In recent days my team and I have been examining the state of journalism specifically related to the newspaper. This was not just an exercise but a purposeful attempt to understand the state of newspapers and the dilution of the medium in our culture. During the last few weeks this column has paid a lot of attention to the “free-press,” the daily newspaper, and the several models the industry has tried in the last few years in order to survive. Thirty years ago I arrived in Denver and settled in the Capitol Hill neighborhood on Sherman and Tenth. By day I was the lowly mail-clerk, sorting out my future with every letter, and package I wrote. By mid-afternoon I covered the political, cultural, and urban renewal stories, with some sports injected in the mix. I wrote for three newspapers, one news, the other cultural, and the third on antiques and collectables. By night I was the brooding singer-songwriter, in dark cafes and sometimes on the street. In 1978, the internet had not figured into the media mix, and the community newspaper was free. I remember walking into the Capitol Building back then, and stepping into the lobby where reams of “free press” daily, weekly, fortnightly, and monthly newspapers filled the room. As a reporter I made a glorious $10 per story and $15 if I provided pictures!
The Demise of Print News
If you read Press EN you can see that the demise of newspapers worldwide has captured my attention. I wonder out loud how this affects another love of mine, the European style coffee house. The community gathering of coffee and issues long has been a staple of the urban European. Are the elements of roasted beans and newsprint gone from the masculine, intellectual conversation in their communities? And how will the BLOG, and the citizen journalist replace that community in a virtual or wireless world? While writing on a laptop at a café has merit, the world will be missing something without eye to eye, finger to headline, cup to mouth integrated media! Experience for the reporter, like I had back in the newsroom heyday can not be easily replaced.
It is Time
The business model of journalism is analyzed this week on the cover of Time Magazine. For the first time in weeks the President is not on the cover! President O (Obama not Oprah) is replaced with a fish wrapped in the front page of the New York Times. The cover story is by Walter Isaacson, former managing editor of Time, and author of a biography on Einstein. He correctly identifies many of the problems that face the newspaper business these days and calls the current situation a “meltdown.” Indeed my friends at the Rocky are sending SOS signals from their cubicles. The other side of the coin is that newspapers have “more readers than ever,” yet most read stories online for free. There is part of the problem, once people can get something for nothing, how do you get that cat back into the bag?
Advertising-Content and Pay Pal
While Press EN has predicted that 2009 online advertising will reach “critical mass”, (see Press EN 12.29.08) online newspapers have not been able to recover from an ad only model and as Isaacson points out they should not rely on ad-only revenue. The article in Time makes a “modest proposal” on how to save your newspaper- which is a micro-payment system. In this proposal newspapers can sell an article download for a nickel or a dime, or perhaps entire daily download issue for a buck. The system could be used for integrated media. For Christians in media this might be a way to reach more people, garner a revenue stream and offer a media, content, marketing, and ministry model that could impact the culture like never before!
Westword to En-WORD
While the proposal by Isaacson is exciting it also is a sobering thought that beside the trained journalist, will be competing citizen journalists who will compete for the nickels with the micro-payment model. In an interview I had with singer-songwriter Livingston Taylor we discussed the online record label and he said, “The surge to independent labels has not hired the bar.” I imagine that will be the same in media. Yet sincere motive, raw talent, and free enterprise it is the disciplined and cream of the crop that will rise to the top. We know that cable and satellite TV gave us more sub-par quality than it did grand new programming, yet for the few great moments the quantity allowed for new writers, artists, songwriters, and producers to work out “their salvation,” and eventually the quality showed up too! The main point here is that if we can start putting value on journalism then even if the paper goes under, the good journalists prevail! A music critic from the weekly free alternative rag, WESTWORD told me, that he writes for the advertisers. They pay his salary not the readers. This was years ago and I thought that something was horribly wrong with that attitude.
The cover story in Time reputes that statement as well. Isaacson concludes that “The need to be valued by readers-serving them first and foremost rather than relying solely on advertising revenue-will allow the media once again to set the compass true to what journalism should always be about.” Content is king, storyline is the queen, and that constitutes what good branding, delivered by trusted envoys can bring to journalism.