Stop blaming the internet for killing newspapers. Start blaming editors.
You could argue that 1996 was the year daily newspapers truly entered the Digital Age. Some were already online, but suddenly many of the world’s most influential publications launched websites for the first time, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and Miami Herald.
How did journalists mark the 20th anniversary? They argued about whether papers should have websites, of course.
A recent study by researchers at UT Austin’s School of Journalism showed how poorly newspapers have done building web presences, which spurred Politico’s Jack Shafer to ask whether the newspaper industry made a colossal mistake going digital in the first place.
Heads exploded. Writers were quick to argue that newspapers failed online because they simply never made a serious effort, openly resisted new ideas and still lack a basic process for building a successful product. Reasonable thinkers explained that, yes, newspapers should use the internet.
This is just the latest flare-up of a near-constant debate in newspaper circles. However, the most frustrating thing about this whole conversation isn’t the sheer fact that we’re still having it. It’s that it’s missing something obvious. Even though it seems like this dead horse has been beaten into oblivion, no one even brings up the other part of newspapers that is sorely in need of innovation, but which journalists have resisted changing: the content itself.
See, the internet didn’t just disrupt the print advertising business model. It also permitted unprecedented levels of competition, rendering much of newspapers’ content far less unique and valuable than it once was. That not only changed how people get their news, but also created many better alternatives to what newspapers have traditionally provided.
Photo of New York Times staffers the night they launched their website in 1996, which many journalists probably view less as a milestone and more like the activation of Skynet. Source: NYTimes.com
The media likes to gloss over this point, and almost exclusively attributes the decline of print journalism to advertising technology. Consider a recent Wall Street Journal article about potential cuts at major papers, which entirely frames the issue as a problem with the economics of digital ads. There is only one passing mention that publishers might “even reconsider the format of their print products and the types of content they publish.”
You can almost still hear the reporters’ gasp as they wrote that line. The work product of journalists is the most sacred of all sacred cows. The content that newspapers produce is presumed to be beyond reproach. There’s a certain orthodoxy to it all, which makes comparisons of journalists to priests appropriate. That’s why reformatting a print product or reconsidering the types of content reporters produce is enough to incite a riot in the newsroom.
This attitude is hurting newspapers, not helping them. Many of the practices print journalists cling to are arbitrary, inefficient relics of a completely different competitive environment, which squander newspapers’ dwindling resources. The very process for generating news is often haphazard, based more on hunches and habits than a true strategic approach to serve communities.
Rethinking the content newspapers produce is a fundamental evolutionary step toward saving the quality journalism newsrooms are capable of, but journalists hardly even acknowledge it as a possibility.
There may be a pretty straightforward reason for that conspicuous omission. It helps avoid the cognitive dissonance that comes with a very inconvenient truth: editors and reporters partly bear the blame for newspaper-style journalism’s decline.
BURYING THE LEADERSHIP
Editors, as the leaders of newsrooms, have largely gotten off the hook in the modern tragedy of newspapers. That’s mostly understandable, because they couldn’t have done a worse job than the folks who actually had “make money” in their job description.
Here’s how journalist and entrepreneur Steve Brill described his dealings with newspaper business executives as he tried to convince them to put up paywalls on their websites:
“This is not a group of business people who are real business people. They either inherited monopolies or were, by then, part of big chains in the hands of debt holders. The industry wasn’t full of high quality, big thinkers, in terms of the people running it, since for many years it didn’t have to be. For years, if you had a paper, for many advertisers, you were the only game in town. If the Oldsmobile dealer wanted to announce a sale, you got the ad. Now there isn’t even an Oldsmobile dealer, and the car dealers who are left have multiple ways to market their cars and infinitely more efficient ways to market used cars. The underpinning of the business was eviscerated and in many places the people who inherited the businesses weren’t prepared, since they never had to really compete.”
To be fair, all kinds of companies were caught flat-footed by digital disruption. No matter the industry or issue, any complacent business filled with people just going through the motions will struggle when it has to suddenly do something new.
What’s unique about journalism is that the actual producers of the product are discouraged from collaborating with the marketing and operations side. Marketers even suggesting an idea to editors would be scandalous in some newsrooms, while it would undermine editors’ credibility to be seen cavorting with marketers.
This church/state separation is considered unimpeachable, but the unintended consequence is that journalists became oblivious about their own business. Here’s how writer and lecturer Clay Shirky described this phenomenon:
“Journalists have been infantilized throughout the last decade, kept in a state of relative ignorance about the firms that employ them. … This cluelessness is not by accident; the people who understand the state of the business often hide that knowledge from the workers. … This disconnection between the business side and the news side was celebrated as a benefit, right up to the moment it became an industry-wide point of failure.”
The admirable principle of dividing marketing and editorial never meant that editorial wasn’t still supposed to deliver a marketable product. It merely meant that they could develop that product without any outside influence.
Nevertheless, just like the business executives on the other side of the building, newsroom leadership had no experience working in a truly competitive marketplace. They weren’t prepared to think in terms of developing a product people would prefer over many viable alternatives. Their mental muscles for developing a business strategy were completely atrophied, and it was unfathomable that newsrooms like theirs could do anything else other than what they’ve always done.
All that ignorance of business became not-so-blissful. Instead of leading the evolution toward a more competitive news product, editors sat back and simply expected marketing to figure it out for them.
STET THE WAY WE’VE ALWAYS DONE IT
In lieu of realizing that competition necessitated a significant change in editorial direction, editors assemble newspapers today the same way they did a half-century ago.
At the most fundamental level, newspapers are a bundle of information, and that concept makes less and less sense every day. We hate bundles when we’re talking about cable companies charging us for a lot of channels we can’t watch, but it’s always been the case that some people only read the sports section, some only look at the obituaries, and some just do the crossword puzzle.
Well, the Internet is the ultimate unbundler. Here’s how Philip Evans and Thomas Wurster of Boston Consulting Group explained this shift in Harvard Business Review:
Newspaper companies exist as intermediaries between the journalist and the reader because there are enormous economies of scale in printing and distribution. … Freed from the necessity of subscribing to entire physical newspapers, readers will be able to mix and match content from a virtually unlimited number of sources. … It does not follow that all readers will choose to unbundle all the current content of the physical newspaper, but the principal logic for that bundle—the economics of printing—will be gone.
That’s from the September 1997 issue, by the way. Don’t believe for a second that newspaper leadership couldn’t have seen this coming.
Nevertheless, editors still build a general interest bundle of information. That fortunately means that newspapers still produce more news than any other sources, but it also results in a lot of other content that is not differentiated from competitors. Restaurant reviews, movie criticism, sports beat reporting, personal finance advice and travel writing are all competing for attention in a market with Yelp, Rotten Tomatoes, SB Nation, Nerdwallet and myriad travel blogs. And, frankly, a lot of those new sources are significant improvements on what papers provide.
Ironically, many of these sections other than news were created just so that papers could place ads around them, as Richard Gingras, founder of Salon.com and current head of news at Google, explained in a presentation on the evolution of media. We forget this today, so that we think it’s a loss to the community when we lose the gardening or automotive sections of our papers, even though they really were just marketing ploys in the first place. If editors took resources out of these vestigial verticals, couldn’t they focus more efforts on actually differentiated information, like what local municipal governments are doing?
Aside from this flawed approach of trying to be everything to everyone, there are numerous newspaper conventions that make their products less appealing than they could be. Much of these practices are followed not for any particular strategic reason, but just because that’s how things have always been done. Here are a few that progressive editors would at least reconsider:
- Conventional news writing. Several stylistic quirks make articles unnecessarily long.
- Weather, traffic and event stories. Apps and social media have made these worthless, but they’re still knee-jerk assignments.
- Repeating old news in new stories on an ongoing event. The originators of the Internet proposed a single, dynamic webpage that reporters could update continuously, offering full context and less effort. As NYT’s R&D department put it, the way we publish news is “still closely tied to the rhythms of print.”
- Publishing a print edition every day. Our democracy didn’t fall apart when TV outcompeted evening papers out of existence, and it will still be here if papers publish less frequently than 365 times a year. That is a business decision, not a moral one.
- Having no personality. When was the last time you heard a joke in a newspaper somewhere other than the comics? Would you describe anything you find in the news section as fun? This isn’t because reporters aren’t funny or creative. Editors often edit out any kind of writer voice, just because it doesn’t feel like something a newspaper would do. It’s as if the intent is to engineer something boring.
Suffice it to say that there is substantial room for innovation in newspaper content itself, but most old-school editors have very little appetite for experimentation. The result is a stale approach to storytelling that struggles to survive in a market of much more creative digital media.
These issues get far less attention than they deserve when we talk as if the medium is the message. Do we not believe that what’s printed in the newspaper or published online affects how well the product performs? Conversely, would anyone say that you could print anything at all and it wouldn’t affect the newspaper business too much? Even if we can’t be sure how much the quality and value of the content translates to revenue, no one would say it has no significant effect at all.
And yet, many really smart people speak as if this isn’t the case. Consider this analogy by H. Iris Chyi, one of the UT researchers mentioned at the top, as described by Politico’s Shafer:
“‘Newspaper had been running the equivalent of a very nice high-end steakhouse,’ she says. Then McDonald’s moved to town and started selling untold numbers of cheap hamburgers. Newspaper thought, ‘Let’s compete with that,’ and dropped the steak for hamburger, even though it had no real expertise in producing hamburgers. ‘What they should have done is improve the steak product.'”
As Chyi confirmed in a follow-up tweet, she is referring to print newspapers as steak, and hamburgers as websites. That presumes that papers and sites are the product, and not just the delivery mechanism for the news product. It makes it seem like content is irrelevant, or at least less important than the communication channel.
Even if you correct for that, it’s a flawed metaphor, because it makes it seem like newspapers were eager to change, which was anything but the case.
More accurately, newspapers were a really nice buffet. You paid one price and got everything. Then the Internet opened up and started giving away everything a la carte. Newspapers reacted by saying, “Eh, let’s stick to what we know,” and they just kept serving up the same old thing, some of it great, some of it utterly forgettable.
Let’s be real about why people even care about losing newspapers. It’s not because we’ll lose precious diet tips for the holidays. It’s because we don’t want to lose the crucial watchdog journalism that uncovers corruption and creates an informed democracy. We’re being disingenuous if we cherry-pick the Pulitzer Prize winners to demonstrate how outstanding newspapers are, and then ignore the fact that there are far more stories about holiday parades and who’s looking good in NFL training camp.
Having a strategy means figuring out what you’ll stop doing as much as what you’ll start doing. Sadly, editors recalcitrance toward change — the mindset of surviving rather than improving — might be hurting the journalism they mean to protect. If newsroom leaders were honest, they’d recognize that some aspects of newspapers need to be preserved and enhanced, while others are sacred cows that are overdue for slaughter.
There are some people who are finally calling out editorial departments for not doing their part in finding solutions to save the Fourth Estate.
Jim Brady, ESPN’s public editor and CEO of Spirited Media, recently wrote a thorough piece for Columbia Journalism Review on how editors are killing local news by being too narrow-minded in what they cover. He also called out the cultures of legacy newsrooms for refusing to change the way they think about news.
“The problem is the news industry has gone for years without needing to examine who its audience is or what they want,” wrote Damon Kiesow, head of product at McClatchy. “And our organizations have calcified to the point that it is difficult for us to even ask, much less answer the question.”
Steve Buttry, director of student media at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication, is more direct in his criticism.
“The few times I heard truly creative ideas for reporting news and generating revenue in the digital marketplace, they met with huge skepticism and open resistance,” he wrote in response to Shafer’s piece. “The newspaper industry settled for repurposing and extending editorial content in a marketplace that demanded and rewarded visionary new products.”
It’s really not hard to wrap our heads around why newspapers have now taken decades to understand this new competitive landscape. The same thing has happened to all kinds of industries that are filled with people who are either clueless or stubborn. It’s just that with the loss of newspaper newsrooms we risk losing a product that serves a critical public good. It simply shouldn’t be the case that while communication has become easier than ever, entire deserts of news are forming across the country. As John Oliver put it, “The media is a food chain that would fall apart without local newspapers.”
Oliver unfortunately falls short in proposing a solution. Getting people to start paying for journalism that’s available for free is simply not going to happen. The music industry has thrown people in federal prison and tens of millions of people still download pirated music.
Instead, news organizations need creative people willing to experiment with diverse revenue streams and new business models, as well as editors who are willing to innovate when it comes to the content newsrooms produce. They need a culture that allows creatives to craft content that people will be dying to pay for, not mindless, commoditized, humorless text that follows a format designed last century.
That’s a crucial point. For change to actually stick, it needs to start with the editorial department. The fact that so much change in news organizations has been first presented by the business department may contribute to journalists’ reluctance to go along with that change. In reporters’ eyes, it’s not clear that business executives know what they’re doing, and that they have journalism’s best interests in mind. As clueless and unimaginative as many editors are, editorial employees can still trust that they actually give a shit about quality journalism.
To even start moving in that direction, editors and reporters need to stop blaming all newspapers’ problems on the Internet, and start taking a harder look at the news itself.
For further reading and perspective, here’s a list of the sources hyperlinked above:
- The UT Austin report that sparked the debate that inspired this article. Their ultimate recommendation is actually very reasonable: “It is important that newspaper firms constantly monitor reader composition and use that intelligence to guide (or correct) their product strategy so as to better serve readers on preferred platforms.”
- Jack Shafer’s hot take. Jack’s thought about newspapers launching separate online brands is worth exploring further. For example, STAT, launched by the Boston Globe, is really impressive as a strictly life sciences-focused sister publication.
- Dave Winer’s reaction take. The analogy of journalism to a priesthood is hilariously on-point.
- Steve Buttry’s reaction take. Probably the best perspective overall of this recent flap about whether papers should have websites.
- Damon Kiesow’s reaction take. For a real business perspective on what newspapers are doing wrong, read this.
- Poynter’s wrap-up. The headline here perfectly sums up many journalists’ sentiment.
- The Wall Street Journal story about newsroom cuts. Don’t mean to pick on this particular story. A similar story by The New York Times around the same time doesn’t even mention content at all.
- Steve Brill’s brutally honest interview with Poynter.
- Clay Shirky’s thoughts on reporters being infantilized.
- HBR piece by Evans and Wurster. It’s jaw-dropping how exactly they predicted what would happen to newspapers.
- Pew’s case study on what sources originate news in a city.
- The evolution of media presentation by Richard Gingras. The quality of this recording is crappy but the quality of his summary is superb.
- The Atlantic’s look at how newspaper writing is terrible.
- NYT R&D’s research into publishing in more dynamic ways than daily dispatches.
- Another Reassociated Press post about how the originators of the Internet imagined news.
- Jim Brady’s CJR piece.
- Damon Kiesow’s other brilliant piece on newspapers failing to adapt the way they think about their audience.
- UNC School of Media and Journalism study on “news deserts.”
AUTHOR’S NOTE: The image at the top was taken by the author. It’s of The Press of Atlantic City newsroom a few days before the editorial department moved into a different building. It’s literally a photo of a newsroom being dismantled. Here’s the original tweet: