Saturday, March 28, 2009


Journalists and technology writers are enamored with communications technology and tend to portray successful technologies as representing large scale trends. We are regularly presented with news stories and promotional materials about the rise of new technologies and about how their uses create social trend that are significantly altering society.

The release of the new iPhone was recently featured on network evening news, Blackberry has been heavily discussed because its use by Pres. Obama, and Twitter has been featured in numerous television and newspaper stories. The impression given by coverage is that anyone who doesn’t have an iPhone or Blackberry and anyone who doesn’t Twitter is out of touch with the mainstream and being left out of modern society.

These new means of communications offer interesting possibilities, but their consumption needs to be seen realistically. Blackberry, for example, has 14 million subscribers-- about 5 percent of all mobile phone users in the US. iPhones represents about 1 percent of mobile phone users. The number of Twitter users is currently around 1 million, representing only about 3 tenths of 1 percent of the US population.

Certainly those kinds of numbers can create businesses successes for their firms, but we have to be realistic in interpreting their overall impact on technology markets, social interaction, and diffusion of technologies. Not everyone wants to or will be equally wired, communicating, or sharing mundane details of their lives with their friends and the world. Some persons will find communications enabling technologies more rewarding in business and personal terms than other persons.

It is easy to forget the size of market when discussing the impact of diffusion of technologies. Without doing so, however, one gets a warped sense of their role in contemporary life.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


The Newspaper Revitalization Act introduced by Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., would permit newspapers to operate as not-for-profit entities under the tax code and is being heralded by some observers as a means of saving newspapers, much as was the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970. Good purposes aside, it is useful to study the act to determine whether it will actually accomplish the goals that are stated as its rationale.

The bill is a small bill, about 435 words, that would amend the IRS Code of 1986 to permit newspapers to be given 501(c)(3) status, thus obtaining tax exempt status and the ability to accept charitable contributions. Currently tax laws do not permit newspapers to be operated tax exempt, but they do have mechanisms that permit foundations to own them or support them financially.

Paragraph (b)(1) of the bill would allow general circulation newspapers “publishing on a regular basis” to establish themselves as tax exempt organizations. The language does not limit periodicity so daily, bi-weekly, weekly, monthly, and other combinations would be possible. It would thus permit a range of neighborhood and community non-dailies, as well as dailies to use the mechanism.

Paragraph (b)(2) stipulates that the newspaper contain “local, national, and international news stories.” This section is somewhat problematic because non-dailies, particularly neighborhood and community papers, do not typically carry national and international news and nationally oriented dailies do not typically carry local news. The bill contains no provisions that require local creation of content, thus allowing publishers to fill a paper only with syndicated material or other content produced elsewhere.

Paragraph (c) permits advertising, but limits it “to the extent that the space allotted to all such advertisements….does not exceed the space allotted to fulfilling the educational purpose of such qualified newspaper corporation.” This provision is apparently intended to ensure advertising does not dominate the content and effectively limits advertising to 50 percent of the content. This provision, however, is problematic because daily newspapers and most non-dailies currently contain two-thirds to three-quarters advertising. Indeed the regulations governing Post Office (USPS) distribution limit advertising to 75 percent.

The bill does not require that newspapers have paid subscriptions or even requests to receive the paper, as do USPS regulations, so it would apply free circulation papers.

By giving not-for-profit status to newspapers, the bill would also make the paper eligible for USPS not-for-profit rates, which would permit lower postal delivery rates for such papers than those afforded for-profit papers. This might raise issues regarding the fairness of competition if commercial publishers exist in the market

It should also be noted that the bill makes no provision to limit payments to publishers and editors. This creates the potential for some abuse. A small commercial publisher could use the mechanism to become “non profit” to avoid company taxes by not taking compensation from profits but taking a higher salary instead—effectively letting tax payers subsidize his/her income.

One drawback of using 501(c)(3) status is that entities are not permitted to engage in direct political activities, such as endorsing candidates for local, state, or national office or possibly even taking positions on governmental proposals. This would somewhat limit the scope of content and could lead to IRS investigations if complaints were made to the IRS that a paper was taking sides, was too conservative or liberal, or evidenced some other kind of agenda that was deemed political activity.

It appears that the overall effect of the bill would be limited. It will be appealing to very few dailies and most neighborhood and community papers will have difficulties complying with its content and advertising requirements. Even with tax exempt status, the costs of creation, publishing, distribution of a newspaper probably can not be covered by many publishers with a 50 percent ad limit, unless they are especially effective at raising charitable contributions over time.

The bill appears to be well intentioned, however, it can not solve the problem it purports to address in its current form and creates potential for some abuse.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Journalists keep raising the crescendo of the chorus that journalists are losing their jobs and journalism is suffering. They point to the fact that about 10 percent of journalists have disappeared from newspapers since the millennium when U.S. newsroom employment reached a peak of 56,373.

It is true that cutbacks are pandemic these days, and that these employment reductions hit close to home for journalists, but some context is usually useful when considering the numbers and their impact. Let’s take a look at the U.S. numbers.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors has conducted a newsroom employment census for 3 decades and it presents a telling story. According to the latest ASNE newsroom employment figures, there are 22 percent more journalists in newspapers than there were in 1977 (43,000 in 1977; 52,600 in 2007). Even granting employment losses of 2,000-4,000 since the last census, employment is still about 18 to 20 percent higher than it was in the 1970s. That doesn't seem like an industry employment CRISIS, except for those who unfortunately lost their jobs.

If mere numbers of journalists are considered an indicator of quality, the growth of journalist employment from 1970s to 2000 should have made journalism extraordinary in the 1980s and 1990s. No one should have been surprised by the savings and loan debacle, the Soviet Bloc collapsing, the international debt crisis in developing nations , U.S. aid to governments in central America and the Iran-contra affair, child labor in the developing world, the explosive growth of Chinese economy, or rising domestic and international terrorism. But we were surprised and journalists didn't forewarn us. Obviously, the attention of the rising number of journalists was turned elsewhere.

If you look at newsrooms you can see the problem. Most journalists in newspapers do everything BUT covering significant news. They spend their time doing celebrity, food, automobile, and entertainment stories. Look around any newsroom, or just the lists of assignments or beats, and you soon come to realize that 20 percent or fewer of the journalists in newsrooms actually produce the kind of news that most people are concerned about losing.

It is not the mere number of journalists that matters; it’s the choices that editors and publishers make about how to use the journalists available to them. Journalists are a crucial resource and how they are utilized has a significant influence on quality. Few newspapers have cut sections or types of coverage, choosing instead to cut throughout the newsroom and not to reassign journalists to the kinds of journalism that matters most to society.

It should also be noted that decisions where to cut employment in newsrooms have not been equally spread among employment categories either. According to ASNE statistics the number of newsroom supervisors has declined only seven tenths of one percent since 2000; copy editors 1 percent, photographers and artists 10 percent, and reporters 11 percent. There may be reasonable rationales for that, but the numbers seem unusually lopsided to me. If there are fewer reporters and photographers to be supervised and edited, one would expect that fewer editors and supervisors would be required and warranted.

Maybe it’s about time that journalists stop whining about their troubles and initiate some internal discussions about how their own newsrooms are structured and operated.

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.,8599,1877191-4,00.html

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.