By Dan Kennedy
Following years of retreat in the face of shrinking readership, mounting financial losses, and a rising chorus of digital visionaries telling them they’re doing it all wrong, 2012 will be a year of retrenchment for newspaper publishers.
Still standing some three years after the near-implosion of the newspaper industry in 2008 and 2009, executives will point to their continued existence as proof that their situation was never as bad as it seemed, and that a few tweaks here and there will restore them to pink-cheeked, if downsized, health.
Their rallying cry will be Dean Starkman’s essay in the November/December 2011 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, “Confidence Game.” In the course of nearly 8,000 words, Starkman dismisses those he calls the “news gurus” (principally Clay Shirky and Jeff Jarvis), arguing they are more interested in promoting their own the-sky-is-falling agenda than in the fate of public-interest journalism. Starkman calls for the preservation of traditional journalistic institutions, which brought a memorable retort from Shirky:
Saying newspapers will provide a stable home for reporters, just as soon as we figure out how to make newspapers stable, is like saying that if we had some ham, we could have a ham sandwich, if we had some bread.
Starkman’s essay is actually a nuanced, deeply intelligent meditation on the future of journalism, but it’s the caricature — newspapers good, news gurus bad — that traditionalists will embrace. That is especially true with respect to the notion that online readers have been getting a free ride, and that it’s time to insist that they start paying.
At The Boston Globe, for instance, several staff members have taken to tweeting “This is why we pay for journalism” whenever their paper has published something particularly noteworthy — a reference to the Globe’s newly instituted paywall. Never mind that we have always paid for journalism — until recently, primarily through advertising. Never mind that NPR, some commercial broadcast outlets and a rising tide of non-profit news organizations are producing excellent journalism every day that is paid for by someone other than the end user. The unspoken message is, We hard-working journalists have been giving away our work for 15 years, and we’re finally putting a stop to it.
In fact, there are reasons to hope the traditional newspaper industry might have a bit more life left in it than we thought a few years ago. The Globe and The New York Times, both owned by The New York Times Company, are pioneering the use of flexible paywalls that keep much of their content open to social networks and blogs while imposing a fee on regular readers. The Times, at least, has had some success; the Globe has not yet released any numbers. Publishers everywhere are hoping to emulate them.
The forces that have been undermining newspapers since the rise of the commercial web in the mid-1990s will come back to the fore.
Since advertising comprises an ever-shrinking share of revenues, publishers have to persuade readers to pay in the form of higher prices for print and something — anything — for online access. The alternative is to continue sliding toward oblivion. And despite some promising experiments here and there, it’s still not at all clear what would replace newspapers, especially at the local level. For every community that has a high-quality non-profit news site like Voice of San Diego (currently experiencing its own problems) and the New Haven Independent, or a for-profit like The Batavian or Baristanet, there are hundreds without anything but their shrinking, debt-ridden, chain-owned local newspaper.
The great newspaper retrenchment may prove to be more than a dead-cat bounce. As the economy slowly improves, the newspaper business may well enjoy a semi-revival. But before long, the forces that have been undermining newspapers since the rise of the commercial web in the mid-1990s will come back to the fore. Some progressive newspaper executives, like John Paton of Digital First Media, are trying to figure out how to combine the best of the new and the old before it’s too late. For the most part, though, you can be reasonably sure that newspaper companies will continue to cut costs, maximize profits (or minimize losses), and do their best ostrich imitations until they find themselves under siege once again.
They’re standing up for traditional values — and what could be more traditional than failing to plan for the future?
Wall image via Mark Heard used under a Creative Commons license.