Friday, March 06, 2009

Perhaps a badge of honor, but maybe not the best business model

I found this at a site that has a lot of smart things to say about journalism.

But there are probably just as many--or more--people rooting heartily for papers and journalism to fail, for political reasons.

Twenty-five years ago, a smart professor and editor of mine named Charles "Puff" Puffenbarger told me something about news audiences that I'll always remember: "They hate us out there." It appears that's true more now than ever
The mind boggles. How can a for-profit business be so flippant about alienating their customers.

David Gerlenter relates a more telling and more recent anecdote in Drawing Life:

"Today's elite loathes the public. Nothing personal, just a fundamental difference in world view, but the hatred is unmistakable. Occasionally it escapes in scorching geysers. Michael Lewis reports in the New Republic on the '96 Dole presidential campaign: 'The crowd flips the finger at the busloads of journalists and chant rude things at them as they enter each arena. The journalists, for their part, wear buttons that say 'yeah, i'm the Media. Screw You.' The crowd hates the reporters, the reporters hate the crowd-- an even matchup, except that the reporters wield power and the crowed (in effect) wields none."

The media arrogance might remain, but the audience’s powerlessness is a thing of the past. Some talk back; even more stop buying the product.*

For decades journalists delighted in bringing bad news to the doorstep of their readers. Now the bad news is in the newsroom and the game is not fun anymore. Now it sucks to be a Decider.

The economic problem for newspapers is easy to see but hard to correct. They have a mass-market cost-structure but are headed toward a niche-product revenue stream. The business side responds as bean counters usually doget costs in line with the new realities.

The newsroom is not on board with this. (Understandably, since they are a big part of the cost being cut.) But they have few good ideas about growing their audience.

How could they? Their guild ethos sees angering (some) customers as a badge of honor. They have spent decades ignoring criticism. It is too much to ask that they suddenly start listening.

* In the “good” old days, the only way to talk back was to write a letter to the editor. Angering customers meant free content and reinforced the idea that the newspaper was the only game in town for public discussion and debate. The internet changed that. Now the criticism appears outside the confines of the newspaper. That, in turn, reduces the centrality of the local paper and makes it one of many competing venues. Bad news when your business model depends on being a monopoly.

Collectively, the internet also helps counter-act what Michael Crichton called the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. Readers no longer fact check the newspaper based on their personal knowledge. Now they benefit from the combined knowledge of dozens of critics. (Ahh, the awesome power of the hyperlink.) this can be devastating to a newspaper’s credibility which is its primary selling point.

Counterpoint: I think conservatives underestimate the New York Times and are going to be disappointed at the end of the Dinosaur Media Death Watch. The newspaper industry may crater, but the Times has taken that into account. (See this Nicholas Carr article) If the Times is right, then they will be even more dominant in “explanation space.” (See also here.)


The newspaper today and tomorrow

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