Reinventing the Newsroom

Paul Farhi’s Very Strange Advice

Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, Going Local, Paid Content by reinventingthenewsroom on August 20, 2009

(Greetings Romenesko folk — my latest blog post is a reaction to Matt Thompson’s thoughts on the failings of the traditional news story. And the blog’s main page is here. Thanks for stopping by!)

I’m a fan of Paul Farhi’s — he’s a terrific writer and rarely gets snagged in the brambles of conventional wisdom. But I found his prescription for newspapers in the American Journalism Review at first baffling and then profoundly depressing. It’s a proposed course of action that sounds bold but is fundamentally a surrender — a suggestion that we go as gently as possible into that good night.

Farhi’s advice is that downplaying or dropping the Web entirely would be smart and potentially life-saving for the newspaper industry. Going print-only, he thinks, would eliminate the glut of commoditized Web news, put aggregators out of business and let newspapers avoid the pitiless and unproven economics of Web advertising.

It requires mental gymnastics worthy of Nadia Comaneci to accept the premise that newspapers could act in concert to turn off their Web servers. It takes a pretty profound suspension of disbelief to think that doing so would truly choke off other sources of news to which online readers would turn. (Would local TV news outlets also pull the plug on their Web operations? Would CNN and FoxNews?) But for a moment, let’s grant that these things could happen. Would the “massive migration back to print” that Farhi hopes for really follow?

I have my doubts, to put it mildly. Farhi himself notes that classifieds have dried up “like a desert lake,” hammering newspaper revenue, and that circulation declined 13.1% between 1999 and 2008. Yet eliminating online news wouldn’t bring classifieds back into print newspapers — they’d stay on Craigslist. Nor would job listings return to print papers — they’d stay on Monster.com. Those sources of revenues haven’t gone to the online side of the news house — they’ve left the house entirely. Car dealers and furniture stores wouldn’t shut down their Web outposts, or stop trying to reach online audiences directly. The essential problem with Farhi’s fantasy is that turning off the Web-news spigot would not restore newspapers’ historic, geographically based monopolies and their lost status as a key conduit by which businesses reached customers. Even playing by his odd house rules, most of the money that’s been lost wouldn’t return.

Nor, I suspect, would the readers. Newspaper circulation had been dwindling for some time when the Internet was still the province of scientists and academics. Yes, print readers are a loyal bunch. They’re also, on average, 55 years old. Younger generations, meanwhile, are no longer following the once-well-trodden path of settling down, raising a family and becoming civic-minded enough to start getting the paper — instead, they’re sticking with their youthful habits of grazing for news online. Farhi suggests these Web-reared readers would return to print, but there’s no return involved — they weren’t reading print in the first place. The problem would be the same: Print subscribers dying and not being replaced.

Meanwhile, on the Web side of the house Farhi hears birth pangs and calls them death throes.

Yes, online newspapers face significant challenges. Most newspapers still run their businesses as if the physics of geography and physical distribution protect them from competition, which is what has led to the glut of commoditized news that Farhi notes. (Again, how many movie critics do we really need?) Online, measures of advertising’s effectiveness are based on numbers rather than faith, and that has indeed made Web advertising much less rewarding than print. It’s far from certain that most newspapers will be able to pay the bills through subscriptions, donations or micropayments. All granted.

But online news is still very, very new — and still struggling to disengage itself from print models and print frameworks. It seems unlikely that Web-first newspapers will ever be as profitable as the print papers of years past, and it’s possible they will never be profitable. The peril of the online business model is its uncertainty.

Ah, but the print business model is even more perilous because of its certainty: an actuarial dwindling of audience amid a further leaching of advertising revenue. The fact that that business model is far more robust in the short term is a comfort only to those who aren’t looking beyond the short term. What Farhi is really proposing is a death sentence — that newspapers retreat to a single channel, become niche products that are decreasingly relevant, and then disappear.

There are no guarantees with digital-first newspapers, but there is hope — hope that repeated experimentation will point the way to an as-yet-elusive online business model, one that adapts newspapers’ traditional strengths and appeal to the new medium in which people increasingly live their lives.

The most promising way to find it? You don’t have to look far. “To compensate for the loss of immediacy, [newspapers] would have to be distinctive and singular, offering something that no Internet competitor could,” Farhi writes of his Web-free world. “They would have to differentiate themselves with exclusive information — all fresh, all local — compelling photography and courageous commentary. They’d still have to cover the news, but in a way that offered additional perspective, beyond the broad outlines available elsewhere. Even more than telling readers something they don’t already know, newspapers will need tons of hustle and enterprise and a unique personality.”

Farhi doesn’t seem to grasp it, but he’s just offered excellent advice for Web newspapers. He seems to think the hallmark of the Internet is immediacy, but it’s not — the Web is awash with up-to-date news that’s bland, interchangeable and essentially worthless. What succeeds online? It’s being distinctive and singular, offering something that can’t be copied. It’s offering perspective. It’s hustle and enterprise and personality.

It’s everything, in short, that Paul Farhi seems to think can only exist in print.

18 Responses

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  1. […] Paul Farhi’s Very Strange Advice « Reinventing the Newsroom. Share and […]

    • Tucker Mitchell said, on August 28, 2009 at 12:06 pm

      Jason Fry is correct that simply ditching the web at this point doesn’t make a lot of sense. Some hope and promise does remain for that product. I do wonder about his (and others) contention that printed newspaper are in a certain “actuarial” death spiral. I’m not sure that is the case. If content providers (no matter the medium) provide content that is unique and compelling, and if they correctly identify a market (geographic or otherwise) for that content, then they can call the tune with regard to distribution. Their worry then would not be print vs. online, but the medium of their choosing vs. competitors. A competitor could launch a website to compete with a print product (or vice versa). Given the generally gloomy outlook most have for print, that sort of Godzilla vs. Rodan battle would have a certain outcome. Online (Rodan?) would be the obvious victor. But is the outcome that certain? The Internet’s chief advantage is its immediacy. Better content (better reporting, writing, packaging) can trump immediacy, especially if an associated online presence helps make up for the immediacy shortfall.
      The bottom line, and one that should give hope to all journalistas, is that the news business will not disappear. Readers still want it. It still borders on a “need” for most people. The question, now as ever, is how to barter the ability to collect and distribute that news for some fresh bread, a little gasoline and maybe a new suit of clothes on a regular basis.

      • reinventingthenewsroom said, on August 28, 2009 at 1:06 pm

        Hi Tucker, appreciate your comments — thank you for writing, and for reading.

        We absolutely agree on the bottom line — journalism isn’t disappearing, and we shouldn’t let the struggles of a single channel frighten us into thinking that it will. (Though how much barter we’ll get for news in the future does scare me, at least in the short-term.)

        I don’t agree, though, with the idea that the Internet’s chief advantage is immediacy. Yes, that’s great — I like knowing things are happening in real time. But I still think its chief advantage is depth of information. If I want to know about, say, the Iranian crackdown on reformers, I can follow links and find an enormous amount to read (and context, history, other viewpoints, etc.)

        And why can’t we have great reporting, writing and packaging online? Surely those aren’t print-only characteristics.

  2. […] heads. Paul Farhi isn’t afraid to be that guy — and while I’m usually in the eyerolling camp, there are parts of his argument that I suddenly find compelling. There’s something devious […]

  3. Michael J said, on August 20, 2009 at 4:52 pm

    The thing is that news and making money have always had a very uneasy relationship. The fact that they have been conflated in the journalist world is not surprising. It was always such. The reality is that most people, most of the time don’t pick up a newspaper for the news. It’s the sports and the comics and mostly to have something to relieve the boredom of a commute or waiting at the barber shop or relaxing before dinner.

    As for reading. The fact is that reading is a niche audience. The average attention span is about 2.5 seconds. It was always such. That’s the reason for headlines, ledes, and lots of pictures and captions.

    I agree that the idea that somehow the flow of news can be stopped by newspapers not being on line. But, to earn money it’s all about the print product. Meanwhile the new advances in print tech will start changing the game again. Today, HP installed their second all digital 4c web press in the States. Oce, InfoPrint, Kodak are right behind them.

    That means 500 24 page black and white newspapers produced by a printer and sold at a profit for about 20 cents each. That means 1000 communities of interest times 50 = a circulation of 50,000. The other thing going in is that newspapers are experimenting with using twitterstreams for local advertising. So far only on the web, but I bet soon in print.

    To be clear, what has to be reinvented is a business model for journalism. The business case for ads and comics and pictures in print is alive and well.

    • reinventingthenewsroom said, on August 21, 2009 at 8:55 am

      Michael, I think that’s well said — Chris O’Brien had a similar critique at MediaShift Lab last week. I doubt that new advances in printing technology can do a lot to counter the shift of consumption and habit to the Web, but if it makes a better print product that’s part of the overall solution, I am of course all for it.

      Appreciate your stopping by!

  4. ed said, on August 20, 2009 at 5:48 pm

    I’m reading an awful lot about why this won’t work, but I don’t see in these comments the two examples of how it can work: The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. If they can make this work for their operations, why can’t the rest of the industry? There is clearly a thirst for news out there.

    • reinventingthenewsroom said, on August 21, 2009 at 8:49 am

      Hi Ed, thanks for reading and for commenting.

      As it happens I’m a veteran of the Wall Street Journal Online, and I do think its model can work for the rest of the industry. Here’s my take on WSJ.com’s model and why I think other papers should at least think about emulating it. That said, here’s why I think few papers can follow the lead of WSJ.com and the FT at the moment.

      More stuff like that is over there in the Paid Content category.

  5. Paul C. said, on August 20, 2009 at 6:41 pm

    Wall Street Journal makes money because people use it to MAKE MONEY. People will not pay for stories about cats stuck in trees or junior hitting a home run or a car fire on third street. Main street news can just as easily be disseminated via cell phone, text message, email, twitter, local blogger and any on one a dozen ways that are free. Rumor is much more effective way now than ever to spread news. LIke it or not.

    The problem is that many journalists are also so self absorbed that they think they are irreplaceable. No wonder so many of them like to drone on and on on twitter about what they eat for lunch and what color socks they wear. They assume people read what they write because THEY WROTE IT and they are trusted. Think again. They read it because they are intrigued. It could be written by a goat and people would still read it if it had a good headline.

    People will not pay for local news en masse. They will get “good enough” for free.

    Has nobody seen Epic 2015? It is all coming true.

    • reinventingthenewsroom said, on August 21, 2009 at 8:52 am

      Hi Paul, thanks for dropping by. Please see my comments on WSJ in my response to Ed above. I agree people won’t pay for local news en masse in the form in which it’s presented by many newspapers today. But for me, that means we find better forms and try to rebuild newspapers as communities, in hopes of creating something people will pay for.

  6. Mike said, on August 20, 2009 at 9:13 pm

    Farhi’s right, in a way. Nobody who reports news is making real money off the Web. Even aggregators like HuffPo don’t come close to coughing up the revenue and profits that a smallish, well-run newspaper in the middle of, say, Ohio, does.

    • reinventingthenewsroom said, on August 21, 2009 at 8:42 am

      Mike, I think Farhi is absolutely right in the short term. It takes a pretty rabid Web cheerleader to argue differently. But shouldn’t “potentially life-saving” advice look beyond the short term?

      The print business model’s medium- and long-term future is bleak, for any number of reasons Farhi himself notes: declining ad revenues, falls in subscription and circulation, etc. The Web business model’s short-term future is bleak, but its medium- and long-term future is, well, TK. Honing that business model will demand a lot of experimentation, with a lot of failures and no guarantee of success. But isn’t that a better bet than surrendering and accelerating the newspaper’s decline into niche productdom and then extinction?

      At any rate, appreciate your reading and commenting….

  7. Jamesonian said, on August 21, 2009 at 11:24 am

    I’m exactly on the fence with all of these issues and see things differently than you. I subscribe to and read the Post but also spend most of an hour with its online edition. I’m in my mid-40s, old enough to know why print is valuable but young enough to have grown up with the internet. To me, the issue isn’t whether print or web will win the day. The issue is much larger and significant; will journalism as a craft survive. Good, solid journalism takes time. Check your sources, interview your subjects, edit your copy. The web throws all of this out the window. Twitter allows politicians, athletes, actors, criminals, everyone to reach me directly. I no longer need the filter of learned journalists, do I? Speed it the commodity, not the content. The meduim is the message… um, wait. The web with its blogosphere, tweets and rss feeds make journalists look slow. In the age of instant gratification, that’s a killer.

    And who wants instant gratification? Infants, that’s who. The web, love it as I do, will turn the once proud field of journalism into so much pablum. It’s already happening.

    • reinventingthenewsroom said, on August 21, 2009 at 11:50 am

      I think you’re making some pretty big generalizations there. And you’re conflating “journalism” with “print newspapers.”

      How, exactly, does the Web throw the basics of good journalism out the window? Is the journalism on, say, Slate about speed and instant gratification? I read Farhi’s piece online — if it had only appeared online, would it have somehow become lacking?

      The Web is just a medium that can be “about” whatever use it’s put to. It isn’t “about” speed any more than print is about the ability to fold something on the subway. Yes, there are sites on the Web where speed is important. But there are also sites on the Web where discussions are important, or where using its possibilities to visually present information is important, or where letting people dig into an ocean of data is important, or where using links to create an authoritative survey of an issue is important.

      Moreover, the Web doesn’t make journalists look slow at all — it makes the print newspaper look slow, and quickly out of date. (If I’m interested in a serious, up-to-date take on the Afghan elections, should I go to today’s print New York Times, or to NYT.com?) But that doesn’t have anything to do with journalism — it has to do with the print paper, which is a delivery mechanism for journalism. The two aren’t remotely the same.

  8. Charles MacKay said, on August 23, 2009 at 10:29 am

    Two examples for print news to consider

    On the radio, Howard Stern for free pulled 12 million listeners, paid listeners on SatRad never exceeded 2 million.

    On the other hand, iTunes shows people will pay for content when maximum choice, full preview and a convenient payment system is used.

    I’m thinking good local stories could pull a few pennies per view and good national columns could pull a monthly subscription fee of a dollar or so.

    Are newspaper people going to be the folks who make that happen?

    Well, was it the music business that brought iTunes to the market? Nope!

  9. […] is really disappointing. As I wrote last week, I thought Farhi’s AJR article was myopic about the long-term future of the newspaper […]

  10. […] an even bigger disconnect — I wonder what Paul Farhi thinks of it? And given the challenging transformation the news industry faces, I find it even more […]

  11. […] The Inter­net and related “dis­rupters” aren’t going away, and pay­walls and online gouges will hurt WaPo, not help, espe­cially with all the new entrants like Patch and espe­cially at the local level. In the Post’s place, while rec­og­niz­ing that the paper edi­tions are the main source of rev­enue right now, I would start slowly phas­ing them out and divert­ing more resources to the Web side. Thin ‘em! Work toward the time when the papers edi­tions are mostly point­ers to the online side. Then sell the presses. Send the suck­ers off to India or Thai­land, assum­ing they’ll buy. Don’t do so imme­di­ately. But start the phase-out. As the music and book pub­lish­ing indus­tries have dis­cov­ered, the “tip­ping” point can come as lost faster than the skep­tics ever dared expect. Con­sider the demographic—all those news­pa­per lovers who are over 50. The Web push might even keep the older boomers read­ing longer. You can use large “type” and even audio to make the arti­cles use­ful to seniors who oth­er­wise might aban­don the WaPo habit. The iPad and the new, improved Kin­dle are exam­ples of the steady evo­lu­tion of the tech­nol­ogy, which will be get­ting a lot bet­ter. Farhi impresses me from afar as a smart and well-intentioned guy; and I hope he will come around even­tu­ally to the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the new media. Check out Jason Fry’s response to Farhi. […]


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