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Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Mi-Dia: What Would Ben Think?







What Would Ben Think?
Why the Internet Heralds the New Newspaper

By Richard Carreño
Junto Staff Writer
There's a noir-humor joke making the rounds at many newspapers these days that takes a solipsistic twist on the old children's riddle, 'What's black and white and red all over?' The red, of course, is not read, but red ink, as America's print media increasingly confronts mounting debt, losses in advertising and readership, and an Internet competition that seemingly won't give up until it's shred every remaining dead-tree journal.

As if we need proof, right? The Rocky Mountain News folded last month. The Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune are in bankruptcy. Here in Philly, The Inquirer and the Daily News are now in Chapter 11 proceedings. Check your local newspaper, whether here or in other parts of the country. Shrinking news-holes and smaller staffs are now the norm.

And so are alot of handwringing, bellyaching, and Cassandra-like alarums that the end of an objective daily press is looming. Much of this tear-jerking comes, not surprisingly, from representatives of the print media themselves, from reporters to media barons (now officially demoted, by the way, to media squires). Jeez, copyboys would likely be squawking, as well -- that is if copyboys still existed.

The Internet, of course, is always hauled in as the chief perp, with an increasingly longer wrap sheet that includes such villainy as 'real time immediacy,' 'promoting subjective opinion,' 'specialized, unique content,' and -- holy recidivist behavior! -- 'free access.' Not just readership, but ads are seeping way. In particular, classified ads, traditionally the flowing black ink of newspapers (both literally and figuratively), have segued to free Internet sites such as Craiglist and the like.

The result? Almost every newsroom in America has seen its once pre-Internet franchise turn from a plump cash cow to a skint butcher's special. Newspapers that once pigged out as market monopolies are lucky if they can now serve up a daily pork chop. A toothpick, anyone?

But wait! Is conventional wisdom right? Is the Net really always the blame for killing off America's main-stream press?

Actually, for many newspapers, just downright fiscal mismanagement can be the culprit. The Inquirer is a particularly choice example.

When The Inquirer's current ownership bought the both Philly papers a few years ago, it paid, according to news reports, way over their market value. The result was a huge debt. The papers themselves were profitable.

The new, incurred debt was slated to be paid down, of course, by the traditional revenue enhancers popularized in the get-rich 90s, gutting staff, increased ad rates, and a jump in the papers' purchase price. Those were the days.

Oops! Well, we all know the end of that story.

Did the Internet hurt the Philadelphia's papers? Surely, yes. But hurting the papers worse were its new, greed-driven private owners and managers, who, incidentally, were giving themselves handsome raises until just a week before they declared bankruptcy.

No one wants to see newspapers die. But when main-stream journalists start finger-pointing to the Internet as the main-stream reason for the industry's doldrums, they tend never to ask the right question. It isn't if the Internet is to blame. Rather, what can done to accommodate and, yes, evolve, in an Internet age.

The last point, entailing evolution, is the stickiest in that, no doubt, it means that many of the country's 1,500 (yes, 1,500!) daily papers will need to go.

Not all main-streamers have yet figured this out. I have a Facebook 'friend,' a top Inquirer editor, who rants daily about the need to 'monetize' the paper's currently free on-line service, Philly.com. The solution to the industry's financial woes, he argues, is transforming its news web-sites from free to paid access. (Interestingly, this comes from an editor at a paper which is already profitable).

One wonders what he and other Internet bashers would say about the former darling of the left, the late pamphleteer Izzy Stone, if he were still around. In the 50s and 60s, Stone was the 'blogger' of his day. So was Ben Franklin, for that matter. Same church. Different pew.

My Facebook friend injects yet another causa belli: survival of a fact-driven print media and its collateral websites are vital to American democracy. What with the proliferation of opinion-driven websites, where else would objective news come from? he and the bashers vex earnestly. Oh, oh, that pesky objectivity gambit again.

Sorry, that train has already left the station. The Times tried a paid-site, Times Select, not long ago. The paper quickly abandoned the venture, noting that the reach of its top columnists shrunk and, lo, their influence. (As far as objectivity goes, see above).

(Time for full disclosure. My family and I own shares in The Times, and I used to be the paper's college correspondent when I was an NYU undergraduate. As for my bona fides, I'm a former reporter for newspapers in New England, including The Hartford Courant, the Worcester Telegram, and The Boston Globe).

Newspapers have always been evolving. In fact, the jam-packed, advertising-rich, daily newspaper, with a weekly food section, a daily financial section, and celebrity gossip, is relatively new. Even a daily newspaper has not always been the norm. The best informed men of their times, the founders, read weeklies -- at best. Alexander Hamilton founded The New York Post -- as a weekly.

Today's reality might mean a return to yesterday's reality -- or, a combination of several models that will constitute the journalism industry of the future.

First, this country can no longer support, nor does it need, thanks to alternative electronic media, 1,500 daily papers with their frequently just redundant content. Some might shrink to weeklies. Others might go. Others, as suggested by Steve Coll of The New Yorker, might convert to endowment-supported non-profits, as is already the case with The Day in New London, Connecticut, and The Guardian in London.

Papers like The Inquirer might try their hand as weeklies. The Inquirer will never again be a Pulitzer-winning newspaper, nor does it have to be to do its local job effectively. (Anyway, I have a feeling the paper's current ownership would rather win Powerballs than Pulitzers).

If The Inquirer shrinks, would fact-driven coverage of Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley be then compromised? I don't necessarily think so. And the reason, mirrored in many of the country's major media markets such as Philly, spells out why: diversity. And because still-strong national daily newspapers -- The Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, even the Financial Times -- would have new economic incentive to expand to serious regional coverage.

If The Inquirer were to fold or shrink, the advertising base for its for middle-class readership, the paper's demographic, wouldn't evaporate. Nor, would it shift to other regionally-based print media. The fit wouldn't be right. The alternative weeklies are too youth-oriented; the Metro is too down-market; and he right-wing Bulletin knows what it means to put loca in local news.

I suspect the nationals -- in the European model -- would move to capture the news vacuum here. A daily/weekly Philadelphia edition of The Times? A weekly round-up of business news by the Financial Times? Even coverage of Philadelphia's arts scene might come via daily Variety.

The strum und drang that accompanies today's debate over the Internet's pernisciousness is another version of the argument that's often dragged out when newspapers confront a new media marvel. The radio, according to a prominent oracle during the Great Depression, would influence Americans to base political decisions increasingly on what they 'hear' than than on what they 'read.' '...[T]he radio decides as many people as what is printed in the newspapers,' FDR intoned.

Then came television, to the accompaniment of more death-knells.

The Internet isn't the enemy. Like radio and television, and the telegraph, Pony Express, the telephone, cinema newsreels -- and even smoke signals way before that -- it's just a catalyst for change.

(This article first appeared at BroadStreetReview.com in a significantly different form).


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