I watched the movie “Network” for the first time last night, and I’m convinced that there’s something we can learn from the film about the modern state of the media.
Alan Mutter has written an excellent post about why most newspapers cannot afford to shut down their presses and go all-digital.
Mutter proceeds from two premises: that it would be “suicidal for any reasonably profitable publisher to stop its presses in perpetuity” and that a paper going all-digital will have to lay off about half its editorial staff to stay profitable.
Newspapers, he points out, earn about 90 percent of their profits from print ads, and a paper moving to an all-digital format can expect to earn only about 10 percent of the money it did when it produced both a hard copy and an online edition.
He takes a closer look at the famous article by Jeff Jarvis from a few weeks ago, the one in which Jarvis revealed that the Los Angeles Times makes enough from Web advertising to pay the salaries of its 660 newsroom staff members.
Mutter points out that salaries aren’t all the costs that go into building even an all-digital newspaper. You have to pay for health insurance, taxes, IT concerns and myriad other costs, not to mention all the debt that the paper has already incurred.
In other words, the LA Times needs its print division to help pay the bills. Shutting off its presses would mean cutting the newsroom staff by about half or more.
But Mutter is not going around throwing wooden shoes into the all-digital camp’s machinery:
[T]his is not to say that publishing won’t, or shouldn’t, migrate to all-digital media in the future. Before that happens, however, the economics of the business would have to change far more radically than they have to date.
Some news from my own backyard this morning. The Missoulian and Montana Standard, in Missoula and Butte respectively, announced layoffs this week.
The Missoulian laid off four employees and said that two other employees will lose their jobs in February. The Standard laid off two full-time and four part-time employees this week. Both papers are owned by Lee Enterprises.
In addition, the Missoulian, Montana Standard, Helena Independent Record, Billings Gazette and Casper, Wyo., Star Tribune will merge their customer service call centers at a single location in Billings to save costs.
I just read James Warren’s article in The Atlantic, “When No News is Bad News,” and I’m a little inspired and depressed at the same time. Why should that be? Warren’s article hasn’t presented me with any information I didn’t know already. Newspapers are in trouble and can’t find a business model to save themselves, yet the work journalists do is vital to public safety and key to keeping our governments honest.
Langeveld writes that the heyday of newspapers coincided with periods of the 20th century in which Americans were united in their passions and interests — the Great Depression, World War II, Korea, Vietnam. But the decades after have seen a boom in the number of luxuries and options available to Americans. Instead of every citizen focusing on the same issues, our range of interests has exploded.
It’s no wonder, then, that we can’t get more people to read the newspaper these days; there’s just not enough column inches to appeal to everyone.
The Web, Langeveld says, only accelerated this death spiral for the industry. It did not cause the spiral in the first place.
His advice to the news industry:
To have even a chance of survival, the mindset of the industry needs to become: We are in the business of publishing information content continuously on our web sites; every 24 hours (for now, and this may ultimately change to once or twice weekly) we gather some of that information into a printed product and distribute it, but our business is focused on and driven by our online operations.
The other day, I spent a good half an hour jotting down my idea as to what an “iTunes for news” would really look like. Now, after reading a post by Pat Thornton, I’m starting to think I wasted my time.
Thornton points out that Apple has stated that iTunes doesn’t turn a huge profit. The program and the store serve a larger purpose: to get people to buy iPods, a produce on which Apple makes a bigger profit.
So we could assume that a similar online store model for journalism would also not turn much of a profit. So why do it? What about the economic side of journalism is it going to save? What more profitable product will the iTunes for news drive consumers to buy?
Also, a new thought, with most of the country’s journalism collected in one, easy to search spot, censorship would become damnably easy. Not good for the health of a democracy, if you ask me.
What happens if newspapers don’t sell that many hard copies commemorating the inauguration on Tuesday and Wednesday? What will that mean for paper journalism?
Very little, sales-wise, but if sales are poor, it would mean that fewer people a) are getting their news about the inauguration from the paper copies and b) that the commemorative value of a newspaper to remember an event has declined.
I remember rifling through an old desk at my grandparents’ house and finding a stack of slightly yellowing front pages marking every major news event since the election of FDR, as covered by the Billings Gazette. Pearl Harbor, the moon landing, Nixon’s resignation, the start of the Gulf War, all of them were there.
My grandmother kept them for sentimental reasons, to remember those events — even if, I know for a fact, she hadn’t looked at them since putting them in the drawer. She still had those copies of the paper to remember things by.
Do people still do this? I don’t know. I get the feeling they don’t, but the fact that we’ll be swearing in the first black president, and the first new president in eight years, might make some people buy a paper copy.
I can’t predict what will happen to the sales figures, but I can say this. If newspapers lose their role as the mementos of historical events (picture Truman holding up the copy of the paper that said Dewey had defeated him the election, for example), then they’ve lot yet another one and perhaps the biggest advantage they had over news online.