Shunning the Web and thriving?

I read with some interest the recent New York Times article about the TriCityNews in Monmouth County, N.J. According to writer David Carr, the little alt weekly “aggressively ignores the Web” and has turned a tidy profit each year since 1999, basically a reversal of the bust times other newspapers have faced during the same period.

The owner and publisher of the paper, Dan Jacobson, told the Times about his Web philosophy:

“Why would I put anything on the Web? … I don’t understand how putting content on the Web would do anything but help destroy our paper. Why should we give our readers any incentive whatsoever to not look at our content along with our advertisements”

Later on in the article, Jacobson expands his paper’s relationship with the Web:

“I don’t allow our name to be used on any kind of content on the Web — not bulletin boards or listings or anything. … I don’t want anybody to connect The TriCityNews and the Internet. I don’t want anything that detracts from the paper and the presence of those big, beautiful full-page ads.”

Carr contrasts the small paper’s profitable situation with the dire circumstances faced by the media giants. He points to predictions of massive declines in Web advertising revenue and the argument that “the part of the apparatus that has a working business model, declining or not, should receive the resources.”

Of course, any story that shows a newspaper bucking the downward spiral of modern print media is bound to draw a lot of attention. In this case, the story drew plenty of criticism as well.

Mark Potts at Recovering Journalist writes that Carr came to completely the wrong conclusions in his Times article. Rather than portraying the TriCityNews’s success as a battle in the war between print and the Web, Potts says the TriCityNews’s success has more to do with its hyperlocal coverage and its lack of competition.

This has nothing to do with print, or the Web. It has everything to do with the fact that these little papers cover their communities closely — and have little or no competition in doing so. Web or not, their readers have almost no place else to go.

Potts invokes “apples and oranges” to describe Carr’s article:

Long after the metro dailies wither away, small community and alternative papers like the TriCityNews are likely to continue in print (and on the Web), because they’re providing unique, focused content to their narrowly defined audiences (and advertisers). If there was a way to get the same stuff from an online (or print) competitor, these papers would face a lot of the same structural pressures as their larger cousins. And they’re still feeling the same pinch from a lousy advertising economy, nonetheless. But their success really doesn’t have anything to do with whether they’re distributed in pixels or dead trees. It’s the nature of their content that makes the difference.

Anil Dash has yet another criticism of Carr’s article. Dash looks through the Jacobson quotations in the Times article and finds a somewhat disturbing common theme:

In all of his quotes about the web and his business model and other newspapers and his big, beautiful full-page ads, Dan Jacobson never once mentions serving his community, researching a story, publishing information of any utility or value to his audience, or actually committing any act of journalism.

Dash writes that Jacobson may indeed value journalism, but his priority is the advertisers. (In fact, Jacobson — through Carr — makes a big deal about how his paper has not raised advertising prices much in the past decade and how even small businesses can afford a full-page ad in his paper.)

I’m of two minds about this whole situation. Is it better for a newspaper (or just “paper” as Dash argues) to stick with the medium that can pay for itself? In a strictly business sense, yes, that is better. But is it better when it comes to the mission of a newspaper, assuming that mission is about getting important information to the citizens of a democracy in order to keep them informed about their society?

I suppose that depends on your individual paper’s mission. There exists, after all, no “mission police” to make sure that your media outlet is upholding all the virtuous aspects of journalism and democracy. We have to hope people are in the business to communicate facts and inform those without the means to inform themselves. We have to hope they’re not in it just for the money.

Ideally, the news would take any and every path possible to get to the reader or listener or viewer. Ideally, profits and advertising wouldn’t be necessary because journalists would be immortals who required neither food nor sleep and their stocks of paper and electricity, ink and computers would be replenished magically — their magical appearance serving as proof that democracy is the correct answer and that some divine being supported our decision to adopt it as a form of government.

But, alas, this is not an ideal world. Journalism needs money to support itself, whether that money pays for ink or electrons. In the long-term, it makes sense for a paper to stick with the medium that can pay for itself, the medium with an established business model: print. That works to keep the newspaper alive and publishing, even though its dissemination is limited to the subscribers and off-the-rack customers.

But that model only accounts for the “long-term” that we can predict using past experience. Perhaps Twitter and Web sites and social networking will lead journalism to a journalism singularity, beyond which no predictions are possible, beyond which everything we know about journalism will change fundamentally.

I’ve gotten a bit off-topic here. I’ll save some of the other thoughts running through my head for another, hopefully shorter post.

Take-away bit: Sticking with print and shunning the Web will work. It’s a short-sighted, almost-guaranteed approach, but it will work. You’ll get your message across, but you won’t be reading as wide an audience as you might with a better Web presence (and I mean an audience for your news content, not for your ads).

Besides, isn’t hiding behind the print medium pretty much the same as hiding behind a Web site’s pay wall? And don’t we all think pay walls are bad, m’kay?

Enough. I’m out. More to come.

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