Papering Over Problems

Cue the violins, get out your hankies, the sturm und drang monkeys who oversee the emotional climate of the news business have been working hard lately. So it’s time for those of us who are sardonically entertained by the collision of politics, media and technology to have a look at what’s going on out there.
There’s no shortage of material. The Los Angeles Times is fighting with itself in spectacularly public fashion and its parent company Tribune is about – a la Knight Ridder – to be sawed into little pieces as it gets a new owner. February ad sales revenues were, in a word, dismal. InfoWorld, the storied tech rag has abandoned print. And last week, the San Francisco Chronicle’s business columnist Dave Lazarus almost got flayed alive when he suggested that his paper charge for online use of his columns and those of his colleagues. To start this week, there’s word on the Geek Gossip Wire (aka “tech” blogs) that the Chron is “in trouble.”
Yes, well. Newspapers are in trouble. The number of lay-offs and buy-outs that reached a peak last year will probably be topped this year. And, as with the San Jose Mercury News, the Chron’s troubles may well be more dire and more dramatic than other parts of the country. The move away from paper started in here about five years ago when CNET’s became the homepage of Silicon Valley. It may well be too late for either paper to entirely recapture that audience.
But the contempt many of those who live and work online – the very folks who turn to CNET – have for paper-based news doesn’t mean those traditional outlets aren’t serving someone. And it doesn’t mean that they can’t figure out ways to do what they do better in this new environment. Like many news folks, Dave Lazarus was using his column to cast about for a way to see where he, as an experienced columnist and writer, will fit in in the new scheme of things. It’s a good set of questions he asked, but it’s a set of questions the Geeks can’t answer with anything other than glib cliches. Why? Because tech folks’ ideas about the news business are guided by their own prejudices: They think raw, unfiltered data is the best form of information. Since the web allows for unlimited forms of data to be displayed and accessed, filters – newspaper reporters and editors – are deemed unecessary.
But if that were really true, Congressional Quarterly, with its charts and graphs of Congressional voting patterns, would be the nation’s most popular political magazine, the Wall Street Journal would just run the stock tables on the front page and fashion magazines would cease to exist. The editorial function – finding what’s important, or good or interesting – and showing it to a larger group of people in a way an audience understands and appreciates isn’t going to be replaced by the search for raw information. Not-so-geeky readers want someone – someone they like and trust – to inform them. (If you really care, more about how I see the news business is here).
That whole mechanism, regardless of what you call it (TV, a paper, a website, a newsletter) is usually supported by ad sales. He’s probably loath to say so but Dave Lazarus’s job is – from the business perspective – a way to fit words around ads so readers keep reading. Right now, ads don’t make the dough they once did and there’s a general feeling that online ad sales by news outlets never will catch up to the glory days of print. But, unlike web logs with click-through and automatic keyword ad sales, newspapers know how to sell the news. They are good at making advertisers see the value in reaching people who are informed, involved and interested in their communities. Which is why editorial decision-making isn’t going away. It’s part of the business proposition of any well-run website.
The confusion on both sides of this conversation about the future of the news business stems from a little bit of gentle self-delusion that news folks like to affect. They like to say that they work primarily for the noble cause of serving the public interest. This attitude has been nurtured by the monopoly status that most papers enjoyed in their communities and it has encouraged many people outside the business – “bloggers,” in particular, who already think of filters as a hindrance – to think of editorial as free and therefore without value. But news folks, like everyone else, work for a paycheck, the bigger, the better. And it’s high time we stopped pretending otherwise.
But what can papers do to survive in this new – often hostile – world?

There aren’t any magic bullets, and accepting that is the first step. A newspaper, at its best, is a guide to the community it serves; the website it puts up should perform the same function and regard online activity – all online activity, not just novelty crap from YouTube, MySpace and Craigslist – as part of its coverage area. Ignoring the online world off your website is as dumb as ignoring the big fire in the next town over. You could see the smoke, your readers could see the smoke, but since it was over there it didn’t get covered. How smart is that? The newsroom, its writers and editors should be on the web so readers can find them and they can find stories.
And, let’s drop the posing about how this isn’t about the dollars and cents. We all need to think about ways to make money for our sites, large and small. Let me throw out this observation: On the Internet, space and time are virtually infinite. Off-line advertising is the business of selling space (and if you’re in the TV or radio business, time). So why are we using an out-of-date business model to sell something that’s infinite? Can’t we, instead, start to think about what readers are doing on our sites and begin to offer them things they want, maybe even need? It’s not that hard. In fact, online it’s easier than it’s ever been (self-serving plug: Have a look at our Amazon stores).
All this makes me think that the people who might be best suited to figuring out how to make money on news websites aren’t tech people. Or ad people.
Here’s why: How come every book review section in the nation signed up for the Amazon Associates program? Why aren’t there iTune affiliate links on pages with music and record reviews? Why haven’t newspaper calendar and entertainment sections cut deals with Fandango and Ticketmaster to take commissions of the sales that could be made via the news sites? How come CouponBug isn’t a widget on the food pages offering online grocery shoppers the same discounts they’d get from Safeway’s ad inserts? And why am I – a life-long editorial person – asking these questions?
Like a lot of folks working on the web, I spend a lot of time online. So these ideas – not exactly rocket science – are just the ones I’ve wondered about in the past few weeks as I hear more and more people worry about the future of the news business. I can’t believe that smart ad sales and marketing people – and oh, yeah, reporters and editors, too – can’t come up with even better ideas. They’ve got a lot more at stake than I do.
It may be foolish. It could be self-serving. But I’m going to remain optimistic about where the news business is headed. I’m pretty jazzed about being in the news business. But I’m really excited about getting out of the paper business.