The Tribune Company and the Minneapolis Star Tribune are more or less bankrupt and many other nooze organizations are slimming down. Blame the internet, Citizen Journalism, or some other trend? The problem with Journalism today has very little to do with Journalism. The problem is that their business model has broken and no one has the slightest idea what will replace it. This comes from the fact that their business model, based on ad sales, never had anything to do with Journalism in the first place. As a result, we have no idea what, if anything, people are willing to pay for nooze.
Journalism, for all its lofty proclamations as being “The Fourth Branch of Government” or “The Watchdog” has never been anything other than what fills the “News Hole”. That’s the industry term for the amount of paper that is filled with something other than advertising – the hole that doesn’t pay its way. The term has been used to refer to the dead air between commercials on teevee and radio, too. No matter what anyone tells you, the business knows that what’s in the hole is only the excuse for people to read or watch or listen to the ads. It can be nooze, infotainment, color comics, or anything. It really doesn’t matter.
This model has been around forever, but it became important due to a change in technology. In the early 1880s larger printing presses made it possible to print newspapers on an industrial scale, and the idea of an Information Industry was born. Joseph Pulitzer, pictured, was an early pioneer. He purchased the New York World from Jay Gould, a man who traded companies like this as if they were poker chips (and to him, they were). Pulitzer gave the paper the kind of attention that it was lacking, devoting his full energy to making it the best. By 1895 I had grown from 15k in circulation to 600k in circulation, sporting the first color comics on Sundays.
Along with other titans of this new world, which included William Randolph Hearst, this industry was formidable, fashionable, and influential. They rooted out corruption in Tammany Hall, more or less started the Spanish American War, and helped Roosevelt ram the Panama Canal through Congress. There wasn’t much they couldn’t do as long as the circulation figures held the imaginations of the big Philadelphia Ad Agencies. And those circulation figures were kept up with a lot of sleazy stories about the uglier side of life.
Fast forward through a lot of economic ups and downs and a fair amount of new technology. Radio and teevee adopted the same model, and it worked. The model always worked. Even though the source of income had nothing to do with the content, directly, it made the content possible. All that mattered was that the content was popular enough to deliver readers, viewers, or eyeballs.
What is unique in this downturn is that we are not looking at a simple decline in advertising revenue because the advertisers are simply vanishing. They are gone. They have no interest in the relatively high rates charged by larger media companies compared to the internet and other forms. Journalistic values or standards have nothing to do with it.
The future belongs to whoever creates the new model. The old one wasn’t created as much as grew organically, gaining strength as the technology allowed for greater scale. So how will we grow a new one over time? I think the answer lies in an evolution of the old model, or at least how people reacted to it. Mastheads proclaiming “More Advertisements!” were common on newspapers a century ago I remember spending time as a kid sifting through the Sunday ads, wondering what all that stuff was and who bought it. It’s entertainment in and of itself, when it’s done right.
That’s what I tried once in an online service called allsaintpaul. I made a lot of mistakes, but I learned a lot. One of the things I learned is that when paired up with news, the search capabilities of allsaintpaul start to provide a service that is a lot like an old newspaper but greatly enhanced. I’d love to talk about it to anyone who’s interested, but for now I think my ideas might be worth something.
What will all these august bodies of great Journalism do? For one thing, they’ll have to get off of this “high and mighty” kick. Journalism has never been something people were willing to pay more than about a quarter a paper for, tops. There’s always been a lot more that people want and it’s time we give it to ‘em. It’s not hard. It requires a kind of humility and commitment to the customer – just like you’ll find in the successful local businesses that keep such an organization afloat. Ready?