According to the New York Times, it’s too late for newspapers. Needless to say, this is a grim pronouncement coming from the grand doyenne of newspapers, The Gray Lady herself. What with the Times-Picayune imploding, pundits have been weighing in from team print and team digital to defend their chosen deities. Most of these analyses focus on the financials. Conventional newspapers are failing to meet advertising benchmarks. Falling revenues and circulation stats have damaged the structural integrity of both print and digital media markets. The question for news media companies now is whether to cut value—by firing valuable and popular writers, eliminating sections and content, farming content out to subcontractors, etc.—or to reinvent traditional print content in a digital space. Unfortunately, liquidation (cutting value) frequently masquerades as reinvention. That is the case for the Times-Picayune, and that is why Advance Publication’s strategy has upset so many good people of journalism. I’d like to propose an alternative reason for the imminent collapse of the newspaper industry.
First, it’s necessary to recognize that our university system produces decent writers. Despite all the negativity surrounding journalism as a vocation, students continue to enroll in journalism programs at undergraduate and graduate levels. Furthermore, our better colleges give humanities students the skills to pump out competent news copy, if not great features writing. There is not a talent drought.
Yet, the youngest, most talented writers are simultaneously hedged out of and discouraged from joining the largest, most venerable, and most obviously damaged newspapers and magazines. The implicit barriers to entry are much higher for the New York Times than HuffPo. Furthermore, HuffPo’s brand image is, to some extent, more attractive to recent graduates. Just on the basis of peer sentiment and public relations messaging, “new media” is raking in the most promising talent. New media recruits new media talent better than old media. For old media, that’s very, very bad news.
Likewise, new media has infected old media with inapplicable paradigms. Mass confusion about the Supreme Court’s healthcare reform ruling indicates that solid reporting techniques are not compatible with the demands of new media technology. A “fast-as-you-can” ethos, instantaneous and comprehensive proliferation of content, and a de-emphasis on classic journalistic ethics have collided with our greater capacity for fact checking. Thus, old media faces heightened pressure to fulfill its own mandates from the technology that is decreasing the relevancy of those very mandates.
The final piece of the puzzle is that consumers have a low tolerance for bad product. Readers will not tolerant poor writing. Therefore, even though traditional journalistic practices seem relatively unimportant in a new media context, or have become the target of malicious evasion, users demand high quality content. Talent has fled to outlets where writers are required to produce homogenous, trend-following material that remains one-step behind the news curve. Ironically then, the tasks assigned to the talent do not require much talent at all. New media has been successful with talent-lite material because their distribution channels and revenue models depend on click-bait. They exploit readers who, though sensitive to poor writing, are the easy victims of sensational headlines. In effect, new media is all style no substance, which means that the energy of talent is being diverted into the external readability and timbre of content, not the substantial thought or analysis or ethics of the content.
Long-form is still viable. Look at an outlet like Gilt Taste, which pairs well-written and substantive content with targeted advertising. But “hard hitting journalism,” whatever that means—investigative reporting, news coverage without the misguided influence of new media directives—is under siege. All that made up the Gray of The Gray Lady is endangered and in peril of extinction. Is “good” journalism irrelevant, a thing of the past? Or rather, does “good” journalism add value that can drive newspaper revenue over the schlock reporting of new media? And along those lines, has the very definition of “good journalism” pivoted to incorporate new media structures? The comparison is, I’ll admit, inept, but think about old media like Facebook: neither knows how to monetize its core asset. If old media figures out the monetization pattern—if and only if it’s not too late—then the imperative to adapt will swing over to new media.
I don’t think it’s too late for traditional newspapers to turn good writing into dollar bills. Cutting value, however, is a U-turn straight into oncoming traffic. Liquidating a core asset forecloses the possibility of later monetization. Then again, if new media identifies a way to leverage* their poached talent into the core asset of conventional journalism, it’ll be game over for The Gray Lady.
*No tech article would be complete without the word leverage.