Frank Rich’s column in today’s New York Times, “The American Press on Suicide Watch” (bold mine):
Newspaper circulations and revenues are in free fall. Legendary brands from The Los Angeles Times to The Philadelphia Inquirer are teetering. The New York Times Company threatened to close The Boston Globe if its employees didn’t make substantial sacrifices in salaries and benefits. Other papers have died. The reporting ranks on network and local news alike are shriveling. You know it’s bad when the Senate is moved, as it was last week, to weigh in with hearings on “The Future of Journalism.”
By way of context, from a recent AdAge report:
U.S. media employment in December fell to a 15-year low (886,900), slammed by the slumping newspaper industry.
Back to Frank Rich:
Such news gathering is not to be confused with opinion writing or bloviating — including that practiced here. Opinions can be stimulating and, for the audiences at Fox News and MSNBC, cathartic. We can spend hours surfing the posts of bloggers we like or despise, some of them gems, even as we might be moved to write our own blogs about local restaurants or the government documents we obsessively study online.
But opinions, however insightful or provocative and whether expressed online or in print or in prime time, are cheap. Reporting the news can be expensive. Some of it — monitoring the local school board, say — can and is being done by voluntary “citizen journalists” with time on their hands, integrity and a Web site. But we can’t have serious opinions about America’s role in combating the Taliban in Pakistan unless brave and knowledgeable correspondents (with security to protect them) tell us in real time what is actually going on there. We can’t know what is happening behind closed doors at corrupt, hard-to-penetrate institutions in Washington or Wall Street unless teams of reporters armed with the appropriate technical expertise and assiduously developed contacts are digging night and day. Those reporters have to eat and pay rent, whether they work for print, a TV network, a Web operation or some new bottom-up news organism we can’t yet imagine.
That’s really the core of the problem: News is expensive. I first began blogging about my opinions three years ago, and since then, I have made exactly $0 from this enterprise. Opinions are cheap.
Another recent report from ARTicles, the blog of the National Arts Journalism Program titled “Who Put These Guys In Charge: Why Newspapers Are Failing” explores the issue in greater detail:
- The back end digital news production structure at most newspapers is a mess.
- Many papers still bizarrely consider their online and paper versions separate operations.
- High-paid editors who ought to be spending their time on content spend their days snarled up in uploading jpegs and other technical mazes.
- Reporters and editors are pressed to add digital duties – blogs, podcasts etc – as add-ons to their “regular” jobs instead of incorporating the digital world as essential tools that should make their ability to gather and tell stories and interact with their communities easier. This shouldn’t add to the work load (but always seems to). Instead, these things ought to make reporting easier.
- Most web operations are seriously understaffed and technically deficient, making what should be even basic tasks difficult to impossible.
And all that lip service about how newspapers want to listen to their readers? Not really true. Sure, comments sections have given readers places to vent, but what newspapers are actually treating their readers as communities to be interacted with rather than loud voices demanding to be heard? What’s interesting about that?
The combination of these things (and many more) have combined to poison the business. Meanwhile social networks have amassed millions of users, prominent bloggers have begun making so much money they’re madly hiring editors and reporters, and winning awards. Some “small” editorial operations now have more daily readers than the New York Times.
Gannett Blog’s “Fire Sale: Gannett Values, Then And Now.”
Brand Republic’s “New York Times Cuts Sections and Gannett Profits Fall 60%.”
Paul Ouberjuerge’s “How Gannett Newspapers Got Into This Fix.” Quoting (bold mine):
The moral crime of newspaper chains such as Gannett is how much profit it deemed necessary.
People go nuts when Exxon or other oil companies report billions of dollars of profit. But that profit almost always is 10 percent or under. The profit itself is huge because the numbers are so big.
Gannett papers worked on smaller scales, but the percentage of what was taken out of each of its communities and sent off to Arlington (and, later, Reston) was staggering. Not even the oil companies expect, ever, 40 percent profit.
There is this, too: At some point, Gannett should have remembered it was a media company, a newspaper company, with all the First Amendment privileges and responsibilities that brings. It could have and should have spent more on its newspaper products and tried to scrape by on, oh, 20-25 percent profit.
Thus, when the crisis came — and we are in it now — Gannett papers had not progressed as they should have in new technologies. They are not as deeply enmeshed in their newspapers’ communities as they could have been and should be. They have not established a standard for competence and the accompanying reputation (as, say, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have) for such … and in times of crisis Gannett papers’ readership felt marginal loyalty to the hometown paper and is just walking away.
Remember, too, the Gannett model was based on a sort of advertising tyranny. Gannett preferred medium-sized papers in markets with little or no local TV, with little or no print competition — so it could set advertising prices higher than they should have been because advertisers had no real options for communicating information.