Good Newspapers Can Survive if They Break Their Old Culture

We'll Always Have Metro Dailies, but What We Are Witnessing Is the Loss of an Entire Professional Culture

By Published on .

Most Popular

The ongoing debate about the future of daily newspapers grows wearisome. The end game is already apparent. With or without pay walls, with or without events, salons and corporate sponsorships, with or without community-oriented websites, newspapers are going to do two things: survive and diminish.

Despite all the hand-wringing, in almost every city there will still be a print newspaper for the foreseeable future, though possibly with different owners. Home delivery of news and advertising is still a profitable business -- just not nearly as profitable as it used to be.

That means the costs have to be still lower. We have watched the heartbreaking process of separating many thousands of journalists from their careers for years now. That process is not over.

The daily newspaper of the future -- and I'm drawing a distinction here between daily metros vs. consumer and trade magazines, which have different challenges and cost structures -- will be staffed with fewer people who will be paid less and will multitask more. And there will be a smarter, more-targeted publishing strategy.

As with so many other former 20th-century content monopolies, daily metro newspapers simply can't make enough money to support their old traditions. The wailing we're hearing about the death of newspapers is just as much a wail about the ongoing loss of an entire professional culture.

All journalists know they skate on the thinnest of ice every day. They have no job security anymore. Look at what happened at Gannett's Journal-News, which laid off 288 of its edit and sales employees and then made them each re-interview for a job -- and not necessarily for their old job, as 70 jobs were being eliminated.

Newspaper people who truly love reporting and writing can still do it to their heart's content -- and do it well. But increasingly, they will be doing it on someone's blog or an online news operation or newsletter, some of which will succeed and some of which won't, and none of which will help traditional newspapers.

None of this turns on whether any of the new ideas to drive newspaper revenue will work. Of course newspapers will continue to advance, improve, innovate and grow. But nothing in the foreseeable future (other than the internet being dismantled) is going to enable papers to return to their old standard of living.

So, yes, of course, newspapers should charge for their content. Yes, they should be creative in targeting their content online and creating robust communities. But all of that comes to down to trading dollars for dimes.

Article micropayments will not make up for the enormous loss of classified revenue to Craigslist, search-ad revenue to Google and display advertising dollars to ... well, to everywhere and nowhere.

No, the old monopoly money is gone. We can certainly save newspapers, but only if we continue to cut costs. And that means many excellent professional journalists, young and old, will have to move on to other things.

Perhaps this is too pessimistic. Is there an upside anywhere? Sure -- anytime you take very smart, talented people and turn them loose to fend for themselves, they will invent cool new things. That's what I believe will happen in the long run. But those cool new inventions won't change the profit/loss dynamics of the daily newspaper world, I'm afraid.

Who's responsible for this? Well, that's the other part of the debate that's growing tiresome.

I've read every accusation of missed opportunity. We can point fingers at management for missing the boat on web technology, or for not charging for content, or for publishing boring, irrelevant news. These are each worth their own columns on another day.

But really, in the end, newspapers could have survived all their mistakes and still stayed immensely profitable if only technology and the world had not kept changing. No one is to blame. What's important now is figuring out the best way to publish good newspapers with less.

In this article: