I had the opportunity tonight to watch the documentary ‘Page One, a year at the New York Times.’ It is a very well done film, which is to be expected from the producers of ‘Waiting for Superman‘ and ‘An Inconvenient Truth‘. The most compelling bit of the movie was the way it looked at the ongoing struggle of newspapers to be profitable and relevant in the landscape of blogs and news aggregaters that provide their news – often the news of newspapers – for free and where advertising has become less profitable. Having worked at newspapers in the web department I understand this struggle. The struggle goes two ways, how do you get reporters who are used to the schedule of writing for their particular paper to switch to the publishing schedule of the web and how do you get people who are used to finding your news in print to find you online while not giving up on the print edition. In so many ways it feels like there’s no suitable answer. There are those that say compromise is where everybody loses equally and that’s what the move from print to web has felt like for newspapers.
A more important question is what should news look like? It’s clear that news has changed. News feels free and as such people think that it should be free, which is fine until you realize that writers, editors, graphic designers and web developers – not to mention the dozens of other workers at a news organization – have to get paid. Ads that pay half a cent per click don’t equal manageable salaries for all these workers. What a lot of newspapers have discovered is that the switch means having a leaner staff. Jeff Jarvis argues that every organization has to become very focused to the point that they can be the source for one type of journalism and then link to all the other types of news. I am a Jarvis-ian when it comes to the future of news and here’s why. The internet provides a lot of information and along with all that information there’s a lot of good info and a lot of bad info. Gradually over time people gravitate to the best sources of information. If you’re a news organization that focuses on nothing other than providing news you’ll never be the best source of anything and people will gravitate away from you.
There have been a lot of great experiments in the news business to try and figure out how to make money and how to maintain professional journalism in our current economy. I don’t know what the solution will be, though I like to think that Jarvis is correct that news organizations are going to have to become more focused. This will mean that news organization will become smaller, but it will also mean that they get better as well. Take for instance the TWiT organization. They do technology shows – period. They are unabashedly serious about tech and about being deep into technology. People that don’t care about tech don’t know of TWiT, but people who do love them. As a result TWiT has become immensely profitable. They’re not CNN or Fox or any of the other big name news groups and they don’t have their backing, but they’ve become profitable focusing on what they know and do best – tech journalism. News organizations will all have to be that way. There will be a lot more news organizations as well, but as a capitalist I’m totally for that. What this means for monoliths like the New York Times is unclear. They have been losing a lot of money and are playing with various ways of making money online that may or may not work. But I think their future is in finding a way to create niches within their pages – both physical and digital.
I love newspapers and while they won’t always be found in a physical print edition, I believe they have a great future. Perhaps they will be more like corporations that are comprised of many similar but different departments that join together to make one great product. And maybe that’s the answer – associated blogs. I look forward to the future of news, but for now we need to muscle it out and hope that today’s pain doesn’t kill us for the bright tomorrow that is coming.