Once More into the Media Breach

Here is the link to yesterday's City Paper column by Chris Potter (a sidebar, really, to a longer story about the future of print journalism as we knew it in the late 20th century) that quotes me and several well-known local bloggers on what blogging can't do -- and what the Post-Gazette might do.

Some of the themes that Chris picked out from our conversation are themes that Pittsblog readers have seen before:

Most important of those is the need to distinguish between the material that the paper should cover (which is primarily local, and much less national or international) and the intended readership of the publication (which is not local). Historically, the shadows cast by the advertising, circulation, and editorial sides of the paper, respectively, were essentially identical. That's no longer true. The Post-Gazette now has a national and international audience for its local coverage. It could allocate resources accordingly.

Chris picked up on a couple of newer themes, one explicit and one implicit.

The explicit, "nuclear bomb" theme is that newspapers need to reconsider their most fundamental truth: That the editorial side should have nothing to do with the business side (i.e., advertising and circulation), and vice versa. Every other institution in Western society is being forced to reconsider fundamental truths; newspapers are no different. Chris and every other paid journalist would say: Wait! If the editorial side knows what the business side is up to, then the paper will pander to advertisers and lowest-common-denominator readers. We'll see sports on the front page (and sports on page 2, and on the editorial page, and on the business page, etc.). The Post-Gazette will turn into US magazine, with writers writing (badly) about themselves, and celebrities, and society balls, and Survivor contestants from Western Pennsylvania. The paper will ignore or under-report serious news about local politicians and will fail to investigate allegations of corruption in city government.

And in response, I'd say: I already read the Post-Gazette every morning. Tell me how the world would *change.*

The implicit, more subtle but far more important theme is that there is no one-size-fits-all short-term panacea for the crisis in print journalism. There is no magic bullet that will fix what ails the Post-Gazette, and the Boston Globe, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Every paper and every region has its own special brew of problems and opportunities.

That's one reason (among many) why I cringe when I see the Post-Gazette failling falling all over itself to chase the Twitter fad. (Chris Briem has another Twitter-related post up today, following his Twitter-related post from the other day.) Today's P-G front page has another uninteresting, old news Twitter feature. People engage in spoofing on the Internet? Who knew!

The biggest local business story of the day is buried in the Business section. United Airlines is taking over USAirways' nonstop West Coast routes -- which sounds like bad news, but which is, in fact, good news. (It would be bad news if USAirways dropped the routes -- and there was no demand to justify another carrier's picking them up.) Journalist Twittering is a distraction because it's about the journalists themselves. While we like great writers and reporters, we like you because you tell us about ourselves, not about you, and because you tell us what we need to know -- not what we think we want to know.

The future of the news, like the history of the news, is about the readers. The forecast for Burghonomics is unsettled, as it has been for a long time. But look West for change, not East, and not into the Internet cloud. The folks that United will ferry back and forth between Pittsburgh and the West Coast are the folks whose attention local media need to cultivate. (Not the folks that Delta is ferrying back and forth between Pittsburgh and Paris.) The wisest cheerleaders in Pittsburgh are cheering for stronger ties between the Burgh, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood. Save the cheerleader, save the world. Or, you don't need a weatherman ... well, you know how that ends.


8 Responses to "Once More into the Media Breach"

Anonymous said... 4/30/2009 3:33 PM

The PG business section is the biggest joke these days. And that should be an area they "own". PopCity is a way better source, even if it's all sunshine all the time reporting.

side note - as a Pittsburgh native living in SF - I am not happy about the USAirways - United swap. The new times are awful for leisure travel (e.g. going home for holidays/long weekends). I do hope these times are much better for business travelers though. and the 1 stop connection to Asia is key.

Chris Potter said... 5/01/2009 11:28 AM

"And in response, I'd say: I already read the Post-Gazette every morning. Tell me how the world would 'change.'"

>>> To pick up where we left off, Mike: That response scores you some debating points, but it doesn't seem to really address the issue. Granted that the P-G, to my mind, runs more fluff than it should. Should I favor changes that seem likely to make things worse?

Here's the question I think matters: Is there a large enough market for "serious news"-type journalism to survive on its own, and at the local level? (The prospects for national journalism on the Web are better, because of the potential audience size. It "scales" better.)

Up until fairly recently, the question was less pressing because people had to buy the newspaper as a package. The sports fan might not care about the mayor's latest shenanigans, but by buying the paper, he helped make it possible for the rest of us to learn about them.

But that's all changed. The readership is being disaggregated, and online metrics make it possible to quantify that trend precisely. Eventually, what you are suggesting will no doubt take place: Newspapers will use this data to achieve bigger profit margins. And that will give them even MORE encouragement to report on American Idol blow-ups and the Obamas' dog. Sure, lots of people will read the results of a newspaper's 6-month investigation, but the investment in such a project is costly, and the payoff is speculative at best. On a bang-for-the-buck basis, you're better off focusing on the White House puppy.

Of course, from the standpoint of free-market capitalism, it's a GOOD thing if readers can just get their dessert without paying for the meat and potatoes. You should only pay for what you want, right? But I think we've seen recently that while an economic decision might SEEM good for an individual, when repeated often enough by others, it can be disastrous for society as a whole.

We've learned that bad money can drive out good -- that responsible investors and homeowners can be damaged by actions of reckless individuals. Can the same thing happen in the market for information?

Mike Madison said... 5/01/2009 11:45 AM

"Likely to make things worse"? How does anyone know the answer to this question? There isn't space to disaggregate all of its pieces, but what we count up when we net out "better" and "worse" makes a big difference. One possibility is simply to compare PG before and PG after (over some relevant time frame, which again we have to discuss). A second possibility, which you head toward with the disaggregation issue, is the PG before and the various versions of the PG after. We're counting social welfare, so there's a good case to be made (not a guaranteed case) that the *aggregate* social welfare created by various media properties under the PG umbrella, post-reform, is possible.

There are other possibilities. The basic point is that we're staring into the dark unknown. Is there a large enough market for serious journalism to stand alone on a local level? We may have no choice but to find out. But no one really knows.

"Disaggregation"? It's even worse than you write. Not only is the readership being disaggregated, but the newspaper is being disaggregated, and the news is being disaggregated. Will the bad in that disaggregated package simply drive out the good? It's certainly possible, but I'm more optimistic.

Print journalism should be paying close attention to the music industry, and not in the sense that the AP appears to be paying attention. (Screaming "don't steal our content" is not a viable strategy!) "Bad drives out good" *almost* happened to the music industry, in the sense that we have seen the same multiple levels of disaggregation, but we haven't (yet) seen the death of the industry. The economics have shifted dramatically, but jazz, blues, bluegrass, and classical (to focus on domestic genres only, and to assume that these correlate to "serious, long-term investments") are hanging in there. Little in the music industry is "well," let alone "prosperous," but Napster didn't kill everything beyond Madonna and Britney. Yes, we have more of this sort of music and less of that sort of music than we had before. I'm skeptical of a claim that journalism-as-we-knew-it-in-the-Watergate-1970s is the only form to which 21st century media should aspire.

What's allowed the music industry to hang in there? iTunes. Not that iTunes is a specific model for journalism. But iTunes is a general model, in that the industry (together with some unconventional players) is working toward figuring out a way to deliver a wide range of creative goods to a wide range of people who are willing to pay for it -- even to overpay for it! -- if it's accessible in a software/hardware context that's so easy that my dead grandmother could figure it out.

In short, the industry is going to have to build combinations of content, context, delivery, revenue, and price that make the news -- even investigative journalism -- *easy* from top to bottom.

Bram Reichbaum said... 5/02/2009 2:04 AM

Thanks for the kind words in that article, Mike.

Chris comments above:

"But I think we've seen recently that while an economic decision might SEEM good for an individual, when repeated often enough by others, it can be disastrous for society as a whole."

I think Mike addressed this above, but the question is ... how? Why? Where do you see portents of 'disaster'? I see a lot of fretting over, "Oh, he only listens to MSNBC and NPR and she only listens to Rush and Fox", but eventually these people encounter each other, either through reality or through other intermediaries, and society seems to evolve. What disaster?

"We've learned that bad money can drive out good -- that responsible investors and homeowners can be damaged by actions of reckless individuals. Can the same thing happen in the market for information?"

I don't see it. Information is obviously not an asset one "invests" in much anything like a house or a stock. Information is there to be tested, there to be challenged, there to be overturned -- and the source of the information is an inextricable part of the package. Let the buyer beware is part of the proposition. People are not helpless morons.

Now, as to your trickier point:

"Here's the question I think matters: Is there a large enough market for "serious news"-type journalism to survive on its own, and at the local level?"

First of all, I think we spoke at length during our interview that it's more than possible to jazz up and saucify "serious news". It doesn't help that Jon Delano leads his news stories with statements like "Most political debates are downright boring" and likes to finish them with things like, "Of course, this is all politics and everyone just says what they need to score points on the other guy, so what I just told you really doesn't matter." Let the readers fill in the depressing blanks if they'd like to and just deliver the give-and-take; with fact-checking and probing follow up questions, of course.

Is there a market? #1. Cut the overhead, make a cheaper product like the Trib PM and #2. Build a market. Make local news exciting as hell.

Chris Potter said... 5/03/2009 12:50 PM

Actually, Bram, my nightmare scenario for journalism is one in which the Trib PM is the model for future reporting.

And this characterization of my concerns --

"Oh, he only listens to MSNBC and NPR and she only listens to Rush and Fox"

-- misses my real point here. The thing I'm MOST worried about is news catering to people who have disengaged from any real interest in the news at all. And as Mike rightly points out, we're already seeing that: a paper devoting its considerable assets to fluff stories on the Obamas' dog and so on.

But as the P-G's editors will tell you, those decisions aren't being made in a vacuum. The P-G runs these stories because there is a market demand for them, reflected in real-time by online viewership.

Ordinarily, this is where you'd expect me to decry our trivial, celebrity-driven culture. One might expect references to Neil Postman, et al. But actually, I suspect the culture has ALWAYS been this trivial. It's not like I think there was some Athens-style Golden Age in which high-toned democracy flourished. (For that matter, Athens' Golden Age wasn't all it was cracked up to be.)

So what's changed? For one thing, online metrics make it easier and easier to quantify just how trivial the culture is. And in a troubled economy, the temptation will inevitably be to use that data in a way that justifies whacking the "meat and potatoes" even further. I know you think the P-G and the Trib go too easy on Ravenstahl and so on, only reporting on a travesty every couple weeks or so. But believe me, it could -- and maybe will -- be so, SO much worse.

Above, Mike sounds like he thinks he's disagreeing with me when he says the newspaper itself is being disaggregated. But this is exactly my point. Up until now, you bought the whole paper, or you didn't buy it at all. I didn't mind the fluff so much (though I've griped about it) because the audience for that stuff was also buying the paper, thereby helping to pay for the in-depth investigations that I think democracy relies on. I was, if you will, piggybacking on that broader audience of Steelers fans and others. But that gets harder and harder to do when, as Mike says, the paper itself begins to fracture ... and online metrics make it ever easier for the bean counters to call the tune. (And of course the broader trend is that sports fans no longer have any need to pick up a paper at all for that stuff -- they can just turn on ESPN.)

I could easily be wrong about this, of course. As Mike says, it's a big unknown we're looking into. And as somebody once said, it's the mark of a second-rate mind to be in exaggerated opposition to the spirit of the age. By that standard, and probably a few others, I guess I'm a second-rate mind. Which may explain why I'm having a hard time seeing a hell of a lot of cause for optimism here.

Mike Madison said... 5/03/2009 2:18 PM

We don't disagree on the disaggregation, and I'm not sure that we even disagree much at all, except (maybe) in our relative pessimism and optimism. I even think that Neil Postman is still worth reading, despite his being a little dated. And the spirit of the age, whatever it is right now, is something to be skeptical of.

Journalism is neither exactly like any other institution or discipline in contemporary society, but nor (or its role in democracy or culture generally) so unique or special. Looking around at other "vital" institutions that I study, or participate in, or know something about (the rest of the entertainment and media industries, the legal profession, and higher education), each of them is dealing with some flavor of the disaggregation/reaggregation phenomenon that is currently tearing the newspaper business apart. Each of them (and the newspaper business itself) has dealt with a series of fairly traumatic transitions before, and in some cases, more than one. The process is wrenching. The outcome is uncertain. The resulting institution often looks very, very different than its predecessor, and some things that had been taken for granted for a very long time simply disappeared. But the world did not end.

John Philip Sousa hated the phonograph; he thought that it would either put an end to the time-honored practice of congregational singing, or would encourage people (children, especially) to sing imitatively -- that is, badly. The phonograph would kill music, in short.

Sousa was right.

Bram Reichbaum said... 5/04/2009 4:25 PM

Chris -- It's not that I don't think the media is hard enough on Ravenstahl. It's that I don't think the media pays enough critical attention to city government at all. I think it's bored and jaded and its expectations are low or nonexistent.

Anonymous said... 5/06/2009 11:35 AM

As a Pittsburgher exiled to southern California, I return to the Post Gazette for local news, only to give up and head for local Fayette and Washington county papers for better coverage.
Are the roads so bad that reporters can't get out into the hinterlands and actually talk to people?? Are they being tied to their desks by micromanagers??
That said, it is not a pgh-local issue. Fires began yesterday and last night in Santa Barbara and San Bernardino, and without a computer tuned to a local blog, or a relative on the frontline, we would be completely oblivious until the flames reached the front door.
Even the loathsome Fox people, who very recently had excellent local news coverage, are now leading on celebrity issues between following the odd freeway car chase.
It seems so long ago that we had Ted Turner's reporters under fire as we invaded one country or another, and well-written opinion and local features as front-page pieces in our newspapers...
One does not have to be an economist to get a handle on what is happening here on the ground in the current crisis, just an articulate observer with a platform.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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