The recent flurry of discussions about endowment as a potential model for newspapers has sparked the usual, and (for me) growingly tiresome, back-and-forth between a few stodgy, behind-the-times journalists and new-media advocates. You know how it goes: A luddite in the newsroom writes a column extolling the virtues of the newspaper, and it’s like throwing fresh meat to a pack of new-media advocates who immediately pounce on it, have a good laugh, and hold it up as yet another example of how newsrooms just don’t “get it”.
The new media advocates are right that if newspapers go away, people won’t miss it for its format. As they correctly point out, it’s not about the format. Now here’s a shocker: Believe it or not, a lot of newspaper journalists DO realize this. So first let’s stop painting them with a broad brush based on the occasional diatribes from a few columnists with outdated understandings of media (sorry, I refuse to use the word “curmudgeon” because of its polarizing nature and because of the fact that, in discussions about journalism, it’s often been twisted and redefined to basically mean anyone who disagrees with one’s own view of the future of the business. IMO, the sooner that word is put out of circulation, the better off the discussion about journalism will be).
Let me repeat: A lot of journalists DO understand that it’s not about the format. But there is something that I think we will miss about newspapers if they went away right now. It’s not the crappy paperstock or ink-smeared fingers, it’s the existence of large news-gathering operations that provide the opportunities for tens of thousands of people to make journalism what they do for 8, 10, 12 hours a day, sometimes more.
No matter what you think of the paper product put out by newspaper companies, there is no denying that it’s still the lifeblood of most of these operations. Yes, production and distribution costs go down if you just pull the plug on the presses right now, but so will ad dollars. And yes, there’s that thing about the L.A. Times’ online revenue being able to support its newsroom, but one newspaper does not an industry make. At most papers, if you stop the paper product right now, the paper would either go under or have to jettison a large number of employees to stay afloat as an online-only product. And yes, some of those jettisoned journalists probably will be able to make a living doing journalism in other online formats, but that number will still be far fewer than what it is now.
And before you point out that newspapers can just jettison the people not involved in news-gathering, walk into a newspaper office, especially one outside the biggest metros in the country, and see for yourself how many of those “non-essential” people are left. For one of my former papers, which had a circulation of 50,000 as recently as 2006 (and while the paper’s circulation has plummeted, the population in the area it covers has continued to surge), there is one full-time designer/copy editor on the sports side and two designers for the rest of the paper. And there’s really no production department anymore. At a lot of papers, there are fewer “expendable” personnel than you would think if the paper switched to online-only mode. And of course, an online-only operation will create additional needs in other areas that would require more bodies as well.
That, I think, is what gives many journalists anxiety when they think about a future without newspapers. Yes, it’s partly concerns about job security, but it’s also in no small part about potentially having far fewer people whose job it is to report the news. If you’re a citizen journalism advocate who thinks that citizen journalists can replace professional journalists, then, well, there’s not much I can say to convince you that the public will miss the work of tens of thousands of pro journalists when they’re taken out of circulation. However, if you are in the more reasonable group who believes that both citizen and pro journalists have a valuable role in informing the public, then surely you, too, must be concerned about a potential massive loss of pro journalists.
Of course, the strategy should not be figuring out how to sustain newspapers companies as they are, but rather how to rid them of their financial dependence on the paper product. When it becomes more financially advantageous for newspapers to ditch the print product than to keep it, we’ll see the industry flock to online without any prodding from new-media advocates. It may be an unromantic notion, but the news-gathering operation model that will emerge when the dust settles will not necessarily be the one that’s the most democratic or the one that best serves the public. It will, however, necessarily be the one that’s the most financially profitable.
Until we find that model, however, the paper product still remains important for its ability to support a large number of journalists, doing journalism for print as well as online. Just as we shouldn’t conflate newspapers with journalism, let’s not toss out the news organization with the newsPAPER.