Monday was a terrible day for journalism. McClatchy put its layoff plan into effect at The News & Observer and elsewhere. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer announced that it would publish its final print edition this week.
Some people, of course, would prefer to see no hope for newspapers, regardless of the medium. They find glee in the struggles of print media, often from an ideological perspective. Some claim that bloggers have killed a newspaper. Others leave comments on newspaper sites, arguing that the decline of newspapers is tied to slanted coverage. Here’s a typical one:
Readers have become more and more concerned by the consistent, strident Leftist agenda promulgated within the pages of the N&O. Now the chickens continue to come home.
Such comments are misguided, based more in schadenfreude than reason. In reality, readers are not rejecting professionally produced news. They are seeking it out, just in different forms. The Los Angeles Times, for example, has seen scary declines in its print circulation in recent years — but tremendous growth in its Web readership. If readers are rejecting a newspaper on ideological grounds, wouldn’t readership for the newspaper’s Web site see the same decline as the print edition?
These “bias” accusations miss the point of what’s really going on. The utility of the print newspaper has changed, and not for the better, and it has little or nothing to do with issues of news coverage.
For decades, a daily newspaper was an effective way to deliver advertising of all sorts to readers. This was where the big money was, not in circulation. Display and classified ads were reliable sources of income for print media. It’s where Realtors and car dealers advertised, and where readers went to find an apartment, a used car or even a mate. Revenue from that advertising allowed reporters, copy editors and others in the newsroom to make a living.
Now, display advertising is suffering because of the sad state of the economy; it could come back somewhat when the economy gets better. Some businesses, however, can skip such advertising and push their products through their own Web sites. Even more worrisome is the collapse of classified advertising, again tied to the troubled economy but other forces as well. Indeed, in the era of Craigslist, it’s difficult to imagine that newspapers will ever see classified ads return as a significant source of income, though some hold out hope.
So the failure of print media is a failure of advertising, not a failure of news. That, coupled with the fact that many newspaper companies (such as McClatchy) took on too much debt, is the reason that print media are fighting for their lives. Advertising is weak; online ads aren’t bringing in money the way print ads did in their heyday. Yet readership is strong, online if not in print.
The problem before us is how to sustain and expand professionally produced journalism in an online world. (And yes, that includes editing.) How will news, readership and advertising work to support quality journalism the way they did for print for so long?
At least one forecast is pretty gloomy, but perhaps news sites such as the P-I, MinnPost, the St. Louis Beacon and the Denver project will find a way.
UPDATE: Here is what the job ad of the future present looks like for journalism. It includes writing, editing and exercising news judgment.