The New Media Age: Newspapers in Peril
Cover story, Centerpoint, November 2009
Newspapers are facing uncertain times. Some have shut down; others are cutting staff, eliminating sections, and closing bureaus. Circulation and ad revenue continue to decline largely due to competition with websites.
To explore the state of newspapers and the future of journalism, the Woodrow Wilson Center recently held two meetings, both co-sponsored by the Division of U.S. Studies, including one on Capitol Hill in conjunction with Wilson Center on the Hill.
"Journalists are contemplating the grim state of their profession," one panelist said. But another said, "I find journalism exciting right now."
Hard Financial Times
Five years ago, New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. predicted that in five years, newspapers would no longer exist in print form. While his prediction proved wrong, newspapers are facing dire economic times.
On Capitol Hill, Wilson Center Senior Scholar Martin Tolchin said the newspaper industry lost 16,000 jobs last year, while some newspapers, such as the Boston Globe, were forced to close their foreign bureaus. Subscription prices and the growing popularity of blogs, he said, are accelerating the loss of print newspaper readership.
Traditionally, newspapers played several critical roles, said Paul Starr, professor at Princeton University and co-editor of The American Prospect, at the Wilson Center event. A beacon of original reporting in cities around the globe, newspapers have enjoyed broad public readership and their investigational reporting has held governments and businesses accountable.
Newspapers accomplished these goals by cornering various segments of the advertising market, said Starr. Now, he said, newspapers are losing that near-monopoly position.
The recession undoubtedly played a role in this decline, but two long-term trends have also fed the crisis. Newspaper circulation is declining rapidly, Starr said, most notably among young adults. In addition, most advertising revenue now goes to paid searches on the Internet, such as Google, while other sites, such as Craigslist, compete with newspaper classified ads. "The reality is resources for journalism in the United States, especially at the metropolitan and regional levels, are disappearing faster than the new media can create."
Gabor Steingart, Washington bureau chief for the German weekly magazine Der Spiegel, who spoke at both the Wilson Center and On the Hill events, lamented that newspapers are destroying their own business model by giving away content for free online but failing to find alternative sources of income. Meanwhile, he said, publishers are feeding others' businesses. Google and iPhone, for example, provide their customers with free content yet the journalists go unpaid, he said. With data transfer and roaming fees, "often, the companies charge me while I read my own stuff!"
Beyond the Bottom Line
As an old-school print journalist, I'm dying," said Steingart. He said Internet reporting presents a quandary of when and how to break a story, often creating a rift between a newspaper's print and online versions.
"The online guy in me tries to kill the print guy because he tries to steal my nice opening paragraph, my background information, my inspiration," said Steingart. "This is an assassination attempt even if the online guy and print guy are, in my case, the very same person. They're competing for the same story, same money, same resources, and often for the same audience."
Editor-at-large and former editor of The Hill Albert Eisele said under the new rules of online media, stories are haphazardly picked up by bloggers, and investigative journalism gets lost in partisan sniping. The great danger, said Eisele, is that society will lose the benefit of the free press's watchdog function.
Starr also expressed concern about public accountability. "It takes deep pockets to fight legal battles for free speech and greater transparency in government to stand up against threatening litigation by offending corporations or individuals," he said, questioning whether nonprofit websites could fight the toughest battles.
Another challenge is the potential loss of an engaged, informed public. Starr said people interested in sports or crossword puzzles, for example, go straight to websites with those features, bypassing the news. "The incidental learning of a bundled metropolitan paper disappears," he said, which could give rise to a more information-stratified society. Such developments, he said, should worry "anyone concerned about justice and the future of democracy."
Amidst the apprehension of where journalism may be headed, some journalists talk excitedly about the opportunities afforded by new media. "This is a time of incredible ferment in news and information in the United States," said Leonard Downie, Jr., former executive editor of The Washington Post (1991-2008) who now teaches journalism at Arizona State University.
Downie described several innovative journalism projects springing up in San Diego. In one project, two journalists received funding from foundations and local donors to start The Voice of San Diego, an award-winning online news organization. Another new online newspaper, San Diego News Network aggregates reporting from local media and features community bloggers. "They see themselves as competing with the Union-Tribune [print] for eyeballs" said Downie, and already enjoy significant web traffic.
Recently, a former Union-Tribune editor started an investigative reporting project with help from San Diego State University, and is now selling stories to her former employer at less cost than when she was on staff.
In Seattle, journalists are running neighborhood news sites and the Seattle Times is linking to many of their stories. Such a model allows more neighborhood news coverage than newspapers had accomplished previously. And newspapers are buying stories from university students who are covering news across their states. Downie said the Knight Foundation is funding a number of such university and neighborhood journalism projects.
These startups are becoming more common. "I see occurring in communities around the country a diverse ecosystem of commercial, nonprofit, mixed revenue, and public news organizations," said Downie. "It is however a fragile ecosystem," as sustained revenue is critical.
"One of the things lost during the monopoly era of newspapers…is that there was no competition" because newspapers set the news agenda. Now, he said, "I see a lot of sprouts out there in the garden."
Allison Silver, who previously held editorial positions with the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, successfully transitioned from print to online journalism. As founding editor of the online political journal, The Washington Independent, she spoke excitedly about Internet reporting.
For years, she said, newspapers looked at the Internet as an afterthought and discounted online stories. Now, "[Newspaper] readership is declining, but I think there's a hunger out there to find out what's going on."
Silver called online reporting "a way of restoring trust to the reader, a way of creating that bond between reader and reporter, because there's a level of transparency on the Internet that isn't possible in print." An Internet story is a continuous narrative, she said, citing links to information that allow readers to follow the reporting.
Downie said many journalists at his former employer, The Washington Post, have made the conversion to online journalism. He said most beat reporters have their own blogs and file all day long on developments on their beats, then try to add insights in the next morning's paper.
The panelists agreed newspapers likely will survive, though many are already shadows of their former selves. "It does mean diminished coverage; it does mean setting priorities," said Downie. But he noted the opportunity also exists to invent new jobs in journalism.
Panelists underscored the importance of a new business model for modern journalism. "We have to be serious about the money side of this," urged Steingart. "Internet journalism has to be paid for."
Several expressed hope that more organizations and universities will help underwrite the costs of journalism. Some discussed public support such as tax relief. Steingart suggested negotiating revenue-sharing between content producers and distributors, including manufacturers of cell phones and data devices.
The bottom line is "journalism produces a public good," said Starr. "We just may be forced to pay for it in new ways."