Friday, October 2, 2009

Dow Jones' Peter Kann on "Quality Reporting Doesn't Come Cheap"

The former chairman of Dow Jones, Peter Kann wrote an interesting article about what happened to print journalism. It's well worth reading "Quality Reporting Doesn't Come Cheap: The decline of newspapers is a tragedy for democracy. How can it be stopped?"

But here's a summary of the key points:
  • Free online versions enabled newspapers to expand readership.
  • There was one problem. Even as readership grew, revenues did not keep pace (that whole "free" price).
  • The new business model is not sustainable. And newspapers became more reliant than ever on advertising revenue to support journalism.
  • Yet, to continue to attract readers, online sites add bells and whistles and interactivity to their sites. With no way to charge for it. Greater investment, yet revenue grew slowly and indirectly.
  • Meanwhile, the main revenue generator -- print newspapers -- were increasingly perceived as less valuable because the news was actually old before it even reached subscribers.
  • Worse, newspapers let down its guard, which included the "blurring of traditional lines between news and opinion and news and entertainment, predatory pack journalism, an undue emphasis on conflict rather than context, pessimism and cynicism (as differentiated from appropriate skepticism and criticism), social orthodoxy, elitism, flea-like attention spans, and more. Yes, the traditional newsprint medium was becoming less appealing, but its messages also were becoming less enlightening."
  • The commonly held wisdom is that online newspapers can't charge readers for content because they're used to free. If readers must pay for online content, online readership will drop (although print readership may stop declining). Online advertisers would be upset to see readership decline, and would demand lower rates, diminishing the revenue stream.
But the real problem, Kann believes, is the threat to the practice of journalism.

"The real threat is to the future of news—informative, relevant, reliable news of the wider world around us. And that is disappearing as newspapers, whose reporting staffs still produce most of the news, no longer can afford to do so. As their news budgets and staffs continue to shrink, the key question is what can fill that gap?

"Television does not begin to fill it...(Even the) so-called cable news devote most of their resources to covering celebrities, crimes and sundry social trivia and to prime-time programming that pretends to be analysis and informed opinion..

"The Internet is not filling news vacuums either. There are hundreds upon hundreds of online sites and blogs that claim to provide news, but virtually none of them even pretend to pursue the traditional news role of newspapers, which is to invest in professional staffs dispersed around a community and across the country or the globe to cover, analyze, and only then comment on, events. Actually, all they do is comment."

Kann's point is one I've made many times on this blog: journalism is important to democracy. What's not clear is how we can protect our democracy by supporting (not bailing out) journalism.

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