No. 267
May 7th, 2009

The *Apparent* Death of Journalism

Mark Twain, from–where else?–Wikipedia

“The report of my death is an exaggeration” remarked Twain in 1897, to a journalist who had been sent to investigate whether he had died.  (It was actually his cousin who had taken ill and eventually succumbed.)

This strikes me as a particularly appropriate quote given the fact that it not only involves a traditional journalist, but speaks to the near-hysteria surrounding the newspaper industry, and to some extent, journalism, these days.

I intentionally separate the two entities, because although journalism has been intrinsically tied to newspapers for the last 200 years (in addition to television for the last 60), it’s simply not true that newspapers are essential for the craft of journalism to survive.  At least that’s what I’m going to try to argue in this post.

N.B. You’re probably not going to have time to read this post all in one sitting, so feel free to read it in chunks (which I’ve tried to create with headlines scattered throughout the post).  It’ll still be here if you decide to come back later!

What happens if the newspaper industry dies?

Greg Sterling has written quite a bit about this topic in the last couple of months, and I’ve left quite a few rather pithy comments on his blog to the effect of my thesis above.  His most recent offering (the first link) even describes Google’s recent testimony at a Congressional hearing titled “The Future of Journalism.” If one considers the actual content of the panel, it’s clear that the real concern is over “The Future of the Newspaper Industry.” This misnomer is akin to calling the recent hearings on GM and Chrysler “The Future of Motor Vehicle Innovation,” when in reality they were much more narrow in focus: “The Future of the Domestic Auto Manufacturing Industry.”

While Greg’s posts first got me started on the topic, it was Miriam Ellis’s recent post Bloggers and Pro Journalists – Created Equal? which actually caused me to re-examine what I’d thought all along, and to try to knock down the arguments I’d been repeating to myself for the last several months.  In the end, I couldn’t knock them down, but it was an incredibly useful exercise and it’s led to this quasi-manifesto.

Miriam points to scholarship, unbiased reporting, and temporal consistency as the three major advantages that “professional journalists” bring to the table.  She fears that smaller communities in particular could be left without a reliable source of information if their hometown papers can’t sustain themselves financially.

Miriam Ellis fears that smaller towns could be left without a reliable information source.

Other friends in both the online and physical worlds have commented to me that society’s wellbeing would be diminished if national news organizations like the New York Times go under and can’t fund major undertakings in investigative journalism, like Watergate, for example.

These seem to me to be the two central crisis points for the panic, or at least quasi-hysteria, I’ve sensed recently. There’s obviously some overlap but for the sake of clarity, I’ll try to tackle them independently.

Contingency #1: The Death of the Small-Town Paper

At some point, small-town papers will indeed have to stop the presses and cut way back on their workforces.*

*This is a shame for those workers and their families.  But like workers in other domestic industries (milk deliverypeople, photography store owners, low-end manufacturers) that have become obsolete, they’re just going to have to invest in a new skillset or find a job in a tangential industry that they are qualified for.

Without that singular source of information, though, more and more people in each town are going to get online and start searching around for local news, rather than defaulting to their local papers–we’re already seeing this transition.

The hyperlocal blogs are going to be the ones that rank well, and they’re going to get more and more eyeballs.  Except instead of the ad dollars flowing up to the CEO’s of big media companies like Knight-Ridder or Lee Enterprises or Gannett, they’re going to flow across to the actual authors of the content.  The more need for news that people see, the more of them are going to get involved in publishing that news themselves.  The more people involved in publishing, the higher the chances for learning from quality examples, a diversity of viewpoints, and consistency of content.

And without a singular place to advertise, local businesses are either going to hunt down local bloggers directly or participate in localized ad networks (or even Google or Yahoo), which is going to drive even more money directly into the authors’ pockets.  That is going to incentivize them to spend more time on their writing, and to do it on a regular basis.

As far as content, even now, I would argue that in most small towns, hyperlocal bloggers are actually going to do a better job of covering local interest stories than their traditional newspapers do.

Hyperlocal bloggers are actually going to do a better job of covering local interest stories than their traditional newspapers do.

I come to this point of view having grown up in a small town in Illinois with about 90,000 residents, with one main paper, where i spent most mornings of my childhood skimming local headlines and checking national sports scores.

There was never much depth to local interest stories, and unless someone I knew was being featured in one, I rarely found them interesting.  Here’s a pretty typical example.

There were a few events of national interest that took place in my hometown (a price-fixing scandal at ADM and tire defect scandal at Bridgestone), but both events were covered much better by national press than by the local paper.

Matt McGee is obviously a savvier local blogger than most, but cumulatively, the towns that his local blogs focus on (Tri-Cities, WA), are almost a mirror image of my hometown of Decatur. He writes about the kinds of things that his local paper, and my local paper, never get around to covering.  Other smalltowners are going to get just as savvy very quickly if there is no local paper at all.

For citizen journalists, there’s also something invigorating about making a name for themselves with the quality of their writing, and rarely is the quality of their stories given enough credit.  Many of you know that for five months a year, I run  a college basketball website, for which I’ve got approximately 6-8 steady freelance writers writing for free (for a variety of reasons, I make very little money on the advertising on that site).

Despite the fact they’re not paid, they put in tons of effort, and many posts meet or exceed their level of quality that you’d find on a major portal like ESPN or CNNSI.  One post in particular, written by Matthew Stevens about Patrick Mills’ injury, was probably the most complete, thoroughly-researched, and insightful story on this very hot topic written anywhere this season.

My point is that even though local bloggers might not be as well-schooled (though some are or were journalism majors), they’re hungry and dedicated–and their passion for a particular subject leads to quality and depth you don’t always get with larger players.

Whether that’s the environment, local politics, the goings-on at the local school district, area business initiatives…I simply do not believe there will be a dearth of quality local content in any small town in America.  Hyperlocal bloggers are completely free to choose topics that they want to write about, and the greater financial incentive and personal recognition that can come about without a competing local paper, can only fuel their enthusiasm.

Contingency #2: The Death of the National “Paper of Record”

I don’t have a lot of sympathy for newspaper companies that have not yet found a way to make money in the online era.  Their creative thinking simply has not kept pace with the innovation happening online, and few have been willing to experiment with radical new ideas (like shuttering their ridiculously expensive presses and moving to a pure online model).

I recently enjoyed a Colbert Report interview with Phil Bronstein, editor of the San Francisco Chronicle.  In Colbert’s typical style, the interview was mostly light-hearted banter about quite a serious topic.

One statement was particularly illustrative of Bronstein’s view of the relationship between information and online media: that newspapers’ biggest mistake was to decide back in the early 1990’s that they were not going to charge for content online.

Phil Bronstein: newspapers’ biggest mistake was to decide back in the early 1990’s that they were going to give content away for free.

Bronstein thinks that if they had it to do over again, reversing that decision would solve many of the problems newspapers are experiencing today.

This statement is utterly obtuse and reflects a complete ignorance of the Internet era. “Free” lies at the very core of its ethos.  

Bronstein’s lack of recognition shows how far behind the creativity curve this is as a whole–rather than trying to come up with new ideas, it looks backward on a failed strategy that would continue to fail today.

Take the recent US Airways plane crash into the Hudson as one example.  This story spread like wildfire via Twitter. Every major news organization had its own version.  Some guy’s Twitpic was the primary image used and linked to across the Internet. That kind of information is a commodity. There is always going to be someone who is going to give that away for free and newspapers are never going to be able to stop it.

The rigidity and lack of imagination (and the whining!) going on in the newspaper industry right now reminds me of GM’s boneheaded, deliberate avoidance of fuel-efficiency.  Rather than putting in a little extra elbow grease and trying to come up with a product that would satisfy a 21st century consumer, they kept doing what they’d always done and now they’re paying for it (or at least should be!).  The same thing is happening to newspapers.

I realize that this kind of business strategy is the domain of management, and not the fault of journalists in the newsrooms, who a’re also vulnerable in the current media climate.  

BUT, there are up-and-comers who are hungry to do exactly their jobs, and some responsibility does lie on the individual writers to take some initiative and bring themselves up to speed on HyperLocal and Social Media trends.  It’s their livelihood, after all.  More on this later.

Outcome #1: The Birth of a New Model, and New Economy, for Media

What would happen if media moguls like Bronstein actually DID actually try to look forward, rather than behind?  I’ll take a look at the two major offerings of the traditional newspaper: daily news and investigative journalism.

Daily News

In a recent well-publicized post, Jason Pontin writes that “The comparative advantage of mainstream media is not the ownership of presses, but the collaboration of professionals.”

I disagree with this assessment on both levels.

While it is truly no longer an advantage to own a printing press, cost as a barrier to entry has absolutely been the reason that newspapers have stayed dominant for as long as they have.

Anymore, I’d argue that the comparative advantage of mainstream media is actually that it serves as a virtual meeting point where people can acquire information that matters to the rest of their society.  As I stated earlier, though, via the US Airways example, the information that we all need to feel connected with the rest of the country or the rest of the world is truly a commodity.  And “most of society” might not be as important going forward as one’s own particular field or demographic of interest.

The local paper still holds cachet for the same basic reason: everything is in one place, and it is presented consistently.  And while local news isn’t quite the commoditized product that national or international news is, as I say, I’m incredibly optimistic that hyperlocal content writers will quickly rise to fill any void.

And newspapers just can’t keep up anymore.  True “news” items are already out-of-date by the time they’re printed, a thought echoed by multiple bloggers and tweeters recently.

Now to respond to what Pontin feels is the comparative with my own view: the professionals who currently write for major newspapers actually don’t need any physical infrastructure at all.

The professionals who currently write for major newspapers actually don’t need any physical infrastructure at all.

Perhaps Pontin hasn’t read Tom Friedman‘s excellent The World Is Flat: technology has enabled these professionals to work horizontally with each other, rather than as pieces in a more vertical, top-down system.  Strange to hear that point of view from a guy who runs a TECHNOLOGY publication…

The flattening of the world has also led to the fragmentation of information sources.  There’s Yahoo Upcoming for events, Craigslist for classified ads, Google Base, Zillow, Trulia for real estate, tons of great independent sports blogs like mine for sports, Politico and FiveThirtyEight for politics, TechCrunch and Mashable for technology, etc., etc., etc.  Even if they were doing better financially, newspapers would barely have enough journalists to cover traditional newsy topics, let alone all these specialized areas.

So what’s the solution?

The real value newspapers could provide is in helping readers aggregate the kind of information they want to read on a regular basis, and offer it in a manner in which they want to consume it (headline only? abstract? 20-page, four-part series?). Finding and promoting good content to people–that’s how you get eyeballs on your site, and that’s how you can make money on advertising.

“Newspapers” don’t necessarily need to be the ones creating content, or making money off of its creation. The train of commoditized information has left the station already.  Smaller, more nimble, or more specialized proprietors are probably going to create content fresher, deeper, richer, and frankly better than the average newspaper can anyway.  A newspaper’s job should be to find them and coddle them into syndicating their content via ad networks or revenue shares.  Give publishers a better deal than Google AdSense is giving them. Give readers more relevant or more attractive ads than Google is serving them.  Provide the virtual framework for these authors to enable them to collaborate on stories and expand their audiences.  

There’s decidedly less money in this model for huge conglomerates like News Corp and Hearst.  


The world of the internet means that everyone can be an editor, and one person can be just as effective at editing as an entire company with a staff of 20.  Every editor is going to have his or her own specialty.  

In the above video clip, Colbert’s joke about the farmer in Ames, Iowa who wants news targeted specially for him is truly not that far off from what these media companies have to do.

In the above video clip, Colbert’s joke about the farmer in Ames, Iowa who wants news targeted specially for him is truly not that far off from what these media companies have to do.  Help the Ames farmer find the information that is relevant for his local and social well-being.

An editor’s job should be to introduce people to content that his audience will like based on preferences they’ve expressed to the website. Analytics and trend-monitoring is going to be FAR more important than any kind of journalistic or editorial tradition.  

At THAT point, with a base of quality, independent content, a publication might be able to get away with paid, searchable archive service–something along the lines of what Search Engine Land is doing (though I have no idea how profitable that is for Danny Sullivan & Co.).

But to even think about micropayments for information freely available on any major news portal, which seems to be a popular “innovation” for newspapers these days, is just silly.

Investigative Journalism

“Without newspapers, who is going to hold public officials accountable?” is a common refrain from the Old Media Guard. It’s true that items which aren’t simply “news” but hold some kind of historical import, or require deeper investigation, do not fall into the same category as daily news.

 To which I respond, and the Club for Growth have literally millions of dedicated, deep-pocketed members to fund partisan investigations of public officials.  

It’ll be up to the population at large, and whatever national media organizations remain, to determine which of those investigations has a grain of truth and promote amongst their networks.  Kind of like we do already with MSNBC and Fox News!

And for those of us who want less biased investigation, I’d suggest the following:

Instead of paying $50/month to get the New York Times, the Times puts the money you used to spend on a subscription towards its branch of investigative journalism.  Because it now has no physical overhead like presses, warehouses, paper, or deliverypeople, it can ask for a dramatically smaller sum ($50/year?) from its average reader.

In this scenario readers are determining the quality “papers” that get to do the investigating.

Because the Times would lose its credibility entirely if its stories all carried a certain slant (let’s face it–it carries a certain liberal elite bias even today) so the hypothetical editor’s primary role would be to keep things on an even keel, rather than choose the topics that get published.

The Times can still make money charging for online archives, but the vast majority of its content gets given away for free.  The investigative stories get the abstracts but the full version is only free to people who have made a minimum contribution towards some kind of investigation in the last year.

There’s also plenty of buzz, rightly so, about non-profit groups and charities funding this kind of work directly via freelance journalists.  This creates some healthy competition for the Times as far as who gets the money from society’s concerned citizens.

Outcome #2: The Maturation of Citizen Journalism

Journalism, with a capital J, can not only survive, it can thrive, in an era without newspapers.  

Journalists simply have to adapt to their new situation. 

Journalists simply have to adapt to their new situation. The lesser ones might “die out.” But the better ones will thrive, both creatively and financially. This survival of the fittest is healthy for both journalists and society.

And it’s not like this is the auto industry, where an assembly line worker can’t easiliy transport his skills into another job. They’ll have to learn new tools, but established journalists’ writing skills and individual brand names give them a huge advantage over up-and-comers.  They’re well-known in their hometowns, and they’ve got connections with most of the leading figures in their niche or geographic area.

Of course, then you have asinine curmudgeons like Maureen Dowd, who are not only ignoring possible new audiences, but actively ridiculing the very tools they need to learn and insulting the readers who use them.   I have very little sympathy for this type of author who sees the writing on the wall and sticks her head in the sand rather than trying to figure out how to use technology for her advantage.

The internet is disruptive, there’s no doubt about it. But American industry has thrived on creative destruction for virtually its entire existence.  To whine and moan that what we’ve known for the last 100 years is going away ignores the likely outcome that what is coming into fill that void will be a higher-quality information source overall.

Why do I say the tide of Citizen Journalism will bring about higher-quality content than what we see today?

Miriam describes traditional media as “old-fashioned and even aristocratic in sensibility.”  The old model involved a handful of media moguls, in this country mostly on the East Coast, pushing not only the messages they wanted to push out to the masses, but using the messengers they wanted to push them.  

Greg Sterling talks about a “hierarchy of credibility” that traditional media sources have established over the years.  The New York Times is not the same thing as The New York Post.  In the UK, the London Times is not the same as The Sun.

But the destruction of the traditional newspaper model means that these media moguls now have to cover things that WE, society, want them to cover, and with writers and journalists that we want to read. Otherwise they’ll lose readers and lose revenue.  Credibility might be a little less clear in the online world, but it’s also incredibly meritocratic.  The best content and the best writers (even though it’s our job as SEO’s to push some of our clients’ mediocre content ahead of other people’s good content!) does tend to get the most eyeballs. The viral nature of Twitter, and programs like it, is only going to increase that.

And it’s not as if the credibility of traditional media sources is ironclad either.

Doris Kearns Goodwin is a great example.  Here is a woman that had risen to the top of her profession as a presidential historian, the darling of nearly every political news outlet.   Then came the story in 2002 that she not only plagiarized a big chunk of her national bestselling book but then tried to lie about the plagiarism!

Harvard and the NewsHour had the good sense to fire her, but more than six years later, I still see her at least once a month on NBC’s Meet the Press!  I submit that if the internet community were allowed police political pundits on major news outlets, Doris would have been forced into exile outside the Beltway long ago.

There’s also the brilliant idea of the long tail that journalists now have the opportunity to cover (and readers have the opportunity to read). There are plenty of qualified writers for every topic under the sun–including 12th century French Romanesque architecture!–that a local newspaper would never, ever have the bandwidth or resources to cover.  

And the online world does have a hierarchy.  In our industry, there’s a reason places like Search Engine Land and SEOmoz and SEObook have 25,000+ subscribers…they consistently put out high-quality, trustworthy content that all of us in the industry enjoy reading, linking to, and tweeting with regularity.  They’ve also been recommended to more casual readers by OTHER trusted blogs and information portals in tangential industries.  

There is the question of financial incentive for journalists, but in my worldview, the absence of a major news outlet in a town or a particular industry would actually lead to higher revenues for everyone else in the space.

Take my example of Bracketography and ESPN and sites like it.  Let’s say ESPN, CNNSI, and Fox News had to fold.  Where would fans go for their college basketball news?  Where would advertisers who wanted the college basketball audience turn?  To the tens and hundreds and thousands of independent blogs like mine, and to the ad networks that support them. Meaning more readers and higher CPC’s and CPM’s for the solo outfits. 

Solo journalists can reach even greater financial return in the absence, not presence, of traditional media.

Bottom line: We just don’t know what the next 10 years are going to hold in the information industry.

Dave Winer, a smarter guy than I am, and someone with much more experience offers that technology news has gotten better as it has broken off from major publications.  Yes, techies are ahead of the technology curve (no surprise) but plenty of everyday writers are catching up every day.

Jason Pontin may argue that “Shirky, Winer, and other evangelists know nothing about the business of media. ”  I’d argue that neither does he, if his publication is losing money!  The fact is that no one seems to have the right answer…yet…but it never helps anyone to try to hang onto an obviously unsustainable model.

Perhaps it has something to do with the stage of life I’m in, but I hate seeing old ideas and institutions continue just because they’re…old. They also need to provide value. Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are perfect examples of this problem.  There are plenty of smarter, hungrier people in Congress, but these two disastrous leaders have helped run our country into the ground and are a large part of the reason for Congress’ near-single-digit approval rating.

I’m all about trying new things.  Shirky’s right–the experiments in local information are incredibly interesting–, Praized, are enabling an entire legion of passionate writers, motivated purely by the interest in their stories.

 Big Media can still play a role in finding and promoting these people, and sifting through the vast amounts of garbage that absolutely exist in the blogosphere.  It can still make money (although not as much as before), and it will have to work a lot harder than it’s done so far.

Big Media doesn’t have to die out; just re-think how it can provide value to society.

It doesn’t have to die out; just re-think how it can provide value to society.  So far, there hasn’t been much of that.

And if I were a journalist, rather than boohoohing the fact I might be out of a steady job at my regular paper next month, I’d cut my losses and be excited about the future.  I’d learn as much as I could about Twitter, publish content on my own blog, collaborate with other journalists on new and innovative web-only publications, discover ad networks that could maximize my revenue. Basically I’d be experimenting like crazy and creating my own audience rather than relying on someone else’s to support me.

That’s why I think the analogy to Twain’s reported death in 1897 is so appropriate.  It’s not Journalism that’s dying.  It’s only Journalism’s cousin, Newspapers, that are dying.