The Aaron Harber Show

Is it too Late to Save Newspaper Journalism?
June 21, 2009
By Aaron Harber


June 21, 2009 --- As many of America’s newspapers slim down, fold, or declare bankruptcy, a number of cries have come from the industry pleading for help from foundations and organizations they know could and they believe should save them.  What the sinking victims failed to understand was those entities with vast financial resources have little interest in spending precious funds on an industry which appears to be dying.  Their thinking is “Why throw good money after bad?” 

Regrettably, the rapid decimation of journalism unexpectedly occurred simultaneously with the loss by these same philanthropic entities of hundreds of billons of dollars in the aggregated value of their endowments along with a concomitant decline in their new charitable receipts.  This meant these organizations, many of whom took a “time out” from new major giving so they could support existing projects while trying to figure out what happened to their own organizations financially.  The result was the organizations which could have helped had relatively little interest in providing assistance to journalism on the scale it needed. 


Certainly some failures in the new industry were due to mismanagement.  Others were due to overleveraged acquisitions.  In some cases, financial transactions by parent companies put unrealistic and unfair pressures on otherwise healthy businesses which were part of a conglomerate.  The same situations apply today in the world of radio and television, where cuts are being made daily. 

From a news and information perspective, there is the belief the demise of traditional news organizations is due in great part to the growth of Internet.  If readers and viewers can get the information they want online at no cost, why should they subscribe to newspapers or tolerate television news programs --- both which overflow with invasive advertising?  If they can go to the Web and get what they want, when they want it (although Web ads also can be invasive despite pop-up blockers), how can a newspaper (which some readers consider out-of-date by the time it arrives) or even a television station compete?  With a news cycle now measured in minutes --- not days or hours --- the cyber world’s domination is a harsh reality for slower platforms. 


These questions force those in the news business to question whether or not there is any model for success in a news industry where journalistic integrity once reigned.  There is little argument that most of what is written on the Web fails to meet even minimal journalistic standards.  But if the readers and viewers making choices don’t know the difference, it is understandable they would be unlikely to care. 

Good journalism is expensive and it is that cost which has been the death of so many press entities.  It is that expense which will continue to wreak havoc in the industry --- causing more newspapers to minimize operations or shut down, with radio and television stations likely to eventually follow.  In the future, everything will be “on demand” and online. 

As a result, the news is being taken over by special interest groups.  Whether it’s a lone blogger on a Website or a lobbying group distributing information on a national basis, requirements such as fact-checking, avoiding bias, being thorough, et al, no longer are primary concerns.  And, in some cases, they are not concerns at all.


Individual stories aside, the greatest loss to our country is the traditional role the Free Press has played as an integral part of our republic.  America without journalism will be a nation which loses its way.   

Much has been written about this loss and its seriousness as far as the future of democracy in America is concerned.  Journalists’ roles in creating accountability, promoting transparency for citizens, keeping government entities and myriad businesses in check, exposing corruption, and simply functioning as a balance to the extremes our nation and its predecessors have seen in the arenas of government and commerce have been and are invaluable.  These remain absolute necessities for anyone who wants our country to survive and prosper. 

But today, no one wants to pay for these benefits.  In fact, it is questionable if anyone appreciates or even understands these benefits.  If readers and viewers believe they can get what they want at no cost, again, why would they pay for it? 


In Denver, The Rocky Mountain News half-heartedly sought a buyer for a few months (management decisions were similar to a family waiting to take a relative who had been ill for months to the hospital as he was gasping his last breath) and then shut down when no sale occurred. 

A number of prominent Rocky reporters and photographers banded together and created a very robust and credible online newspaper entitled “INDenverTimes”  ---  Although the paper’s name did not help it (perhaps “The Denver Times” or “The Denver News” or something more traditional would have helped), its quality was surprisingly good for a newspaper put together with minimal resources and even less time. 

INDenverTimes asked Coloradans to chip in less than $5 a month to subscribe to the online edition with the hope 50,000 people would participate.  That would have meant only 20% or so of the Rocky’s approximately 250,000 subscribers needed to pitch in to keep the Rocky alive, albeit under a different banner.   

Had Rocky readers done so, the operation would have had $3 million annually from subscriptions to fund its journalistic endeavors.  This also would have bought enough time to successfully solicit and generate advertising contracts which had the potential to double those revenues. 


It was surprising the dominant Denver Post, with approximately 300,000 subscribers, overlapped very little with the Rocky.  In fact, only 14,000 people and businesses subscribed to both newspapers (disclosure:  I was one of those few who took both papers). 

Nevertheless, only 3,000 people (disclosure: I was one of them) in an area populated by 4 million people (i.e., less than 1/10th of 1%) were willing to make a commitment to subscribe.  While INDenverTimes somehow continues to exist and does an amazing job with limited resources, it already has lost many of its great staff members due to their need to have a paying job.  And its readership has dwindled to the point where securing advertising revenue will be quite difficult. 


The reality was “Why should Coloradans pay for an online newspaper when they can get The Denver Post online at no charge?  The Post is a superb newspaper and was made even better when it was forced to compete with The Rocky Mountain News.  Everyone in Colorado benefitted from this spirited competition.  Both newspapers forced each other to stretch and their product was exceptional in many respects. 

While The Post --- a historically critically important part of every aspect of life in Colorado and the Rocky Mountain West ---- continues to function as if it still were competing with the Rocky for stories, it, too, is under great financial pressure.  And it knows it has many other competitors, especially in the cyber world. 


So what is the solution for saving journalism?  Newspapers, in particular, know they need to reduce their costs and every one of them is in the process of doing just that.  Staffs are being trimmed, newsprint orders are being reduced, newspapers are shrinking page sizes and page numbers, travel is being restricted, and other expenses are being cut.  Managers know they need to have a local focus and all of them do.  They know they need to have an online presence and they all have one.  Unfortunately, all this is not going to be enough. 

Sadly, journalism guaranteed its own demise by functioning in the exact manner which is diametrically opposed to what it expects of others.  Rather than being transparent and making a point of allowing citizens to see how journalism really works --- hence educating the masses about the value of journalism --- journalists arrogantly assumed everyone knew what they did and knew they were working in the best interests of their communities, states, and country. 


In reality, journalism operated in a black box --- with information gathered by reporters somehow being turned into news stories.  The public rarely saw how hard reporters often worked to get stories.  However, they often did see mistakes which gave the impression reporters were lazy --- depending too much on press releases and quick interviews to accomplish most of their work. 

Citizens did not see the careful research which went into many stories.  They did not observe the discussions and debates which occurred in newsrooms with reporters, editors, and publishers about how a story should be written, what was appropriate to include or exclude, and what the impacts of certain revelations might be.  And when a critical decision was made to not run a story, the public almost never knew about it. 


This “Trust us, we work for you” paternalistic mentality was too similar to the “We’re from the government --- we’re here to help you” philosophy so many journalists and members of the public saw as disingenuous (and of which the public is mistrustful). 

The reality is very few citizens know what standards to which journalists attempt to adhere.  So, when they compare good journalism to what some blogger (such as myself) may write online, it is unreasonable to assume they perceive a significant difference.  Most of them don’t make any distinction at all. 

And even this entire discussion begs the questions raised about the biases of journalists and how organizations with high journalistic standards seek to address and mitigate those biases.  Again, the public never sees any of those endeavors to be unbiased and accurate either.  Journalists deal with these challenges so frequently, they are second nature.  Unfortunately, they fail to realize citizens are isolated from these efforts to maintain high integrity. 


So what can newspapers and philanthropic organizations do which will turn the tide or at least slow down and eventually stop the bleeding?  Here are some elements which could be considered for inclusion in a possible recipe for success. 


The premise is journalists need to begin to educate America on a large scale why they and journalism are so important.  If citizens do not know what they are losing, they will not care if high quality journalism disappears.  They won’t even know it happened.  And the public certainly will not pay for a higher quality product unless citizens conclude that, indeed, they actually are purchasing a higher quality product which has significant value to them. 

As more and more Americans eventually understand and appreciate what quality journalism brings to them and what it means to their communities and our nation, press organizations will have a better chance of achieving financial success and stability, even if they still exist only in cyberspace.  Now is time for journalists to make their case… before it truly is too late. 

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