Monday, December 10, 2007

Yes, Ted Rall IS hopeful about print media

In fact, and perhaps surprisingly after the first two parts of his series on print’s status today,, he’s actually kind of bullish:
some types of papers are prospering and growing. I believe that the business of printing news on dead trees will emerge from the current shakeout more profitable than ever. This will be thanks to three emerging trends:
• Big National Newspapers
• More Small Local Papers
• Freebie Dailies

At present, the biggest 50 dailies (“A” papers, in industry jargon) dominate the landscape. Below them is a swath of dailies in midsize cities (Akron, Austin, Albuquerque). Small town, suburban and rural dailies, weeklies and bi-weeklies, whose focus is highly localized (“New Stop Sign Stirs Controversy”) —the “C”s — bring up the rear.

During the 20th century, most newspaper profits were generated by "B" papers. This is the market segment that has been hit hardest by the Web. Free online classifieds has decimated advertising revenues. Neither beast nor fowl, the midsize dailies’ attempt to balance local, national and international coverage pleases no one in an environment where highly customized news consumption is available to readers online--for free. (Publishers were idiots for giving away their content, but that's another column.) MyYahoo feeds me the latest headlines from Itar-Tass and Agence France-Press every morning; how could the Dayton Daily News, the paper of my childhood, do as well for this half-Frenchman with a Central Asia obsession?

Rall expects the future American newspaper market to look a lot more like Europe and Japan — a smaller group of definite “A” or even “Super-A” papers, and then a bunch of “C”, or maybe, in my view “B-lite,” papers. A two-tiered, not a three-tiered, market.
The Wall Street Journal and USA Today already print multiple national issues. In the era of “Super-A” papers, sure, you could see a few others joining them, and perhaps co-opting some of the traditional “B” papers with new versions of old-time joint operating agreements (Detroit News/Free Press, Denver Post/Rocky Mountain News, the Seattle and Salt Lake City papers are among those that have JOAs).

But, will this be a good thing?

Well, there, the answer is No, according to Rall:
None of this will improve the quality of journalism. “Ultimately [free dailies] will breed in people the idea that news shouldn't cost anything, even that news is cheap,” points out media commentator Roy Greenslade. “But in fact, news, done well and properly, requires investment and money. They will no doubt tell us what happened —but news should also tell us how and why things happen. I fear that approach will be lost.”

It will. It’s a trend that began decades ago, when newspapers closed overseas news bureaus and eliminated long-term investigative journalism to cut costs, and started embracing elites rather than exposing them. And it’s terrible for our society, culture and politics. Government and business will face even less accountability than they do today. Democracy will lie in ruins. The print newspaper business, however, will be going gangbusters.

I don’t doubt Rall is right. That said, I found this third part of his series a letdown, in several ways.

First, he’s by no means the only columnist to analyze the shakeout of the news business in a similar way.

Second, after talking about how the Internet would affect privacy issues in the future, and how this might affect media, in parts 1 and 2, we didn’t hear a single thing about that in this third part.

Ted, you can do better than that… that’s not like you to start an idea and let it dangle.

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