The Real Cost of News

2457800459_6e7c6299b4.jpgIn case you haven't heard yet, the clock is ticking for the Seattle P-I. If owner Hearst Corp. doesn't find a buyer for the paper within 60 days (from January 10), it will stop printing, and either move operations entirely online with a greatly reduced staff or close the doors altogether.

Given that media advertising departments around the country are in crisis mode (a recent report states that print ad spending in 2008 declined by as much as 10 percent), and there's no better business model in place to sustain newsrooms, the P-I will very likely soon become another foundering city paper.

For as long as news has been printed, most newspapers have earned their income by selling advertising. And so the news-reading public is used to paying only a small and affordable fraction of the costs of news production. It's a luxury that makes the news widely affordable, for the (arguably) bearable trade-off of allowing advertising into our lives. But even before the economic meltdown in 2008, new innovations including TiVo, mobile phone advertising and a bevy of more advanced in-store advertising opportunities had started to chip away at advertising budgets by offering companies a more surefire way to get directly into our heads and wallets. When advertising is no longer a reliable news subsidizer, we will either see whether people will be willing to pay the true cost of information, or if we can come up with a better plan.

Is the future of news, journalism and media a worldchanging concern? We certainly think so, but our reasons go beyond the obvious bias.

Make no mistake: the role of bloggers and other interactive, independent organizations like Worldchanging is a crucial one. These forums provide an open-source structure for understanding and discussing the news. By making the news participatory, and by offering a way to parse and personalize the news of the day into niche windows of content (a sustainable, bright green future, for example), these resources help advance the debate on specific issues.

But bloggers will not replace the news, nor should they. Here at Worldchanging, for example, we do publish a large portion of entirely original work: interviews, essays, profiles, and original, researched reporting from our international team-at-large are just some of those examples. But another of our goals is to add to the global conversation by producing short posts that comment on the debates of the day, and our ability to do so is contingent on our access to reliable information. We get that information from a variety of sources, including research organizations, academic institutions and members of our international network. And quite often, we get it from staff reporters at reputable news organizations like The New York Times, NPR and The Guardian. A void in the news world would dramatically shrink our non-profit's ability to cover as much ground as we do with as comparatively limited resources as we have.

Worldchanging ally (and blogger) Josh Ellis recently made a strong argument for why blogging cannot – and will not – replace investigative journalism, local news, and staff reporters:

“Real” journalism — investigative, in-depth journalism — is usually done by full-time salaried newspaper staff. Why? Because it takes a hell of a lot of time and effort and resources, and it’s rarely worth it for freelance writers, who are almost always paid by the word for features.
To put this in perspective: the first story that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote as staff writers for the Washington Post about the Watergate scandal runs to 1558 words. If that story were being published today, and Woodward and Bernstein were freelancers, they could expect to make somewhere between 20 - 50 cents per word. That’s $311.60 - $779.00, split two ways, in 2009 money. (Split more ways if you count the contributing writers listed at the end of the piece.)
Do you think that amount is commiserant with the amount of time and effort Woodward and Bernstein spent researching that piece? Of course not. It probably took them weeks if not months to do the footwork to put that piece down on paper and make it stick. That’s real work, real hours, real expenses. (Unless you think Woodward’s car ran on good will.)
What newspapers have that blogs don’t — and can’t, and won’t for the foreseeable future — is full-time staff, who are paid a (presumably) living wage to do the kind of in-depth work that blogs don’t, can’t, and won’t for the foreseeable future. A staff writer can spend the hours in the library or the paper’s morgue and on the street interviewing sources, doing interviews and getting background.

I don't truly think that journalism will disappear from the world. Too many people rely on it, enjoy it, and use it in their daily lives. Over the next decade, however, journalism will certainly need to change its business model. But principles of evolution will hopefully mean that future iterations of the media will be better than what we're used to now. I recently came across a thoughtful short post from Stephen Baker at BusinessWeek, whose comments are a media-centric reflection of the most optimistic view of the economic and climate crises:

I don’t have to tell you how dreadful things are in this industry of ours. And yet, here’s a confession. If I woke up tomorrow and found out that, miraculously, advertisers were rushing back, the dailies were hiring, and weekly mags (including our own)were gaining their old girth, my first response would be immense relief. And my second would be disappointment.
It would be as if this really interesting movie that we’re both watching and participating in suddenly ended. And there we’d be, adrenalin rushing, contingency plans in hand—and all of a sudden it’s just back to the comfortable old routines. Again, I don’t want to sound callous, but these are very interesting times to be in the game. All kinds of opportunities are going to come out of this. The money’s a mystery, a course. That’s part of what makes the movie scary.

People are pedaling furiously to change things. In fact, a grassroots movement is emerging right here in Seattle. Last night I dropped by the new "it" hangout on Capitol Hill -- Oddfellows Cafe & Bar -- to join a meetup hosted by staff members at Metblogs and the P-I who promised "a town-hall style discussion on the future of the news in Seattle." The crowd of journalists, bloggers and others who showed up eager for information and action quickly overflowed the long wooden table Metblogs had reserved, and the meeting continued late. Already this morning, the group has a website under construction, called no news is bad news, and a public town hall meeting on the topic is in the works. We'll post more info when we've got it.

Photo credit: flickr/Seen Not Heard, Creative Commons license.


When the grid goes down it will take much of the 'Net with it. Another step towards relocalization. A time when farmer Brown's cow straying into farmer Jones' crops (and munching them) will again become newsworthy.

Posted by: Robin Datta on January 18, 2009 5:08 PM

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