Sunday, November 02, 2008

The mission of the publicly held newspaper is ...

What is a newspaper for?

Well, if it's owned by a publicly traded company the newspaper exists to make money for shareholders. It makes this money through advertising revenue and selling papers. It is the fiduciary duty of managers to do whatever sells papers and doesn't break any important laws.

The Washington Post's Deborah Howell believes the best way to sell papers is to keep both "right" and "left" equally pleased, regardless of reality ...
The Post ... Glenn Greenwald - Salon.com

... The Washington Post's Ombudsman, Deborah Howell, today wrote a column claiming that one reason that The Post and other papers are losing money is because they are "too liberal"; have had "more favorable stories about Barack Obama than John McCain," and "conservatives are right that they often don't see their views reflected enough in the news pages." To mitigate newspapers' financial problems, Howell decrees: "the imbalance still needs to be corrected." She adds: "Neither the hard-core right nor left will ever be satisfied by Post coverage -- and that's as it should be."

What if the actual facts -- i.e., "reality" -- are consistent with the views of "the hard-core left" and contrary to the views of the "hard-core right"? What if, as has plainly been the case, the conservatives' views are wrong, false, inaccurate? What if the McCain campaign was failing and relying on pure falsehoods and sleazy attacks, and The Post's coverage simply reflected that reality? It doesn't matter. In order to sell more newspapers, according to Howell, The Post's news coverage must shape itself to the Right and ensure that "their views [are] reflected enough in the news pages" ...

... That corrupt formula is, of course, what is now meant by "journalistic balance" -- say what both sides believe and take no position about what is true -- and it is precisely that behavior which propped up this incomparably failed and deceitful presidency for so long...

Alas for the Post, there's little evidence that any print newspaper, regardless of mission, can thrive in today's world ...

The Media Equation - Mourning Old Media’s Decline - NYTimes.com

The news that Google settled two longstanding suits with book authors and publishers over its plans to digitize the world’s great libraries suggests that some level of d├ętente could be reached between old media and new.

If true, it can’t come soon enough for the news business.

It’s been an especially rotten few days for people who type on deadline. On Tuesday, The Christian Science Monitor announced that, after a century, it would cease publishing a weekday paper. Time Inc., the Olympian home of Time magazine, Fortune, People and Sports Illustrated, announced that it was cutting 600 jobs and reorganizing its staff. And Gannett, the largest newspaper publisher in the country, compounded the grimness by announcing it was laying off 10 percent of its work force — up to 3,000 people...

... The day before, the Tribune Company had declared that it would reduce the newsroom of The Los Angeles Times by 75 more people, leaving it approximately half the size it was just seven years ago...

... two weeks ago, TV Guide, one of the famous brand names in magazines, was sold for one dollar, less than the price of a single copy.

The paradox of all these announcements is that newspapers and magazines do not have an audience problem — newspaper Web sites are a vital source of news, and growing — but they do have a consumer problem...

... For readers, the drastic diminishment of print raises an obvious question: if more people are reading newspapers and magazines, why should we care whether they are printed on paper?

The answer is that paper is not just how news is delivered; it is how it is paid for.

More than 90 percent of the newspaper industry’s revenue still derives from the print product, a legacy technology that attracts fewer consumers and advertisers every single day. A single newspaper ad might cost many thousands of dollars while an online ad might only bring in $20 for each 1,000 customers who see it...

Elsewhere we read that the NYT is running out of cash, and is having trouble borrowing. They need to sell the Boston Globe, but nobody wants to pay for it.

So how will this play out? My best guesses are:
  1. We'll see a return of the privately held money-losing newspaper owned by billionaires with an agenda. The NYT may go this route. Depending on the billionaire(s) this may not be a bad thing. Of course if the billionaire is Rupert Murdoch ...
  2. Publicly held newspapers will slim down and (of course) abandon the print editions. This will (of course) be extremely painful. At the end of the day newspapers will occupy niches including reality based, "balanced" (meaning equal praise regardless of reality like the Washington Post), party-based, and low brow entertainment. The reality based newspaper will be a premium good -- small audience, high cost. Fifteen years ago The Economist owned this space. Today the NYT would be the closest contender, but I think they'll end up being private. I wonder if a new venture will try to emulate the Old Economist.

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