That's a wrap: a final note (for now) on the future of the fishwrap business | Blogh

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

That's a wrap: a final note (for now) on the future of the fishwrap business

Posted By on Tue, Jan 13, 2009 at 9:44 PM

For the three people out there who are still following my obsession with the future of print media, I offer a link to this recent piece by David Carr of The New York Times.

Carr restates a problem I've discussed here before. As Carr says:

For a long time, newspapers assumed that as their print advertising declined, it would be intersected by a surging line of online advertising revenue. But that revenue is no longer growing at many newspaper sites, so if the lines cross, it will be because the print revenue is saying hello on its way to the basement.

As a report by Craig Moffett of Bernstein Research stated last year, "The notion that the enormous cost of real news-gathering might be supported by the ad load of display advertising down the side of the page, or by the revenue share from having a Google search box in the corner of the page, or even by a 15-second teaser from Geico prior to a news clip, is idiotic on its face."

Carr's solution: Create an "iTunes for News." Borrow from Apple's recently-revamped online music archive, which charged 99 cents to download songs that file-sharing sites once offered for free. 

Newspapers could save themselves, Carr says, by "convincing the millions of interested readers who get their news every day free on newspaper sites that it's time to pay up." He notes that some publications, like Consumer Reports, have already built online services that subscribers are willing to pay for.

It's not a perfect solution. For one thing, I worry about what happens to stories that, while important, don't have the same audience appeal as puff pieces. Once revenue streams can be attached to individual stories, would there be even less incentive to run stories that are important, but not necessarily popular? On a local level, could this mean more stories about, like, Ben Roethlisberger's latest bout of dizziness?

Too, Carr's solution would probably work best for national publications, like The New York Times. Charging pennies per view of a story makes sense when you have the kind of volume that comes from a national audience. But would a local paper be able to count on such numbers for a piece on zoning legislation?

On the other hand, even local papers could offer online extras that people might be willing to shell out for. I ask you, my three readers, what would you pay for, say, access to Rich Lord's database on campaign contributions and contractors?

Someday, maybe, the county will follow its own law and post a searchable database online, undermining any profits the P-G might earn. But in the meantime, there's clearly demand: City Paper once offered a free (if somewhat limited) online database of contributions made to city politicians running for office in 2007. I gave up maintaining the online database after the municipal elections were over, but I still get asked about it.

Here's the thing: Entering that shit took hours. And when it was done, it was posted in a format that generates almost no revenue to the people who pay my salary, the hosting fees for this site, and for the database program I used.

It'd be awesome to have some sort of crowd-sourced effort to pick up the slack, with a legion of citizen-journalists laboring together to maintain the database. But other than the indefatigable Bram Reichbaum, I'm not sure there's another local blogger who has the staying power. Hell, plenty of them have given up maintaining their own blogs. 

As Carr points out: "It's not that journalism is impossibly difficult; it's just that it takes enormous amounts of time and a willingness to stay with the story." That's got to be worth something, even if no one knows what it is.

Speaking of being uncertain about how much something is worth, I'm going to try to stop writing about this stuff now.

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