The Demise of the P-I, or Happily Alive for Forty Extra Years and Counting?
A string of recent newspaper closings has precipitated another flurry of worry and pontification about changes in media and reporting. The outpourings have come in waves, and now papers in Philadelphia, Minneapolis, San Francisco, San Diego, and Chicago threaten to shut down their presses. The closing of the 150 year old Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Denver's Rocky Mountain News print editions last week motivated the latest phase of hand-wringing.
Yes, it's a shame that the 150 year old Seattle Post-Intelligencer (P-I) has ended. But in their grief, people seem to overlook pertinent details surrounding the paper's demise. If they looked closer, I think they'd be asking, should we really think of this as a paper's demise? Or simply a change in format? They also might consider that the P-I hasn't been quite right for some time.
By 1981 the P-I had posted losses the previous 12 years. So to ease the suffering, that year the P-I penned a joint operating agreement (JOA) with the competing city paper, the Seattle Times. Management structured the agreement under the anti-trust exemptions set up by the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970. The goal of the act was to keep to more than one editorial board in cities where one paper might have made more economic sense given the costs of printing and circulation, and so the law basically saved the PI when economics should have probably sealed its fate.
Under the Times/P-I JOA agreement, the P-I served as the morning paper, while the Seattle Times served as the evening paper. The Times stopped printing its morning edition and the Sunday paper carried a joint masthead. The business and operations of both papers -- printing, circulation and business functions -- were performed by the Seattle Times.
Opposition to the JOA was fierce, and included P-I employees, advertisers, readers and other local publishers who for two years challenged the proposed JOA in courts. In 1983 the Supreme Court refused to hear the case and the JOA between the Seattle Times and the Seattle P-I went through. But the animosity between the papers was famous and no one should be too surprised at the closing of the P-I given the combination of economic downturn, turmoil in publishing, and the paper's already disadvantaged place in the city's newspaper hierarchy. So we could look at P-I's switch to the internet in another way, cold-hearted as it may seem: The P-I managed to stay afloat despite being less than whole since 1969 -- 40 whole years -- what a coup.
Like Seattle's two paper agreement, Denver's Rocky Mountain News operated under a similar agreement with its sister city paper before it also closed last week. In Denver, both papers will continue to publish on-line.
Many factors play into the unfortunate swoon of the newspaper industry, including a decrease in readers and print advertising, a bad economy, and greedy owners who began to acquire papers determined to profit mightily. Cuts and bad news coverage on the part of newspapers accelerated the downward slide, as did competition from online media. Will the economics of newspapers, which has been in flux for the last half a century, finally motivate new models of investigative reporting? Or will entrenched newspaper publishers stall progress by laying the blame for their failings squarely on online media?
Fact or Fallacy? Bloggers Who Hate the Mainstream Media and the MSM Who Hate Them Back
This perennial conflict, of online media "versus" newspapers, was perhaps precipitated by internet denizens, who threw plenty of taunts to the mainstream media in the early days. Print media in turn reacted to online media with various degrees of denial and acceptance that differed for different papers. On September 20, 2005, for instance, the Financial Times ran an article about an expat named "Hemlock", who blogged from Singapore. The entire article, "Hemlock, 'the obnoxious expat' BLOGGING," talked about the blog, but the closest the FT got to mentioning where you might find "Hemlock's" site was this sentence: "His website's location on the geocities network..." No URL. Where, why? Clueless or purposefully obtuse?
A year later, the FT became more inflammatory and its writers began expressing scorn and derision for blogs -- perhaps fear masquerading as bravado. In 2006, the paper ran a series of articles with titles like "The Fallacy That Bloggers Have Replaced Real News Hounds." (March 22, 2006.) One 4,445 word magazine article laid it all out in its title: "Time for the Last Post: The Evangelists Say That Blogging - Instant, Democratic and Cheap - is About to Finish Off Newspapers and Make a lot of People Rich. They're Wrong. Most Blogs are Boring, Overblown and Don't Make a Penny." (Yes, that was the title). If it was on HuffPo it would have been 70 pixels high. In his February 18th article, Trevor Butterworth panned blogs and the "revolution" (his quotes) they rode in on: "...[W]e must ask whether we are being sold a naked emperor." The reason the blogging "revolution" seemed to be thriving, he said, was because it was uniquely American:
"In many respects, the American media in all their stuffy isolation brought the bloggers upon themselves... In contrast to the British and European media, which had their origins in the Enlightenment and the belief that journalism was a forum for debate and argument - even philosophy, according to David Hume - the American press is a 19th century creation animated by the pursuit of fact."
"Blogging - if you will forgive the cartoon philosophising - brought the European Enlightenment to the US. Each blogger was his, or her, own printing press, spontaneously exercising their freedom to criticise. Which is great. But along the way, opinion became the new pornography on the internet."
The "Enlightened" European Broadsides
Butterworth paints a lovely picture of the European and British media, products of the Enlightenment. But it's fiction. In the book "Infamous Scribblers", Eric Burns provides details of journalism history and the facts refute Butterworth's version.
In the 1600's London broadsides issued the same sort of sensationalism that dominates today's news, complete with titles like "Sir Walter Raleigh His Lamentations!", and "No Natural Mother But Monster." The predecessor to broadcast journalism in those days came from "running patterers", who would run through London streets yelling news. The patterers would take opposite positions on street corners, each trying to yell their news louder. This is how newspapers in Europe started.
The earliest American paper printed was called Publick Occurrences, and was published in Boston. Benjamin Harris, a publisher who had been jailed in London for printing seditious news, abandoned his London newspaper and sailed to the other side of the pond, where he started Publick Occurrences in 1690. The paper printed stories about hangings and rapes and other eye-catching drama. Burns recounts the "international" story the paper ran of the French King who "used to lie with" his son's wife. Interestingly, in a sort of predecessor to blogs, the Englishman's Publick Occurrences ran for three pages with the fourth page blank so readers could add comments and their own stories before passing it on.
While Burns documents the ignoble history of journalism, he also points out that the Federalist Papers were first published in the New York Independent Journal. Thomas Paine, John Adams, John Dickinson, and John Peter Zenger, also published in American newspapers. Butterworth knows not what he speaks.
Based then, on some false premises, he concludes:
"Which brings us to the spectre haunting the blogosphere - tedium. If the pornography of opinion doesn't leave you longing for an eroticism of fact, the vast wasteland of verbiage produced by the relentless nature of blogging is the single greatest impediment to its seriousness as a medium."
This: "the pornography of opinion doesn't leave you longing for an eroticism of fact" is simply delicious coming from the author of a fact deprived 4,500 word opinion piece. Futhermore, having perused the offerings on British news stands, I opine that British papers even today remain far from enlightening.
Yet at the same time you can't deny the little fragments of truth in Butterworth's assessment. Consider that Trevor Butterworth is a researcher at Stats.org, a controversial organization that promotes anti-science opinions, an organization funded by conservatives and has listed dead people on its board. Stats.org apparently doesn't necessarily always get its facts straight and definitely sides with (or some say shills for) industry on issues like bisphenol A, alcohol advertising, and global warming. More to the point, however, Stats.org now has its own blog and Butterworth also contributes to the Huffington Post. So perhaps since his diatribe, he's come round on the blogging "revolution"?
Mediating the Blogging/MSM Landscape
Having more internet savvy than the Financial Times, the San Francisco Chronicle published about 45 articles covering blogs and bloggers from 2005-2006. For the most part, the articles tracked the rising blog phenomena, with only sporadic jabs at the medium. One editorial, on March 13, 2005, astutely titled "It's not Whether Blogger's are Journalists, It's Which Are", concluded:
"To flatly say "no" [they're not journalists] leaves out a universe of those who find news, challenge our thinking and otherwise breathe oxygen into the democracy -- in itself a pretty good definition of journalism...It's a big tent. Why shouldn't there be room for bloggers?"
Author Dick Rogers' point seems as wise 4 years ago as it does today. However while journalists are on whole far more accepting of blogs than 4 years ago, many in mainstream media can't let go of the idea that MSM is superior and that online media should conform. Mark Morford, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote last week:
"The truth remains: You pick up the Times, the Post, the Chron -- or read their online products -- you immediately have an anchor, some credibility and authority, not to mention a sense of place and context. In whatever you read, you know there has been, at minimum, some real editorial oversight and integrity of product borne of trained, experienced editors and writers who, believe it or not, still value accuracy and truth above all else."
Morford presents an idealistic view of the present state of newspapers. Indeed, mainstream media may have fine intentions, some great journalists and editors, some fantastic articles, and a few worthy publications. But just as often you get misinformation and meaningless or misleading press releases posing as news. Just as often the end product falls far from the rosy goal. And all of this motivates bloggers to blog.
It's not simply a case of one side and the other. Robert Scheer, who worked for the Los Angeles Times for almost thirty years, talked to Democracy Now last week about traditional news media in a larger conversation about the AIG bailout. He refuted the idea of a golden era when everything in print was good, pointing out that the regulatory changes that led to the current financial tsunami went uncovered for decades by the business sections of papers:
...The good old days were not so good for mainstream journalism, and certainly not when it came to covering business stories....Much of the reporting was done by press releases.
...I saw very few mainstream reporters there. There was no critical reporting of those stories. They basically went along with what the lobbyists want. Bank of America and the other banks spent $300 million that year getting the legislation--their license to steal, in effect--and it was not covered. The Telecommunications Act was not covered.
... [B]usiness reporting has been a scandal. Why? Because the same people who own the newspapers benefit from the tax breaks, benefit from the loopholes. They're on the other side. I mean, General Electric, which is in trouble, after all, owns NBC. So these are not pristine owners. There are some exceptions of some families that have tried to do a good job, but in the main, the people running media in America, who own it, benefit and want the kind of deregulation of the whole business community that has brought us to our knees.
One could take exception to Butterworth, or Morford, or Rogers, or Scheer, depending on your point of view, but they all have one point in common. Who will pay for the hard work that's behind good reporting as newspapers disappear? One hundred visits to an FDA panel meeting may bore a reporter to distraction, but the small details reported from each FDA hearing make history. Such mundane beat-reporting might not warrant 70 pixel font. But does that make it less worthy of reporting?
Furthermore, why make the argument just about bloggers and newspapers? Why do we jump so quickly to conclude that today's state of online media represents the final model, then proceed to criticize it as such? Bloggers will accept criticism for many things, but maybe the current online paradigm, typos and all, is only an intermittent solution to the many shortfalls of mainstream media.
Content is King For Some -- The Aggregators?
Just as Rogers did 4 years ago, a recent article in Conde Nast's Portfolio questions the finger pointing between mainstream and online media. The blog quotes Time magazine, who asked of Arianna Huffington, in a somewhat complementary but snarky article about the Huffington Post if she would be able to continue networking successfully with print media, while she was "killing their business?" Was she bucking for a lawsuit someone asked?
Of course she said no, and Portfolio agrees, just as Craigslist wasn't to blame for downfall of newspaper advertising. Rogers says, "Huffpo, Craigslist, Craigslist, Huffpo -- can't we all just agree to blame Google?" Indeed, the greatest aggregator is Google, and this may be an issue. Aggregators are great for a blurb and a link, but most online aggregators live for advertising and ever more advertising -- dollars, profit. In this advertising model, more content is better.
- If you're the Huffington Post with 3,000 bloggers, 6,000 is better -- and free content from the New York Times and everywhere else is efficient for profits. Link? Why link if you can get away with posting the whole article?
- If you're a pharmaceutical company there's little cost to data mining research if journals are free like PLoS, so won't you keep demanding more data, cheaper?
- If you're a publishing company of any sort, more content means more money.
- If you're Google, all the world's webpages might be fine, but expanding the index to include all the world's books is even better. Including all the world's health information would generate even more profit, not only in advertising but in collecting and selling it to interested parties.
One can't deny that search technology is great or that we don't each benefit a small amount from the ability to search. But the people who are pushing for more free content are those who stand to benefit disproportionately compared with any one individual. Aggregator HuffPo benefits, Google benefits more. We admire Google for replacing desktop computing with better accessibility to the "World Wide Web", just as we admire Microsoft for bringing an end of punchcards and mainframes. PLoS's open source science publishing means free science news, so why complain?
Perhaps this well worn logic resonates, but should we examine more closely what we lose with "free"? We benefit in small ways, but we also pay, in tangible ways as well as ways we may never know. We pay for "Search" by viewing advertising and by yielding unknown amounts of privacy.
In a world of penny payments via advertising, based on the dying model of newspapers, what do content providers get?1 Why does the idea that "content yearns to be free", apply to the millions who produce content, when content makes kings of those who aggregate enough of it? Is this really the democratic model? Some claim, yes. Others say transparent government and companies would provide the data that newsrooms used to collect, leaving journalists to less mundane tasks. Theoretically, yes, that would work, and we're all holding our breath.
Today, rather than pushing new models in an industry that's still very much in flux, many of us are embracing the current flawed model built on the newspaper's own advertising model. On the web, successive aggregators each gain a little more profit then the content feeder below them. CondeNast makes some money. HuffPo makes a little off of CN's content, then Google makes so much more advertising revenue off HuffPo and CN.
If the road ahead continues to be corporate expansion at all costs, will this model stimulate the same monopolistic behavior which took down newspapers and banks? Can't we do better? Why enable those who can snap their fingers and data-mine yotta-yotta-yottabytes2 of information for patent-worthy or publishable tidbits to enrich themselves, when their wealth accumulates so disproportionately to the actual producers of the data? Is this yet another pyramid scheme?
1 The New York Times sent out take-down notices to some blogs who were reposting NYT content last week.
2 A yottabyte (YB) is one septillion (one long scale quadrillion or 1024) bytes. A Zettabyte is larger.
Acronym Required has written previously on open-source and open-access publishing, and on print media and its decline. To be continued.