Many tell us what to think. I ask my readers to be skeptical. Question me and others.


Journalism does not need to be saved, newspapers do

Time published Walter Isaacson’s story entitled “How to Save Your Newspaper“. The same text was posted on the Huffington Post under the title “A Bold, Old Idea for Saving Journalism“. By looking at the difference of these titles, one can get a clearer picture of the problem.

The survival of journalism as a craft of conveying news and ideas is as assured as that of the food industry. Humans always will need information just as much as they need food. Keeping with the food industry analogy, not all farmers and grocery stores will survive, but despite new technologies, the essence of the industry will never change. Soil will be worked, chickens will be raised, and final products will be delivered to waiting customers. It is the same in journalism. Reporters need to go investigate, gather facts, and create a communiqué. In editorial writing, someone needs to look at publicly available data and arrive at conclusions that will embarrass most of the readers, forcing them to choose between their beliefs and the logic of the argument.

From my humble experience in business, I know that when things go south, the first thing should be to answer some basic questions: why I am here, what is my product, who is my customer, what are my customers’ current needs, and what heretofore unrealized needs can I create? I do not have the full picture of what is happening across the industry, but I am closely following the local Chicago Tribune, and as I elaborated in my essay on the subject, I see their troubles as a result of poor journalism.

Therefore, before we even go into the topic of micropayments, let us focus on the product first. As a Chicago Tribune subscriber, I now pay about 50 cents per copy. It appears that my $0.50 covers about 20% of the cost of delivering the paper to me; this means that delivering the paper to me, as it is now, costs about $2.50 per copy. If I recall it correctly, the cost of paper and printing is in the vicinity of 60%, i.e. $1.50 per copy. Now, at least half of the space is taken up by advertising. (It appears to be more than that, but this is what they claim.) If they would offer the newspaper without advertising, the cost of delivering it to me would be around $1.75 per copy. My quarterly subscription bill would increase from the current $46.67 to about $160.00, or $52.00 per month.

Even the thought of asking me to pay full price paralyzes the minds of the Tribune Company executives. They know as well as I do that those 50 cents per copy is almost free. I do not expect much; they do not deliver much either. For that petty change, I do not mind them dropping the paper at my door every morning. If the price were to increase to $1.75, I would expect something of value for this kind of money. They lack the confidence that they would be able to make a paper worth $1.75 per copy.

On the same grounds, the argument that newspapers are losing money due to free internet access does not hold. The death of newspapers was announced with the emergence of radio almost a hundred years ago, and then predicted again with the growth of the TV. The internet created a much more serious threat, and most likely, will eventually change printed media. However, the appeal of the traditional newspaper will be there for many years to come. The issue lies in providing content that traditional readers would be willing to pay full price for. Once that happens, I would worry about micropayments on the internet.

In their news coverage, the Chicago Tribune relies highly on the Associated Press; hence, many of their texts are the same as those I can read on the Yahoo! portal the day before. Under the new ownership, they print much more trivia as well. Again, most of it – unfortunately – reprinted from the previous day’s Yahoo! portal. With every change they introduce, there is less news and more trifles. Like many people who call themselves journalists, instead of conveying news and ideas, they try to entertain their readers, tickling them to death (as active readers and subscribers). I hardly can see how micropayments could be of any help here.

My firsthand experience with print media is rooted thirty years back in a distant country and a vastly different political system. Hence, my way of thinking is different from that of people working at newspapers in America today.

Solidarity, the social movement that triggered a chain of events culminating with the fall of the Soviet system, was not born out of anywhere. Despite strong political control, Poles managed to have vibrant political magazines and newspapers. Censorship and political pressure did not allow us to have political writing as Americans know it today – basically, preaching one’s point of view – as only one ideology was allowed. Editors of leading papers circumvented this limitation by reaching to debates based on science and facts. They could not confront the ideological canons of the system, but they managed to write about details in a non-ideological manner.

From this experience, I see editorial writing in U.S. mainstream media, with very few exceptions, as propaganda deprived of intellectual reflection. The public instinctively senses this as well and distrusts the media. The first paper that will start writing seriously about our problems in a non-ideological manner, referring to empirical, not ideological references, will hit the jackpot. Then, by having a product that the public desires, they can charge for it in any way they see fit, including micropayments.

A version of this text was published by Huffington Post

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