Wednesday, March 5, 2008

what went wrong with journalism (an alternate view)

This is excerpted from the future of journalism talk I gave this week at Columbia College Chicago

There's been a lot of talk lately about the future of journalism—about whether journalism even has one. But before we begin diving into the future, we first need to understand the past by answering a simple question:

How did we get here?

And to answer that question, we first have to ask another one:

Where is here, anyway?

If you ask the makers of traditional journalism--papers like the New York Times or the Chicago Tribune--they'll tell you that here is a pretty bleak place. It's a place where one in four newspaper jobs have been lost since 1990; a place readership is down and where revenues (more from advertising than circulation) have dropped precipitously over the same timeframe and where, as a result, layoffs are being announced at big papers on a daily basis.

In other words: bleak.

And so it's no surprise then that those very same papers start to write headlines like this one, from the New York Times a few weeks ago. Headlines that warn of an "imperiled industry"; headlines that begin to craft a narrative of the end of days of journalism; of journalism up in flames thanks to the dominance of the content-is-free internet and the abandonment of advertisers for it.

But that narrative ignores some important things. Things that are imperative to understand just how we got here.

Things like the fact that newspaper readership has been in decline for almost 40 years, thanks to the creation of the evening newscasts in the mid-1960s. Before that, newspapers often offered two editions a day, a morning edition and an afternoon one. With the introduction of the evening newscast (and the local newscast that followed), the afternoon edition was gutted and readers started to look elsewhere for breaking coverage. With the introduction of CNN and the 24-hour-news cycle in the 1980s, the desertion accelerated so that by 1990, newspaper circulation had declined by 10% in just 10 years.

So it's clear that the shrinking readership of newspapers is not something new. But what isn't clear is that during that same timeframe it was not bad news. Instead, it triggered a buying wave of weakened newspapers by ever-growing media conglomerates like Hearst, Gannett, NewsCorp, the Tribune Company and handful of others. Those conglomerates saw big profits by creating nearly-identical papers, papers that could share content from edition to edition, reducing news redundancy across the board. This was thought of as a very good thing. So good, in fact, that these same corporations wanted more, helping to push through the Telecommunications act of 1996 so they could acquire more local newscasters and radio stations to ad to their dominance.

And, for a time, it worked. Profits skyrocketed. Operating margins from newspapers became so high--20% and up--that they became expected (for a quick perspective: operating margins at Toyota, the largest car company in the world, are just 9%).

But then something happened: The Internet. And those same conglomerates that thought they were holding cash cows found themselves holding the bag instead.


Not because of the usual argument trotted out, that newspapers couldn't compete on an Internet where content is free. News content has been free for decades, broadcast freely out over the airwaves on radio and TV, and newspapers model used circulation income to cover the printing and distribution of the paper.

Instead, newspapers have collapsed (and local broadcast will soon follow) because the economies of scale that allowed for such huge profits for news conglomerates in the 80s and 90s are no longer viable in a medium where geography is meaningless.

You see, the profits that Gannett, and the New York Times Company, and the Tribune enjoyed were thanks to the local monopolies that each paper held in their hometown. If you wanted to read the day's news and you lived in Scranton, Pennsylvania, what were you going to do but pick up your local paper? Even as readership declined in real numbers, the advertising base held up because they had a captive audience: where else were you going to go?

But with the Internet, audiences were no longer captive. The effort to get to your local paper online was exactly the same as the effort to get to one an ocean away--i.e. no effort at all. And so suddenly, instead of being a local monopoly every paper found themselves competing against every other --and against the rest of the internet itself.

And so we arrive at today.

Today, if you ask the Tribune or the New York Times, is a dark time. It's a time when newspapers are in descent. That's the narrative they offer: The narrative of descension.

But there is a second narrative being written in news today: the narrative of ascent.

It's a narrative being written by those that have moved beyond the playing field of the media giants that dominated the 20th century and instead embrace the possibilities that are uniquely available today.

It's a narrative of breaking down barriers--barriers to entry, barriers of cost, barriers of exclusivity.

It's a narrative of accessibility to a set of tools that have become so simple and whose cost has become so low that they are essentially free.

It's a narrative, ultimately, of the future of journalism.

And it's a narrative that we can all write together.