Monday, March 30, 2009

Clay Shirky on Newspapers

This has been linked and reprinted in a lot of places, so I figured we certainly should reprint it here. This is Clay Shirky’s long and detailed take on what has happened to newspapers, and what might be coming next.

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.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Newspapers as non-profits?

We are just throwing a lot of stuff up on this blog at the moment, hoping that something will stick and conversations will bubble. But in the next few weeks, we are also hoping to get some guest essays, a few interviews, more of your thoughts. Point is, some order is probably coming.

Today’s thought comes from Geoff, who is editor for Where I Stand. He wrote this interesting article for his blog about whether not online journalism can survive the death of newspapers. One of the topics in the essay is one he expands upon in an email: Should newspapers, in fact, be non-profits?

“I wrote an essay last month that questioned why the default funding model for journalism has always been for-profit. As if reporting the truth and profits were mutually beneficial pursuits. The business of journalism isn't like the business of, say, retail. True, competitive culture partly drives the pursuit of scoops, leads and sources, but was Woodward thinking about a sales commission during all those 2 a.m. rendezvous with Deep Throat? No. And is the New York Times Iraq bureau really an efficient and streamlined use of its budget? Well, no.

“But it exists for a larger purpose than bottom lines. There's a consensus that societies are better off with a fully-functioning press yet we're willing to jeopardize it in the name of competition. Just doesn't seem like a reasonable compromise.”

I don’t know enough about non-profits co really dive into this question ... but it sure seems like there is something here. An editor once told me: “Everybody wants the news, but nobody wants to own it.” I always thought that was a weird thing to say. Now, I wonder.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Thoughts of a friend

Lots of journalists are writing about their emotions these days. Here is my friend, Charlotte Observer columnist, current Nieman Fellow (at Harvard) and Pulitzer Prize finalist Tommy Tomlinson on the subject.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Douglas: Politics Killing Newspapers Too

If you ask people in the newspaper business, they will give you any number of reasons for the newspaper crisis. They will tell you that the business model is outdated. They will tell you about the downturn in the economy. They will tell you about the fragmenting of the advertising market. And so on. And so on.

However, if you ask someone who is not in the business, there’s a reasonable chance they will tell you that newspapers lost readers because of an inability to stay politically objective. Check out any story about a dying newspaper, and you are guaranteed to find many reader comments about how newspapers are no longer fair and no longer speak to all their readers.

Here is a reader, Douglas, making the point.

* * *

My dad and I grew up reading the sports section. That is really the only section of a newspaper I care about. I would subscribe to a newspaper just for that section alone. I think a lot of people would.

But over the last year in particular, newspapers have shown they care less about their readers and more about advancing political ideals. My journalism teacher turned me onto the New York Times sports section, and said it had well-written features. And it did. I enjoyed reading what their sports writers had to say. Mind you, I was just reading this online, giving ad revenue to those sponsors via a hit on their Web page.

However, this past summer, when they failed to publish John McCain’s editorial without a “process” or whatever they called it, that was the last straw. I knew about their political leanings before, but this was it. I sent them a note, telling them why I would never visit their site again, and I have not gone back since. They can do with out my Web page hit.

This is my personal story, but nationwide, when a newspaper has an obvious political bias, it “writes their own death.” It isolates half the people in America along party lines. No one wants to pay for something they can get for free if it’s spewing propaganda. Instead, they’ll flock to or, or the blogosphere.

But if newspapers would drop the political act, and produce actual journalism, people may again pay for print services.

Like I said, I am into newspapers for their take on the local sports teams. I love sports. I also love politics. But I do not love when the two of them mix. When I am listening to Rush Limbaugh, I don’t want to hear what he thought about Sunday’s Steelers game. And when I am watching sports, I don’t want to hear about Barack Obama.

However, I fear that the “new media” is trending down the same path that newspapers went down. Now, when I get SI the magazine, I have to see a cover story with Obama titles “The Audacity of Hoops”. I threw that issue out without ever glancing inside the cover. And today on, I had to see a front page story about Obama’s bracket. I am not visiting them again today, and will try and use them less in the future.

Politics is a divisive issue, and the more newspapers, or sports outlets, try to be political, they are going to divide their readers/viewers. Journalism is dead. And that’s why newspapers are dying as well.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Red: The Kindle (Part 1)

A couple of days ago, I bought my own Amazon Kindle. You already know that this is the relatively new reading device from Amazon (now in its second life -- Kindle 2). It is incredibly thin, has a screen that is roughly twice as big as an iPhone and numerous buttons that make reading a book (or newspaper) extremely easy.

I bought it for two reasons: One, because, let’s face it, I am a gadget junkie and I could not wait any longer; Two, because I have for a few years now been fascinated by the concept of some kind of handheld wireless device -- bigger than a phone and smaller than a broadsheet newspaper -- that people could use to read newspapers. Haven’t we all had this thought? It just seemed to me that there are SO many advantages to a device like this:

1. It could very closely replicate the print experience without many of the various costs of printing and delivering a newspaper.
2. You could, quite reasonably, charge a subscription fee.
3. You could, it seems to me, easily incorporate advertising into the product.
4. The newspaper would then become a living thing, no longer tied to the eight-hour shackles of the printing press and circulation, and one that could be updated, wirelessly and constantly, throughout the day.
5. It would be like what they had on The Jetsons.

There are no doubt disadvantages to using something like the Kindle too, but frankly I’m not business savvy enough to see them. I mean, yes, you would have to get these devices into the hands of people. Yes, the Kindle is not the perfect newspaper device -- it would be nice to have a device that was slightly bigger and perhaps had the capability for color -- but these are technical issues and I just find it hard to believe that we do not have the technology to create a remarkable wireless newspaper. I just cannot help but see the Kindle concept as a big part of whatever is the newspaper future ... and this will no doubt be one of the ongoing themes of this blog.

Here is Red with his thoughts about the Kindle. I’ll be back with more. Please feel free to dive into the discussion via comment or email:

* * *


I believe that the age of paper delivery of the news is just about over. Is this bad? Not in my view. No more so than the loss of the local Iceman, milkman, lamplighter or the town crier for that matter.

I am old enough to have sold the evening paper on the corner to the crowds that got off the streetcars and later buses. Later I had a paper route and flung the paper from my bicycle. Most of the time I even got it near the door. These are fond memories of my youth.

Today's kids will not have these experiences. On the other hand, I have no memories of horses in the street, The Great Depression or World War II. So who's to say?

The delivery of news will continue. Newspapers don't die due to the lack of news. They are dying because no one has figured out to how to deliver news -- and more importantly advertising -- to the individual (your personal copy) without using a press, paper and ink. I like the idea of my personal copy of the newspaper. Something I can have at my desk, the dinner table or den. I believe newspapers can still do that.

Enter the Kindle (or Kindle like devices). Technology is in place now to deliver the "paper" with all it's graphics from the internet "cloud" on a lightweight hand held device A web browser on a laptop is a poor second. Imagine your "paper" delivered to your personal device every day. The only things you would miss would be going outside to pick it up, the smell of ink and and the newsprint and being able to fold it in all those weird ways folks do.

With this model the newspaper would shed it's biggest cost, that of actually printing the paper. I believe news gathering organizations can then survive and prosper.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Empty boxes

An amazing photo of discarded newspaper boxes from The Boston Globe’s “Scenes from the recession.” It perfectly reflects the recession ... and what we are talking about here. (Hat tip to Nate for pointing it out).

Non Sequitur

I’m not one to link to comics often, but this does seem to fit the general theme.

Craig: The Paperless Paper

Craig Calcaterra -- a.k.a. Shysterball -- is one of the most thoughtful voices I’ve come across on the Internet. He’s a lawyer and a baseball writer. There should be a good joke in there somewhere. Here is Craig voicing his view about a potential editorial future of newspapers.*

*A quick editor’s note: Much of what he talks about here is not new but actually quite old -- I could not help but think that some of his ideas sound like the rewrite man back in the 1940s and ‘50s who would sit at a desk, have a reporter call in news about a fire and turn that into a story. Anyway, that’s how it struck me.

* * *

The two central hurdles to get over to get us into the new era are (1) the access problem (i.e. who goes into the locker room to get the quotes and reports back from the press conferences) and (2) the usability problem of the blogsophere and other online media sources to people at large (i.e. the fact that it's really hard to know where to go for what unless, like me, you're online 24 frickin' hours a day).

What I am proposing is the transformation of newspapers into locally-organized clearinghouses for the vast world of online news and opinion, done mostly by independent agents, bloggers, freelancers, etc.

The rough outline: Ad revenue won’t support the purchase of paper and ink and delivery services and hundreds of reporters on hundreds of beats, but it could support a streamlined editorial staff and some niche reporters for whom access matters. Guys who cover the pro locker rooms and press boxes and guys who cover high level politics in which credentialing is required for space and security reasons. Most other beats can be (and increasingly are) being handled on a hyper-local level. People reporting/blogging about the PTA and the town council meetings. People reporting/blogging about the high school football game and the new shopping mall. People obsessively following the new licensing requirements for day care centers. People staying hip to the latest home and garden developments. They're all out there now already, doing their own disparate things, many whistling into the wind. Over time, however, they can coalesce into a volunteer army (mostly volunteer anyway; see below for more on this) that mixes more expository information into the subjects about which they're already writing thereby making it more useable for everyone. But yes, they can keep their opinions and hobby horses too, because I think one problem we have now is news that strains so hard to be objective that it's ridiculous. That's another rant, though.


So at the outset, burn down the current newspaper office and replace it with:

(a) the brand, archives, and history of the existing papers;
(b) a skeleton crew of highly skilled reporters to cover those access-dependent specialized beats;
(c) a streamlined editorial staff who spends way less time wordsmithing and far more time making sure every conceivable story of interest is covered in a given day’s digital-only edition.

(c) is the obvious new thing here, so let’s explore that: the editorial staff spends its time filtering content from the blogosphere and amateur reporting ranks and organizing it into usable form on the paper’s website. They’re not sitting at an assignment desk, really, as much as they’re serving the function of a crackerjack reference librarian, making sense of the sheer masses of information and opinion out there, and presenting it to the readers, who depend on them to make sense of the chaos.

They key is not to tie the paper to any specific writer or writers. Rather, the news dictates it: on Monday, the paper may feature, among hundreds of other items, stories/opinion from a guy in Brooklyn about a big housing development that broke ground. On Tuesday nothing is happening in Brooklyn, so they run with content from the uptown blogger covering the new restaurant and the guy in Queens who has a neat series going about the change in street crime over the years.The key is that every day, there are a million things happening, and as the blogosphere expands fewer and fewer things are going uncovered. The editors serve as gatekeepers, gatherers, ensurers of basic standards. The key is that the paper does not need to tie itself to much of a fixed staff and associated costs, nor does it need to worry about column inches. For the first time, we may actually get all of the news that's fit to print as opposed to the narrow swath of it for which the paper decided to devote editorial staff.

How do you incentivize/manage the content providers? Tricky, but not insurmountable. I suppose on some level a paper could have a choice: they could enter into loose and flexible syndication/freelance agreements that would allow the paper to take from the blogger what they think is worthy when they think it’s worthy, paying him some amount for used content and allowing him to otherwise ply their bloggy trade (or whatever their primary trade is) on their own simultaneously. If, however, the newspaper thinks they’ve got a great contributor, they can compensate him or her for greater degrees of exclusivity and regularity of content.

I would presume, however, that the majority of content providers would be part timers at best: people who work other jobs for a living but who use their expertise and insight into specific areas while simultaneously scratching that writing itch so many of us have and making a real contribution to civil society by keeping the rest of us informed. Nice byproduct: maybe the increasing isolation of modern life -- we spend our days with like-minded people and then retreat to our digitial caves at night -- will be alleviated as everyone not only has the incentive, but the opportunity to share some of their specific insights and interests with others.

Anyway again: so much of that system depends on the newspaper’s editorial staff making good content decisions. As we know from the present state of the papers, however, good decisions in this area aren’t a given. In a printing pressless age, however, the barriers to entry for such an aggregation service are relatively low, so if the new era newspaper is not serving the public well, a competitor “paper” will spring up and offer a better menu of contributors. Editors would soon learn, I suspect, that their job as gatekeeper isn’t as robust as that term is typically meant to mean, and the concept of “quality” is not synonymous with “a report written by a person trained at a J-school and put through a given paper’s corporate ladder.”

People want facts, some attention to grammar, balance, but not to an ignorant fault, and when we’re talking about opinion writing, intellectual honesty. Elsewise? Let people be themselves and let the information flow. Inefficiencies will reveal themselves, but incetives will exist for people to fill content vacuums. Over a period of years, however, we may very well find that we have more and better information that we ever had in the age of print newspapers.

The Killing Fields

This post is from Ed, who finds that newspapers -- the printed product -- are simply fading out of his life.

I'll tell my story because I fear I may be killing an American industry.

I've read newspapers as long as I can remember. It all started with the Sunday funnies. Those whimsical and colorful four-panel strips that told stories that often went over my head. I remember quite vividly that the local radio station would read the funnies on the radio every Sunday at a certain hour, and I was able to follow along and enjoy the tales. As years go by, the sections change but the delivery method remained the same. My interest moved to ads (what toy do I want next), and then around age 10 to the Sports section.

The Sports section was the most important part of the morning. The stats, the box scores, were my connection to another world. I would spend hours looking at the box score and recreating in my mind all the action from the previous night's games. There were no TV highlights; in my mind the images I saw were the faces from the baseball cards. But I saw images; I saw the action. And Sunday- Sunday was special. Sunday had ALL the stats for ALL the players printed on two full pages, and I would spend hours dissecting, analyzing, and reviewing all the numbers. Who had the most hits? Who had the most home runs? Every Sunday, I had to know. And what was great was that the stats were through the previous Friday's game -- they were CURRENT.

It was all there in print . And it was each and every morning. Like magic, I would wake, open the front door, and find the medium to transport me to another world waiting in the driveway. And should the paper NOT be there, well a whole round of curses for the paper boy. Damn him to heck -- give me my Sports section.

* * *

Over time, the love affair changed but it was still there. It was the Friday weekend section, where I first saw what movies were opening that day and what records were on sale at Tower Records that week. It was where I found my first job, bought my first car. The newspaper was an hour or more each day of news, views, ideas, dreams, wants, needs, good, and bad. It was the start of each day, and no day could begin without it.

Today I start each day with a glance through the e-mail and then 30 minutes on the RSS Reader. All my news delivered to the computer. I don't have to put on slippers and stroll through the dew; I wake the computer and open the browser. If I want opinion, a laugh, a provoking thought, or just a general what's-going-on, it's all online. I don't wait until Sunday to get my stats- I go to ESPN and get 100 more stats than the newspaper ever provided. If I want to know what movie opens this week (or the next 12 weeks), it's online. Buy something -- online. Local news -- online. National -- online. Want a laugh -- the internet's loaded. What's on sale? It was emailed to me that morning.

I still subscribe to my local paper. I cut down to Thursday through Sunday because I wasn't reading during the week. Even now, Thursday and Friday's paper often sits in the garage unread until Saturday. If then. Often I'm throwing away the paper, rubber band still wraped around the twice folded relic. On the days I read it, I spend a fraction of the time I used to. I skip most of the ads (saw them online), I quickly browse the sports (the news stories are half a day old, I read them at lunch the day before), and I skim the rest. I think every day about canceling. I could really use the extra money, but I just can't do it.

* * *

I know my paper is dying. It's a McClatchy paper -- it's on its last legs. Money is tight in my corner of the world, but yet for some reason I keep getting it. I can't give up on my youth, my standard news bearer. In some ways I feel that canceling my paper is canceling on my community, my city, my city's history and in so many ways my history. I tell myself that with the internet, I'm not missing the news -- I'm just getting it in shorter, quicker doses. What I lack in depth, I gain in...

I don't gain. I don't get depth. The RSS reader gives me a quick sentence or two. Sometimes I click and read an entire article, but often not. The thoughts and opinions I read are thoughts and opinions I agree with- why click or subscribe to a blog that doesn't share my values. The sports opinion now comes from national writers; I don't read the local opinions any more. I don't experience the joy of imagining a game -- I see the highlights instantly on the web. I don't wait for the weather -- I catch a bottom scroll on the tv, link on my homepage, or even a menu on the Wii. I get digital copies of the ads I want to see, and don't give a second thought to the ads I miss. I read news on my cell phone, on my computer, and on my Kindle (I'm also killing the book printing industry; go ahead and add that my iPod is killing the music industry while you're at it). I probably spend twice as long reading news, but next to no time with a newspaper. And I know that even though I still subscribe, I am transitioning further away from the newspaper. I'm killing an American industry.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What's the story?

So, here's the concept of this blog: Newspapers, we all know, are drowning. There are reasons for this, numerous reasons, some complicated, some very simple, some interesting, some boring as sin. The times are changing. The economy is in the tank. Readership is breaking into niche audiences. The business model is broken. Print is dying. Newspapers lost touch with readers. Readers lost touch with newspapers. On and on and on and on and on.

People also feel very differently about what's happening to papers. Some say good riddance. Some worry for the future of Democracy. Some believe newspapers wrote their own death notice with their greed and stubborn reluctance to adjust to a changing world. Some believe this future was inevitable, that the overpowering newspaper business that once existed could not survive, it had to be picked apart piece by piece like the fish in "Old Man and the Sea." Some believe that a technological breakthrough and an economic turn can put newspapers (or whatever they will be called by then) a new life -- there are more readers now than ever before. Some think that if you hooked up a heart monitor to the newspaper business right now, you'd get a straight line.

I suspect that if this blog gets going, then we will discuss all these topics at some length. But, for now my idea for this blog is a bit different. What I am hoping it can become is a collection plate for ideas, thoughts, schemes, designs and general philosophies about the future of newspapers.

And by "newspapers" I don't mean the newsprint and ink product that may or may not get thrown into your driveway. If there's one thing everyone can agree on, it is that the future of newspapers as we know them is no future at all. No, by newspapers, I am talking more about how people will get their news -- and who will be the ones delivering it -- as the future becomes now.

I'm hoping to do very little writing on this. What I would like to do is find smart people -- business people, editors, bloggers, writers, readers of all kinds -- and have them rant about the business any way they would like. Do you believe that newspapers are dying because of their political spin? Do you think the Kindle is the future of papers? Do you believe that newspapers are simply going down because of the incompetence of the bosses? Do you just want to write a bit about what newspapers have meant to your life?

I would love to have these stories or essays -- long or short -- describe what you think has happened, and more where you think it's going, if anywhere. I hope this thing can become a bit of a slot machine, where you never know exactly what you will get.

So, for that, I am hoping to go on the inspiration of friends, strangers and everyone in between. You can email me here if you have something to say, anything at all, about newspapers. And that's how this will begin.

Anyway, maybe this goes nowhere. We'll see what happens.