Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Thoughts on "Decline of News"

There’s a thought-provoking column by Neil Henry in the San Francisco Chronicle called “The decline of news” that calls out Google and Yahoo for generating handsome profits at the expense of the newspaper business:

It is no longer acceptable for Google corporate executives to say that they don't practice journalism, they only work to provide links to "content providers." Journalism is not just a matter of jobs, and dollars and cents lost. It is a public trust vital to a free society. It stands to reason that Google and corporations like it, who indirectly benefit so enormously from the expensive labor of journalists, should begin to take on greater civic responsibility for journalism's plight. Is it possible for Google to somehow engage and support the traditional news industry and important local newspapers more fully, for example, to become a vital part of possible solutions to this crisis instead of a part of the problem?

While I agree with the assertion that the news business is suffering right now and a healthy media is a key ingredient in a healthy democracy, Henry is glossing over a few key points:

  • The news business is still enormously profitable. The news is not a non-profit industry – in fact, it is still quite lucrative with margins near 20 percent (or better) expected by shareholders. Compare that with, say, the grocery industry, where profit margins are in the 2-3 percent range. Part of the problem is with news orgs themselves -- they are large, publicly-traded companies that must beat The Street quarter after quarter. They would probably fare better if they went smaller and private. But you can't say that at the shareholders' meeting.

  • There’s not so much news in the news: When journalism is done right, it is time and labor-intensive and valuable part of living in a community. News orgs have the deep pockets to pay someone to spend weeks or months digging, researching and interviewing before ever publishing a word. The public benefits from this work. Henry’s right: newspapers have it all over most blogs (but certainly not all) in terms of hard news. But hard-hitting exposes don’t exactly fill the paper or generate readers these days. As newspapers scramble to stop circulation declines, more and more of what fills a paper is soft news that is barely discernable from marketing or advertorial. This is better than the blogosphere how? The key demographic seems to be 25- to 45-year-old women who seem to be reading the newspaper for lifestyle pieces rather than hard news content anyway. There’s a reason it only takes me a couple of minutes to get through the paper each day – there’s just not much in there I want to read. I spend a lot more time checking out the work of those links to your right.

  • This is Google’s problem? No, it is the newspaper industry’s problem. Google isn't in business to help you make money. Don’t want Google or Yahoo linking to your site? Have your lawyers craft cease and desist orders. The music and the film industry have fought vigorously to protect their intellectual property and you are free to do the same. But you know that would be a stupid, stupid thing to do. It’s a new world. Learn how to live in it.

  • I’m very sorry these people are losing their jobs. Some of them are my friends. But if you want to get mad at someone, get mad at the suits running your newspapers into the ground – yeah, I’m talking to you Tony Ridder. It’s their lack of vision that got you into this mess.

    BTW, thanks to Romenesko for the tip!

    UPDATE: More on this topic in Romenesko''s letters.

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