Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Future of Newspapers

I finished semester grading this morning, and after a visit to my local Ralphs for provisions, I decided to take the afternoon off from blogging.

What to do? Television, of course! I clicked over to Cinemax after settlling down to check out "
The Constant Gardener," with Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz (a slow developing film, with an annoying flashback-style storyline, but still boasting an interesting African political-geographical setting).

I checked the comments here at the blog after that, then went back to the tube to watch the much-hyped Giants-Patriots trimulcast. (The Pats finished their season undefeated - beating New York 38-35 - something not seen since the 1972 Dolphins went all the way to a 17-0 season.)

So, now it's time to
keep my promise with an entry on the changing newspapers marketplace. I got the idea after noticing the comments to my Bill Kristol-to-the-New York Times post. A couple of readers suggested that the Times hired Kristol to bolster circulation by stirring controversy. I can't blame 'em. Kristol (and the neocons) did regime change once, so maybe the suggestion's not too far off the mark!

I'm also moved to write about larger changes in journalism after reading today's
front-page story over at the Wall Street Journal.

I spend a lot of time discussing newspapers and the mass media every semester, as part of my course in American government. The class discussions seeem have a different conclusion every term - there's always some interesting development in the press, whether that be
some new big editorial shake-up, the latest figures on the decline in newspaper circulation, or some novel corporate adaptation to shifting media markets.

Mostly though it's all the technological change - how rapid shifts in technology frequently put traditional notions of news distribution in the dustbin. Tech has always changed news consumption and markets - whether through the invention of the high-speed rotary press in the early-18th century, the telegraph and the rise of wire services a few decades later, radio broadcasting and television in the 20th century, and now the internet.

Personally, I've always enjoyed reading the old-fashioned, hard-copy newspaper, and still do - an amazing fact, considering how much I'm online! Frankly, I hoping access to the traditional broadsheet newspapers - enjoyed with a morning cup of coffee - doesn't go the way of the dinosaur anytime soon.

The Journal's article, written by Paul Steiger, who's leaving the paper, focuses on changing corporate organizational models. By the 1960s, the dominant form of press management and news distribution was the large urban newspaper, mounting large local news operations while relying on wire services for international updates. About this time - as news holdings became more concentrated and profitable - publishers invested heavily in expanding operations, both nationally and in far-flung bureaus around the world:

The result was a golden age of American journalism. In New York, Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles, of course, yet also in Boston, Philadelphia, Miami, Milwaukee, Atlanta, St. Louis, Des Moines, Louisville, St. Petersburg and more, daily papers were willing to send reporters far afield in pursuit of stories exposing corruption or explaining the world. Newspapers opened or expanded Washington bureaus and added reporters abroad. Some stationed them not just in London, Moscow and Tokyo but in places like Sydney and São Paulo.

As their financial strength and staff size increased, they became fearless in pursuing corruption. A 1964 Supreme Court decision, New York Times v. Sullivan, protected publishers from libel judgments by public officials even if what was published was inaccurate, so long as the paper didn't know the article was inaccurate and wasn't reckless about what it published.

The news operations of the three main television networks in those days followed a similar pattern. As profits grew, they added to staff and launched foreign bureaus and investigative projects. The Sunday-night magazine program CBS launched in 1968, "60 Minutes," set a new standard for expensively produced and deeply reported video journalism.

The public seemed to approve. Intrepid journalists proliferated in films like "All the President's Men," depicting Washington Post reporters' exposure of Watergate. Enrollments in journalism schools surged, as well as applications for reporting jobs.

They were heady times indeed. When the L.A. Times investigated suspected gasoline hoarding during fuel shortages in 1979, one reporter got the idea of flying over refineries and tank fields to look for evidence. As the editor running the coverage, I asked my bosses for approval to hire helicopters or small planes for a story. The answer: Go right ahead.

In the end, we didn't. Our reporting showed that most of the hoarding was by people like our own readers, who'd taken to driving with their gas tanks always full. But the lesson was clear: When it came to getting an important story, don't worry about the cost.

I don't remember exactly when cracks began to appear in this halcyon life. At most big papers, circulation, revenue and profits grew through the 1970s and 1980s and into the 1990s, with recessionary pauses that weren't excessively fretted over....

In those days, we worried quite a bit about television. Survey after survey showed that, with each year, more Americans were getting their news there. While that made circulation growth tougher to achieve, ad revenue continued to rise, as newspaper readers generally had better incomes.

Cable TV added a new worry, because here was a medium that could target smaller, exclusive audiences and thus pose a greater challenge to print. Even so, newspaper revenue continued its growth.

Then in the 1990s came the digital networks and the Internet, unleashing forces that would ultimately undermine newspaper business models that had been so supportive of journalism. First came dial-up, then a few years later the Internet, and by 1995, dozens of newspapers, including the Journal, had online editions.

This last development - the emergence of the online market model of high-tech competition and instantaneous news distribution - represents the greatest challenge to the traditional newpapers as we have know them. What will happen?

Steiger focuses more on immediate market developments among the new, high-flying class of press magnate power-brokers:

What happens next? Change, rapid and largely unpredictable. Nearly every company in the industry needs major new revenue, big cost reductions or a healthy dollop of each. The people and entities to watch most closely are:

-- The entrepreneurs, Mr. Murdoch and Mr. Zell. Mr. Murdoch has vast experience in media generally and newspapers in particular, controls major financial resources and has big plans to expand the Journal -- in print and online, domestically and overseas. Mr. Zell used financial engineering to control Tribune Co. with minimal investment of his own, has little media experience and isn't likely to spend much on his new properties. Both are decisive investors and operators. They aren't always successful, but it's unwise to bet against them.

-- New York Times Co. Mr. Murdoch has said he'll use the Journal to steal a portion of the general-news and cultural-news franchises of Times Co.'s eponymous flagship newspaper. But entities fight hardest defending their home turf, and the Times has both a strong, growing Web site and a Sunday edition that remains an advertising monster. It will be under pressure to follow some of the cost cutting its sister Boston Globe has done. Pure conjecture: Assuming that New York Mayor and Bloomberg LP owner Mike Bloomberg isn't U.S. president-elect a year from now, would he and Times Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. consider putting their two enterprises together?

-- Hearst Corp. After the inheritors of William Randolph Hearst's empire lost their bet on evening papers in the 1960s, they bulked up their revenue from magazines like Cosmopolitan, diversified smartly in TV (including a 20% stake in ESPN, now worth roughly $6 billion), and stayed in newspapers but with a close eye on profit. With four metro papers, like the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle, and eight smaller ones, Hearst is in the vanguard of figuring out ways to exploit newspapers' local-reporting strengths, both in print and online.

Hearst has helped forge a partnership involving a consortium of newspaper companies and sometime-nemesis Yahoo. The idea is that together they can offer advertisers total coverage of various metropolitan areas, and feed readers back and forth. Question: Are these going to be best friends forever or a cobra and a mongoose?

Final word: Next week I move over to a nonprofit called Pro Publica as president and editor-in-chief. When fully staffed, we will be a team of 24 journalists dedicated to reporting on abuses of power by anyone with power: government, business, unions, universities, school systems, doctors, hospitals, lawyers, courts, nonprofits, media. We'll publish through our Web site and also possibly through newspapers, magazines or TV programs, offering our material free if they provide wide distribution....

The idea is that we, along with others of similar bent, can in some modest way make up for some of the loss in investigative-reporting resources that results from the collapse of metro newspapers' business model.
I'm more interested in the longer-term development of the traditional daily paper: Will news be available exclusive online anytime soon? Will grabbing a paper, coffee, and a doughnut soon be a thing of the past, if it's not already (it's not for me, and I'm still a forty-something!).

It's certainly possible, although I'd rather stretch a crumply, half day-old newspaper over my knees than lug some widescreen laptop onto the bed or lounger while watching an Angels-Yankees game.