Death of the Newspaper?


We’re at an interesting phase in the long and catastrophic wasting disease of the English-speaking newspaper. And clinical evidence from America and Britain has lessons for Australia, where only two genuine specimens, surrounded by painted corpses, still exhibit vital signs.

The main corporate event foreshadowed by New Matilda last month is the sale and break-up of the US Knight Ridder group, publishers of newspapers only one level less eminent than the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. The sale, which was announced on 13 March, is for a reported $US4.5 billion. The purchasers, McClatchy, will keep the Miami Herald and 19 other titles, but the Philadelphia Inquirer, with many Pulitzer Prizes in its record, will be tossed back (alongside 11 others) into a market dominated by investors renowned for milking dying cows.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson.

Knight Ridder newspapers are very like The Age and Sydney Morning Herald. They have a significant past, and a cash-rich franchise among urban middle classes; but they have long-suffered under managers baffled by technical change, many of whom neither understand nor like journalism and aspire to dilute it with simpler, more docile products such as ‘Lifestyle’ supplements.

Meanwhile, Britain and the US are demonstrating how the new world of electronic media and political blogs might actually flourish, suggesting that most of what’s good in the newspaper’s past is capable of projection into a useful future. But a bonfire of decrepit business models is required.

Margins are a problem for all news media because they are peculiarly easy to inflate. An effective news organisation contains assets that, on a normal day, are under-stretched, and thus can be shed without gross visible effect to the daily product.

It might seem obvious that news of serious value is abnormal, and that when budgeting for it, one can’t just extrapolate from daily experience. But constructing a coherent model of the process raises professional, philosophical, logical and statistical issues so complex that the media has preferred to close its eyes and favour guesswork.

This didn’t matter too much while newspapers monopolised classified ads and were dominant retailers of the ‘quasi-news’ that society generates incessantly. Everyone knew that newspapers had another function revealing discrepancies and deception in the narratives provided to citizens by their corporate and political rulers but this was discussed in terms of noblesse oblige, not as a function with its own economics.

Investors broadly accepted this. If some preferred the simple Murdoch notion distributing ruling-class narratives as a sub-contractor most were happy to enjoy the comfortable margins generated by real newspapers.

But the advent of classified ads and commodity news on the internet has triggered a mood swing. Conrad Fink, who teaches newspaper management at Georgia University, says, ‘The perception is: somebody invented Google and so you’d better get the hell out of newspaper stocks.’

Panicky group-think comes easily to financial markets, and increases when confidence in an obsolete model fails. The outcome is a preservation of hopeful specimens and a culling of those with present revenue but no future. But one must remember that possibilities aren’t immediate realities. If we assume there is something of value in the New York Times, the Guardian or the SMH it can’t immediately migrate to a different format.

So, when it’s often suggested that an individual with a laptop commands the entire world of news, what is the product?

The newspaper is a well-understood kind of collective enterprise: one in which individuals are specially important, but in which they often gain results that would be difficult or impossible as solo operators. Well known British critic Isabel Quigley once said that journalism was telling people things they could discover for themselves, given time. Actually, it’s offering citizens information they couldn’t realistically have discovered themselves, and even the most famous bylines have been the sharp point of a well-honed team.

Technology can make it much easier to deploy legal advice, intellectual interchange and emotional support, but it doesn’t eliminate the human need for close co-operation in arduous undertakings, and this will continue, even as large-scale printing loses its once-dominant role.

None of this devalues the new web journalism. Super-blogger Ariana Huffington is perfectly right that the expanding blogosphere could revitalise ‘mainstream’ media. But there are complexities: it may have no useful effect if the financiers have their way and the newspaper tradition our only extant news gathering tradition is strangled before it can reshape itself.

A much-touted reason for leaving media policy to ‘market forces’ is that news outlets are proliferating everywhere, making all fears of monopoly obsolete. This argument sounds good to Murdoch and his allies (and to investment bankers who rejoice in mergers and acquisitions).

It’s a fair assumption that politicians who peddle this line have enough experience to see that it’s phony that is, the proliferation of news ‘outlets’ is like the under-resourced pantomime where the same dwarfs and fairies trudge across the stage in endless circuit. It is obvious that if there are, in fact, fewer real news sources, then they will be easier to control and intimidate.

We now have serious detail on this phenomenon from the Columbia Journalism School’s analysis of a complete day of US news coverage, chosen at random: May 11, 2005. During that 24 hours, Google News offered access to 14,000 ‘stories,’ but these comprised just 24 news events, recycled over and over.

On the same day, 57 media outlets in Houston, Milwaukee and Bend, Oregon (random choice again) offered essentially uniform output. Major network and print items were about Iraq and Afghanistan (worthy enough, but free of diversity); while local television and radio was dominated by minor crime, weather and traffic news.

Newspapers were the primary source of most material, and provided nearly all the diverse angles on offer demonstrating that that even under the current pressure to cut costs and raise profits, they are still the core of the news gathering operation.

Then comes the Columbia research on blogs: on the selected day, only 1 per cent of those surveyed involved a blogger interviewing another person, and only 5 per cent involved original work of any kind. This isn’t to deny the value of blogs and websites they have, more than once, disseminated facts that mainstream media failed to uncover but today’s trends could well turn them into yet more inverted cones of comment, resting on smaller and smaller bases of disclosure. An illusion of diversity.

An optimistic future might be one in which mainstream media change, by degrees, into widely accessed websites with a print dimension for special purposes, while webmags and blogs develop their own news-gathering facilities.

Increased bandwidth will reduce the role of print, but the assumption of obsolescence is probably premature, as personal and commercial printing is still growing in efficiency.

The primary news sources we now have will be reduced savagely within a few years by the greed and ignorance of the financial system to the cynical applause of political elites. We’ll then see a self-reinforcing decline in real news, one of the basic necessities of democratic life.

We have some evidence from the upper end of the Br
itish newspaper market that such decline isn’t inevitable. The chief non-Murdoch groups have all recently relaunched, with very different results. The Sunday Telegraph relaunched in November with a lifestyle bias, veering sharply away from hard news and political analysis. It gained only 7 per cent market share, and nearly all of this is now gone (along with the editor).

The Guardian made a big money relaunch in September, with total a redesign. This gained 13 per cent market share, and most of it has been retained.

But the success story has been The Independent, smallest and least wealthy of the groups. It has produced a 12 per cent gain, and growing. The significance of this is that The Independent titles offer a news-based challenge to Tony Blair’s widely distrusted Government. There is no reason to think that readers are devoted to all details of The Independent: but its sales are evidence for the proposition that at times of serious discontent with orthodox policies there is a demand for news media that genuinely attempts to address their concerns.

And for this again we have some detailed evidence.

The March issue of the British Journalism Review carries an opinion poll investigating public attitudes to newspapers in general. The most interesting question was whether people found things in a newspaper that they couldn’t get elsewhere. Overall, 47 per cent said ‘yes,’ and 41 per cent said ‘no.’

But this proportion changed dramatically with type of newspaper: for tabloid papers only half the respondents thought newspapers indispensable; for quality papers (which includes The Independent, physically a tabloid) the vote rose to 75 per cent. Summing up, Professor Steve Barnett of the University of Westminster writes: ‘As long as the newspaper industry can continue to offer something of real journalistic substance, our data suggests that it will find a willing and substantial readership.’

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.