Major and minor reasons for US newspaper crisis

Tip of the hat to Martin Stabe for highlighting this link as he does with so many must-read media stories. Vin Crosbie has a lengthy and thoughtful post, nay essay, on why the US newspaper industry is in dire straits in two parts, see Part 1 and Part 2. Vin’s prediction is this:

More than half of the 1,439 daily newspapers in the United States won’t exist in print, e-paper, or Web site formats by the end of next decade. They will go out of business. The few national dailies — namely USA Today, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal — will have diminished but continuing existences via the Web and e-paper, but not in print.

Predictions like this might seem common, but what is unique is the rational argument that Vin presents. He goes through an extensive examination of media history and media economics. The conclusion is that newspapers have violated the principle of supply and demand and failed to adapt its core product.

It is almost impossible to overstate how utterly the supply of news and information available to most Americans has changed during the past 35 years. Within a single generation, the Supply & Demand equation has gone from relative scarcity to certain surplus. People now have so much access to information that some are complaining about ‘data smog‘.

I’ve said this before. So many journalists that I meet still believe that there is something exceptional about what they are doing and producing. They still operate on the assumption that information is scarce, which is why the industry has largely failed to adapt to the information and media-saturated society that we live in.

And for journalists angry with the internet. That anger is misplaced. Half of the newspapers’ decline relative to readership and population happened before 1991, a few years before public access to the internet and awareness of interactivity and multimedia. In the US, readership began to decline in the 1970s. As Steve Yelvington has said, “Even if the Internet had never happened, newspapers — especially big-city papers — have long been headed for a dangerous inflection point at which their market penetration would not be sufficient to sustain a mass-media business model.”

I don’t think that the news business in general and newspapers in particular will make the changes necessary to survive until they come to grips with the new reality of information consumption. The printing presses of newspapers are no longer a licence to print money.

This is not necessarily about the emergence of the internet or the development of multimedia as both Vin and Steve have said. I think that Steve summed it best, when he said, “It’s a problem of content relevancy in an increasingly rich media mix, and not specific to the emergence of the World Wide Web.”

If it’s not about adopting new technologies, then the questions become more fundamental and problematic. They are not questions about platforms and integration but rather about core assumptions about journalism. Newspaper editors select stories based on two criteria, Vin says:

1. Stories about which the editor thinks everyone should be informed.

2. Stories that might have the greatest common interest.

Vin challenges some core journalistic beliefs. Pardon the lengthy quote, but I think it’s an important point:

Newspaper editors’ use of those two criteria to select stories for publication has become so ingrained after 400 years of analog technology that few editors or newspaper executives are able to fathom any other possible or apt practices for story selection.

Moreover, they came to believe that producing a common edition for everyone is their raison d’être, forgetting it arose as a limitation of their technology. Fitting psychologist Abraham Maslow’s statement that “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail,” the editorial production limitation of Gutenberg’s technology has led most newspaper editors to believe that they set the ‘common agenda’ for their community and likewise that their community’s readership is somehow homogenous because it reads the same newspaper edition on any given day.

Vin says that newspapers general-interest product has become obsolete. People aren’t going online to consume news and information but to seek out information and entertainment that the generic package of information produced by the news industry doesn’t provide. I’ll leave you to read Vin’s essays and his conclusions.

‘Muted response’, but required reading

I agree with Mark Hamilton. I’m surprised that response to Vin’s post has been so muted. Vin’s two posts are more than just a recounting of the bleak state of the US newspaper industry. We all know the statistics both in terms of media consumption and economic trends. Vin’s posts go further and provide a very clear and cogent analysis of the why.

Why the lack of response? Mark quotes Scott Karp or Publishing 2.0 who said on Twitter:

…(there’s) a lot of searching for a new model that validates all of the old assumptions about the practice of journalism.

Mark expands on Scott’s comment in his own post:

It seems to me, that encapsulate a lot of what Vin is writing about, as well as a lot of the current angst (and blindess) that prevails in the newspaper industry. The idea that things will be all right once the economy picks up, or once someone (else) figures out this online thing is still fairly rampant in a lot of the mediascape. So is the idea that newspapers only need to find a way to keep doing what they’ve always done and everything will be okay.

Vin sees not a Dark Age for American journalism but a “Gray Age”. Amy Gahran, writing at Poynter doesn’t agree.

It seems to me that the nature of news and journalism are transforming. It’s not just about the “news business,” and definitely not just about “newspapers.” It’s possible that the era of traditional journalism may be on the wane — but does that mean that people will do without news or information? As I wrote last week: I don’t think so.

On another post at Poytner, Michelle Ferrier echoes Vin’s call for customisation and greater relevance:

At its core, what Crosbie states is that news values are changing — what used to not be a story now is a story, to someone. It’s this long tail of highly diverse, niche content (often produced by community members) that newspapers should be concerned about, rather than getting the right story mix on a dying page 1A.

It is like the famous comment that if all the deer have guns, you better get into the ammunition business. Most newspapers should radically shift to focus on their unique selling point: Local information, and build a platform (or multi-platform strategy) on which staff and the community can co-create news that suits their needs.

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