Bill Wyman (not the Rolling Stone but the critic) published an excellent essay about a month ago. It outlines the prevailing mentality in the newspaper industry over the past twenty years. He breaks down the reasons that newspapers are failing:
- Consumers don’t pay for news. They have never paid for news.
- Newspapers are the product of monopolistic thinking.
- Timidity doesn’t work on the web.
- The staffs of the papers, from management on down to the reporters, deserve a big share of the blame.
- Newspaper websites suck.
As you can tell from the wording of these “reasons”, there is some emotion behind Wyman’s argument. He has experienced first-hand the kinds of attitudes that amount to newspapers shooting themselves in the foot, then the other foot, and now taking aim at their own heads. As someone who has only been peripherally involved in the business (many years ago), I found Wyman’s two-part analysis both depressing and insightful.
His prescription for fixing the problem is right on the money, even though I think the difficulties are too entrenched to easily embrace Wyman’s plan. He recommends hyperlocal, debate-generating coverage that involves the community and puts ease of access as a priority. No matter what, though, surely the days of huge profits for newspapers are over. Aggregators (what newspapers used to be for a community) are so well-established on the Web that any news organization would find it difficult to make inroads. If they were successful, they would still face the much lower ad rates in the Web world. And even if they made those work for them, there would always be unpaid competitors (local bloggers) to contend with.
As bleak a picture as this paints, I still believe journalism as a profession has an important future. If nothing else, patrons may rise up: mega-rich individuals with a genuine interest in uncovering truth and creating community debate.