my Saturday rant.

My apologies, it’s Monday.  This must be my Saturday hangover and I’m back to make the case for daily newspapers.

I’ll clarify a slight misconception from my previous, “Ain’t Nothing Free,” post.  Newspapers are transitioning from traditional newsprint to a complete on-line presence and I’ll venture that printed newspapers will begin to disappear within the next decade.

Most everyone likes the idea of saving trees: green is good.  Though this too is laced with inconsistencies and contradictions.  I digress.  I’m certain it takes as much petrol to manufacture the chips running our computers, mold the plastic + metal computer towers, monitors, keyboards, mouses, etc., and supply the power necessary to keep the electrical grid flowing with a reliable current as it does to publish an old fashioned paper, newspaper.  It bears mentioning the forest industries diligence by creating sustainable living forests through managed reforestation.  Obviously that’s an entirely different and controversial issue, but there are winners and losers whenever we change systems.

The power to instantaneously communicate ideas and images is transforming the world before our very eyes.  However; the creation of a 24/7/365 news cycle is the major glitch in virtual communication.  Like you, I have embraced social media. I blog, facebook and even tweet a bit too.  But, with the demise of newspapers, the enormous task of reporting on complex issues and catastrophic events, puts society as a whole, at great risk.

Consider old school journalism where sources were scrutinized for legitimacy, fact checking was paramount and in-depth reporting was considered a public service.  This form of journalism took time.  It could not be done with an on the fly publishing mentality without risking major reporting errors.  Getting the facts right is one way in which newspapers have helped preserve the public trust.

Today’s nonstop news glut seems to be emanating out of every publishing orifice imaginable.  Moving forward, citizen journalism, activist bloggers and other “social media” hold immense potential to mold and sway public policy.  But, at least for now these content sources lack the necessary financial resources and time to investigate the “big” stories constantly tugging at the coattails of any democracy.

Consider these examples:

Watergate.  Where would America be today, if this story had not been thoroughly investigated.  Will boutique publishers have the ability and knowledge necessary to accurately report a story of this magnitude?

Abu Ghraib.  Any government, without public knowledge, is capable of performing heinous acts to fellow human beings, all in the name of protecting the welfare of it’s citizens.

On a much smaller scale was a project I photographed on the developmentally disabled in Oklahoma during the mid 1980’s.  Reporters, Susan Witt, Joyce Peterson and I spent several months looking into reported abuses, neglect and overcrowding at Oklahoma’s three state run institutions.  And we traveled to Nebraska to compare how a state with similar demographics was able to offer elevated care to their disabled population.  The series which was published over a two week period in The Tulsa Tribune (ceased publication in 1992) help to galvanize public opinion, leading the state to overhaul it’s care policies and eventually to the shuttering of all three institutions.  Though stories like this affect a small percentage of the country, astute politicians do take note, rather than risk the same exposure on their own turf.

We tend to place a higher value on items we’ve paid for with our own dime.  Perhaps this analogy is fitting. You pay $30 for a new novel.  Option 1; will that book sit on the shelf, unread for months? Option 2; will you read it (cover to cover) at the earliest possible opportunity?  If I’m paying, I choose option 2.  Similar to a toddler whose world is inundated with smorgasbord of toys, the internet offers up an overwhelming amount of “free” content.  I’d disagree with those who say there is a plethora of quality content on the web.  I see a lot of average content, dressed up in beautifully designed packages. Personally, I see a lot of “sameness” out there.  Discovering the excellent content that does exist on the web is convoluted by navigating through a myriad of links which oftentimes derails a person from completing their original search.  The 1980’s commercial, “Where’s the Beef,” comes to mind:

As the web expands it’s reach into our daily psyche, is it affecting our ability to think substantively or are we constantly reaching for the next new toy?  I wonder if cultural anthropologists aren’t already doing research studies on concentration and memory retention as we text, chat and surf our lives away?

There is a ripple effect to every action.  If content is continually provided for free, over time it’s value will be diminished until it holds little, if any importance.  And those once highly held standards of facts and fairness, will fall prey to hearsay and innuendo.  You’ve heard the saying: a lie told one time is still a lie, repeat a lie often and it becomes accepted as fact.  Like water flowing downhill we tend to favor the path of least resistance.

Newspapers didn’t adapt quickly enough to the technology revolution to take advantage of the web’s long tentacles and create new revenue streams.  Equally important is that journalism in general has strayed far from it’s original mission statement.  When the Associated Press restructured in 2007, two priorities emerged; Entertainment and Sports.  What does that say about our present day value system?

Our economy seems to be cycling from one short term bubble to the next; currently it’s Silicon Valley that’s given way to the internet revolution.  One could make the argument that those economic foundations appear to be built on the very ruins of their half-brothers recent failings.  Seemingly; our collective consciousness on how we determine VALUE appears to be making a similar transition as well.  Looking forward, this doesn’t paint a very sustainable picture.

At the end of the day, nothing is free.  Everything comes at a price.


One thought on “my Saturday rant.

  1. OK. You make some very valid points. I agree that good content shouldn’t be free. However I disagree that all print media will go away. Even I like to hold a printed newspaper or magazine and read it in the bathroom, in the car, in an airport. I subscribe to several magazines and will continue to do so. I have to admit, I’ve never really subscribed to a newspaper. I’m just not in the habit of reading one every day. And then there are mountains of paper to deal with. If you let them go for months they can fill a room.

    However, it may be true that printed dailies won’t be around in the near future. It seems like weekly and monthly publications are still going strong. It’s quite possible that we only get our daily updates electronically and the big news happens in the weekly or monthly publications. I believe that all print media can adapt and survive and still provide quality reporting. They will definitely have to evolve.

    All publications have had to fund their investigative reporting somehow. That’s always been the challenge. What’s changed is the advertising business. However, I still believe there are plenty of revenue models that can continue to support good reporting. There are proven ad revenue models and subscription based models. These giant old school organizations just haven’t fully explored them. The main disconnect that I see between the traditional print advertising services and what today’s advertising buyer can get is context based ad placements.

    In any print publication you rarely find ads placed next to articles that have a direct correlation. In today’s online only advertising outlets, you almost always find relevant ads next to published content. Even on the newspaper and magazine articles that get published online, the relevancy of ads matched to content is pretty low. If they focus on that, the advertisers will get much better results and then the media companies can charge more for advertising.

    The other problem is that many print organizations still charge based on impressions or eyeballs. That hasn’t been a valid metric for at least a decade. Ultimately actionable events are the most important thing to advertisers. That could be an inquiry or an actual sale. Either way, a click through is a much better metric to charge for than an impression.

    Regarding subscriptions vs free content, when the NY Times was charging for subscriptions, they were letting people see today’s news for free but to see archives you had to pay. What information is more valuable? Today’s of course. They had their subscription model completely backwards.

    Also, I don’t think they gave you an online subscription with a a paid subscription for printed newspaper or vice versa. If they do tie those two together, they preserve the value of both. The most prevalent subscription based model I see today is free content that is supported by advertising. If you don’t want to see the ads, then you subscribe.

    I just don’t see any of these print news agencies experimenting with all of the revenue models out there. If they do, I’m sure they’ll find something that works for them. Alot of companies have figured it out, I don’t see why news agencies can’t do the same.

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