Friday, May 25, 2012

Digital geniuses and wanting it neither way

The most surprising thing about this week's news that the New Orleans Times-Picayune plans to reduce its print editions to three days a week is the reaction to it.

For more than a decade now, Internet geniuses both inside and outside the newspaper business have been bemoaning newspapers' slow response to online technology. "Print is dead," has become the mantra, and anyone who dared suggest otherwise was labeled a technological troglodyte.

Recently, John Paton ("digital first!") and Clark Gilbert ("community journalists!") have emerged as industry darlings, keynoting just about every newspaper conference around the world.

None of these folks has offered a sustainable business model. In the case of Paton, the pattern has been to simply reallocate print revenues as digital and declare victory. Gilbert has packaged his LDS Church News with his new "national weekend edition" of the Deseret News to grow that newspaper's Sunday circulation -- in print. Meanwhile, he's gutted the newsroom of the Deseret News, replacing their input with that of "citizen journalists."

Of course, we all know the main danger in using free citizen journalists is the information is often inaccurate, incomplete, self-serving or just plain fantasy.

Meanwhile, when the T-P announces plans to do exactly what the digital geniuses have been suggesting -- go hard into digital, reduce the emphasis on print, get with the program -- there is a hue and cry from other corners of the journalism world that bemoans the loss of one-third of the T-P's newsroom staff and suggests that democracy itself very much hangs in the balance.

There is, in fact, much truth in this latter view. The problem is, where are these folks when Paton, Gilbert, et. Al. are spouting their indefensible ideas? Usually, it's pretty quiet out there.

"Newspaper" readership (what is a newspaper when it is online?) has never been higher, when print and online numbers are combined. Alas, online readership is not profitable -- it doesn't begin to pay the bills. As cheap as it is to reproduce (since there's no need to print a new product for every reader), advertising and subscription dollars don't cover the expenses. Print subsidizes online at nearly every newspaper.

Part of the reason for this is the 15-year-long blunder of free content that most newspapers embraced (and some continue to).

Another issue is that journalists covering their own business can't even get the terminology right. Many wrote that New Orleans would become the first major American city without a daily newspaper.

Wait a minute! When the T-P goes out with its daily online edition on the days it doesn't publish something in print, that suddenly doesn't count? To me, it clearly doesn't carry the gravitas of a print edition, but haven't the geniuses been saying that this is not only OK, but both inevitable and preferred?

In my reading, only David Carr of the New York Times got it right:
The New Orleans Times-Picayune, which distinguished itself amid great adversity during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, is about to enact large staff cuts and may cut back its daily print publishing schedule...
The main difference between most of the digital soothsayers and those who have taken a more cautious approach is that the latter group mostly consists of people who actually run newspapers and report to employees and shareholders. Those folks understand that print is far from dead, particularly (as Warren Buffett has recently reminded us), in small and medium markets.

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