Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Newspaper are Dead... Long Live the Newspaper

It is no secret the Gray Lady is facing serious financial difficulties. Just 18 months ago The New York Times Co. had a market cap of $2.7 billion -- it is only $542 million today. While the Times motto is "All the News That's Fit to Print", their business model/plan is best summarized by their debt rating -- junk. The Times's financial difficulty is epitomized with the fact a share of the The New York Times Company costs less than the Sunday edition of the New York Times.

Newspapers across the country are facing a similar financial problems. Their content is in demand by consumers -- google major local events and the local print stories almost always appear first -- yet they have lost their monopoly of delivering information on demand (before the Internet one could not pull up a radio interview or TV newscast whenever/where ever one desired).

Warning: Wild Speculation

Perhaps the best business model for the local established media would be for television stations to buy out and merge with local newspapers?

Government litigation/regulation, once again (see federal government anti-trust cases against IBM and Microsft -- it wasn't the litigation that ended their monopolies... it was the firms failure to innovate), has failed to keep up with the technological advances in the marketplace and this time threatens to destroy the 4th estate. If this issue sounds familiar, recall the contentious ideological battles in the last 30 years over the concept of "cross-ownership". The "progressive left" has fought any attempt to lift this restrictions claiming it would place too much media power in too few hands, increase media layoffs and therefore reducing the quality of local news coverage and stiffle local democracy. As Amy Goodman wrote in a 2007 article:
The problem facing Martin and his big media friends isn’t that newspapers are unprofitable; it’s that they are simply not as profitable as they used to be. This is in part because of the Internet. People no longer have to rely on the newspaper to post or read classified ads, for example, with free online outlets like Craigslist.

The media system in the United States is too highly concentrated and serves not the public interest but rather the interests of moguls like Rupert Murdoch and Sumner Redstone, who controls CBS/Viacom. Media corporations that will benefit from Martin’s handout are the same ones that acted as a conveyor belt for the lies of the Bush administration about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. We need a media that challenges the government, that acts as a fourth estate, not for the state. We need a diverse media. The U.S. Congress has a chance to overrule Martin and the FCC, and to keep the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership ban in place. It should do so immediately, before the consolidated press leads us into another war.
While I agree it is in the American public interest to have "media that challenges the government, that acts as a fourth estate," I simply do not see any other way to ensure the survival of local media outlets other than consolidation. Two ideas that have raised to address the financial difficulties of local newspapers have been government subsidies (horrible idea for very obvious reasons) and establishing local non-profit trusts (sounds good, yet I doubt this actually works + who is going to subsidize the entities... rich local elite who do not want negative press coverage).

The viability of local news coverage depends on increasing the efficiency with which local news is produced and distributed. Breaking up existing "cross-ownerships" or preventing further consolidation does nothing to address this fundamental reality. The "progressive left" needs to come up with better arguments than demonization of MSM to argue against the repeal of the "cross-ownership" rule and come up with realistic, viable solutions to save local media outlets.

A Possible Solution: Repeal "Cross-Ownership" Regulations

Although my prediction of four daily newspapers by the end of Obama's first term may be a bit aggressive, their is little doubt that an unprecedented number of daily newspapers will cease publication in the next four years. Newspapers have seen their two sources of income (advertising and subscriptions) massacred by the combination of the Internet and recession (esp. the collapse of the real estate and automobile industry). Significant job loses are inevitable. The daily print newspaper model is dead -- and the income from an outlet's Web site is not nearly enough to sustain current news operations.

Consolidation with local TV stations may offer the best opportunity to preserve as much journalistic talent and reporting as possible. Unlike newspapers, local TV stations income stream is far more stable than newspapers. While local TV news broadcasts have seen advertising and audience share drop, their core income stream is far more reliable long-term than print and has not fallen nearly as much.

Like all firms in any sector, newspapers are going to need need to innovate, to adapt -- and many are. Numerous print reporters are already filing video along with the written story to enhance the effectiveness of the piece on the Internet. Local televisions stations are now posting written news stories on the front page of their Web sites without a produced news clip. The delivery mechanism of these two media genres is rapidly merging -- and they are competing with each other for SEO rankings and an increased online readership.

I fear if "cross-ownership" regulations are not removed many daily newspapers will cease publication. The quality of local news coverage will be greater if the remnants of the daily newspaper are allowed to merge with local TV stations than simply go online as a shell of their former selves. In the aggregate local news coverage will be greater if consolidation allows for increased efficiency in news gathering.

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