Sunday, June 7, 2009

Inky Newsprint and the Future of News in an A la Carte World

As a journalist (that's the day job), every day I hear the question, "What is the future of newspapers?"

My answer is, "There isn't one, if you expect the industry to look like it does today."

One can wander far into the weeds of monetizing online content, micropayments, content cannibalization, etc., etc. Far cleverer folks than me, and those that have actually worked in a major-newspaper newsroom (I've always been either a freelancer or a wire-service staff writer), have tackled these questions and no doubt do a better job of discussing these topics than I can.

Some recent sources for views on the subject are linked at the bottom of this post. But, as a newspaper outsider who is also a journalistic insider -- and vested in the outcome of this debate -- I'll default to what I do best, ask questions.

I'll offer a couple of answers for each, but you may have a very different perspective, and I hope you'll share it with me. Here we go...

What is a newspaper?

Literally speaking, it's a pile of inky newsprint, a delivery system for information, advertising and photographs. But when people say "newspaper," they usually refer to what I call the newsgathering infrastructure, the people and technology that produce what winds up on the inky newsprint.

For the record -- not fond of inky newsprint. I went more than a decade without a newspaper subscription, because I just detest dealing with inky newsprint. I get a Sunday paper now...for the coupons. The inky newsprint generally gets tossed.

But, I consume vast quantities of news, both on screen and online, much of it newspaper and magazine content. That's partly because it's free but mostly because it's convenient. If I had to pay, I probably would, but hardly anybody asks me to. Which leads me to another question...

Why do people buy a newspaper?

A few may get it for the paper itself, to wrap their fish or put at the bottom of a birdcage (it's also great for cleaning glass and absorbing odors in the fridge), and others enjoy the physical sensation of reading the paper, but mostly it's to get the information, ads and photos on the inky newsprint. The content, as always, is king.

In the past, buying the paper was the only way to get the content. And, you had to buy the whole paper to get the content that mattered most to you, which might be only the sports section, the stock quotes, the comics or the obituaries. Newspapers have always done surveys to determine which section of the paper people liked more and adjusted accordingly, but you still were stuck with an all-or-nothing choice.

Those days are gone. With the Internet and specialized cable channels, we can now seek out our favorite content and ignore the rest (whether that's good or bad in itself is a conversation for another day).

In restaurant terms, you could say we've gone from a prix fixe to an a la carte world. I don't have to get roast chicken, rosemary new potatoes and maple-glazed carrots just because that's what the chef or the restaurant owner put on the menu that day, if what I really want is roast chicken, sweet-potato puree and green beans almondine. Or maybe I just want the chicken, or the beans, or the puree. Or maybe I want pork chops or eggplant parmesan.

Or, I want dessert first (which I always do).

A similar problem faces TV networks, but since viewers can change channels, there's always been an element of a la carte viewing there. With DVDs, DVRs, On Demand and the Internet, viewers have even more freedom now, but it's never been the case that you had to watch all of ABC to just see "Desperate Housewives," and the advertising rates for TV networks have never been based on an all-or-nothing model.

Newspapers, on the other hand, have been doing just that. You've never been able to buy just the sports section, or just the obits, and the popular sections of the paper have often carried the financial freight for the more specialized or estoeric sections.

Yeah, that's going away.

Just because people have never had a choice doesn't mean they wouldn't jump on the chance to have one if only they could. Digital distribution makes it very hard, if not soon impossible, to herd people to content through a few carefully controlled gateways (where you pay the price of admission, of course). That's great for the unfettered dissemination of information but lousy for figuring out advertising rates or viable subscription models.

People want only what they want, when they want it, the way they want it, and on the Internet, unless it's merchandise or porn, they usually don't want to pay for it.

But let's face facts, we're not going to get professional journalism or professionally produced entertainment unless we pay professional salaries to the professionals that make it. Without a viable way to monetize digital distribution, we're looking down the barrel of a future dominated by blogs about other blogs and user-generated YouTube videos.

That stuff's fine as as an appetizer or a side dish, but the whole meal?

So, how to get people to want to pay admission to go through a gateway to get content?

Let's go back to the restaurant analogy. There are prix fixe restaurants, and people go to them and often pay top dollar. Why, when they could go to an a la carte restaurant and pick every element of their meal?

It's because they trust the chef to make good choices about what goes on the plate, perhaps better and more inventive and tastier choices than they might have made on their own. They're paying not only for the food, but for the expertise that went into choosing, preparing and combining the dishes.

And the chef won't give it to them any other way. No substitutions allowed.

If diners couldn't live with that, they'd go to a family buffet place or a fast-food joint or cook for themselves at home. Many do that, but not everyone, and even for those that do, maybe not every meal. And, as a side note, those who choose to trust the chef are often part of an upscale, highly desirable demographic.


Obviously, the restaurant thinks the combined cost of the ingredients and the preparation, and what they're paying for the chef's expertise and technique, means the food produced has value. Things that have value are generally not given away -- or if they are, only as a teaser to get you to pay up later.

It's hard to imagine Gordon Ramsay maintaining his reputation if you could walk into any of his restaurants off the street and demand a beef Wellington and a risotto for nothing but the lint in your pocket.

But, he might put a kiosk out front that gives you a sample bite, if the restaurant's on a highly trafficked street, but you certainly won't get the whole yummy meal unless you fork over some cash.

And if you were getting Gordon Ramsay's food for free, wouldn't you start to wonder how he pays for that? Is that really beef in that pastry? Doesn't bear thinking about.

One wonders then, why those that operate the newsgathering infrastructures think what they offer has no value and should be tossed out there for free. But now I'm getting into monetizing digital distribution and way out of my area of expertise. Back to the questions.

Again, what is the future for newspapers?

Dismal. But the future of news, very bright -- maybe just not primarily provided on those piles of inky newsprint (which, I know, is very bad news for those who work the printing presses and drive the delivery trucks, not to mention the kid on his bike with a paper route).

To prepare for this, journalists are going to have to learn some new skills, not just writing and talking, but also editing audio and video.

The survival of the mainstream news media also comes down to a question of trust. If you trust a chef to give you a quality meal, you'll pay the going rate and be a loyal customer. If you think he or she is sloppy, uses inferior ingredients or, because of an innate preference for garlic, insists on sneaking it into everything, including the creme brulee, you'll move on.

Just at the time they need their readers' trust and loyalty the most, too many newspapers have chosen to serve their own opinions and interests instead of the truth. Last year, a reporter actually said to me, "Truth has a liberal bias." He was serious.

I doubt that the Founding Fathers, when they decreed in the First Amendment to the Constitution that we should have a free press, had that in mind. But it is a free press, which means people can also let their biases run free, and the market will sort it out. Looking around, I suspect the market may have spoken.


What can we do?

As a journalist, I can try to do my best, day by day, and hope people at the higher pay grades figure out a way to keep the lights on. It's up to everyone else in the newsgathering infrastructure to make sure they're providing a service worth paying for, a balanced meal of news, information, images and interactive content that engages users and readers and makes them feel like they're getting good value for their time and dollar.

Oh, and serving the truth instead of themselves -- that's also helpful.

But it's you, as readers (or users or viewers), that have the final say.

Will you support good journalism where you find it?

What's it worth to you to know more about your world and the people making decisions that affect your life?

Will you just consume the results of others' efforts without ever paying the check?

If the answers to the above are no, nothing and yes, and the ad-supported model for online news doesn't pan out, we might as well just turn out the lights now, lock the doors and flip the sign over to "Closed."

Maybe one of the folks below will come up with a solution...

Eat, Sleep, Publish -- Thoughts on the future of publishing.

Content Bridges, linking old and new media.

A cheeky piece, posted just yesterday, from Boing Boing.

Jack Myers, from the Huffington Post last year.

A more hopeful vision, from the U.K., about a month ago.

From late May, a Greek news editor ponders the paperless future of news.

And some video of Charlie Rose, discussing the subject with a panel of news heavyweights, from February.

And finally, where I learn everything about what's happening in my home city of Los Angeles: Curbed LA and the L.A. Now blog from the Los Angeles Times (which has a pretty colorful past).

UPDATE: This former editor of the former Rocky Mountain News examines the results of a meeting of newspaper honchos, and he's seriously bummed; this journalism instructor isn't too jazzed about the value of journalism; Time Magazine's media critic plots out worst-case scenarios; and "Reflections of a Newsosaur does the same, relating it to the troubles of the auto industry, which I discussed here.

There's more out there, but you get the idea.


Anonymous said...

You raise so many great questions. The key issue is without professionals to dig, find and objectively report the news, we are at the mercy of those who decide to post a blog. They may or may not be the best reporters.

One of my major concerns about the shift from "inky newsprint" to digital copy is the fluidity and impermanence of the words on a screen. What is stated as fact today can be erased and replaced in seconds without any evidence of tampering or change. Wikipedia is an interesting concept, but I can't rely on it for facts.

Kate O'Hare said...

This is true. A blog post or a digital news story is a mutable thing. Perhaps news websites might need to institute a system that flags any changes (aside from correcting typos or something) in the text of a piece.

Is there a clever software engineer out there who could create such a system?

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