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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.
Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.
On February 26, 2009, I and the group No News is Bad News, are co-sponsoring an event at Seattle City Hall to discuss the future of journalism. The event, titled “No News is Bad News: Seattle As a No-Newspaper Town?” was conceived and planned by a group of local bloggers, journalists, and news readers. The event will be held in the Bertha Landes Conference Room (off the 5th Avenue entrance) and is free and open to the public. Registration is encouraged but not required: Click here to register.
No News is Bad News will feature a panel of speakers, but the focus of the event is on listening to feedback from the community. Attendees should arrive expecting to be part of a discussion where they can share their concerns and comments.
The forum will be moderated by a KIRO Commentator Dave Ross. Panelists include:
- Jay Rosen, a professor at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. In addition to writing Press Think, Jay blogs on the Huffington Post, sits on the advisory board of Wikipedia, and launched NewAssignment.Net, a site for open source reporting.
- Art Thiel, a reporter at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer since 1980. There, he has been a sports columnist since 1987.
- Kathy Gill, a digital media teacher at the University of Washington, Department of Communication. Her focus is on digital social interaction and impact of these technologies on the news media and politics.
- Cory Tolbert Haik, an online journalist who has spent the last decade managing web media. At NOLA.com, site of the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, she was Managing Editor during Hurricane Katrina. She is currently the Director of Content for SeattleTimes.com.
I’d like to share my own insights as an individual who founded a community newspaper in Seattle, The Seattle Sun (stared in 1974 and ended in the early 80’s) and has subsequently been publishing this email newsletter for over twelve years.
Although publishers, editors and reporters engage in journalism because they presumably enjoy their craft, sustaining that craft is dependent on the market place. Like any other item produced for exchange value, whether it be media content or pig ears, the value is determined by the market, albeit somewhat shaped by government forces to encourage or discourage that activity through tax laws and prohibitions.
Print newspapers deliver news content in the fields of sports, politics, weather, natural calamities, comics, editorials, and the list could go on for some length. Readers consume this content by purchasing the paper or just picking it up and glancing through it. In either case the paper attracts readers because of its content. Not all of the content is equal however. Some content is more valuable than others; not by any intrinsic attributes but solely determined by the number of people seeking it. And there is the rub.
Some of the most valuable content in daily newspapers is now delivered to readers through a different medium. Take the employment classified ads. A Post Intelligencer manager told me last week that they provided close to 25% of a typical newspaper’s revenue. Have you checked that section of the newspaper lately? Compare it to ten years ago. The decrease in volume reflects the shrinking newspaper market. Toss in shrinking miscellaneous classifieds and auto ads, and the revenue stream into a daily newspaper becomes practically a dry gulch.
What happened to that content? It went into the ether, literally into the electronic ether. Web sites like Craig’s list and others too numerous to mention have carved up the content into silos dealing with everything from home and auto sales to antique and pet sales. The content still exists; it’s just not being delivered on paper.
What is left? Well the right would say that’s what newspapers are. But pun aside, the remainder is the in-depth news coverage that still a good portion of citizens appreciate and desire to read.; but not enough to sustain a volume of readers that advertisers want and at a price they will pay. Even if newspapers gave away classified space and lost all of their revenue, the operations cost of laying out, printing and distributing a paper require staff needs far greater than what is needed to put something on the internet. It just does not pencil out. The newspaper is delivering a commodity (news content) that is burdened with costs that cannot compete with other modes of delivery on a one-to-one competition.
The solution is either to avoid one-to-one competition with the internet or to embrace it. Newspapers will have to alter their economic model to adjust to a smaller and probably more sophisticated, educated audience. Perhaps they may become more like weekly papers or monthly magazines; focusing more on features and analysis and less on “breaking news”. And for those newspapers that give up paper and become a “news daily” by joining the internet and shedding their old paper skins they will become more like their current internet rivals disbursing information freely 24/7 in the hopes of keeping current and attracting a stream of viewers.
Unless the public, through the exercise of their will through their government, decides to subsidize newspapers in some fashion, (generally this type of thing is done through tax laws) expect newspapers to continue to go out of business and be replaced by the other types of printed or electronic delivery forms. The critical question that will go unanswered until a sufficient passage of time will be “Do they serve the public’s needs better?”
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