Apocalypse 17: Brownie points for experimentation

By , 15 February, 2009, 3 Comments

I posted earlier this week that one of the few upsides of this economy is the cover it provides for newsrooms to make a bunch of necessary changes that everyone has known about, and postponed, for the last decade or so. Why does a media holding company need to pay for a White House correspondent or a film reviewer for each of its papers or magazines, instead of just funding one such reporter whose content can appear in all their outlets? Why does a small town paper need to bother with national or global news at all, since readers the world over can now get access to international and national information online, and even without the web, since the local paper can get that content from the wires? In the digital economy, it makes even more sense for news outlets to focus niches of expertise and aggregate the rest from other sites. But it means a permanent downsizing of newsrooms and that’s hard to do when the rest of the economy is growing. Still, even now that editors and publishers are ready to make these cuts, no one has figured out quite how the smaller newsroom will make money. Which brings us to the second upside of a recession for media–the willingness to take risks that comes when there’s really nothing left to lose. There’ve been a few recent stories highlighting directions the media could take:

–Walter Isaacson says we could charge iTunes-style for individual digital articles, but Mike Kinsley says no one would pay for that (Note that he doesn’t have an alternative, really)
–the NYT says it might try charging for select and archived content again
–Fox has a new ad model that charges buyers more per ad, but reduces the number of ads sold in total so viewers will have less incentive to forward through the shorter commercial breaks
None of these is perfect, but I applaud anyone who is willing to head scratch a bit about devising a solution. That’s why I was so thrilled to speak a few days ago with Seattle Congressman Jim McDermott. His hometown paper is on its last legs too, and Rep. McDermott has been inspired to try to save the American newspaper industry. His solution is the out-of-the-box idea no one IN media  really likes–that news just shouldn’t be a private sector enterprise to begin with, but a nonprofit venture funded either by the state or by charitable donations, or some combination of the two. McDermott is researching a bill for the House that would set up funds, akin to those that back NPR and PBS, to support nonprofit newspapers in American communities. Here’s what he had to say:

on newspapers as a public good: “I worry that we’re losing our democracy. I don’t know whether this is just generational, but if we lose newspapers [and] everyone is gonna get the news off the internet, then a whole slug of people is just off the game. If Jefferson was right and an educated electorate[is key], then you can’t have vast numbers of people without access. [Even if we expand access to broadband], you have to be more devoted to go in search of news on the web.”

on the downsides to digitization: “It used to be that Congress had roll call voting, and it took hours, and then they made it an electronic scoreboard, and now we can pass amendment in 15 minutes. Therefore we’re no longer inconveniencing people with new amendments, [which led to an] expansion of the number of those amendements that people insert. Now [there’s a] movement to vote from their offices. This isn’t a Congress, because Congress is a coming together. You can’t influence the opinion of others if you’re not in the same room. If I thought that investigative journalism was being preserved and just print costs were being cut, that would be fine. But the decision [about what to run online] is being made by accountants not professional editors.”

How much does news reporting really influence politics day-to-day?: “Without investigative reporting, I’m gonna get away with stuff. Gotta have somebody poking me in the eye with a sharp stick to find out what’s going on. Moreover, how are we gonna communicate with constituents? [The way things are going,] It’s all gonna be done by the president in uplifting (or not so uplifting) speeches? I just want to alert people to the change taking place—are we sure this is where we wanna be going?”

Is it the message or the medium?: “I get more engagement from constituents in web community meetings than I do in live ones, but I come from the city where every software maker has an office, the city which has highest reading and movie-going numbers per capita. I guess the way everybody twenty years younger than me is zipping things around on email, [it might be okay] if there was investigative journalism available on the web. “I myself read papers from Lebanon and India online, and I do my own winnowing process, and I have people that do it for me. Managing information has become such a process and many people have just given up or can’t afford to do it.”

I have a few bones to pick with Rep. McDermott’s argument, but I’ll save them for tomorrow. I’d like to hear your takes first: is the notion of the news media as a private sector, for-profit enterprise fundamentally flawed or eternally doomed? are there downsides to state-subsidized media? could the NPR model ever translate to print? is it more logical to bankroll transitions to digitization or prop up the older technologies? If there’s any way to test the value of new media, it’s by sounding out some of these tough questions right here.
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3 Responses {+}
  • shazia

    if there can be publicly funded tv, its fine to have publicly funded newspapers. this household gets its news from bbc along with internet sites. also i’d rather have millions of taxpayers paying for my coverage; not a few advertizers

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