When is a newspaper no longer a newspaper?

There’s been some movement over the last year of newspapers dropping their print edition and becoming online-only. Which raises an interesting philosphical question: When does a newspaper stop being a newspaper?

For example, the Christian Science Monitor will stop publishing a daily print edition in April 2009 while offering a weekly subscription print product and a continuously updated online version (edition? publication?).

Does the CSM then stop being a newspaper? More importantly is this how newspapers will “die”?

While discounting for the inevitable puffery of self-reporting, this is how the CSM described its shift in an October 2008 online editorial:

While the Monitor’s print circulation, which is primarily delivered by US mail, has trended downward for nearly 40 years, “looking forward, the Monitor’s Web readership clearly shows promise,” said Judy Wolff, chairman of the Board of Trustees of The Christian Science Publishing Society. “We plan to take advantage of the Internet in order to deliver the Monitor’s journalism more quickly, to improve the Monitor’s timeliness and relevance, and to increase revenue and reduce costs. We can do this by changing the way the Monitor reaches its readers.” [Monitor shifts from print to web-based strategy]

Three things about this:

“improving timeliness and relevance”; “increase revenue” and “reduce costs”.

The first is not really questionable. Of course continuous editorial updates are timely and relevant. But how is the Monitor going to increase revenue? Obviously by reducing costs – newsprint, delivery, etc – but this does not equate to an increase in online advertising necessarily.

It seems that the jury’s still out on that whole issue. According to an analysis piece in the LA Times, the CSM strategy is risky because online advertising revenue is not guaranteed and the paper takes an immediate hit in subscription income.

But the change will present considerable risks. Unlike most daily newspapers, the five-day-a-week Monitor receives the bulk of its revenue from subscriptions, not advertising.

The Monitor plans a new weekly magazine to maintain its print presence, but that is expected to bring in only a fraction of the $9.7-million circulation revenue it receives annually. To compensate, the publication will have to increase online advertising dramatically. [Monitor to discontinue daily print edition]

The whole shift also raises another question. If it’s no longer a newspaper, what does the newsroom look like?I came across an interesting piece today that takes up this question, The all-digital newsroom of the future, by Steve Outing at Editor & Publisher.

But first, what of the brave new world of online only news products?

The CSM seems hopeful, but realistically the management is also facing huge challenges:

Reaching the improved financial targets in the Monitor’s new business plan will depend on significant growth in Web traffic and on current subscribers to the daily paper transferring their subscriptions to the weekly edition and the daily e-mail edition, Wolff said. “If you are a current subscriber, we ask you to stay with us. If you do not subscribe, we hope you will subscribe to the Monitor now as it embarks on its second century.” [Monitor shifts from print to web-based strategy]

A lot of “ifs” and “buts” to qualify the hope. Perhaps it’s a “wing and a prayer” for the Christian Science Monitor.

And, it seems, the online revenue stream is not a given. Many analysts believe that the major source of advertising revenue in the news business will stay with print and broadcast for the foreseeable future. Or, if you’re Arthur Sulzbrger Jr, hopefully till you retire.

This is a period of extreme financial difficulty for all news organizations. New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., for instance, was asked at a conference in California on Oct. 22 [2008] whether the Times would be a print product in 10 years. “The heart of the answer must be (that) we can’t care,” Sulzberger said. He added that he expects print to be around for a long time but “we must be where people want us for our information.” [Monitor shifts from print to web-based strategy]

Henry Blodget at Silicon Valley Insider is very cynical about online advertising revenues in the coming year. He reckons it’s not going up, in fact, the exact opposite.

It’s time we woke up and faced reality. Online display-ad spending will fall in 2009, probably sharply. It will probably fall again in 2010. Hundreds of startups counting on advertising as a business model will be flattened. Yahoo, CNET, AOL, and other big display-ad properties will  get hammered. Legions of me-too video sites will croak.  Ad networks, the “hey, let’s just start an Internet company!” flavor of this second dotcom boom, will get decimated. [Let’s be serious]

Doom and gloom? Maybe, but let’s see what other experts are predicting. According to the Internet Advertising Bureau, while raw data looks good, towards the end of last year there was a flattening in the upward curve.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) and PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP (PwC) today announced that Internet advertising revenues reached almost $5.9 billion for the third quarter of 2008, representing an 11 percent increase over the same period in 2007. While double-digit annual growth continues, the quarter-to-quarter curve remains relatively flat compared to recent past performance. The Q3 2008 figures, published in the IAB Internet Advertising Revenue Report, are 2 percent higher than the Q2 2008 results. Set against strong economic headwinds in the U.S. economy, Q3 ’08’s $5.9 billion represents nonetheless the second-highest quarter results ever. For the first nine months of 2008, revenues totaled $17.3 billion, up from $15.2 billion in the same period a year ago and surpassing the record set in the first nine months of 2007 by nearly 14 percent.

The growth of interactive advertising that we’ve been experiencing over the past few years has stabilized due in large part to the difficult current economic climate,” said Randall Rothenberg, President and CEO of the IAB. “Interactive advertising continues to be the most measurable and cost-effective way to reach consumers, and we see more and more marketers seeking to harness its power.”

David Silverman, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, added that, “a weakening economy will continue to be a challenge to all forms of advertising-supported media. However, the Internet should be better poised to withstand the storm given its ability to combine performance-based advertising along with broad-based branding.” [IAB media release Nov 2008]

There’s a similar story being told about search advertising and social network marketing too. So one thing that we can safely predict about the digital-only newsroom of the future, it will be smaller than the traditional print newsroom.

Sadly, any newspaper that sheds its print edition will lay off a lot of people. Pressmen, drivers, everyone in the circulation department — all gone. For a large newsroom, a lot of journalists will lose their jobs, perhaps one-half to two-thirds. (I hope I’m being pessimistic, but I doubt it.) A leaner news operation will probably mean a significant thinning of newsroom middle-management ranks. A smaller advertising department is likely. [Steve Outing E & P]

So what else might we imagine it to be?

Well Steve starts with the fairly predictable, the newsroom of the future will have a younger profile and there’ll be no room for those who won’t change or be flexible. There’s also likely, he says, too be more need for tech-savvy code jockeys, not just traditional reporters.

What I’ve described shifts the department staff percentages around from the newspaper of old, as well as eliminates less-essential personnel. More technologists — a necessity going forward — means fewer slots for journalists. How’s that going to work out?

Short answer: Every journalist is a blogger, and a beatblogger, and a social network junkie.

My plan makes every remaining reporter a blogger, who is producing several levels of coverage on his/her topic or beat, with no deadlines. [Steve Outing E & P]

This is the big shift. What does it mean for the “journal of record” role that newspapers have traditionally filled? It perhaps means more opinion, less hard news and less factual or investigative reporting. It also seems like a recipe for everyone running like crazy to basically stay on the same, or at least a very similar, spot.

With no deadlines and continuous coverage there’s going to be a lot of surface and not much depth. Despite the techno-optimism to which we’re all being driven by this excitable punditry I am still not convinced.

The public service role of journalism and the critical standing up to power that we expect from the “best and the brightest” will not find much room in the trim, lean, go-go-go newsroom of the future.

There might still be plenty of “product” out there, like I have a choice of thousands of glue, wax, cream and gel hair “product”, most of which gives me dandruf and makes my hair stand on end, but will it be worth reading?

In this brave new world there’s also a dangerous level of out-sourcing. Everyone becomes a celebrity, or a fan, or a wannabe. Who’s gatekeeping this stuff?

To get back to that notion of having to “do more with less,” our new digital news operation will offer each reporter/blogger the Web 2.0 tools to create a community of people who are interested in and passionate about the topic, or are experts on it. Just as on Facebook you can become a “fan” of celebrities, brands, products and so on, the reporter can collect fans on her blog. It’s a way of collecting individuals to follow your work who are experts on the topic you cover, and you’ll find that the niche community experience will turn up story ideas, sources, pointers to relevant external content, and even people willing to volunteer to help out. Steve Outing E & P]

Two things about this:

  • “doing more with less”, usually means doing “less” with less and certainly giving up some quality to chase quantity
  • second, it might work with small communities (maybe) in rural America or where ever, but how is someone like Robert Fisk supposed to work like this to cover complex stories like the Middle East.

To me it’s techno-determinism writ large. It’s a fools’ paradise and not necessarily the future I want for journalism or journalists.

I started with a rhetorical question: When is a newspaper no longer a newspaper? I guess a flippant answer is when it becomes a Facebook-like social network of microbloggers and their fans.

A second question is when is a journalist no longer a journalist? My answer is the same: When the “product”  they work for is a Facebook clone and they’re no longer reporting news, but mongering local colour and gossip.

I’ve seen the future and…

3 Responses to When is a newspaper no longer a newspaper?

  1. Steve Outing says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful dissection of my column. I’ll just add here that I projected what the newspaper-gone-digital-only entity looks like in the short term, and in time we all hope it will figure out a business model successful enough to do more of the in-depth journalism that you suggest my blogging/niche-community approach leaves out.

    There’s a comment thread on my personal blog about my column, and there I answer this issue by pointing out that there are non-profit and crowd-funding solutions (e.g., Spot.us, foundation grants) that can support some of the costlier investigative journalism that a scaled-back digital-only “newspaper” won’t be doing as much of for simple budget reasons. Again, I would hope that’s an interim solution and we’ll come out the other side with healthier newsroom budgets.

    My vision of reporters using the blog format and building communities around themselves by no means eliminates in-depth and investigative reporting. The tighter budget makes it more difficult, yet leveraging the community of experts the journalist creates, the reporter might get some free expert help from experts passionate about the topic.

    I don’t want to see the post-paper digital newsroom become superficial, but the reality will be that we have to figure out how to do the in-depth stuff more economically and/or with the support of outside institutions.

  2. Interesting post, Martin.

    I’ve been mulling over the ways in which journalism has been, or might be, funded:

    * Reader subscription
    Was this the first print revenue stream? May cater to niche audiences for ‘hard’ news, but unlikely to find a broad base. The CSM weekly digest might be one way of blending an online/print approach for an existing subscriber base — interesting to see how it goes.

    * Advertising revenue
    Became the dominant model until the digital age. Possibly works against hard news in the online space by emphasising the need to keep catching eyeballs for every story in an endless news cycle. Has made real-time traffic monitoring and search engine optimisation part of newsroom activity.

    * Public funding
    Nice if you can get it, but don’t bite the hand that feeds you too hard or too often.

    * Private philanthropy
    I suspect not so common outside the U.S. philanthropic culture – though it is gaining some attention as a post-advertising means of funding limited ‘quality’ investigative journalism that can be sold back to publishers to recover costs.

    * Corporate largesse
    News as a loss-making division subsidised by other profitable ventures — presumably tends to rely on the personal quirks of magnates who can pursue such “hobbies” or means of influence over the concerns of shareholders)

    Any other models?

  3. Cheers Steve, I didn’t want to sound too dismissive and in the end hurried the last bit of my post. To do your arguments justice I will go back and take a much closer look.
    Glad we’re on the same page about more detailed reporting etc, and I also should make it clear that I have no real issue with reporters using social networks and micro-blogging etc. That’s just a sensible use of the digital resource base. My concern is that this might replace anything deeper, more difficult and more resource intensive.
    As for business models, there’s no doubt that eventually this will sort itself out too, it’s just not good while we’re in the transition phase.

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