Tuesday, May 12, 2009

When are newspaper people going to stop whining?

Am I the only one getting sick of hearing newspaper types and former newspaper types wringing their hands over what's happening to newspapers and proclaiming their special role in our society?

Look, I could be perceived as one of the "victims" of the forces that are upending the long and successful run of newspapers. I'm one of the journalists who lost his job in the past few months.

But the idea that newspapers need special treatment or support from the government appals me. If strong local news organizations are really so important to our society, we'll figure out a way to make them successful. We've seen many examples of successful innovation in the past three decades, from CNN and NPR to Bloomberg and USA Today. We'll find a way to make local news organizations successful, too. It's just going to be rough getting there, and there could be a lot of wreckage along the way.

But the idea of freezing things the way they are by having the government protect existing franchises or their descendants is a fool's errand. I've lived under two JOAs and know that government involvement is no panacea.

Instead, let's look to experimentation, recognizing that much of what news organizations try won't work.

But before we ride the high horse of how important newspapers are or have been, let's remember how much of what they do and did really wasn't essential or watchdog journalism. They were part of their community conversation. They still can be. But they're going to have to look different. My belief is that they're going to have to become part of a network, something like a 21st century AP. The local office will be more like an AP bureau, although much bigger. They'll produce local products (print and web and mobile) as well as contribute to a national network. That's got to be the most efficient and least expensive way to enable most news organizations to focus on what can give them a competitive advantage: their knowledge of the local territory and their identity as watchdogs. But if they're going to do that, they're going to have to give up some things they think essential today.

Maybe that's going to require different owners and even different journalists. But if independent reporting is so important to our society, people will find a way to produce it.

73 comments:

  1. Well put. The other false promise is that becoming a non-profit will solve all. I advise a non-profit college newspaper, and I can tell you that non-profit does not mean non-revenue. The same issues and challenges facing the industry face us as well.

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  2. appals you? We all need copyeditors. Maybe with a tax break for democracy, you and I could afford one.

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