- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 12, 2009

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing lately about the imminent demise of newspapers as we know them and what that will mean for our democracy.

But seriously, who cares? Newspapers are, after all, just technology — a platform for delivery of information. The real question should be, where will the money come from to support newspaper-quality journalism? And, if no one’s reading newspapers, what will be the delivery mechanism and how will the audience for journalism access it?

In most typical daily newspaper markets, the number of people who read a newspaper has declined steadily since the 1970s and will undoubtedly continue to decline. However, most people are consuming more news and information than ever — they’re just not picking up a dead-tree derivative to do it.

As long as some people want an ink-on-paper product, there will still be printed newspapers in some form, but most newspaper organizations have figured out they need to make information available however and whenever consumers want it, and they’re working furiously to do that in innovative ways. I personally like the prospect of e-readers like Amazon’s Kindle.

We need not worry about access to content.

What we do need to worry about is financial support for generating that content. Television and radio reporters and even the best of bloggers will all acknowledge that their work cannot substitute for the comprehensive, in-depth reporting and analysis that is done exclusively at newspapers, and that those functions are both critical and expensive.

Most of what is consumed as news begins today in print newspaper newsrooms. That “free” news content on Google started in those newsrooms. (Google employs no reporters.) Rush Limbaugh doesn’t have a radio program without first reading the major national newspapers. Jon Stewart doesn’t have a “Daily Show” without that print-originated news content as a backbone. Few bloggers do primary-source reporting. Even the Huffington Post would have to find another news source were there no newspaper content to aggregate and comment on.

Print advertising, which has heretofore paid the freight for that, is on the decline at the same time as fixed costs are on the increase, and newspaper profits are being squeezed to an unprecedented degree. Advertising won’t support that kind of journalism in a digital future. So what’s the solution? Charge for content online? A not-for-profit model like NPR? User micropayments? Other business service revenue streams?

Maybe, maybe, maybe and yes, and those are just some of the ideas. The big point is this: There is no single solution that will replace the revenue juggernaut that has been newspaper advertising. In order to survive, newspapers will need to realize that some combination of small solutions, not one big gusher, will be the revenue model in the future.

This leads to the harsh realization that the revenue lost from traditional advertising will never be completely replaced. Newspaper companies will become smaller. They may print on fewer days, or they may circumscribe their delivery areas, or they may give all their subscribers Kindles as a way of eliminating printing and distribution costs altogether. We’ll continue to see experimentation as we navigate our way to a solution we can’t yet articulate, and not every experiment will be successful.

This experimentation is only one of several hopeful signs:

• More and more newspapers are starting to adopt the mantra of “do what you do best and link to the rest.” This is partly a tacit recognition that there is tremendous newsroom overcapacity in many non-local functions. Not every newspaper needs to have a Baghdad correspondent or a fully staffed copy desk, as long as critical information and context get generated, packaged and disseminated effectively and journalistic standards continue to be upheld.

So news collaborations are starting to spring up, sometimes among traditionally bitter rivals, as a way to absorb redundancies and refocus resources squarely on exclusive local franchises.

• There are more and more hyperlocal online-only startup news sites making a real difference in their communities. Most aren’t big (yet), and many aren’t making much money, but they’re doing substantive work, and they’re starting to attract a lot of attention as front-runners in the new journalism world order. They bear watching.

• More and more newspaper sales departments are beginning to figure out how to bring in revenue from things beyond print advertising — things like videos, online promotions, events, targeted marketing services, paid local search — in fact, all the things many local businesses already need and are doing, just not with newspapers.

The new revenue is still a comparative trickle, but as traditional print advertising revenue declines, these new sources are becoming a critical lifeline to a viable local news future. It’s a catch-up game, but newspaper organizations are trying.

• And finally, there’s a growing group of, yes, print journalists, many of whom have been uprooted from their jobs by this disruption, who are aggressively casting off the old order and starting to focus specifically on figuring out the revenue problem.

No longer are journalists loath to touch the business side of the business: now there are news innovation “BarCamps” and information valet “unconferences” and journalism town meetings taking place all over the country, all focused on finding new business models and all organized by journalists.

These journalists are tired of seeing their calling and their democracy threatened, and are taking the future into their own hands. Newspapers as delivery channels may not survive, but if these journalists have anything to say about it, journalism and its critical role most certainly will.

Bring it on.

Andrew B. Davis is president and executive director of the American Press Institute, the newspaper industry’s leadership development and research center, based in Reston, Va.

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