Extremely thin newspapers
On Monday I went to my driveway to pick up our three daily papers. I was shocked at how thin they were even after a year or so of already thin papers. The thinness comes from lack of advertising mostly and to a lesser extent from cutting editorial content. Later that day, I attended a San Francisco Commonwealth Club panel discussion titled “Newspapers are dead: Now what?”
Bill O’Reilly keeps saying the newspapers are dying because they are too liberal. That’s bull. They are dying because of Craig’s List and other Internet advertising and news sources. They are also dying to an extent because of 24-hour cable TV news, sports, and business channels. To the extent that newspapers are entertainment, they are losing out to video games, computers, DVDs, cable TV, and iPhones.
Will I miss them? Yes. I have been reading the paper daily since high school. At West Point we were required to subscribe to and read the New York Times daily. Upperclassmen would quiz freshmen about the contents of that day’s news. We got punished for not knowing what was going on in the world.
On the other hand, newspapers have been a pain in the ass in many ways. They are getting what they deserve.
They are almost all unionized. And the unions representing the press men and other non-reporters have been outrageous at times. At the Washington Post, they would all stop work if a supervisor they did not like walked into the room. Prior to one strike, they smashed the presses before the strike so no one else could operate them. By the way, that resulted in the Washington Post becoming non-union. Good for Katherine Graham. Roughly speaking, the newspaper unions had a similar effect on newspapers as the UAW did on Detroit automakers.
Then there were the recent monopolies. Around the 1970s, many cities with two or more competing newspapers became one-paper towns. Once, I had to visit our local Contra Costa Times daily paper to get my picture taken for a story about me. When you go into a company that is making too much money, you can sense it and see it. The Times offices were full of expensive art work. I have seen the same at some law offices and plastic surgeons offices.
When papers around the U.S. became only-game-in-town monopolies, they gouged their advertisers. They charged for obituaries. They set themselves up for Craigslist and other free or cheap Internet advertising competitors. Live by the gouge. Die by the gouge.
Both sides of the story
Traditional reporters play some dopey games. One is getting “both sides of the story.” What it means is that all stories have two sides, not one or three or six, which is how many sides they really have. But the reporters figure if they get a quote from “each” side, they have done their job. Rent control is a story with only one side, but almost all traditional stories on it have dredged up some obscure nut job economics grad student who says it’s a good thing.
Abortion is a story with many ethical and scientific facets but traditional reporters generally just get a quote from Planned Parenthood and one from National Right to Life and go off duty.
Follow the money
Newspapers have huge biases. Look at who advertises, or used to advertise, in them. Realtors and home builders essentially pay for the real estate sections—and, in effect, own them. You never saw a hard-hitting “what’s wrong with Realtors?” story in a newspaper. They pulled their punches on any story relating to important advertisers. Papers who tried integrity were boycotted out of business, including one in San Francisco that was driven out of business in months by a Realtor boycott.
Two of the panelists at the Commonwealth Club said newspapers were too important to die and the government should fund them like PBS. Nah. Let them die. The Internet and cable TV will provide.
Government funding just substitutes politician bias for advertiser bias. Subscriber funding is best.
The business model of newspapers was 85% advertising revenue and 15% subscription revenue. They existed for the advertisers while telling us they were there for us. My newsletter Real Estate Investor’s Monthly is 100% paid for by the subscribers. This Web site is either free or paid for by sales of my books and newsletter. I never sold advertising. I never had any “affiliates.” I do not even do link exchanges for ethical reasons.
Internet journalism is is huge pyramid. At the wide bottom are zillions of idiots and liars. They have handles. They rant. They lie. They push conspiracy theories. No one pays much attention to them. As you move up the pyramid, the quality of the journalism improves. You’ve got Drudge, the newspapers, magazines, TV and radio channels. Do these generate as much revenue for their owners and journalists as the newspapers did? I doubt it. But the amount of revenue generated is what it is and it is enough.
At the top of the Internet journalism pyramid will be better journalists than those employed by your local daily newspaper. There are lots of careers where people work hard and do a good job but do not get paid much except at the top including sports, theater, athletic coaching, clubs, politics, architecture, and so on. There is more to life than money. Performing in public, which is what a journalist does; and what coaches, actors, architects and so on do; is fun and attractive. We are paid in satisfactions other than just money.
In recent years, we have been shocked at the pro-Obama bias of traditional news outlets like newspapers, magazines, and some TV channels. I have no idea why a profession that previously fought hard to maintain neutrality and objectivity would come out of the closet for a radical like Obama. But I know that in doing so, most of the journalism profession committed mass suicide. My reaction is along the lines of how we felt when Jim Jones told his People’s Temple followers to drink FlavRAide laced with cyanide.
Specialists—for a change
For one thing, they will be specialists who love the subject in question. Newspaper reporters and editors have an attitude they they can write better about any subject than experts in the field. I once suggested to Money magazine that they have a real estate columnist and that it be me. They said it was a decent idea but that it would not be me because I wrote “ex cathedra.” They would only let a neutral journalist write such a column. In other words, I knew too much about real estate to get the job. That is a goofy notion, akin to the teachers unions demanding that high school physics teachers have majored in education not physics. In the Internet, they have no such notions. The guy who loves real estate and who has experience in it will rise to the top of the pyramid based on the selections of millions of readers through Google and other search engines that rank based on numbers of visits and links. By the way, I do not believe Money has ever had a real estate writer.
The Internet is democratic. It benefits from the wisdom of crowds, not just the wisdom of journalists. The Internet is hyper efficient delivering content world wide in seconds for almost zero cost.
The Commonwealth Club panel said professional trained journalists are needed and they have to be paid well. Actually, journalism is so much fun that they have never needed to be paid well other than a winner-take-all few at the top like Walter Lippmann.
I appreciate informed, well-thought-out constructive criticism and suggestions. If there are any errors or omissions in my facts or logic, please tell me about them. If you are correct, I will fix the item in question. If you wish, I will give you credit. Where appropriate, I will apologize for the error. To date, I have been surprised at how few such corrections I have had to make.