Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Letter to the Chicago Reader r/e blogging

The Chicago Reader is a weekly paper delivered every Thursday in Chicago. It comes in 4 sections, and is filled with advertisements for apartments and erotic services and everything else. It is free and ubiquitous throughout the city. Here is a link to their site.

The politics of the Reader are extremely left-wing. However, I like reading it because 1) hey, it's free 2) they have some interesting articles. In some ways I'd say the reader was ahead of its time, almost like a blog. A lot of blogs take someone else's articles and rip them apart, and use them as a stepping-off point for their own writing. The reader has been doing this for years, such as the famous "Bob Greene" articles where they read the Bob Greene articles in the Chicago Tribune "so that you don't have to" and cut him up.

In the December 30, 2005 issue of the reader there is an article called "A Year Without Journalism" by Michael Lenehan. The article is kind of meant to be half-serious and half tongue in cheek. The point is, if there were no "real" journalists out there, there would be no "news" for the bloggers to start with. These real journalists work at newspapers, and newspapers are under threat and laying off people, so if there are no journalists out there writing stories, the "blogosphere" would crumble (to see the article go to their site, they have it as a PDF).

While the article is pretty good, it has some lame jumps to it. For one, the big "scoop" that the "real" journalists dug up revolves around a fundraiser for Tom Delay. Like it takes a lot of risky undercover journalism to get that story... I think I might have received it from the RNC mailing list and it probably is in my deleted mail folder. Then the bloggers like Instapundit don't immediately publish the "story" because they are on Thanksgiving break. Finally, it always touches on Watergate, implying that if we don't patronize newspapers there won't be any undercover work.

The first, biggest problem with this article and all the other pro-newspaper articles is that it confuses the medium of journalism with the economics of journalism as it is currently practiced. Right now, you pay for a newspaper, see a lot of ads, and this supports the journalist. However, this is an historical accident. I am reading the newspaper for news, and am willing to pay for the news, if it is relevant, well written, and focused (in short, actual journalism). The newspaper now is meant for "everyone", and it requires huge costs to publish it and support myriad journalists covering everything from movies to sports to business to local news.

The Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, charges a premium price, AND charges for content on the web (when everyone else gives it away). Why? Because their paper is well written and hits a targeted audience willing to pay for it. Of course, they have ads, and that is a huge help, but they wouldn't be worth anything if it wasn't for the content.

Local newspapers don't have unique content, most of them are just republished drivel off the AP newswires anyways, so they are mostly a container for ads. Now ads used to be great in the newspaper, but now people want richer content, they want pictures, links and more information than you can squeeze in a tiny ad space. Thus, people selling stuff are going where they can do a better job conveying what it is that they are selling, which would be places like Craig's List and eBay. The newspaper simply isn't going to win against the computer / web, because people want better content than the newspaper can deliver, and the mismatch grows greater every day. With the web you can easily comparison shop, sort creatively, and do price matching that is tedious in the newspaper.

In a different Reader article they refer to 540 journalists working at the Tribune. How many of these are doing "hard" news, like uncovering scandals, and how many are doing sports, movies, human interest, and other stuff like that? I am only guessing but it is a tiny minority on the a"hard" stories, with everyone else on the generic items. If a newspaper FOCUSED on news, they would be far leaner, and they could either get away with less ad pages or they could conceivably charge for content and earn a profit.

Plan B is to do what the Tribune does and just give the thing away, like they did with REDEYE and like the Reader always has done. At this point you pick up a lot of readers because it is free, but now you are solely supporting by advertising, much of which is getting less and less competitive with web challenges by the day.

It is interesting to me that the journalists have confused what SHOULD be the focus of their profession, finding, researching and communicating important stories, with the MECHANISM of delivering these stories, which is setting them inside an ad-filled newspaper as part of a big expensive process tied with lots of soft news that you could get anywhere. If they believe in their profession they would sell the VALUE of their content, rather than bemoan (even tongue in cheek) the decline of the newspaper as an ad-vehicle.

Another interesting group with parallels are stock analysts. For years the stock analysts were tied with the investment banking groups, so they didn't give bad ratings to companies that they were attempting to lure for fee business like banking or going public. Thus they gave compromised ratings, and were tarnished in the public eye, concluding with a settlement that separated research from investment banking.

The interesting part is that now the analysts need to find their own way, and sell their own product on its merits, rather than just pumping whatever the company wants them to sell. The settlement fallout is ongoing, with analysts giving many more "sell" recommendations, but analysts also having a tough time selling their product "on its own" in an unbundled format. The end result is that there probably will be many fewer analysts in the future, and those that exist will have some unique angle of skill (even if it is just self-promotion) that allows them to stand out from the pack.

Ultimately journalism will go the same way. People will pay for GOOD content that is unique and carefully tailored to an audience. They won't pay for crap. They will watch crap for free on an ad supported website, probably, if it catches their eye, but that isn't going to support an army of journalists. The good ones will hustle and survive, but the total pool of journalists will be much smaller than it is today.

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