Editor: Our writer Doug Porter has been focusing over the last few months on the demise of the daily mainstream newspaper. Over the course of several weeks last Fall, Porter wrote a series that we posted. His predictions are painful to watch. Last Friday, Feb. 28th, witnessed the dramatic end to Colorado’s oldest mainstream newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News. The Colorado mainstay – publishing for 150 years – lost $16 million in 2008. It has closed its doors for good. Meanwhile, the Hearst media empire also announced at the end of last month that it was probably ending the reign of the San Francisco Chronicle. If the paper cannot reduce expenses within the next few weeks, it will close or be sold. The Chron is northern California’s largest newspaper with a plaid weekday circulation of just under 340,000. The paper lost more than $50 million last year. Fortunately, the paper also runs an on-line news site called SFGate. It is unknown what the fate of the web service will be. Lastly, the American Society of Newspaper Editors cancelled its annual convention, scheduled for next month, so newspapers can save money. The last tilme the Society canceled its convention was during the last days of World War II in 1945. We now re-post Doug’s series – all in one this time.
Burying the Union Tribune
If a big newspaper in a metropolitan area dropped dead right now “nobody under 30 would care.” Mark Potts, news consultant.
Mr. Potts ought to know. He makes his living working for big time newspapers that are struggling to stay afloat. A cottage industry of web sites and consultancies has sprung up dispensing advice and comfort for the traditional news media as it fades into oblivion. There’s even a web site that keeps track of the number of newspaper employee layoffs around the country.
Anxious for a solution, media companies have launched so many quick fixes, re-designs, re-launches, re-positions, cutbacks, flip-flops and fire sales that they now resemble a losing political campaign more that the grand cartels with a license to print money that they once were.
The facts are indisputable. Circulation and readership for printed media are down. Locally, the Union-Tribune is losing circulation at an astonishing rate. Advertising dollars are disappearing faster than free food samples at Whole Foods. And, most importantly, the credibility and influence that the printed news media once wielded have evaporated. You see, while it was all fine and wonderful that some newspapers (and other traditional media) were once profitable, making profits was only part of the deal for media moguls.
The real reason for all this hand wringing over the death of daily newspapers (and the decline of their cousins in the broadcast industry) has to do with influence. The owners of the Copley Press could care less about their format. If they could find a way to maintain what they call their “market share” or “penetration”, they’d print the paper on toilet paper, or switch to CB radio. You betcha.
Optimistically, the Union Tribune’s market now consists of just 8% of the population of the San Diego market. They’d like you to believe that there’s a pass-along rate so their “penetration” extends to 23% of the households in the market. When you consider the U-T’s approval rating (poll-responders finding the paper “very credible”) is running at 15%, it’s easy to understand the atmosphere of fear in Copley-land.
The desperation at the paper has lead to bizarre editorial moves. In a county where the construction industry (a long-time UT collaborator) is all but shut down due to the national financial crisis, they actively opposed a school bonds measure (Proposition S) that would pump $1.2 billion into the local economy, with the bulk of that money going directly into construction. Why? Members of the UT’s editorial staff appear to have a personal grudge against the school bond’s political consultant (Larry Remer). He’s made the paper three times (more, if you count blogs) as the primary reason to keep 130,000 San Diego children in sub-standard structures. Hiding themselves behind the rhetoric of concern for any appearance of impropriety, they placed themselves in opposition to a bond measure that is widely supported. That should do wonders for their credibility in San Diego…but I digress.
Full disclosure: Remer & I were editors at the San Diego Door in the early 1970’s, an underground newspaper that frequently thumbed its nose at the local power-structure and the Union Tribune in particular.
Welcome to the New Age of Information
So, if you’ve been reading your daily newspaper (or watching network news) under the illusion that the stories presented are somehow vetted, fair, or balanced, it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee. The first step of the rest of your media life should be to stop buying the Union Tribune. Aside from the fact that it’s a waste of money and leaves a huge carbon footprint, the local daily has had too large a role in defining the public conversation about San Diego for too long. Just say no to all their foolishness.
The next step in your media life and the “New Information Age” is complicated by the fact that there are a bewildering array of choices in how you get information (hardware), where you get you information (platforms), and what kind of information you end up getting (content). The bad news is that, no matter what you chose in the way of hardware (PC, Blackberry, cell-phone, E-Book, etc), it’s likely to be obsolete before the next Presidential election cycle wraps up. The good news is that all these gadgets seem to be evolving in a direction that will end up with a common (or at least more similar) device that includes both new and old media. Personally, I’m holding out for the Dick Tracy style wrist appliance that can also become a fashion statement.
In the meantime, a vast army of media visionaries are out there experimenting and developing platforms and content. Following are my (mostly random) choices for websites that I’ve found either useful or interesting in news gathering. Many of these websites are essentially aggregators, drawing content from all over the world that their creators think may be of interest to visitors. (The Rag has a regular list of local sites—scroll down on the right hand side of this page to see them.)
The Old Media on the web:
www.nytimes.com A very good selection of stories, a fair amount of original reportage that’s easy to use. The downside is that the Times inclination to protect its sources and contacts to the exclusion of the need of the people to actually know what’s going on. Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than in the paper’s role in the propaganda build up to the invasion of Iraq.
www.washingtonpost.com One of the most aggressive companies in terms of translating its content to the web, the Post has video, audio and multimedia reportage on a broad range of issues. It’s not bad to look at, but has suffered from a decline in original content lately. The Post also drank heavily from the propaganda trough of the last several administrations. They do have a terrific on-line crossword puzzle.
www.mcclatchydc.com If the Post and the Times have functioned as the Bush administration’s sidekicks, McClatchy has found itself a home as the maverick of the mainstream media. Its resources are limited, and it’s visually dull, but they do have a tradition of posting well-researched stories on topics not covered by the big boys.
www.english.aljazeera.net The TV network that the fear mongers love to hate is actually really good at providing news and perspective that isn’t US-centric. They won’t win any prizes for sexiness, but the site is nicer looking than most. And they really don’t hate America.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/ Remember when the daily newspaper had stories from around the world? Science stories? Human interest stories that didn’t involve Paris Hilton? The BBC still has all those stories and much more. Very rich in content. The point of view is more euro-centric than the US press, but generally, as the British government has been as of late, pro-Washington.
www.csmonitor.com The Christian Science church sponsored paper may not be the best place to glean medical information, but it does offer up a decent array of stories from around the world that you’re likely not to see elsewhere. (Or at least until somebody else steals the idea). A busy front page, be sure to scroll down for the interesting stuff.
www.npr.org So much content, so little time. And so hard to find on the page. None-the-less, there is a great deal more original content here than you’ll find on many a major newspaper’s web site. A great site to visit when you got a little time to kill.
Newer Media Websites:
www.propublica.org Original investigative reporting funded by a foundation. The premise seems to be that somebody on the web needs to do some original reporting cause all the old style media dinosaurs are gonna die. Good stuff when they’re having a good day, if a little dry.
www.slate.com One of the original on-line publications. It’s survived thanks to spicy content and the occasional actual opinion. It’s now owned by the Washington Post. It’s easy to dis Slate because so much of its content gets hidden in the clunky format, but if you dig far enough, it’s there.
www.politico.com A new media site funded by an old media mogul. If you like Washington politics, this could be the site for you, as long as you don’t have any yearnings for something beyond Washington politics. They’ve got it all: blogs, reportage, a print version, video, yada, yada.
www.washingtonindependent.com Another new media site with a non-profit business plan. They say they aim for “snap-crackle-pop” with their reporting. It’s good but not great. Visually very clean, if you like web sites that look like newspapers.
www.huffingtonpost.com More star power than all the others guys combined. Thousands of bloggers (including OBRag staff), celebrities, links to everything, ever changing. It’s going through some growing pains as they add sections (already a local one for Chicago). The lack of focus is the focus, it seems. And you have to wonder what they’re gonna do after Obama gets elected.
www.inthesetimes.com A progressive old media site that left its carbon footprint back in the 20th Century and made the transition to the new media. It looks good, reads well and is easy to use.
www.thedailybeast.com Tina Brown’s brand new rockin’, sockin’, all-the-news-that-fits web site is brand new and brimming with attitude. It’s totally visual and absolutely sensationalist.
www.globalvoicesonline.org Global Voices aggregates and curates the global blogosphere – shining light on places and people other media often ignore. Don’t look for hard hitting news here; look for hard hitting humanity trying to express itself.
www.cqpolitics.com This website (Congressional Quarterly) should be placed under the “old media” heading, except that it’s so good at making massive amounts of data accessible that it –as far as I’m concerned—sets the standard for everybody else. Plus, really good journalists that have been dumped via media cutbacks seem to gravitate here.
http://www.ipl.org/div/news/ This is the newspaper locator page for the Internet Public Library. Wanna check out the scene in Botswana? No problem: two clicks
and you’re there reading the local online paper. It’s useful from time to time.
Last, but not least, there are a number of ways that you can build your own news pages and have them waiting whenever you venture online. By “personalizing” the Google News page, you can harness the power of the world’s biggest search engine. But it’s just like any other search, so a little practice with the search terms may be needed before you start getting acceptable results.
The Myth of Objectivity….
Since 1721, when James Franklin (Ben’s brother) launched The New England Courant, newspapers have been an integral part of the American landscape. The colonial press and its successors all the way into the 20th century hardly fit into the mold of the modern newspaper. Yesterday’s papers were chock full of crusades, fiction and – before the word was invented – advertorials. The concept of objective journalism is a relatively recent development in the world of newspapers.
After decades of wild and woolly sensationalism, publishers began in the late 19th century to realize that outwardly neutralized information would allow for increased advertising as less people were likely to become offended. This change was stimulated by the growth of big cities and literacy, allowing increases in circulation that made publishing newspapers a virtual license to print money. American journalists were expected to eliminate overt opinions from their coverage, except for the safest and most stereotyped suppositions about society.
“Objectivity”, in the view of 20th century publishers, demanded that every item would be attributed to some authority. It chose to ignore the fundamentally subjective nature of the craft. Objective journalism ignored the value laden decisions that get made at each step of the reporting process: What facts are to be included? Where will the story be placed in the newspaper? Are the observations of a police captain really more reliable than those of a striking worker?
This journalistic canon created the false aura of a science, thus giving almost a century of American journalism an illusion of unassailable correctness. By mid-twentieth century “objectivity” had achieved the status of an acknowledged truth. But pesky facts kept popping up that steadily eroded that illusion, starting in the McCarthy era, where allegations of subversive associations by an alcoholic U.S. Senator were reported as fact, even after many reporters and editors knew otherwise. The Bush administration’s successful salesmanship in misleading the press (and the media’s unquestioning acceptance) during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq was the proverbial “last straw” for the era of the objectivity.
Going into the 21st century, more Americans believe in UFOs and 9/11 conspiracy theories than accept as true the idea of an even handed or objective news media. A study published by Sacred Heart University found fewer than twenty per cent of Americans saying they could believe “all or most” media reporting. Given that the reading public no longer accepts the premise of objectivity, it’s not surprising that the old media has been losing traction and market share of late.
The monetary needs of major media operations to keep readership/advertising bases as large as possible would seem to dictate that some premise of neutrality would still be a good idea. Some of the new media/old media-based web sites are trying to address this concern with a tit-for-tat approach, making sure that each appearance of opinion is balanced with an opposition viewpoint. The difficulty is that this approach does not appease partisans (particularly in the realm of politics) or create the kind of buzz that builds readership.
The thousands of contributors to on-line encyclopedia Wikipedia are attempting an approach to coverage that stresses neutrality. They are learning, in the process, that one man’s neutrality can always be interpreted as another man’s advocacy. (For some insight on this, try reading the discussion pages relating to the Wikipedia Ocean Beach entries. It’s an eye opener.)
The overtly partisan press (both old and new) may generate enough of a readership to be deemed worthy of some financial support by (usually sympathetic) commercial entities. But, historically speaking, they are usually unable or unwilling to create a large enough base to sustain long-term success. And, as we have seen repeatedly in the not so distant past, when partisan media are seen as too threatening by political or business interests, pressure can be brought to bear that will dry up their sources of advertising/financial support.
The Nixon administration’s not so subtle pressure on the entertainment industry in the early 1970’s encouraged the record companies that supported the “underground” press to withdraw advertising and promotional dollars. Closer to home, the fledgling (and more apolitical) San Diego Reader received noteworthy support in its early years from local business interests concerned about the muckraking ways of the San Diego Door.
To be truthful, the Door’s business model (or lack thereof) doomed it to oblivion. And there is no evidence that the Reader knowingly did anything more than strive for commercial success. But the companies who directed that support did know what they were doing.
As the new media blogs have matured, the “transparency” path is emerging as an alternative that may prove to meet the desires of the publishers of the future to satisfy the needs, curiosities and passions of the 21st Century user. The concept of a collaborative relationship between reporters and readers goes against the grain of old school journalism, which often times identified more with the authority figures used for persuasive quotes than the readership. None-the-less, it’s an idea whose time is coming.
The relationship of the commenter with the readership in the development of content stems from the ability of readers to remark upon and contribute to the discussion of within blogs. Talking Points Memo’s Joshua Marshall is credited with this technique in exposing the US Attorney scandal, among others. This collaborative aspect came about entirely by accident, according to an account published in the New Yorker. His intent was merely to offer his readers “transparency,” so that his “strong viewpoint” would be distinguishable from the facts that he presented. However, he found that the enormous response to his work stimulated readers to offer up valuable information that was not always available to old school media.
For now, much of the new media survives by virtue of parasitical relationships with the old media. This will adjust over time (and is already changing) as the social and business model of the bloggosphere matures, just as the printed word displaced town criers and evolved into the newspaper format. The all-mighty daily newspaper now finds itself under fire from a bewildering array of would-be competitors that are more focused, faster and more connected with the consumer. Sentenced to damnation by virtue of their failure to uphold the public trust, and scorned by the political forces that once sought to control its influence, the press has no choice but to change. It’s quite likely in the coming months that we’ll see at least one large metropolitan market in the southwestern United States start learning to live without a daily newspaper. Others will follow, lost to a world that no longer seems to need them.
The Post Newspaper Era
There are several trends converging in the nation that offer clues towards the future of the new media. Changing demographics, new technologies, the declining economy and rising energy costs are driving a trend that being called “the new localism“. What this means in a nutshell is that individuals and corporations are moving their social and economic activities towards the neighborhoods where they live.
Already there has been substantial growth in Web-based community newsletters/blogs in both suburban and inner city areas. The growth of farmers markets in recent years and concerns about the carbon footprints associated with food production have spawned a local food movement whose followers are called locavores. Home-based work-9 million Americans are now telecommuting and an additional 22 million have home based businesses-is giving people more choice about where they work and more time to spend with their families and communities.
One widespread prognostication about the future is that community newspapers, those with a circulation of 25,000 or so, will be the one form of printed media that actually prospers in the future. Commercial applications of Web 2.0 media are also creating communities that tend to be united by both geography and self-interest; the Facebook page for the OB Noodle House boasts over 150 members despite being only a few weeks old. (Personal plug: Great Pho!)
The other part of this equation has to do with the need that every business has to advertise or promote in some fashion. Most advertising dollars spent are dollars wasted, sad to say, and that’s even more true when it comes to advertising on the internet. Any new media that wants to succeed on the internet will require business support. Telling businesses that you’ll be putting their message out in front of a quadrillion users each day doesn’t mean squat unless people actually respond and spend money.
Walk through any given commercial district and you’ll see a wide variety of businesses, each mostly likely doing something different to try and stay in touch with or attract new customers. Newspaper ads, radio ads, neon signs, sign twirlers, tv ads and so much more all compete constantly for our attention. (The smart businesses know that it costs nine times as much to attract a new customer as it does to encourage an existing business relationship.) All this advertising results in a bewildering assault on the senses for the would-be customer, who, over time, learns to tune it down to a dull roar. The best that the business owner can hope for in this current environment is that their messages will leave a subliminal impression with the potential customer.
Walk through that commercial district again and ask the people working there about their interactions with the outside world and you’ll discover an amazing variety of needs, many of them unmet or frustrated because of the demands of actually running these businesses. Follow those people home and you’ll find them multi-tasking and using multiple media to keep their households in order and try to stay connected to the world.
What if somebody actually did ask all these business owners about their needs, both professional and personal? What if somebody offered to bundle all these needed services for little or no money? What if there were community based platforms that took care of such mundane things as church newsletters, public service announcements, weather forecasts while offering web-based video ads for retail stores?
The new media needs to first, listen. People are looking for ways to use new technologies to make their lives more productive. They are increasingly seeking a sense of community (both literal and figurative). Businesses hate they way they are treated when they try to reach out and consumers hate being bombarded with messages they don’t need. The solutions are out there.
The first entity through the gate that addresses these concerns foremost will find a dedicated audience for news and editorial content, provided that it also supplies a healthy dose of social currency: the factoids we acquire and then trade – or give away – to start, continue, and nurture relationships with our fellow humans. Being the first through the gate means being able to match up the hardware, platforms and software in such a way that the desires of consumers and businesses are truly fulfilled and their lives become easier as a result.
So what form or format will the news media of tomorrow coalesce into? My guess is that it will be a little bit of everything: web pages, blogs/social media, print and broadcast. I believe these entities will be grouped together by communities; communities will be tied together by regions and that it will all be connected to the global economy.
There are social, political, ethical and economic issues that merit inspection as we pass through this evolutionary stage in the ways that we relate to each other. And there is, of course, the question of creating a business model that addresses the nuts and bolts of a community based media organization. We’ll cover those issues in future conversations in the OB Rag.
For more posts on the Union-Tribune, go to “Top Posts” on our Nav Bar, and scroll down to the media section.