Monday October 2, 2006

The future of newspapers?

Time magazine wonders about the future of newspapers:

Damp or encased in plastic bags, or both, and planted in the bushes outside where it’s cold, full of news that is cold too because it has been sitting around for hours, the home-delivered newspaper is an archaic object. Who needs it? You can sit down at your laptop and enjoy that same newspaper or any other newspaper in the world. Or you can skip the newspapers and go to some site that makes the news more entertaining or politically simpatico. And where do these wannabes get most of their information? From newspapers, of course. But that is mere irony. It doesn’t pay the cost of a Baghdad bureau.

Yes yes, touché, Time. Hey, what’s that you’ve got there? Maybe you should be writing about the future of the home-delivered weekly magazine, eh? But no, Time magazine didn’t write that essay — Michael Kinsley did. The focal point of the article is the recent struggle at the LA Times.

The LA Times is owned by the Tribune company, which is controlled by shareholders, who care about one thing above all else: the change in their stock price from one quarter to the next. This makes it possible for a very successful newspaper (which LAT was/is) with very healthy revenues and profits (which LAT had/has) to look like a weak performer. So the stockholders demand changes — ie increases in their stock price, ie increases in profits, ie decreases in operating costs, ie layoffs in the news room. Anyone can see that that may lead to an increase in stock prices from this quarter to the next, but not in a sustainable increase. But there it is.

So anyway, when the brass at Tribune recently demanded more staff cuts, the LAT’s editor, Dean Baquet, and publisher, Jeffrey Johnson, refused. While Tribune insisted that insubordination would not be tolerated and they could not stay in their positions unless they make the cuts, so far they haven’t been fired.

Kinsley suggests that local ownership of newspapers would go a long way toward avoiding situations like this, but in a world where large holding companies make offers on devalued properties, a local interest has no guarantee of being able to hold on to a newspaper trying to navigate through the stormy waters the industry is in. I’ve suggested considering non-profit ownership of newspapers in the past. Non-profits are much more likely to resist buyout offers, and their structure is, at least in theory, more in line with newspapers’ stated goal of working for the public good. (The only two newspapers I know of that are non-profit are the St. Petersburg Times and the Christian Science Monitor.)

The bigger issue is that the whole “newspaper model,” of publishing one issue per day, is not ideally compatible with the internet. And in many ways newspapers are making large steps to try out new models. Articles are published around the clock almost universally now, and newspapers are experimenting with interactive features, blogs, instant feedback, and lots of other stuff. Kinsley again:

The “me to you” model of news gathering—a professional reporter, attuned to the fine distinctions between “off the record” and “deep background,” prizing factual accuracy in the narrowest sense—may well give way to some kind of “us to us” communitarian arrangement of the sort that thrives on the Internet.

In other words, newspapers should try to take part in the larger online conversation. I would argue that an important part of that is dropping this bullshit about paid archives. I don’t know how much the Herald is making from their archives, but I expect it’s minimal: nobody’s going to pay $2.95 for an old article unless they really, really need to. On the other hand, old articles can be very useful if they’re free, open, and searchable. Again, I don’t know how much ad revenue the Herald averages per article impression, but it strikes me as self-evident that the finances for open archives work out a lot better then for closed.

Putting old stuff behind a paywall not only doesn’t make business sense, though — much more importantly, it belies a lack of understanding of how the internet really works. Links that expire do not exactly encourage linking.

Let me give you an example: a study was recently done about the future of highways in the US. Transit Miami commented on it, and I mentioned it briefly. We both found the study through Larry Lebowitz’s Streetwise column, but, while we linked to the page, our discussions focused on the study itself, and largely ignored what Larry had had to say about it. Of course this is a shame, because Larry probably knows more about South Florida traffic then anyone else, but that’s exactly what happens when you can’t trust a link to work more then a couple of months. The study will stay online, and our comments will stay online, but the Herald column will not; it’ll be excluded from the record.

Other bloggers have taken a different approach to disappearing articles. Herald Watch, for example, frequently reproduces the full text of articles he’s addressing. These sites often offer the following “Fair Use Notice”:

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of political, economic, and scientific issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research, educational and informational purposes. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use,’ you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

Now, you don’t need to be a legal scholar to know that reproducing a work in its entirety does not constitute fair use under the law. Yet newspapers routinely allow this to go on. Why? Because they, like Mr. Kinsley, recognize that their survival depends on being part of the conversation, and they’re muddling through, trying to figure out the best way to do that. Clearly, though, the obvious solution is to make their content more accessible, open, and searchable.

And yes, the search functions on most newspaper web sites is atrocious. Actually, I take that back. The Herald has a very powerful search interface for the paid, older content. The search for the free stuff is a dumb search box at the top of every page. Not good. More Kinsley:

Newspapers are not missing the blog boat. They are running for it like the last train out of Paris. They hold their breath and look the other way as their most precious rules and standards get trampled in the rush, and figure they’ll worry about that later.

oRLY? Well, the Herald is certainly serious about blogs if you go by quantity: they currently sport 19 of them. But then why are some of them hosted on Blogspot?? That’s just plain weird. A cursory examination of their blogrolls indicates that they’re much much better at linking to “Other Herald Blogs” then to anything in the outside world (one or two do link to a handful of local blogs). Overall, the Herald’s portfolio of blogs is very much “throw a bunch of stuff at the wall, see what sticks.”

But these are minor quibbles. The fact is that the very “real newspaper” / “blogs” dichotomy reveals a poverty of imagination on the part of management. 100% of the Herald’s bloggers also write “real” articles for the newspaper, and use their blogs for short snippets, to test out ideas, and sometimes to simply duplicate their regular writing. This is the sort of no-brainer, obvious way to set things up. The problem is that this is a huge, super-important organization in a huge, super-important industry. We should be getting much better, more creative, and non-obvious approaches to things. Why aren’t a reporter’s articles instantly linkable from their blogs and vice versa? And why should regular articles and blog entries be treated so differently, anyway?

The Miami New Times recently launched a new blog, and overall their approach, while not perfect, indicates that a lot of thought went into how to set it up, and integrate it into the workings of their print publication. While the approach would not translate to the Herald, something along its lines might.

The Herald has recently been purchased by McClatchy, and so there is reason to believe that attempts at innovation are down the line. We may be approaching the period when the phase during which the new owners get comfortable working with the management of the paper, and begin to explore major changes. At the same time, McClatchy is not publicly traded, so an LA Times type fiasco is not going to happen here. The Herald has recently hired a top-level executive who will be charged with re-assessing the paper’s online efforts as a whole. Let’s hope this person brings in a team of smart people, and they really examine and rethink some major things. And let’s hope the management gives them the leeway to try some unconventional things.

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  1. conductor    Tue Oct 3, 02:47 PM #  

    Great post. I generally only excerpt articles (and link to the full article) but if the article is important and behind a “paid archive” wall I’ll copy and paste in its entirety. Sometimes I have to translate Spanish articles or columns and thus I post them in their entirety so nobody can accuse me of cherry picking the quotes.

    I think you’re right a free archive would ultimately generate more revenue for the paper. Imagine how many inbound links the paper would have to its full and free archive that would be ad-supported. Imagine how much better informed our blog posts would be if we had access to free archives from most newspapers.

    The newpapermen will adapt, I have faith mankind’s ability to adapt. It may take longer than we want but it will happen.