don't choose well between the truth on the one hand, and making such an eminence as George Will retract on the other.
How do I put this politely?
It is not possible for a reasonable person equipped with a secondary education to read the material George F. Will cites in his columns arguing against the scientific evidence for global warming and come to the conclusions that Will reaches.
Dear Mr. Hiatt, [Introductory Comments]...I believe what I've called the "Republican War on Science" continues, and the George Will saga represents a stunning example. In my opinion, the Post editorial/oped page makes a terrible mistake by not correcting his manifest errors; but leave that aside--you've said people should instead "debate him." Would you publish an oped by me exposing Will's egregious errors, misrepresentations, and distortions of the science of global warming, and thus further debate?
When I was trying to learn the craft of writing about the earth, a geologist who was serving as my guide said I had to read Walter Sullivan's Continents in Motion. The book was a revelation to me - for the skill with which Sullivan explained the science of plate tectonics, but more importantly for the nuance with which he explained how science works: the fits and starts, the struggle to find data, the even greater struggle to find theory to structure and think about what that data is telling us.
I spent a great deal of time recently studying climate science during that time period (see here for the result). If newspaper journalism is the first draft of history, Sullivan's work needs very little editing. It is anything but a megaphone of global cooling alarm, but rather a rich account of the complex science of the day.
A lot of the people newspapers pay to write are not just competing against people who write for free, they are competing against people who write better than they do, and those people are compelled to write because they are experts, which they are paid to be.
Now anyone with a computer can read those, and thousands of other professional and amateur equivalents. You can also use this thing called Twitter and it's kind of like reading a Richard Roeper column (you can even follow Richard Roeper on Twitter, but it's less interesting than most Twitter feeds). Look at it economically: the value of Richard Roeper, star columnist, has declined due to market forces. There are a lot of people offering the same or better service. The Roeper Bubble has burst. And I don't mean to pick on Richard Roeper. Well, actually I do, but there are more grave examples. Take David Brooks.
More simply: journalists have historically been paid by newspapers to call up experts and talk to them (I have done this many times), and to then relay that information back to the reader. Now many of those experts write. For readers. It saves them time, and usually a lot of stupid questions.
Some of these people writing for free are better at writing than many of the people who are paid to write.
It's getting close to a week after the Chicago Journalism Town Hall, on which I was a panelist along with 13 other of the city's media luminaries (that there were far more watching us supposed experts from the audience speaks to the depth and breadth of talent in Chicago -- any number of them could have taken our place.) You can listen to the three hour discussion in two parts on chicagopublicradio.org. I'd hoped to jump right into the fray here on the blog, but work has kept me from getting my thoughts out in print.
Many climate scientists, bloggers and readers have weighed in this morning online and in my in-box to complain about my short print story assessing the risk of overstatement or inaccuracy facing everyone pressing an argument about climate science and policy. (I'll include some examples in the comment thread this morning.)
It is Saturday morning. I turn on my laptop and check various websites; new friends to add on Facebook, Tweets to reply to on Twitter. I grab a cup of coffee and tune in Weekend Edition on NPR. I am not alone. NPR has just run a story about Twitter, and Andy Carvin's efforts to get Dan Schorr to use Twitter. In the world of Twitter, it is a big story.
When you break down the percentages, that means a full 37% percent of what was in the paper was either shit you could get anywhere or shit you'd never want at all. And among the remaining 63%, let's charitably assume that half of that news had been available prior via TV, radio, or Internet. That leaves you with a daily newspaper that is -- again, charitably -- 32% relevant. That's not good.
Now, let's plug the human element back in. The fact of it is simple: Print media is fast becoming a boutique medium -- it will always be around, but will never again employ the number of people it does today, and certainly never again the number that it did thirty years ago. Some -- many, even -- of these people are talented, and all of them, as human beings, deserve jobs. What will become of them? Some will hang on until the house burns down completely, some will find other fields of employ, others will strike upon a new model, one that is desperately needed as news itself continues to dumb itself down throughout all media.
It felt like a primal whine from rich reporters. Hasn't Barack Obama considered that maybe John McCain's tax policy is the right one? Does Obama not realize that the best way to be a Democrat is preserve conservative Republican tax policy?
In a remarkable scene, Gibbs patiently and repeatedly explained that, no really, Obama actually won the election, that he'd explained exactly what he was going to do during the campaign, the American people understood and voted on it, and now he's doing it. During the campaign, Obama had pledged to cut taxes for 95% of American workers and end the catastrophic non-workingness of George Bush's trickle-down tax policy. Now, among some questioners, there seems to be confusion and alarm that Obama intends to implement that policy.
The sour mood of the elite press corps was apparent from the first question, by the Associated Press' Jennifer Loven. Noting Obama's quote from earlier today, "There are times when you can afford to redecorate your house and there are times when you have to focus on rebuilding its foundation," Loven asked whether it was appropriate that the Obamas conduct any re-decorations in the White House as they settle in.
As one reporter observed after the briefing, "Did you notice all the questions about taxes came from reporters making over $250,000 a year, especially the TV guys?"
"A column is based on the length of a column of type!" Ann Marie Lipinski once explained to me in frustration, when explaining why one of her former columnists was at odds with the paper because he wanted his columns to jump. (And many newspaper columnists today still act as if that artificial length was handed down by God as optimal, or that there is something valuable about news stories filed at 6 p.m. that sit around until 6 a.m. before anyone sees them.)
Yes, but not only is that an artificial constraint, but columns are of different lengths in different-sized publications. And besides that, aren't journalists the ones who should know better than any that rules are made to be broken?
One scenario discussed on Sunday was a city without a newspaper. Inherent in the discussion was the false notion that that meant a city without news. Somehow I think chicagotribune.com - or its remnants - will stay alive if the rest of the company sinks. And if not, that's a whole lot of reporters and business folk who could re-band together immediately on the Web. It's just not a useful discussion.
But more unbelievable is the notion that somehow serendipity is lost in the Internet. The Internet is a case study in serendipity! Ever hear of the term surfing? That's serendipity! But then, I seem to remember reading that the youth of America were wasting their lives surfing the Internet. Better to surf the newspaper?
I love Carol Marin, but when she said that you could create something, but how would you drive traffic to it I almost had to revoke my membership in her fan club. Meanwhile, Nate Silver reports that folks are "throwing money" at him. A year ago, Silver's site didn't exist and he had no traffic.
Robust local online news operations aren't going to spring up fully formed. But the examples I've listed are indeed going concerns. Online sites have been included in the Pulitzer Prize competition for the first time this year. It takes time. But newspapers should already be there; they have squandered their tremendous advantage, and I don't think anyone in the industry seriously argues otherwise. And why does a concern have to be self-sustaining through advertising? There are other models. Maybe MinnPost and other new sites are the newspapers of the future. Would that be so wrong?
Besides that, limiting access to your product is madness. Thanks to the Internet, the Tribune now has more readers than it's ever had in its history. And the ability to know something about those readers to tell advertisers, to tailor editorial content, to create community, to interact, and to sell services and products to is virtually unlimited.
Finally, as I've said and written before, if you want to try to put your crappy feature stories behind a firewall, go right ahead. I recommend not writing them instead and focusing on unique content, which means local reporting first and foremost, though not merely conducted in the same crappy traditional way. And this reporting should never have a price tag put on it - not in a democracy. There are many other revenue streams to tap; just look around.
"I would say that you can't just put up your existing print content and park ads around them and expect that to be the model. The new business model is a new CONTENT model . . . the nature of content can and should change on the web in all sorts of ways, and that creates new ad models too . . . I don't know why everyone is so quick to declare online advertising dead except as wish fulfillment; to the contrary, it's just in its infancy! We don't even know what metrics to use yet, advertisers are still unknowledgeable about the web, sales forces largely aren't selling it, and the new media products still haven't been developed . . . the Web model is every bit a new content model as anything; the advertising model will follow, but the only thing different about the business model itself will be a wider array of revenue streams available."
To expand and reiterate, you can't just put your old content on the Web and think you can slap ads around it and that's that. Your old content, by and large, sucks. And it's not reported, written or edited for the Web. You might as well slap radio transcripts on the Web and think you're now doing Internet journalism; you're not.
If you've ever worked in journalism, you've probably heard the expression, "Truth is the ultimate defense against libel."
Well, maybe not, according to a new court decision that could leave countless bloggers and other citizen journalists exposed to libel suits for true statements.
I know I'm stating the obvious, but if I brought anything away from last night's journalist mash-up, No News Is Bad News, it's that West Seattle Blog is HOT, HOT SHIT right now.
The premise of the event was ... well, I don't remember. But, what it became was a chance for 150ish journalists and a few of their subjects to come together in one room, talk about the state of the industry, pontificate on how we got where we are and who's to blame, and toss around ideas for how to save QUALITY JOURNALISM (not necessarily ink and paper). West Seattle Blog, perhaps more than any other voice in the room, is demonstrating an idea, a business model, and a way to preserve local journalism. They have skin in the game. They're making it work. They're not just talking about it, they're doing it. And doing it well. But they're not saying they've found the digital news solution, either. They've found something that works in West Seattle, not necessarily the rest of the country or even the city.
By splitting journalism and business into two buckets separated by a longstanding cultural divide, the two groups fail to collaborate on ideas that tap the strengths of both. And neither have a track record of understanding how technology enables community, the greatest opportunity of all. In fact, nearly three-quarters of local online news consumers say newspapers have failed in providing a sense of community and "connective tissue" in their local cities and neighborhoods (Forrester Research 2009). After all, most journalists want to control the conversation. So do the sales folks. So you need a third element: creative technology folks, empowered with resources, who can infuse community in content and revenue generation, providing value to both users and businesses.
Whatever model the newspapers of the future adopt, the current crisis is likely to put at least some titles out of business, with only the strongest surviving.
Less competition could mean more business for the survivors and the industry is likely to consolidate, with cities and regions being served by fewer newspapers; we could perhaps see a truly national newspaper market develop in the US.
But with US newspapers competing with one another, as well as with international news providers (including the BBC), there would still be plenty of choice for news consumers.
"With even half a dozen papers, the American newspaper industry will be more competitive than it was when there were hundreds," writes Michael Kinsley. "Competition will keep the Baghdad bureaus open and the investigative units stoked with dudgeon."
The "crisis" in the newspaper industry may, therefore, be more of a crisis for the journalists and publishers who are currently facing job losses and bankruptcy.
But if it is merely the quantity, but not the quality, of journalism that declines then - for readers - there may not be a crisis at all.
A few folks have sent in Paul Starr's long but thoughtful article in The New Republic, which worries that, thanks to newspapers dying, we'll be entering a new age of corruption, since no one will be watching government officials like investigative reporters have in the past. The article is well worth reading, and brings up a number of interesting points -- but, in the end, fails to make a compelling case for a number of reasons -- most specifically that it relies on both a faulty model of news production and a faulty understanding of economics. This isn't to knock Starr or the article, because the mistakes are subtle, but important.
The first mistake is in looking at news production itself -- and specifically investigative reporting. Starr seems to significantly overestimate how much investigative reporting newspapers do. In fact, investigative reporting is a fairly new phenomenon and has never been a major focus of newspapers. Those bemoaning the supposed "loss" of this function don't seem to recognize how little money has been put towards such investigative reporting in the past. As that second link suggests, most newspapers spend more on their comics pages than on investigations.
Indeed, the tradition of great journalism that many pundits seem to romanticize is a relatively recent development. Before Woodward and Bernstein, for instance, there wasn't a lot of investigative journalism at most papers; it really exploded in the '80s. The financial success that Chris cites also allowed the professionalism of a lot of newsrooms that were pretty crummy a generation ago. We need to find new ways to preserve quality journalism-but it's anything but a divine right, and btw, there's no reason why newspapers should think they have a monopoly on it.
Goose a few newspaper journalists these days and they're likely to exclaim something about why Americans should care about saving their industry. And it's likely to sound something like this: "Without us protecting the public as investigative watchdogs, government corruption is going to run amok!"
Which might be a compelling point, were it not for five little things:
So let's try this another way, shall we? Sure, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with newspapers conducting investigative journalism -- in fact, I hope they choose to do more of it. But let's consider for a moment the possibility that newspapers have done at least as much to encourage bad behavior by government and business as they've done to curb it.
Ever wonder who does most of the public-policy grunt work in America? For the good guys, it's typically underpaid crusaders at civic-minded non-profit groups, people who care about clean water and safe food and healthy children other such left-wing nonsense. Newspapers count on these scruffy muckrackers, even though they typically distance themselves from their "radical" agendas.
Much of what passes for watchdog investigative reporting is based on studies conducted by these pesky non-profits, or by anonymous government underlings in some state auditor's office, or the federal GAO, and so on. They produce the proof, editors build stories around their findings, and each year on press awards night, some reporters get plaques that credit them with the whole enterprise.
Is there newspaper reporting, investigative or otherwise, that takes on a public-policy issue and challenges ruling orthodoxy without a boost from an interest group? Probably. But newspapers generally refuse to poke the status-quo without being able to cite some interest group for raising the issue. Wanna know why? Because the status quo is where the money and power are. Do the math.
In journalists' romantic private world, they are working-class heroes confronting the powerful on behalf of the powerless, and that happy myth is hard to give up. In truth, they are effectively limited by the compromises inherent in their business and our society. Newspapers simply will not long engage in unpopular whistleblowing, or in watchdogging that hurts their circulation. Medicare watchdogging isn't sexy, and the people who benefit from it aren't valuable to advertisers, yet newspaper advocates promote a system that leaves the watchdogging function to a secretive guess about which stories will be the most valuable to the paper, not society. Is this supposedly important role really something that's best left to such furtive whims?
Today's mediascape is a remnant of a collapsing 20th century system in which most of the journalistic infrastructure belonged to newspapers. Their current argument for their social value oozes irony because it reverses the way newspapers have valued themselves for a generation -- not for their civic-mindedness, but for their bottom line. And if that bottom line is less than 20 percent profit, you can bet they're laying off reporters, not offering stockholders smaller dividend payments.
Somebody should investigate that.
I'm just one of many people coming up with business ideas for saving newspapers. There are a lot of posts being published on this subject.
Someone should collect all the advice because it's turning into some kind of open source business model. And the beauty of this approach is that only a few newspapers need to have the courage to try new ideas--if any one of them succeeds then the rest can piggyback. They win and we win.
Here are my 25 ideas on how newspapers might be able to survive and become innovative media businesses:
But there aren't two sides to this, just because Will and company want there to be, or because the American population doesn't know what to think. 40% of Americans don't believe in evolution, but the NY Times doesn't portray that as a scientific debate. Likewise, 25% of Americans think the Sun circles the Earth, but that doesn't warrant 4 inches in the newshole.
Revkin -- and the NY Times -- had another chance to say that public opinion on climate change, perhaps the most critical issue we face, is simply and clearly wrong. Climate change is not a topic debated by serious scientists anymore: it is taken as a given that the climate is changing, faster than we expected, and it is speeding up. This is due to human impact, principally in the form of CO2 emissions. No debate left.
The media have an obligation to get to the real scientific bottom of these stories, not just offer up the arguments of two hypothetical sides, and leave it to the reader to figure out whether Will is right or Gore was wrong.
The program in which I got my PhD at NYU (1986) was the kind of program McLuhan said he wanted to establish. In it, we studied the history of communication systems from speech-the first medium-through writing, printing, telegraph, telephone, radio, TV, looking not at the devices themselves but at, say... the problems of cultural memory in an oral culture, or "craft literacy" where a group controls access to the writing system and thus to priestly authority. The democratizing influence of print in the Protestant reformation. The disruptive influence of photography on realism in painting. The information science of code breaking- where I first met my friends, signal and noise. It was a great subject to study and very good preparation for the Web.
McLuhan and Postman were both creatures of print civilization, masters of literacy, who were able to break the page. They were ready to "unlearn dead concepts," a phrase from Postman's books. I was also influenced by the semiotics of Roland Barthes, a French critic who was big when I was in grad school. McLuhan and Barthes were doing something very similar in the 1950s: short essays about advertisements and myth. (Appreciate the simple definition for myth that Barthes had: "many signifiers, one signified.") I made my first acquaintance with the curmudgeons of the world in studying the reactions McLuhan got from "big literature" around 1964-67.
There's been a wrinkle in the global warming fact-checking saga I've been following this week.
Just to recap-George Will wrote a column claiming that global warming's a lot of hype. He made a number of misleading statements, including one that was rejected by the very scientists he claimed as his source.
This started as a problem for Will, his direct supervisors, and the Post's ombudsman. But now that the Post as a paper is standing behind Will's deceptions, I think it's a problem for all the other people who work at the Post. Some of those people do bad work, which is too bad. And some of those people do good work. And unfortunately, that's worse. It means that when good work appears in the Post it bolsters the reputation of the Post as an institution. And the Post, as an institution, has taken a stand that says it's okay to claim that up is down. It's okay to claim that day is night. It's okay to claim that hot is cold. It's okay to claim that a consensus existed when it didn't. It's okay to claim that George Will is a better source of authority on interpreting the ACRC's scientific research than is the ACRC. Everyone who works at the Post, has, I think, a serious problem.
/Wow, I think I bruised my scroll finger, getting all the way down here to the peanut gallery/
Over at The Culture Dish, Rebecca has the same story -- except the name of the subject is different. Substitute "Jane Goody" for "Mainstream Media" and it's a pretty good match. Shorter version: the symptoms were identified long ago, but the patient refused to come in for therapy. Now it's kinda too late.