Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Judging from the continuing panicked commentary by big media journalists and commentators, newspapers are dead and dying. They are comatose, the family is gathering at the bedside, and quiet discussions are taking place about whether to disconnect them from life support.

Walter Isaacson writing in Time Magazine last week told us that “the crisis in journalism has reached meltdown proportions” and that we can save newspapers by starting to make micropayments for articles we read online.

David Carr, writing in New York Times, this week tells us that a “digitally enabled free fall in ads and audience now has burly guys circling major daily newspapers with plywood and nail guns.” We need to start charging for news, forcing aggregators to pay, turn away from ad support, and start thinking about new ways of collaboration even if they require a new antitrust exemption.

Jonathan Zimmermann writing in Christian Science Monitors tells us “The American newspaper is dead.” And that we can save its functions by having professors write for the public.

Nickle and dime-ing readers like the airlines? Special treatment from the government? Relying on professors to tell us what's going on? Have journalists gone mad?

It some ways they have. They are panicking at problems in big city media and ignoring the fact that most newspapers are relatively stable and reasonably healthy. The only newspapers experiencing serious competitive difficulties are those in the top 25 markets (about 1 percent of the total) and these are joined in suffering by corporate newspaper companies whose executives have made serious managerial mistakes.

Journalists are sometimes their own worst enemies, and this is one such time. Through overly pessimistic outlooks and sweeping generalization, they may be hastening the obituaries of some weak papers by making readers and advertisers think their serve no purpose today.

Discussion of the newspaper industry’s situation is confused because many observers do not separate its short-term problems with the economy from the challenges of long-term trends. Then they compound that problem by using papers as examples of industry developments that are unrepresentative because of their market situations and managerial errors.

Most newspapers continued making profits up to the current financial crisis and many papers whose parents went into bankruptcy were doing likewise. They will make profits again when the recession ends as they have done in the past.

The Rocky Mountain News did not die because the newspaper industry is in trouble, but because it was the secondary paper in the market and the joint operating agreement was not enough to save it. Several other JOA papers are on their way to oblivion for the same reasons. The Journal Register Co. and Tribune Co. went into bankruptcy not because its newspapers were unable to survive but because its management took on far too much corporate debt.

Clearly, large metro papers are suffering from the effects of competition from television, cable, and Internet. But that same pain is not being felt by most of the nation’s papers that operate in small and mid-sized towns and are the primary or only significant provider of news in their communities. They will continue to survive for many years because their content is unique and because their local advertisers are not well served by other media options.

What we need is a dose of realism in the discussion of the journalistic situation today. Most papers are NOT in the hospital, let alone comatose. The dead and the dying may be there and if so it is because they can't figure out how to give readers something worth paying for.