By the usual indicators, daily newspapers are in a deepening downward spiral. The new year brought reports of more newsroom layoffs, dwindling print circulation, flat or declining
ad sales, increasing defections of readers and advertisers to the Internet, and sullen investors. Wall Street so undervalues traditional publishing that McClatchy’s stock price briefly rose when it sold off the Minneapolis Star Tribune at a fire-sale price, mainly for the $160 million tax benefit. As succeeding generations grow up with the Web and lose the habit of reading print, it seems improbable that newspapers can survive with a cost structure at least 50 percent higher than their nimbler and cheaper Internet competitors. (“No trucks, no trees,” says the former Boston Globe publisher Ben Taylor.) The dire future predicted by the now-classic video, EPIC 2014, in which Google, Amazon, and an army of amateurs eventually drive out even The New York Times, begins to feel like a real risk.
Yet a far more hopeful picture is emerging. In this scenario the mainstream press, though late to the party, figures out how to make serious money from the Internet, uses the Web to enrich traditional journalistic forms, and retains its professionalism—along with a readership that is part print, part Web. Newspapers stay alive as hybrids. The culture and civic mission of daily print journalism endure.
Can that happen? Given the financial squeeze and the shortsightedness of many publishers and investors, will dailies be able to navigate such a transition without sacrificing standards of journalism? Or will cost-cutting owners so thoroughly gut the nation’s newsrooms that they collapse the distinction between the rest of the Internet and everything that makes newspapers uniquely valuable?
Which newspapers are most likely to survive? And, while we are at it, why does the survival of newspapers matter? In an era when the Web explodes the monopoly of the print newspaper as authoritative assembler of the day’s news and invites readers to be both aggregators and originators of content, what remains distinctive about newspapers?
Defenders of print insist that nothing on the Web can match the assemblage of reportorial talent, professionalism, and public mission of a serious print daily. The 2006 State of the News Media Report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that just 5 percent of blog postings included “what would be considered journalistic reporting.” Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, wrote a skeptical piece about Web journalism in The New Yorker last July, concluding that not much of the blogosphere “yet rises to the level of a journalistic culture rich enough to compete in a serious way with the old media—to function as a replacement rather than an addendum.” John Carroll, the former editor of the Los Angeles Times, says, “Take any story in a blog and trace its origins, about eighty-five percent of it can be traceable to newspapers. They break nearly all of the important stories. Who’s going to do the reporting if these institutions fade away?”
By contrast, celebrants of the Web contend that the Internet is freer, more democratic, deliberative, interactive, and civic than the self-interested elites of old media dare admit. “The priesthood of gatekeepers is being disbanded. It’s over,” says Christopher Lydon, a one-time New York Times reporter, now hosting Open Source on Public Radio International.
In exploring whether newspapers as we know them are likely to endure, and why we should care, I sought out Wall Street analysts, press critics, journalism professors, business consultants, publishers, editors, reporters, and the search-engine companies and multifarious originators of Web content that are challenging newspapers. The Internet has famously turned the authority structure upside down; so perhaps not surprisingly, one of my most informative interviews was with a colleague, a twenty-two-year-old prodigy we can call Ezra. Before we defenders of newspapers become too smug about what makes us special, he’s worth listening to.
I opened the conversation by inviting us to compare how we get our daily ration of information. I begin my day, I immodestly confessed, by reading four newspapers. What do you do?
Ezra suppressed a smirk. I use about 150 or 200 rss feeds and bookmarks, he explained. Ezra scans four newspapers online. He checks sites of research organizations such as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He indulges his taste for gossipy pop culture with a few favorites such as defamer.com. Ezra surfs a few political blogs, too, but he particularly relies on expert sites that are not exactly blogs and not exactly journalism; rather they are a very important category often left out by old media critics who divide the world into amateur bloggers versus trained reporters. Many such sites are operated by academics or think-tank researchers who have developed a taste for a popular audience, mixing blog-style comment on breaking news with original analysis, and serious research.
This category of Web site doesn’t have a name, and it trivializes them to call them blogs. Let’s call them crogs, for Carefully-Researched Weblogs. For policy wonks like Ezra and me, some of the most interesting crogs are Dean Baker’s site on how the press covers economics; the crog on Middle East affairs by the University of Michigan professor Juan Cole; and a superb crog on health policy carried on Daily Kos and written by a physician and researcher calling himself Dr. Steve B (he has a sensitive position and won’t publish his real name). There are thousands of similarly high-quality crogs on just about every public issue, of great value to both journalists and ordinary readers. The sites are rich in hyperlinks, too, so a reader can move sideways into more detailed reports and primary sources.
Ezra also uses Google’s popular “alert” feature. Let’s say you are particularly interested in Iraq, health policy, Indian cuisine, and the nba. You can request Google News to send you a daily message offering links to the latest output of your favorite writers, bloggers, or specialty sites. Google News is a little cumbersome to use for this purpose—its inventors imagined readers ordering a relatively few favorite links. But what makes the Internet so dynamic is the ease with which innovators can learn from their publics and try things out. The New York Times will soon introduce a more sophisticated variant called MyTimes, aimed at the Web reader who, like Ezra, wants to pre-assemble an all-star Webpaper that no single newspaper can possibly duplicate. With MyTimes you can roll your own daily, beginning with, but not limited to, the admittedly high-quality content of the Times. And this kind of customized search technology will only get better.
Ezra wagered that his hour of Web culling gave him more and better news and analysis than my hour of newspaper reading. He guessed—correctly—that 90 percent of the three pounds of newsprint that I skim every day gets thrown away, unread. (Indeed, at The Boston Globe, surveys show that two of the top reasons nonrenewing newspaper readers give for their lapsed subscriptions are “not enough time” and “green guilt.” In an age of environmental consciousness and scarce time, people feel bad that so many pounds of newsprint go virginally into the trash.)
So I started playing my few trump cards. Even for casual readers, scanning a newspaper contributes to civic democracy through what sociologists call “incidental learning.” You pick up the paper for the sports or the crossword puzzle, and you find yourself reading about the school board election or the international diamond trade. What about incidental learning? I asked. Don’t newspapers do that better? Nope, Ezra replied. You’d be surprised how much interesting serendipity you pick up from skimming a lot of blogs. For instance, the Berkeley economics professor Brad DeLong, who operates an excellent blog on economics topics, also peppers his blog with Star Trek trivia.
But, I persisted, you are hardly typical. As diligent self-improvers go, Ezra is to the average Web user as the nfl is to Oberlin football. Maybe, countered Ezra, but search technology is making it easier all the time for citizens to be their own aggregators. Isn’t that just what we want?
By now I was feeling very last century. And then Ezra, perhaps taking pity, handed me a trump. You have one thing right, he volunteered. The best material on the Internet consistently comes from Web sites run by print organizations.
So journalism reigns after all. But can this supremacy continue? Here we encounter a paradox on top of an irony. The paradox is that new forms of media, while challenging the very survival of newspapers, are quickly becoming their savior—both as a journalistic and a business proposition.
Newspapers are embracing the Web with the manic enthusiasm of a convert. The Internet revenue of newspaper Web sites is increasing at 20 percent to 30 percent a year, and publishers are doing everything they can to boost Web traffic. Publishers know they are in a race against time, they are suddenly doing many things that their Internet competitors do, and often better.
The irony is that in their haste both to cut newsroom costs and ramp up Web operations, some newspapers are slashing newsroom staff and running the survivors ragged. At many dailies, today’s reporter is often pressed into Web service: writing frequent updates on breaking stories, wire-service fashion; posting blog items; and conducting interviews with a video camera. If journalism is degraded into mere bloggery, newspapers will lose their competitive advantage, not to mention their journalistic calling.
That is a deeper problem at papers with the deepest cost-cutting and layoffs. At the quality dailies, which are adding Web staff, most reporters, after initial hesitancy, have embraced the new hybrid news model. “This is our salvation,” says Steve Pearlstein, a longtime business reporter at The Washington Post. “Most people around here say, ‘Bring it on.’ ” In my interviews, I expected mixed reviews of the hybrid life, but found nothing but enthusiasm.
And if most reporters are taking happily to the Web, the several editors I interviewed are positively euphoric. Five years ago, editors were haltingly and grudgingly adding a few bloggers and chat features, because the Web was something that had to be lived with. “It wasn’t very long ago that I and a lot of other people in the newsroom were worried about the competition from the Web, and its effect on the journalism,” says Leonard Downie, executive editor of The Washington Post. “We were wrong. The Web is not the distraction we feared it would be, and all the feedback improves the journalism.” For example, for several months last year, the Post ran a highly praised series called “Being a Black Man.” The Web allowed a vivid extension of what could be done in print, including narratives, photo galleries, videos, and extensive reader involvement.
“There was an amazing difference between 1999, when I left the Post to join AOL, and 2004, when I came back to the Post,” says James Brady, the Post ’s online editor. “It went from pockets of cooperation to pockets of resistance.” The Post, says Brady, saw the Web as a huge expansion opportunity in part because its print readership was almost entirely local. Today it’s Web readership is 83 percent national and international. Washingtonpost.com now has about eighty-five people on its Web editorial staff, and roughly another forty technical people, plus dozens more techies shared with Newsweek and Slate.
Jonathan Landman, the deputy managing editor in charge of integrating print and Web at The New York Times, says blogging can often help a print reporter think through a story. “Many of these print and Web activities are mutually reinforcing rather than in conflict,” he says.
Where print and Web are integrated at the Times, the Post still has its separate Internet operation across the Potomac in Arlington, Virginia. This was set up over a decade ago, partly so that the Post could pay young Webbies nonunion wages in a right-to-work state. However, as New York University’s Jay Rosen observes, allowing a separate Web culture to emerge outside the Post’s print culture turns out to have been shrewd. “Today, most of us would like to see one newsroom,” says the Post’s Pearlstein. “But if we had been in charge of the Web back then, we would have screwed it up.”
By most accounts, the Post leads the nation’s print papers in its use of the Web’s interactive potential with readers. To a far greater extent than the Times, it offers readers live, real-time talkbacks with reporters. “At first,” says Brady, “the reaction was, ‘I already get enough crap. Where am I going to find another hour to read all this stuff?’ ” But reporters soon found that readers who linked to talkback features had at least read the story, and the Web generally produced higher-quality feedback than reader mail.
For publishers and business strategists, the Web is about nothing less than financial survival. Donald Graham, the Post ’s ceo , was an early Web enthusiast, taking losses of more than $100 million a year in Web operations during the late 1990s in order to build up the Post ’s Internet capacity. “Anyone looking for quarterly returns should not invest in Washington Post stock,” Graham says. The paper’s much-admired Web journalism turns a healthy profit now. Online revenue at the Post was $72.7 million, in the first nine months of 2006, up 31 percent. The Post Company’s $1.1 billion Kaplan test-prep and tutoring company
is increasingly an online product, too. Caroline Little, ceo of Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, says online income has vast potential. “The ratio of the huge amount of time people spend using the net to the relatively low ad revenue realized from the net is way out of whack,” she explains. Internet ad income should grow rapidly at the expense of both print ads and TV ads. “The question,” Little adds, “is how can we contribute enough to the bottom line to keep the core journalism alive?”
The Internet now accounts for about 5 to 6 percent of newspaper advertising income. With Web income soaring and print revenue basically flat, analysts expect the lines to cross within fifteen years. By about 2020, if current trends persist, half of a newspaper’s income and most of its readership will be via the Internet.
Despite the seeming anachronism of paper in a digital age, however, the economics of the business require newspapers to persist as partly print media for at least another generation. Some Americans still want to pick up a daily paper rather than read content on a screen. And as a business proposition, the average monetary value of a visitor to a newspaper’s Web site is only 20 to 30 percent of a newspaper’s print reader; Web ads command lower rates because of the greater competition among Web sites. So even if a newspaper shut down its print operation, published only on the Internet, and somehow managed to keep its entire circulation, the revenue loss would exceed the cost savings.
A key to the transition to a hybrid world is investment. The New York Times is currently spending several million dollars a year on a new R&D unit, Web staff, and new products. Depending on how you count, the Times has over 100 people in the newsroom whose duties are more Web than print, including producers, software developers, and reporters and editors. (Full disclosure: For the past twenty-two years, The Boston Globe, now owned by the Times, has published my weekly op-ed column.) The Times is rolling out a nifty digital device called Times Reader, developed in partnership with Microsoft. (For the next few months you can try out the beta version yourself, free, at nytimes.com.)
With Times Reader, the on-screen page offers stories in the same fonts, look, and print-like appearance of the familiar print Times, but allows a variety of search, page-flip, and rearrange options. For instance, you can click on a word or phrase and get a little clickable chart of all the stories in the paper that touch on that topic. It’s easier to read than a standard Web page, and even more ingeniously searchable. Times strategists imagine a reader at the breakfast table or on a plane curling up with Times Reader as with the print newspaper, and not promiscuously surfing around the Web. Can’t competitors just imitate it? “We certainly hope so,” says Michael Zimbalist, the one-time Disney “imagineer” hired in late 2005 to head R&D at the Times: “The more this kind of platform is widely used, the better we’ll do.” If it becomes a common way of reading a newspaper, he explains, the Times has a head start.
For its digital revenue, the Times has bet heavily on a mainly ad-driven business model. Both print and Web content are mostly free, though users have to register, which helps the Times maximize advertising revenue by pinpointing demographic characteristics of its readers. Only about 2 percent to 3 percent of the material in the paper or the online edition—most notably the columnists—is “behind the wall” and requires an annual premium subscription of $49.95, unless you already subscribe to the print edition. The strategy, according to Times Company executives, is that a content-rich Web environment will entice more readers to bond with the Times online and spend a lot of time with it, thus making the paper a very attractive advertising buy. The Times Company last year earned about $273 million in digital income, out of total revenues of around $3.3 billion. Of that, about two-thirds came from the Times itself. Only about $10 million of that Web revenue is from premium content, the rest is ad income.
In 2006, the Times had a down year, taking a one-time $814.4 million charge for the reduced asset value of its New England media group, principally The Boston Globe . Even without that charge, the Times Company’s operating profit was about 8.9 percent, or less than half the industry average. Responding to a reporter’s question at the Davos meeting about the survival of local newspapers, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. recently observed that the Times is not a local paper but a national one based in New York. E-mails of the comment rocketed around the Globe newsroom, a local Times property where people are still smarting from buyouts, layoffs, and foreign bureau closures.
The more highly diversified Dow Jones Company, meanwhile, enjoyed increased earnings last year. Its Wall Street Journal uses a business model that gives far greater emphasis than the Times to paid Internet content. Dow Jones executives believe their material is so specialized and valuable to its affluent, Web-savvy readers that the potential audience is in the millions. A great deal of Web effort goes into online updates to provide investors with breaking business news, according to Web managing editor Bill Grueskin. At the end of 2006, the Journal reported about 811,000 premium online-only subscribers who paid $99 a year each. An undisclosed number of print subscribers paid $49 for the additional Web content. With its paid-subscription model, the Journal has far less Web traffic than the Times, despite its larger print circulation. But the Journal can charge more to advertisers for its premium audience, according to Grueskin. The Journal projects 2007 growth in online revenue of 20 percent, somewhat below the industry average. Some in the industry think the Journal is mistaken in its strategy of forgoing more Web visitors in exchange for premium subscription income. On the other hand, as Grueskin puts it, “The marginal cost of servicing an additional Web subscriber is basically free.” The Journal, in its recent shift to a smaller page size, has taken a gamble that it will maximize its unique franchise by redoubling its print and Web commitment to business and financial news. In a letter to readers posted on the Journal’s Web site, explaining the Journal’s new, smaller page format (which reduced the news hole by about 10 percent), publisher L. Gordon Crovitz promised, “We’ll deliver more value-added analysis of financial data,” as well as expanded personal material. What Crovitz didn’t emphasize was the sharp cutback in the Journal’s traditionally superb political reporting and analysis of social trends.
The Times, Post, and Journal, already well on their way to becoming print-digital hybrids, will surely navigate this transition. At the other end of the spectrum, small-town and suburban weeklies, community tabloids, and papers targeted to ethnic groups are much better defended against Internet incursions. Readership of print weeklies continues to grow, using a model that is part paid and part “controlled,” meaning free to readers but guaranteed to advertisers, thus aping the free content of the Internet. Free community papers clearly have momentum; subscription and single-copy income is down, but ad income, and overall income, is up. The advertising base of local weeklies was never as reliant on large national advertisers, and their intensely local franchise is retaining both a readership and local advertising bond that the Web is challenging at a far slower rate than it assaults regional dailies.
At greatest risk are newspapers in between—the mid-sized regional metropolitan dailies, like The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. For example, when McClatchy bought the hugely profitable Star Tribune from the Cowles family in 1998, the paper was one of the Internet pioneers. The family had invested heavily in startribune.com. But when the dot-com bubble burst, and profit margins fell from over 30 percent to under 20 percent, McClatchy began disinvesting. To make matters worse, the innovative startribune.com was ordered to convert to the technology of McClatchy Interactive, which was based on the successful site of another McClatchy paper, the Raleigh News & Observer. “We lost at least a year,” says one reporter. And not long after the technical overhaul was complete, the paper was sold again; the Web staff is now scrambling to disengage from an alien technology that it never liked. Sources at the paper say that Web traffic and Web advertising revenue were close to flat in 2006, while they rose sharply at most newspapers.
In January, The Philadelphia Inquirer laid off sixty-eight people from the newsroom—and then turned around and hired five of them back for its Web site. That doesn’t sound like much, but the move increased the Web staff from eight to thirteen. “What happened here was a disaster, but they managed to salvage something good out of it,” says the reporter Daniel Rubin. For instance, Kristen Graham, who was laid off from her job as the paper’s education reporter, now does audio, video, and print reports on idiosyncratic, newsworthy events in the city schools. The Inquirer, through Philly.com, is able to offer an annual report card on city schools with interactive features.
Rubin, fifty, epitomizes the old-school print reporter who has found the leap to Web journalism intoxicating. A nineteen-year veteran of the Inquirer, he writes a very popular, link-rich, and witty blog called Blinq.com and also covers the business of entertainment for print and Web—everything from auto shows to sports and popular culture. Rubin’s home page says, “It was a wise man who said news is a conversation. Let’s talk.” He says Web journalism is “a shot of adrenaline. It makes me superproductive. The feedback is immediate. I know almost instantly what’s working. It’s like I’m back in my father’s hardware store, deciding what to put in the front window to bring in customers.”
The Inquirer’s editor, Bill Marimow, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, sees Web journalism as a lifeline. On the afternoon that we talked, the big breaking local story was the indictment of State Senator Vincent J. Fumo, a longtime South Philadelphia powerbroker. Within a couple of hours the Inquirer had posted many multimedia items—among them a PDF of the full text of the indictment, dueling press releases, Fumo’s floor speech, audio of the U.S. Attorney’s press conference, a special blog from Harrisburg, archives of related stories, photos, comments by other officials, and five features on other facets of the story. It was the perfect vindication of the idea that old media can use the tools of the new to do journalism better than anyone else. Marimow has several print reporters doubling as bloggers. But can a newspaper that made deep cuts in its newsroom maintain its quality even if it adds a few more people to the Web? In February, Rubin was pressed into service as a metro print columnist, and he and his editors will decide whether he can spare the time to keep his blog going. It’s a pity that the Inquirer, now owned by Philadelphia Media Holdings, has to be creative with such dwindling resources.
There are some encouraging exceptions to this picture of the squeezed midsize daily. Several strategists are promoting a blend of the civic journalism movement with a business strategy that builds on the local paper’s brand awareness to create the most comprehensive and interactive Web site in town. In principle, this strategy invigorates the journalism, engages the community in new ways, and increases Web traffic that can bring in ad revenue.
For example, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has been developing satellite suburban Web sites since July 2006 through its NOW Project. The Journal Sentinel, unlike the elite dailies, is doing it almost entirely with a slightly dazed print staff. Click on the paper’s Web site, JSonline.com, and a drop-down menu steers you to a local site, one of twenty-six suburban towns. The parent company, Journal Communications, used to serve these towns with print weeklies. Now the print weekly is a targeted section of the Journal Sentinel, complemented by a NOW Web site.
If you click on suburban Waukesha, for example, you’ll be directed to WaukeshaNow, with a cornucopia of community news and community voices— City Again At Top of Tax Rankings. Main St. Lanes to Close. Bus Fares Up. Art Project Delayed—plus lots of commentary, debate, and listings. It’s exactly the civic value-added that defenders of print media feared would be driven out by the Internet.
On the other hand, two of the Journal Sentinel’s most popular recent features were a readership survey on whether the Green Bay Packers’ quarterback, Brett Favre, should retire, and an invitation to local chefs to send in their favorite recipes for grilling bratwurst. This, in turn, prompted readers to share many hundreds of their own favorite
recipes. “It’s amazing how many ways there are to cook a bratwurst,” says Web editor Mike Davis. Before civic journalism advocates look down their gourmet noses at the bratwurst crowd, it’s worth recalling that sports and local cuisine were always a way that print newspapers bonded with readers. If you want the new interactive Web journalism to promote civic interest in, say, land-use planning, it may be shrewd to wash it down with some beer and bratwurst.
Some of the most creative service journalism on the Web comes from small papers. At the Naples Daily News in Florida, readers can get podcasts, videocasts, and photo galleries; check hurricane damage or local high school sports, or dig into an ingenious database of 80,000 recent local housing transactions—and more. The designer of this hyper-local site, a thirty-five-year-old self-described Internet nerd named Rob Curley, became a Web legend for his award-winning Web work at the Lawrence Journal-World and the Topeka Capital-Journal, in Kansas, and the Hannibal Courier-Post in Missouri. Last October, Donald Graham of The Washington Post hired him away from Florida to be vice president for new product development at Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive. “We have learned a great deal from the Web operations of small papers,” Graham says.
“They hired me to do the same cool stuff, only with more resources,” says Curley. “The only difference is that they don’t wake me at home at 3 a.m. when the classifieds go down. And don’t tell me that what I do isn’t journalism.”
A slicker, more explicitly business-oriented project called Newspaper Next, launched by the American Press Institute in late 2005 in collaboration with a team of Harvard Business
School professors, is promoting a similar model. Harvard’s Clayton Christensen, who advises the project, counsels newspapers to “engage, enrich, empower, and entertain” members of their larger communities, taking advantage of their branding and the Web’s interactive potential.
Newspaper Next is trying out variants of its model, working with seven newspaper companies. At The Dallas Morning News, the target audience is 700,000 busy mothers who are online every day, but only 15 percent of whom currently read the Morning News or its Web site. The idea is to build the ultimate site for moms, called GuideFamily.com, and match the traffic with prospective advertisers.
Other major chains have their own variations on this community approach. E. W. Scripps’ version is called YourHub, described as “a network of community-based Web sites featuring stories, photos, blogs, events, and classified ads posted by community residents and supported by local advertisers.” It’s a little ironic that a model of community journalism that was created before there was an Internet is now being seized on by the business side as a road to profitability.
Can it also enrich the journalism? At their best, these experiments promise to revive community connections and revenue opportunities, as well as local journalism, and to lift newspapers out of their revenue and morale funk. But absent serious investment and commitment from publishers to devote adequate staff, such Web sites can deteriorate into a stew of bratwurst recipes, police blotter, high school reunions, and inane comment.
Jay Rosen observes that a dramatic change in the newspaper culture occurred only in late 2004, when newspaper people finally grasped that, as he says, “the tools of content production had been distributed to people formerly known as the audience.” For a decade, Rosen adds, most publishers and editors had misunderstood the Web, seeing it mainly as a new way of delivering print content. By no small coincidence, 2004 marked the beginning of the current financial downturn in newspaper profitability and share prices, and a mood of crisis and even desperation stimulated a new openness and creativity. “Once you let go emotionally, you realize that as journalism, online is infinitely superior to print,” says Tom Rosenstiel of The Project for Excellence in Journalism, “in its ability to offer links to other material, original documents, full texts of interviews, video, and as much statistical backup as the reader can stand.”
If newspapers are now finding their digital footing faster than observers feared, will Wall Street allow this promising transition to maximize its potential? In 2006, supposedly a disastrous year for newspapers, the average profit margins for the newspaper divisions of publicly traded publishing companies was 17.8 percent, according to the Merrill Lynch media analyst Lauren Rich Fine. That’s well above the average for all industries. Yet newspaper stocks lagged the S&P 500 last year by 21 percent, after another disastrously down year in 2005. Is there something fatally wrong with newspapers that their profit margins conceal? Or is there something amiss with the way Wall Street values newspapers?
As recently as 2002, newspapers and their mostly institutional shareholders were enjoying profit margins in excess of 22 percent, margins that beat even the fabulously lucrative pharmaceutical industry. Newspapers had been local monopolies, and they got used to charging monopoly prices for their most reliable moneymaker, the classifieds. Given Craigslist and Cars.com and Monster.com, those days are never coming back.
Analyst Fine says some newspapers should just level with investors about the need to plow money back into the Internet: “Just put up a sign, work in progress, come back and see us in two years,” she advises. “You’re going to have to judge us differently.” But, as Fine quickly adds, that’s not the way Wall Street works. Further depressions in stock prices invite hostile takeovers and shareholder demands of the sort that killed Knight Ridder. The media analyst John Morton says, “I worry that some publishers will look on their Internet operations as found money, without appreciating that the print is what supports the journalism that attracts the traffic. I worry that they won’t sufficiently invest in people to do it well.”
Even if newspaper publishers do everything right, however, in the Internet age they will have a smaller share of the total advertising pie than they enjoyed in the print era. Newspapers’ share of the $424 billion spent globally last year on advertising, according to ZenithOptimedia, was still a considerable 29.1 percent—but shrinking. The Internet share was just 5.8 percent—but growing. And most Web dollars will not go to newspapers. The Internet competition to monetize traffic is fierce, with most sites designed as pure revenue plays unencumbered by news or civic mission. For example, Barry Diller’s iac/Interactive Corp. is thriving with Web service businesses, such as Match.com, Ask.com, the invitation service Evite, and local city search sites. As newspapers complement their traditional news content with local consumer services and ingenious interactive features, they face competitors who enjoyed earlier market entry and who have high brand awareness. Angie’s List would have been a terrific service to build newspaper Web traffic, except Angie got there first.
Meanwhile, Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft are investing massively in ever more sophisticated search technology. Along with other non-newspaper sites like Wikipedia, Amazon, and eBay, such pure Internet entrepreneurs capture the lion’s share of traffic that can bring in ad money. And none of them has expensive newsrooms to feed. The New York Times and its affiliated papers get visits from 13 million distinct individuals a month. But the nation’s top thirty newspaper Web sites together have under 100 million such monthly visits, while Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo have well over 100 million each, according to Nielsen Net Ratings. The search engines do share some of this ad revenue with newspapers through a variety of ad partnership models—Google wrote checks of $780 million to its ad “content partners” in the last quarter of 2006—but the other large Web entrepreneurs are pure rivals.
On the other hand, newspaper companies themselves are increasingly investing in the purchase of Web income-generators, such as the Times’s 2005 acquisition of About.com, and Dow Jones’s decision to sell six of its fifteen Ottaway dailies in late 2006 and use the proceeds to purchase Factiva.com, a subscription-only search company. In 2000, the Tribune Company and Knight Ridder bought CareerBuilder.com, later joined by Gannett; it’s now the most popular online recruiting site. Here again, independent newspapers with shallower pockets do not have this capacity. They have to invent their own Internet services, and hope that if they build the traffic, ad revenue will come. And, as attractive as it is for publishers to use Web properties to subsidize lower-return newsrooms, a purely financial calculus by a Wall Street profit-maximizer would say: spin off or shut down the lower-yield newspaper and keep investing in the lucrative Web property. All of which shows that newspapers may well require owners with values that go beyond the marketplace.
Are there other economic models, either of ownership or of revenue, that might provide some relief from Wall Street pressure and Internet competition, and allow newspapers to invest adequately in a hybrid future? Tycoons once ran newspapers not just for the income, but for the influence and prestige. Sometimes, family-owned papers have been willing to ride out business cycles and to invest more in the newsroom and in far-flung correspondents than a pure market calculation of optimized revenue would otherwise dictate.
New forms of ownership might include a new generation of civic-minded local owners, or more nonprofit foundations, modeled on the Poynter Institute’s ownership of the St. Petersburg Times or the British Guardian, which has been owned by a nonprofit trust on behalf of the employees since 1933, when the young paper’s editor, Edward Scott, was killed in a boating accident and the Scott family set up the trust. Far from causing the Guardian to rest on its laurels, the trust has enabled the paper to be one of the great innovators. It has one of the most imaginative and interactive Web sites around, with 13 million monthly users, roughly matching The New York Times and its affiliates. The Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, speaking at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, recently observed that the Scott trustees do not demand “the sort of returns many big American media organizations are used to. . . . Trustees understand that serious public service journalism isn’t always compatible with enormous circulations or huge profits.”
In Minneapolis, after the sale of the Star Tribune to Avista Capital Partners was announced, the new private-equity owners paid a call on the newsroom, swore fealty to the sacred profession of journalism, and insisted that they were in it for the long haul, and not for a quick turnaround and sale. If so, however, they will be playing very much against type. Absent some dramatic sales to community owners, such as a hoped-for breakup of the Tribune chain, the dream of nonprofit foundations or benign billionaires seems remote.
The more likely economic salvation of newspapers will come from Web ingenuity, married to new business strategies and revenue sources. In this respect, the immensely lucrative search engine companies that now provide newspapers with both digital readers and online revenue are something of a mixed blessing. “Some day,” says Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence, “the lawyers for The New York Times and for Google are just going to fight it out.”
An eternity ago in the Internet era, in 1997, Microsoft tried to launch its own version of a digital daily, called Sidewalk. Newspapers, sensing the threat, declined to cooperate with it, and Sidewalk bombed. Yahoo has also experimented, not very successfully, with generating original content. If you go to its site, you can find Yahoo’s own war correspondent, Kevin Sites, showing you some of his video scoops, and inviting you to become a Yahoo freelance. Google, by contrast, declares that it is not in the business of competing with journalists, and that it scrupulously respects copyrights. “We are an engineering company, not a content company,” says Google vice president David Eun, adding that Google not only provides new revenues but can teach newspapers how to optimize their Web strategies.
As both a source and a diversion of ad revenues and readers alike, Google is both competitor and partner to publishing companies. One executive I interviewed termed Google a “frenemy.” Another called the process “co-opetition.” Looking down the road, there are other “frenemies.” Mochila.com is a fast-growing Web syndicator of content to newspapers. The idea is that with newspapers squeezed and laying off producers of newsroom content, Mochila can license high-quality content from freelancers and offer it to newspapers, and perhaps eventually to consumers. The content also comes bundled with ads sold by Mochila, and the revenue is split with newspapers. This is also a delicate balancing act. The cheaper content and new revenues are found money. But if newspapers increasingly become purveyors of freelance content, they lose their distinctive franchise. And all those intermediaries are more claimants on the ad revenue pot.
In the U.S., Google’s core search engine business is protected from lawsuits by the doctrine of fair use. In Europe, however, where there is no legal doctrine of fair use, Agence France-Presse sued Google for copyright infringement. And The Associated Press worked out a deal last year with Google: the details are secret, but the deal seems to have Google breaking its usual precedent of not paying for
content. Owners of copyrighted video content have been pushing back against search-engine companies. And Google’s ambitious effort to launch Google Books will test just how far the fair use doctrine stretches (See “Copyright Jungle,” cjr, September/October 2006). Should Google’s plan be constrained—either by litigation, by a precedent-setting royalty deal with book publishers, or by Congress—newspapers could be indirect beneficiaries.
An analogy is the saga of Napster and iTunes. As recently as 2001, it looked as if that genie was irrevocably out of the bottle. “File-sharing” programs like Napster had created a loophole that allowed free distribution of copyrighted music recordings. But the recording industry, sensing the stakes, marshaled its nerve and its lawyers. They successfully sued and shut down Napster as an illicit pirate-enabler. Apple then stepped forward with some of the most ingenious hardware and software of the Internet age—the must-have iPod and iTunes. Soon, delighted teenagers (and adults) were re-trained to pay for their music, this time at 99 cents a song. There is still a huge amount of decentralized file-sharing, but it is now at an economically bearable scale.
But if newspapers hope to collect royalties on arguably pirated content, the genie is much further out of the bottle than it was for record producers. Google is a far bigger player than Napster and it has hooked newspapers with ad partnerships. The public is accustomed to getting nearly all of its Web content free, and there is fierce opposition to a cable-TV model in which users would pay different amounts for different levels of content.
So neither of the deus ex machina solutions to the newspapers’ (somewhat exaggerated) financial plight—different ownership structures, or more favorable revenue sharing with search engines—seems likely. Rather, publishers need to work with what they have, investing in people and technology to get through this transition to the promised land of hybrid print-Web publishing.
Given that America’s newspapers collectively employ far fewer R&D people than Microsoft, Google, Yahoo et al., it is remarkable that newspapers have emerged as formidable Web innovators. And so far nobody has succeeded in replicating the range, depth, and quality of a newspaper in a Web-only daily (or hourly). You can click on Google News for a quick snapshot of breaking stuff, but most of that content originates in newspapers. “The cliché used to be, ‘Call me anything you want as long you spell my name right,’ ” says the Post’s James Brady. “Today, it’s call me whatever you like as long as you link to me.” Far more bloggers are linking to newspapers than vice-versa.
Web-only journalism has been surprisingly slow to challenge newspapers on their home court. When Slate launched the first online magazine in 1996, it appeared to signal a whole trend. But journalism turns out to be expensive. Slate briefly tried a $19.95 paid-subscription model in 1998, but lost far more readers than it gained income, and abandoned the approach. Even though it is now owned by The Washington Post, Slate was in many ways a higher quality journalistic product when Michael Kinsley began it. Today Slate, Salon, Huffington Post, and the rest, offer far more comment than news, since talk is cheap and reportage isn’t.
Four years after Slate, in November 2000, Josh Marshall launched his superb Talking Points Memo. As the Internet’s first I. F. Stone, Marshall looked to be the harbinger of independent, branded, Web-only investigative reporting, using his own diligence combined with tips forwarded by his tens of thousands of fans, and breaking a lot of news, sometimes scooping the dailies. Today Marshall presides over a small conglomerate of interconnected sites and colleagues, one of which is the excellent TPM Muckraker, with two regular employees who practice Marshall’s brand of investigation. As a whole, however, the much-expanded TPM now has a far higher ratio of comment and interpretation (some of it first-rate) to enterprise reporting.
In their modern classic, The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write that, “In the end, the discipline of verification is what separates journalism from entertainment, propaganda, fiction, or art.” Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, recounting a half-century’s decline of civic engagement (a decline that began long before the Internet), reports that newspaper readers are more likely than nonreaders to participate in politics and local public life. Cities and towns with newspapers have a more transparent civic and public life than those without them.
In effect, we deputize editors to be our proxies, delegating to them the task of assigning reporters and deciding what news we need to know on a given day and to certify its pertinence and accuracy. We trust them to do a more reliable job than even our own Web-surfing. (As Chico Marx famously put it in Duck Soup, “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?”). But as readers, we no longer have to make that either/or choice between newspapers and the wild Web. We can have both the authoritative daily newspaper to aggregate and certify, and the infinite medley of the Web—all of which puts the traditional press under salutary pressure to innovate and to excel.
As Generation Y grows up, and Generation Z finds the idea of getting news on paper even quainter, more people like Ezra (and his children) will become their own editor-aggregators. But if the dailies do their jobs, the next generation will still read newspapers—online.
My reporting suggests that many big dailies have turned the corner, though only barely and just in time, that newspapers have started down a financially and journalistically viable path of becoming hybrids, without losing the professional culture that makes them uniquely valuable.
Assuming that most dailies survive the transition, my guess is that in twenty-five years they will be mostly digital; that even people like me of the pre-Internet generation will be largely won over by ingenious devices like Times Reader, supplemented by news alerts, rss feeds, and God knows what else. But whether newspapers are print or Web matters far less than whether they maintain their historic calling.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect , a columnist for The Boston Globe , and the author of seven books. His past affiliations include BusinessWeek , The Washington Post , and the late journalism review (More) . His first real job was as I.F. Stone’s assistant.