Friday, March 27, 2009

Bill James on Newspapers

One of the luckier things in my life is that I am friends with Bill James. You probably know Bill as the brilliant writer who brought countless new ideas to the game of baseball; Time Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world a couple of years back. But the truth is, Bill is simply a thinker. Baseball happens to be his great professional love, but he has many other loves. He is working on a true crime book, which should be amazing. He and I have had talks about everything under the sun, everything from politics to religion to race relations to golf, and it never ceases to amaze me how his mind works, how he goes from A to B to C to D, never skipping a step.

I planned to ask him to write a little something about newspapers, but then a reader pointed out that he had already written something on his Website. Bill graciously allowed me to reprint those few paragraphs here, with the caveat that I point out it was written off the cuff, and the details were not intensely researched or double checked. I would add that the point for something like this goes beyond the basic details ... Bill thinks this is the natural progression of newspapers, and we just happen to be caught in the turbulent times.

I hope to get him to expand on this after a while. But for now ...

* * *

Well ... I hate to be the rational doomsayer, but ... in the modern world it is unnecessary to cut down trees to spread ideas. We can spread ideas perfectly well without paper. We're in this difficult transitional period where it is unclear how the writers, reporters, researchers and editors are all going to be paid for their efforts in the post- newsprint world. But to me, it's just a transitional problem; in 25 years we'll be in a better place because we went through this transition.

Writing the crime book ... the modern newspapers started about 1836. There were newspapers for a hundred years before that, but they were relatively expensive. In 1836 somebody "invented" the steam-driven printing press ... not sure tying together a steam engine and a printing press can really be considered an invention. But anyway, paper was cheap, so putting together a little engine and a little printing press enabled anybody with a small investment to start his own newspaper. Every significant city by 1845 had dozens of little newspapers, which were much closer to Blogs than to modern newspapers.

One of the first things they did was start writing crime stories, exploiting crimes for money. Then there was 100+ years of newspapers getting bigger and bigger and more organized and more expensive to produce. What were basically one-man shows, and then the better ones hired assistants and then business managers, they added sports sections, cartoons, advertising salesmen and then advertising departments. They invented wire services (about 1890), and then there were syndicated columnists and syndicated features. The newspapers drove each other out of business for 100 years.

You and I entered the scene at a certain point, where each city had one or two big newspapers which had hundreds and hundreds of features, and they had these things when we were 10 years old and learning to read and they had them when we were 25 years old and 35 years old, so we tended to think of that as the natural and permanent order of the universe -- but it wasn't; it was just a moment in time; the newspapers were very different in 1935 and very different in 1935 from 1910 and hugely different in 1910 from 1885.

Eventually the newspapers -- as a natural outcome of processes that began in 1836 -- became SO big and so expensive that they were dinosaurs, unable to compete with smaller and lighter information providers.

We're back to 1836 now, in a sense; everybody who wants to has his own "newspaper", and it's tough to know who is good and who is reliable and who isn't, but the same processes are still running. The blogs will get bigger; the good ones are hiring a second helper and a third and fourth, and we'll spend a century or more sorting things out and re-creating the market. It's hard, but it's not a bad thing. It's a good thing.


  1. Wow. I hadn't thought of that point of view.

    How many times have I said that after reading Bill James?? Too many. The man is one of the great thinkers of our time.

  2. Ah... Rational, calming genius is always a pleasure to read.

  3. Bill James is, as always, the Man.

  4. i hate to make this semi-political, but this runs a parallel with making medical files electronic. it runs against virtually every practice known to common practitioners (constantly scribbling away at their clipboards).

    of course, there are practical fears. what if the computers crash? what if you lose a file electronically? some docs worry that while typing instead of scribbling, they won't make eye contact with the patient.

    but in reality, it is the only answer to make the practice much more efficient. and those who have already made the transfer to electronic filing are remarkably happy with their decision to update technologically; and, much like cell phones, it's hard to imagine not having that technology once you've had it for a while.

    newspapers are obviously a different subject. we are talking about many people losing their jobs in a rough economic climate. i think the timing of the transition makes it more difficult to swallow, especially for those employed by these failing enterprises. but innovation leads to efficiency, and i don't think anyone would argue that the current paradigm isn't nearly as efficient as the burgeoning one. change is tough but necessary. and this should give us the shake up our modern media services direly needed.

    and, much like our current economic struggles, this creates an opportunity to restructure how our media operates. maybe this will shift the power behind the media to you and me and bob the carpenter (sorry, joe the plumber... you are a product of our current media structure); currently, news sources value advertisers first, shareholders second, and the public somewhere down the line.

    hopefully bill is right, and i imagine he is, (he's bill james, for crying out loud!) that this creates more of an opportunity than a crisis. and in the end, we will all be better for it. but i love this blog! (and the original)

  5. "in the modern world it is unnecessary to cut down trees to spread ideas"

    But it takes enormous amounts of energy to power computers and the data centers that make the Internet possible, and all that related hardware requires lots of metals (mining is not a environmentally virtuous process) and plastics to produce, and most of it ends up in landfills when the machines become obsolete.

    In 50 years, might we not be pining for the days when all it took to spread ideas were a few folded sheets of printed paper, delivered to your doorstep every morning?

    Not saying we necessarily will, but it's interesting to think about.

  6. Bill James, you are a brilliant writer and I'm a fan, but you can do a lot better than this.

    What are you really saying here other than: things change and in the long run it will all work out?

    Sorry to complain but I was looking for more because you so often deliver the goods.

  7. @ matt

    People won’t have to buy new computers to read stuff online, you can use the ones you already have. No extra computers will be created for the sake of reading a newspaper online.

    It’s true, I did some research, Bill James style.

  8. Y'know, this is why I've always liked Bill James. He can step back from a question, look at it from a different angle, and make good sense of it. And he is quite right here. There is a human tendency to believe that the way things are when we are in our formative years is the natural order of things, but of course that isn't true. Change is the only true constant in human history.

    @ Mikey: What "more" can you expect of an analyst and commentator like James? If the answer to a question is simple, do you want him to be convoluted just because it makes him look brilliant?

  9. "in the modern world it is unnecessary to cut down trees to spread ideas"

    Spreading "ideas" is not the same as spreading "news." "News" is information, facts. "Ideas" is (are?) something else. My fear is that we won't be able to separate fact from fiction on the web, where everyone can spread his/her "ideas" whether they are factual or not.

  10. @PhiskPhan: Separating fact from fiction isn't so easy in newspapers, either. I've read any number of exchanges where it's very clear that a magazine, blog, or occasionally even Comedy Central show has a clearer, more responsible grasp of facts than a newspaper. If Bob Somerby or Tyler Cowan or Hilary Bok or Jamison Foser or anyone at Columbia Journalism Review is criticizing a newspaper for passing on propaganda or pre-scripted nonsense, I've noticed the critic has more detailed, more checkable, more scientifically or economically informed than the newspaper a good 90% of the time. The same would NOT be true of many other bloggers; I'm just saying that a rank ordering can go Tyler Cowan > New York Times > Josh Marshall > New York Times, or David Roberts > NYT science reporter > Gregg Easterbrook > newspaper guy who doesn't know anything about science > WorldNetDaily, or any other jumbled combo.

    Large newspapers could, in my opinion, have survived and thrived by going local: by devoting their reporters to the best possible coverage of their community and their city/state governments, something at which they could easily have surpassed the handful of locally available bloggers. They did the opposite and got deservedly creamed.

  11. And I meant to write New York Post instead of the second New York Times above; the example with the Times twice truly makes no sense.

  12. What part of these thoughts didn`t we all already know. Einstien was a genius but if he decided to tell us of things we were already aware it did not add to his genius. James is just a statistition who gets way too much credit simply for crunching numbers.

  13. There's quite a lot of value in stating things that maybe in pieces we already know but that the larger vision of all of them is seldom or never expressed. I was among many mourning the dissolution of daily newspapers. I read James's few paragraphs a few days ago at his site and now feel a bit better about the whole situation for realizing the larger historical context.

    And, give the guy some slack. What James wrote was a response in the "Hey, Bill!" section of his site where he responds to pretty much any question asked of him. It's not like this was his doctoral thesis.

    And you spelled "Einstein" wrong.

  14. The energy costs of running a tree farm, cutting down trees, converting them into paper, delivering paper and ink to printing presses, running the printing presses, and delivering the finished newspapers far exceeds the energy costs of running the internet and delivering the news electronically. Almost any time you have to deal with something physical it's going to cost a LOT more than merely dealing with its electronic equivalent. What I *think* will happen is the reverse of the growth of newspapers. Only those really big companies (CNN, Fox, Yahoo, MSN) and magazines with internet presence (SI.COM) that can afford to hire writers because they have enough viewers/readers to drive ad revenue sufficient to want to drive more viewership will be able to afford *most* bloggers. As we better figure out microtransactions and how to get money from somebody who thinks "I'm willing to pay Joe Poz a dime for this excellent column I just read" to Joe Poz without it costing far more than a dime (you hear me, PayPal?) then the good writers will find their audiences and start making money. But just because I consider this inevitable does not mean it will happen overnight, or even quickly.

  15. James wasn't trying to make a green argument for moving away from print newspapers. He was just saying that we don't need to use paper as a medium to deliver news; he simply used the euphamism "cutting down trees" for "paper."

  16. This is a little to the side of the thrust of the thread.

    I wonder about the depth of interpretation of events, because I'm not clear who will replace the bureau chiefs throughout the world - journalists who supply on-the-ground reports of human activity.

    In the area of sport, this is not much of an issue - the blogger goes to the stadium. In reporting cultural warfare in the Middle East, for instance, one encounters real concerns about travel and lodging expense, personal safety, and locating the venue of the encounters.

    The New York Times has built a news organization, committed to principled decency, which gathers news throughout the world. They "bought" this organization with salary, lodging and travel, political savvy, and the understanding of its personnel that the mission of the organization was in support of democracy and truth. How will this information be gathered in a newspaper-less world?

    The cutting of trees or the mining of metals and minerals seem hardly germane to the true costs here: the true cost can be the free flow of information. World-wide, we have seen oppressive regimes dominate and suppress the flow of information; in the United States, we are seeing glimmers of this oppressiveness in the "fair and balanced" approach to news supply.

    The best thing I have read suggested that sites like the Huffington Post may bring together the reportage of many sources throughout the world, offer analysis and interpretation, and leave it to the person at the other end to determine where he will go to get this information, and how he will choose to interpret it. The funding of the news-gathering seems to be the biggest question - and this is Ground Zero for control of the supply of information by well-funded agenda-driven organizations.

    For most of us, the newspaper we think of as "newspaper" is dying before our eyes. Maybe Bill James is right, and we will see an improved means of information supply to the people of the world. The previous blossoms were lovely and full; I hope next season's surpass them.

  17. Bill is absolutly right and I'm glad someone finally said it. The newspapers are failing because they are rejecting change. The internet has growing in content greatly over the last 10 years or so and the newspapers have been ignoring it. I think many papers started websites because they saw the ad revenue as easy money since they were mearly reposting stories from the paper. The newspapers need to adapt and quit trying to stop it's evolution. The internet gives instant access to breaking news, is cheaper to produce, and gives access to those outside the community. I live in Tampa, but lived in Kansas City almost my entire life and like to keep up on whats going on.

  18. Most of the issues raised are addressed by Bill. If the contemporary blog age is akin to the 19th Century newspaper age, then we are at the point where there are more blogs than necessary. Each city had 'dozens' of newspapers in 1845, and they looked nothing like the 1990 Times or Post.

    The tricky part is that consumers have yet to winnow the competition. Isn't it remarkable tha the Times, e.g., went from charging for its articles (and a very reasonable cost at that) to making them all free? The quality of options will have to bottom out before consumers are willing to pay online subscription fees, just as the rags that one can get for free at any bus stop do not satisfy the market of those papers which actually cost money.

  19. I used to work for a newspaper in a small Ohio city. I covered city council meetings in tiny little towns out in the county and the next morning the people who lived in them could find out what their elected officials were doing. Who is going to do that for them now?

    Where I live now is a chain of local papers which served that same function and they just closed down. Same question -- who is going to tell their citizens what's going on?

    The 'Net is fine for national and even state events. I used to live in New Mexico and can still follow politics there via a sponsored blog. But at the REALLY local level, this change is NOT a good thing.

    The other point is that news is always highly politicized -- one man's wonderful city council decision is another man's sellout to the powers that be. To be able to judge which one is closer to the truth, people need to know the facts, and if all they're getting are blogs, they have no way of picking their way through the spin.

    I admire Bill James without measure, but I think he's out to lunch on this.

  20. Not to discount Slasher14's experiences, but local newspapers in my experience haven't performed the local government news function in anything more than the sketchiest manner. And that's been truer over time. My point in comment #10 wasn't that the death of newspapers is a good thing, but that -- as chain-owned newspapers threw away what Slasher14 correctly i.d.s as a newspaper's strength -- the death was by suicide.

  21. Nice article on Future of newspapers, I read one on the 'End of paper' itself.very interesting:

  22. While it makes for interesting reading, the article fails to address the commercial realities of the newspaper industry. How does one tie advertising dollars to news in a digital world? The bond of news to classified advertising -- a huge money generator for the newspaper industry -- has already been broken by sites like Craigslist. That, to me, is the real challenge facing the industry.

  23. But you've glossed over the scariest part for the newspaper industry--the power shift, and the undocumented monetary model of our new mainstream media. When agenda setting is put back in the hands of the people (or at least the ones with an Internet connection), yes, that is a big deal.

    I don't think we're going through a standard regrouping of papers and leaders so much as a paradigm shift. The technologies and mediums are becoming different. As Marshall McLuhan said, "The Medium is the Message." This is the boiling point for how far our society has evolved from static information sources with top-heavy leadership.

  24. Most people miss a critical point...

    Bloggers don't report, in the sense that they don't have the resources to do any investigative journalism. All this 'we're putting the agenda back in the hands of the people' type stuff is mostly hot air; the 'people' generally don't have the ability to do much with their power, unless they form large organisations, and then we're back to square one.

    Most 'news' these days comes from organisations like Reuters, or AP. The elephant in the room is that these organisations are the root sources of almost all blogger news fodder. Sure, bloggers reference other blogs, but fundamentally, the facts that they use are from newspapers, or large news organisations funded by newspapers & television stations.

    If traditional media's revenue streams continue to dry up, there will not be the money to support Reuters and AP, and the news will cease to flow from these organisations. Think of a time 5 years from now when no media organisation has correspondents in, say, Lebanon, because they can't afford to pay them.

    At the end of the day, if no-one is paying for news, it will stop, and all we'll have is a huge self-referencing pile of commentary.

  25. "we'll all be better off in 25 years" may be comforting to someone who's locked in to old wage structures and has a book deal going on, but not if you work for a bankrupt newspaper chain as a 26-year-old reporter laden with student loans who had to take a furlough and a 5 percent pay cut this year. Pardon me for not being soothed, Mr. James.