Tuesday, April 21, 2009

How wrong can newspaper critics get?

Michael Wolff and Craig Newmark may be smart, but they sound about as clueless about the newspaper industry as maybe newspaper industry leaders did talking about the Internet oh so many years ago.

Wolff told a New York audience that "“About 18 months from now, 80 percent of newspapers will be gone." Please. Times are bad. Especially for the major metropolitan newspapers people like Wolff concern themselves with. But the reality is that in many small to mid-size markets, newspapers remain healthy, despite the terrible economic downturn. What good does it do the debate to spew such over-the-top, attention-getting predictions? I wouldn't want to run a company burdened with the debt of many of our major newspaper companies, but I'd love to own many small American newspapers that continue to play an important role in the commercial and civic lives of their communities.

Wolff blame Craigslist for the demise of the newspaper industry. That's way too easy. Of course it's true that the Internet has sapped the classified revenue that boosted newspapers for so long. But it's possible to imagine successful newspapers with no classifieds. One smart ad director I know insists that newspapers should separate classifieds from their core business and let them live or die on their own as independent businesses. And that newspapers should build their revenue and expense budgets without taking into account any classified revenue. There are many more reasons than Craigslist that traditional content companies - newspapers, radio, television and magazines - are suffering.

As for Newmark, Craigslist's founder, he also sounds out of touch. He argues that newspapers are struggling because they failed the public's trust.
“They failed on that weapons of mass destruction thing. And they failed on that financial collapse thing,” Newmark said at the event. Again, setting aside whether he's right on both points, does anybody really think that readers judge the Aspen Times or The Denver Post, the Lexington Herald-Leader or the Louisville Courier-Journal, based on those two issues. We know that readers generally care about issues much closer to home, whether newspapers are covering their local communities with commitment. Newspapers have much more complicated relationships with their readers than he gives them credit for. While users may love the ease of use and effectiveness of Craigslist, there is much they love about newspapers, too. Try removing a comic from a newspaper, or dropping a puzzle, and you'll know what I'm saying is true. And neither has anything to do with public service.


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