Reinventing the Newsroom

Paul Farhi Ducks the Question

Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, Paid Content by reinventingthenewsroom on August 26, 2009

This is from a (generally Redskins-themed) Washington Post chat with Paul Farhi, about his recent American Journalism Review article calling on newspapers to save themselves by building high pay walls around Web content, or discontinuing it completely:

Re: Bloggers: Why aren’t bloggers more interested in helping newspapers make a go of it on-line? If we lose the big newspapers, what will they aggregate and/or comment on? I mean, CakeWrecks will probably still be in business, but anyone whose subject is current events will suffer greatly with no original material to work with.

Paul Farhi: I generally agree with you, although sadly, newspapers have cut back so much that they are providing less and less original material all the time. I can’t imagine a world (or an internet) without the raw factual material that newspapers provide every day, but I guess the bloggers don’t really care about any of that. They’re mostly about themselves and their opinions, with little thought given to where they’re getting their basic facts.

This is really disappointing. As I wrote last week, I thought Farhi’s AJR article was myopic about the long-term future of the newspaper industry and curiously blind about Web journalism, a combination that made it bad advice.  But I also thought it was honestly argued, not skating over the industry’s woes or bogging down in pointless Web/print cultural jihads.

If the questioner read Farhi’s AJR piece he didn’t understand it, but Farhi turns an irrelevant question into an opportunity to offer the kind of smug generalization one would expect from, say, the reader representative of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer.

This blogger cares deeply about newspapers and desperately wants them to stay around. That’s why Reinventing the Newsroom exists — in hopes that it might play some small role in helping papers adapt to the Web, pursue digital experiments, and find answers that work. It’s what my employer, EidosMedia, does every day in trying to create and refine editing-and-publishing software that turns the challenges of simultaneously publishing for the Web and print into opportunities. It’s what innumerable other journalists-turned-bloggers and companies and experimental Web sites and even established newspapers are trying to do, too.

I can imagine a world (or an Internet) without the raw factual material that newspapers provide every day — and the reason I objected so vociferously to Farhi’s AJR article was that I think his advice would make that world arrive much more quickly.

To reiterate my objections, retreating from the Web would not bring back many of the sources of revenue lost by print papers — that money hasn’t gone to online newspapers, but to other Web sites, and it’s not coming back. It’s highly unlikely a retreat from the Web would spur a return to print by online consumers of news, because an ever-increasing number of those online consumers never read print in the first place. Farhi rightly points out the perilous uncertainties of the Web business model, but ignores the even-more perilous certainties of the print business model, with its vanishing revenue streams and dwindling numbers of aged subscribers. His advice for newspapers amounts to short-term wisdom but long-term folly, and to my mind his unconventional wisdom is really a blueprint for surrender.

Whether we like it or not, print newspapers are becoming a niche product. The way to ensure newspapers are more than niche products in the future is to find Web-first business models that will work, ones that will preserve newspapers’ considerable strengths while shedding parts of its print legacy that are online weaknesses. By all means, let’s argue about the best way to do that. But broad-brush attacks on Ol’ Devil Bloggers are a pointless distraction from the real argument and the real work to be done.

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  2. Roy Peter Clark said, on August 26, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    Nice take, Jason. I’m always skeptical about the kind of dichotomous thinking that you challenge so well here. Let me describe this dilemma — or perhaps opportunity. I’m now 61 years old, and my mom is in great health and headed for 91. So let’s say my life expectancy is, like my dad’s, 86. That gives me 25 years to read the paper if the paper continues to feed my interests.

    I know many Boomers who feel the same way. I meet them all the time, civilians interested in the news: “Please don’t let THEM take away my paper. I love my paper. I need it first thing every morning….” Now while such a sentiment is certainly shrinking, and will rarely be expressed by many younger folks, the Boomers represent a huge and influential population. They, we, are the pig in the python.

    And, until a new business model comes along, we represent a faithful constituency willing to buy the paper and provide eyeballs for advertisers. So if newspapers are destined to be niche publications, I believe they can remain a big niche — at least till we Boomers climb the Golden Staircase. Cheers — and sorry bout them Mets.

    • reinventingthenewsroom said, on August 27, 2009 at 8:59 am

      Hi Roy, thanks for stopping by.

      Sure, a quarter-century’s worth of niche is nothing to take lightly. But there has to be something coming along after that, or you’re not replacing subscribers. In which case the niche gets smaller and smaller, until it’s so small that it’s unsustainable. Which is where I think Farhi’s advice leads us.

      So what’s the something? That’s the billion-dollar question.

      The awful thing nobody wants to admit about Web newspapers is that it’s possible there is no Web business model for a newspaper industry that resembles what we have today — an industry that is pretty remarkable for all its shortcomings and current woes and aggravating conservatism. If that’s true, then Farhi’s advice may yield a controlled crash that’s the best we can do. But I think we’re a long way from saying that’s true — and given the stakes, we ought to try most everything before we come to that conclusion.

      Anyway, appreciate your reading and commenting. As for the Mets, well, April 2010 gets closer every day.

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