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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Journal Sentinel: Clinging to the old business model

by folkbum

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel today gives prominent place to an op-ed originally run in last Sunday's Washington Post, and since reprinted far and wide, by Bruce Sanford and Bruce Brown.

Of course, not every op-ed in the paper reflects the opinion of the newspaper itself; however, given the topic of this one, its prominence in the paper version and online, and other evidence available, I suspect that the publishers and the editors feel the message of this one is worth driving home.

The gist of the op-ed is this: Newspapers are dying, threatening the very institution of journalism, and therefore Congress should create new revenue streams for them.

If you think I'm kidding about that, I'm not. The Bruces are quite explicit that innovations such as Google and blogging are the source of newspapers' declining revenues and those sources ought to be either restricted or start paying for online news content. The Bruces demand tax breaks for newspapers and advertisers who use them. They want even looser media ownership rules, because, apparently, "too big to fail" worked so well for banks and automakers.

The good thing for me about this op-ed's having been first published a week ago is that a lot of the heavy lifting against the arguments made here has already been done. See, for example, new-media mogul Markos Moulitsas, who (f-bomb alert if you click through) dismantles the argument that Google has anything to do with newspapers' falling revenue. (See also Duncan Black.) A guy named Mark Gritter lays into the ideas from the op-ed here, including one stupid idea that would essentially copyright facts, not merely content. Some other guy named Patrico Robles argues that the Bruces completely miss the point: Congress should be working to save journalism, not one medium.

There is no question that good journalism needs to be saved, and that newspapers have been and remain one of the most important places for that journalism to happen. I, for one, could not do what I do without the local newspaper. (That had been a point of contention for some bloggers, though, going back years.) I do not want to see the kind of journalism done down on 3rd & State dry up.

I have a great deal of sympathy for the challenges the local paper faces: online ad revenue is much lower than print ad revenue, even as circulation falls. Craigslist decimated the personal ads. Online sites like Monster hurt job ad revenues. (MJS was foresightful enough to team up with a job-serach site and a auto-trader style site.) With real estate and the auto industry in the tank, even those ad revenues have fallen. And now the state is letting local governments pull out their notices, too.

Notice what all of that is about there: Ad revenue. Readers alone have never been able to sustain newspapers. (Or any medium for that matter; how much money does, say, CNN collect from you when you watch?) The New York Times proved pretty spectacularly that readers won't pay for online content, so newspapers should not count on that supporting them, either. With falling ad revenues, newspapers need a new business model, not Congressional protection.

I don't know what that business model is. It may well be that it may not involve paper anymore for most of the stories newspapers do.

What I do know is that the world of journalism is rapidly being redefined, and the news organizations that can find new ways to succeed amidst the changes will be the ones not clinging to hope that Congress solves their problems for them.

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