Our class today focused on journalism as a business, but I can’t help but think that journalism’s failure to understand the threat of the internet from a business aspect is closely tied to its failure to understand the threat of the internet from a journalistic aspect as well. I’ll try and speak about both here.
Interior of Tribune Tower lobby. (photo credit)
The business of news is something I’ve worried about since I was 18, when I went out looking for my first job in journalism. It was 1999, and while doomsday hadn’t quite yet hit the news business, things were starting to decline. That summer, I worked as a stringer, earning a dollar an inch writing stories on local government for a weekly paper in New Hampshire. In order to make enough money to get me through the next semester of school, I supplemented my reporter’s income working full-time as a lifeguard and teaching sailing lessons a few nights a week. That should have been a sign.
I became a journalist because I loved to write and didn’t want to work for “the man.” When I graduated from college, I landed a job at the Orlando Sentinel, covering municipal government in a town halfway between Orlando and Daytona Beach. That job, and the bureau I worked in no longer exist. Upon enrolling in a 401(k), I found out that the Sentinel’s parent company, Tribune, put their match in company stock, unless I opted out. I caught this after a couple paychecks and asked my dad what to do. He advised me to have the match put into a Vanguard account, sell the Tribune stock I had, and buy myself a six-pack with the proceeds. That should have been a sign.
In my first three months on the job my colleagues embedded with the military as the U.S. invaded Iraq, and the space shuttle Colombia broke up as it reentered the Earth’s atmosphere. Both were huge stories for the paper, but they weren’t enough to pay the bills. Actually, deploying reporters to cover these stories probably exacerbated the situation. Newsgathering is expensive, and the paper announced cuts soon after I got there. Around the same time, company executives were getting six-figure performance bonuses. I remember feeling galled that I was working 60+ hours a week to create the product that was the bedrock of a business (no one buys a paper for the ads) with no prospect of a raise, while company executives got bonuses that equaled six years of my salary. Turns out, I was working for the man.
I remember sitting in the newsroom watching colleagues twice my age take buyouts, and eventually get laid off. I remember thinking how hard it would be to reinvent yourself at 50, with a mortgage and kids in college. And yet, even as colleagues bemoaned the decline in news, they were slow to take steps to save it. Shirky talks about this in his book: how legacy media institutions colored by their narcissism bias failed to comprehend how big or disruptive the internet was. Something that was once hard and expensive, was suddenly easy and cheap. The New York Times 2014 Innovation Report says as much, as well, pointing to a culture that prized the print product, while digital-first competitors expanded rapidly.
Newsrooms were slow to warm to the internet, seeing it not as competition, or even as a tool, but as a conundrum. Even now, in 2016, news organizations are still having conversations about how to effectively use the web to gather news. At the same time, their business models were extremely fragile: as Nicco Mele notes in his Shorenstein Center podcast, for 150 years journalism has relied almost exclusively on revenues from advertising funding. This fragility was especially hard felt in places like Florida, where tourism drove the economy. In the post-9/11 economic downturn, tourism declined, taking the paper’s ad revenues with it. It is almost incomprehensible to me that an entire industry would rely on one revenue source to fund it. Yet, history is full of examples of businesses that relied on a narrow revenue stream, failed to innovate, and succumbed: Kodak, Studebaker, and Blockbuster, for example. Comfortingly, none of these businesses makes an appearance in the Constitution. The press, however, is another story.
The press, on one hand, is a business. On the other hand, it is so much more. So what is to come?
Shirky notes that, “Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism.” But for more than a century, newspapers have been the bedrock of journalism. If not newspapers, what?
I’m reminded of the lobby of the Tribune Building (now tronc, Inc. headquarters), which stands today as an almost ironic beacon of the importance of journalism. There, inscribed in stone, are reminders of the mission and value of a free press. Among them:
“Newspapers are the sentinals of the liberties of our country.”
– Benjamin Rush
“Our liberty depends of the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”
– Thomas Jefferson
Shirky ends his post hypothesizing that over the next few decades, a “collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need.” To me, that sounds like saying over the next few decades, we might find a treatment for cancer, but in the interim a lot of people will die. In the meantime, what will slip through the cracks without a fourth estate to watch for it?
Here’s what I know: Newspapers were late to the internet game. Newspapers are expensive to print. Newsgathering is expensive. The model is broken. Something has to change. Society will lose a lot if it doesn’t.
Here’s what I think could help: Newspapers could be non-profit, instead of owned by publicly traded companies. This would help ease some of the revenue pressures. Newspapers could go digital, ending the need for expensive printing and distribution operations. Newspapers could diversify their revenue streams, taking some money from advertising, but also crowd-funding stories, and seeking foundation support.
Is it enough? Maybe not. But then, if I had all the answers to this, maybe I’d still be in the news business.