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Eugene L. Meyer

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The Future of Print Journalism
10/15/2009 6:20:51 AM    [ Flag as Inappropriate ]

The future of print journalism is nothing to write home about. The present may be even worse. Herewith my presentation at a recent Columbia College reunion.


By Eugene L. Meyer © 2009

The Past

A sage editor once wrote: “Press no longer has special significance. Electronic and film transmission of news, even new printing methods, are leaving it behind and it is entirely possible in the not so remote future that it will go the way of the street car.... News has found fresh channels.... News is vocalized in broadcasts and animated in films. As journalism migrates into new areas of communication, its practitioners, too, are on the move. The commerce in information flourishes and quickens its tempo, new skills are developed, and the major problem for the newspaper journalist is to keep his readers from migrating, too.”

This could have been written yesterday, but I am quoting from The Fading American Newspaper, a book written by Carl E. Lindstrom, a former editor at the Harford Courant and published in 1960. That, of course, is the year we entered Columbia, and here we are again, nearly 50 years later, at the same place temporally and intellectually, grappling with the same issues presciently raised then.

The point is the crisis in print journalism didn't just happen upon us. Fresh from the college, I went to work for the New York Herald Tribune in Washington as the bureau librarian. A year later, as I was having a one-week tryout on the city desk, the newspaper merged with two others. A year later the World Journal Tribune died. My career path took me next to the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, which in its last days morphed into a morning newspaper. But with readers getting their late news from television, evening newspapers also became extinct, the Bulletin I believe in 1981.

By then, I was happily employed by the Washington Post, which seemed to have unlimited potential for growth and success, having purchased its main rival the Washington Times-Herald in 1954. Its remaining competition - two afternoon papers, the Daily News -- once home to the great Ernie Pylee and later to a young later-to-be supreme court reporter for the New York Times, Tony Lewis -- and the Washington Star also expired during my first several years at the Washington Post - leaving my employer with what seemed like a virtual monopoly, with a circulation that grew to 800,000 daily and one million on Sundays. In the midst of all this, we became the paper of Watergate. We reporters deluded ourselves into thinking we were not working stiffs plying a trade but professionals somehow elevated above the messy business of, well, business.

But behind all the self-glorification tectonic changes were taking place. Publishers of family-owned owned enterprises, such as the post, went public with the sale of stock to raise capital. Once wall street became a factor, the focus shifted from the long-term outlook to the quarterly bottom line, as investors demanded a quicker higher return on their investments. Some chains, such as Gannet, set high bars -- 20 percent profits compared to, say, 3% in the supermarket business -- and began cutting staffs and news budgets to get there -- during boom times, no less.

Then along came the Internet. At first we saw the migration of classified ads from print to on-line. Even if the movement was to the newspaper's own web site, the revenue stream could not compare. Newspapers did not panic, at first. Afraid to be behind the technological curve, they created their own web sites, and began posting not only classifieds but their editorial content on line. For free. In retrospect - and some of us thought so at the time - this made no sense. Soon, the papers began scooping their print editions on their Internet sites, leaving even less reason for readers to go out and actually pay for the print publication.

The Present

While newspapers were investing great sums in the new technology - to little effect in terms of income - we were hit with the current Great Recession -- which, for many hundreds of thousands of Americans is no less than the second Great Depression. This was the second wave in the tsunami that threatens to sink journalism.

Last September, at the National Press Club, I was on a panel the topic of which was reporters without newsrooms. By then, having taken the first of what have now been four newsroom buyouts at the Washington Post, I was one of them and I was called upon to offer survival tips. Some of the advice I had to impart ten months ago would seem beside the point today because, frankly, things have gotten so much worse in such a short time. During the first quarter of 2009, for instance, newspapers recorded their steepest advertising declines in modern history -- 28.3 percent overall and even worse for classifieds, the traditional cash cow -- 42.3%. At the same time, layoffs, buyouts and pay cuts have accelerated. New York Times reporters and editors are being paid 5% less though the end of the year, with the possibility of layoffs still looming over them.

This catastrophe has also hit the freelance world, as markets have dried up or simply gone away. Many of the publications that remain are paying freelancers less and - or late. Once we argued for extra pay to put our stories on-line. Now we're grateful to get paid at all.

We on this panel are not detached academics and this is no academic exercise. We have all been affected directly by the tsunami that is sweeping away the institutions that are at the very heart of news-gathering and indeed of a vibrant, informed democracy -- institutions that are now flippantly dismissed by the promoters of on-line nirvana as nothing more than quote legacy media.

The media in general tends to report the numbers in an impersonal way. Thus, we are informed that the other month some 650,000 jobs were lost -- not that 650,000 more people became unemployed, jobless, with the cascading impact on their families and their communities.

We tend to cover "job losses" within our own industry also in numerical terms of buyouts, layoffs, wage freezes and wage reductions. Apart from the obvious fact that these numbers reflect the contraction within the news business - and result in fewer reporters to cover the news and thus fewer stories reporter - it comes down to this:

As author Barbara Ehrenreich told recent journalism graduates at the University of California at Berkeley: "You are not alone. How do you think it feels to be an autoworker right now? And I’ve spent time with plenty of laid off paper mill workers, construction workers and miners. They've got skills; they've got experience. They just don't have jobs. So let me be the first to say this to you: welcome to the American working class." She added, poignantly: "You have skills, but will anybody pay you for them?"

A close friend was severed, laid off from her job of 28 years with a prominent chain-owned daily, the only paper she'd ever worked for. She was summarily escorted from her office, given three or four hours to gather her things and leave. After months of unemployment, she finally landed another job, as an editor and reporter with a Washington publication, which has since been acquired and gone through its own layoffs. Fortunately, she survived the cut. But just as her family - which includes a college-bound son and a daughter still in high school - was allowing itself a small sigh of relief, her husband - a veteran editor and a former colleague of mine -- fell victim to the latest buyout offer. Let's put the word offer in quotes, because he was told he could take it and leave or see if any other section of the paper would have him. After many years of loyal service, he was effectively let go. Surprise: he took the buyout - and joined the swollen ranks of ex-Posties, or postpartums, as we call ourselves.

Think of it: in less than five years, four buyouts, totaling more than 200 editorial employees. The institutional memory is gone, along with the life experience that enriches the product.

The contraction in our business has had a visible impact not only on the quantity of the news and investigative stories but also on the quality. Without copy editors, more and more errors go uncaught and uncorrected -- egregious errors of fact and grammar. Will it come to pass that once respectable publications have little more value than do uninformed blogs?

As my colleague Joan Jacobson, a former Baltimore sun reporter, has written: "And unless new internet sites find ways to pay journalists to blow the competition out of the water, to report stories that are true bell ringers, the bureaucrats and the politicians - and the banks and investment companies - can rest assured that their misdeeds will never come to light."

The Future

Richard Stengel, the managing editor of time magazine, does not despair. He says the three b's will save print journalism. These are, he says, bedrooms, bathrooms and the beach. I am not as optimistic. The three b's I fear I see in our future are bloggers, bloviators and bs-artists. Purveyors of opinions that are uninformed, unreported, unedited, unchecked -- passing for journalists.

Then there are the aggregators, kissing cousins to the terminators. They link to content on other sites on the Web. But if there is no quality content left, what will be the point? The same can be said, I fear, for print publications such as The Week, which feeds off copy published elsewhere.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, three fourths of newspaper executives in a recent survey said their ability to inform readers has diminished with the steady shrinking of their staffs.

What happened to the auto industry over 30 years has happened to newspapers in five. In this environment, what is the future of print journalism? To broaden the question, what is the future of journalism itself. One can take slight comfort from the words of Google CEO Eric Schmidt, quoted in a recent Maureen Dowd column. "For people who still love print," he said, "who like to hold it, feel it, rustle it, tear stuff out, do their I.F. Stone thing, it's important to remember that people are living longer. That's the most hopeful thing you can say about print journalism, that old people are living longer."

But it is not enough to dwell on format - print or on-line - or as the currently fashionable wording has it - the platform - when publishers say they are "platform agnostic" as if that relieved them of the great burden of continuing to publish in print, they are really ducking the issue. Which is: how to support, how to find the wherewithal to invest in quality journalism - the time and labor intensive reporting that does not always result in a story, and only occasionally pays off in economic terms, by attracting readers, who are the soul food of advertisers.

Several "business models" are under discussion.

One is to turn back the pages, if you will, before print publishers - in a rush not to be left behind by the Internet - decided to give it all away, for free. This is talk of charging for downloaded content, in very digestible debits, much as many young people today buy music from i-Tunes. Whether or not this so-called micro-charging can work in journalism is open to question, but trial attempts may occur in the near future.

Some other proposals eschew profits altogether. These are really anti-business models, dependant on the largess of the public-minded ultra-rich. There's Pro Publica, a large investigative operations funded with a $10 million from a very wealthy California couple, whose former company has been the subject of some scrutiny by the SEC during the subprime mortgage meltdown, but not so far by Pro Publica.

There are other schemes to turn newspapers into non-profit publications which would give up the right to endorse candidates in return for 501c3 status, a very bad idea in my opinion, that would stifle not enliven the national discussion over issues of importance.

I myself have participated in an effort through something called the Freedom to Write Fund, a 501c3 that has tried to start up a non-profit reporting enterprise focused on issues of direct concern to writers and indirectly of important to everyone in a democracy, such as access to information. We have been unsuccessful so far in obtaining funds to launch our effort. In a sort of catch 22, some foundations have urged us to publish first and apply later. But it takes funds merely to begin.

At one time, I thought that at the end of the day, we would wind up with hybrids - print newspapers with complementary web sites – and that would be that.

There has been a whole lot of hoopla of late about the wonders of the Internet. In my opinion a lot of it is hyperbole promoted by those with a vested interest not in the content but in the infrastructure. They speak a different language, referring to news metrics, content managers and content providers, portals and page views. They speak of micro-charging and monetizing. One of my favorites is crowd-sourcing, in which members of the public become collaborators, providing unverified information free of charge. Well, you get what you pay for, don’t you? Another
favorite, if that is the word, is api - which stands for application program interface - which stands for, what? Frankly, I don't even want to know.

The new newsroom managers, in a desperate attempt I believe to justify themselves and their salaries, have taken to reorganizing their news operations. At the Washington Post, there is something evolving that is known as a content management system, which seems a far cry from the days of Deep Throat and Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. A friend of mine there is being transferred to what is being called the universal news desk - there is nothing like thinking big when you are getting smaller, I guess. When I emailed to congratulate him on his apparent ascent, I asked, does this mean that you will now be in charge of the solar system and the galaxy. He wrote back; why think small - he also planned to become the master of time and space.

What these new media newsroom managers do not speak of is how all this new technology will pay the salary and expenses of the reporters required to ferret out the facts and the editors to guide and fact-check them.

So far, on-line doesn't pay. Advertising rates on the Internet don't come close to producing the revenue that advertising in traditional print did. And without the revenue stream, there isn't the money to pay for high-quality reporting, writing, and editing. The fact is Web sites pay less. A few months ago, I pitched a story to Preservation Magazine, the publication of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, for which I’ve written in the past. The magazine would pay about $1 a word but it had a large inventory and the editor suggested I offer it to Preservation On-line. The editor there could pay only $250. The story would have taken a full day to report and probably another day to write. Needless to say, at those rates, it just didn't happen.

So what is the future of serious journalism - print or on-line? Eventually, the economy will recover and demand for consumer goods will also create a demand for venues in which to advertise. Studies have shown that readers linger longer on display ads on the printed page. In certain areas, such as classified for cars and homes, the Internet will continue to dominate. But I believe in many other areas of economic endeavor, advertisers will find the medium lacking.

Ultimately, I believe, the market rules. After the Great Recession, there will almost certainly be fewer newspapers and fewer magazines in print form. They will be slimmer, especially at first. One can only hope that they will recover, perhaps even flourish - along with the rest of the economy -- so long as there is a demand for tough, costly, unprofitable reportage by a new generation of truth seekers who call themselves journalists.

I would close by telling you about a recent cartoon in the print edition of Politico, a Washington publication that actually expects to break even in this its third year with its mostly on-line operation, an anomaly perhaps worthy of further analysis. The setting is the Newseum, the suddenly iconic museum on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington devoted to the news business.

Encased behind in one exhibit are a women taking notes and a bespeckled editor. He has a pencil behind his ear and a pipe in his mouth, and he is holding copy under his arm and in his hands and reading it with a critical eye. The display is labeled: news-gathering, pre-twitter era. One curious young woman looking at the exhibit says: “That's amazing! They checked their facts! And even had editors.” Another less interested young bystander, who appears to be busy texting, asks offhandedly: “What's an editor? What's a fact?”

Let's all hope it never comes to that.


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More Blogs by Eugene L. Meyer
• The Gender and Generation Gap, 1960-2010 - Saturday, November 27, 2010
•  The Future of Print Journalism - Thursday, October 15, 2009  
• William Zantzinger - Echoes of the Old South - Monday, January 12, 2009
• Hope, Harmony and Goodwill - Thursday, January 08, 2009
• Why are all the moms female? - Tuesday, March 06, 2007


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