It looks like the San Francisco Chronicle may go under. Is it a shame when a newspaper goes down? Yes. Is it still a shame if that newspaper is really terrible? I’m not sure. My discernment (that it’s an awful paper) is at war with my principles (that we need print media). Given all the money that’s flowing out of Washington to crumbling national industries, I think print media – although possibly not the Chronicle – might need a small piece of the pie
I’m standing squarely in the middle of the media consumer road. I like print media but I’m not a Luddite: I get the Sunday New York Times delivered and I read the online edition every day. I read blogs, the New Yorker and The Morning News. If it’s long, I print it. If it’s short, I read it on the screen. It’s not a complicated system, but it does rely on both on- and offline media outlets staying in business and, no matter how much I read on the subject, that’s a problem I can’t seem to solve.
Online media is great for a lot of things, but two of them aren’t 1.) paying writers well and regularly, and 2.) in-depth, long-term, investigative reporting on international events.
Let’s take the second point first. The truth of the matter is that the Times and the Post and the Wall Street Journal, as media giants, were capable of keeping global offices staffed and running. Online outlets don’t have that kind of infrastructure in place. (All you media conspiracy wing nuts can put your hands down: I know the mainstream media is biased, but you’re delusional if you think there’s such a thing as absolute objectivity.) If they all go out of business, who is going to provide general reporting on what’s up in Myanmar?
There are absolutely some kick-ass online media outlets that uncover major stories through investigative reporting, but almost all of those stories are domestic. Which is a problem. Sure, I can seek out local media in Myanmar (provided it’s online, which is a substantial provision in the developing world), but how will I have any idea if it’s remotely accurate and not propaganda? I won’t, unless I do all the research on it myself. And that’s more than I am willing to take on to find out what’s up in every region of the world every week.
This is the route that medicine has gone in the last 20 years: you’re the “consumer”, so it’s on you to figure out if a particular treatment is cutting edge or dangerously untested. Doctors have abdicated their positions of authority. While this is a good thing – in cases where the doctor is unhinged, undereducated or just wrong, in most cases it leaves me in a terrible position – namely, having to make educated decisions in an area in which I am not educated.
The same will be true of media consumption if the major outlets – the voices of authority – go under. I don’t believe everything I read, but I read fairly widely and, since I’m familiar with the particular focus and bias of steady news sources, I can pull together an opinion with some hope of having some of the facts straight. I have no such hope for my ability to sift through the millions of online voices, most of whom have no recognizable credentials. And by “credentials” I mean meaningful access to and contacts in the region that would help assemble an educated perspective. A track record of consistently even-handed reporting wouldn’t hurt either. A loud voice and blazing marketing don’t count as credentials. (Which is why I don’t watch Fox News or Perez Hilton.)
So what’s going to replace the New York Times if it goes out of business? Who’s going to cover Africa and South Asia? The Drudge Report? The Huffington Post? New media aggregates old media at low cost. Are new media companies going to cover old media’s reporting costs if old media goes under?
We need to find a hybrid model where old and new media can both make money because they both need to exist. Maybe it’s OK if the print Times declines in circulation, but we can’t expect them to give their expensive product away for free online. Who’s going to foot the bill for their correspondent in the foothills of Pakistan? Click-through ads for finding your high school classmates aren’t going to cover those costs. (Maybe new media should pay for feeds from old media?)
Which brings me back to my self-centered first point, which is that if the offline media outlets go out of business, the number of writers who can survive on their earnings is going to decrease. And then we’ll all have to go back to second jobs as e-commerce consultants and waiters. God help us if journalism goes the way that teaching has: the only good ones who stay at the available wages have got to be saints.
Charging for online content didn’t work. Revenue generation from ads offline was plenty but online ads are different and insufficient. Newspapers aren’t like the banking industry: sure, there were paid lunches and car service boondoggles, but it wasn’t a profligate industry of wealth and waste. All that got cut ages ago and it hasn’t made the difference.
I’ve been thinking about this problem for ten years, ever since I took my first online editorial job, and I still can’t see a way through. (The Times can’t seem to sort out a long-term revenue model either, even with their killer New Media Group.)
Which brings me back to the Chronicle. The Chronicle’s been terrible for a long time and even though I’m not behind 100% free markets, I do think that the market should have a say when a company refuses to improve. Case in point per this morning’s news: the American auto industry, which is being forced to re-plan and re-staff as it should have done under its own steam years ago.
Why should we let the media industry stagger while we bolster up the banks and cars, both of which have had much longer to sort themselves out? Why not take over and rip and replace, the way we’re doing with AIG and GM? We subsidize the industries and endeavors that are of national value and I would argue that print media is one of those things, at least for now.
I still pay $27 a month for the Times to show up every Sunday even though I often read the online version instead and, until the new media model sorts itself out, I’ll continue to do that as an act of principle and charity because I don’t think we can do without the Times anymore than we can do without the banks.