What really happened that caused traditional media to shrink so much over the past decade – and why are so many still struggling to come back?
That’s the subject of this presentation, which I’ve given several times over the past few years.
Why do the breathless reports of Prince William’s engagement to Kate Middleton have such a negative impact on me?
I have no ill will toward the couple; they are charming, attractive and – considering the circumstances – appear humble and likeable. In England, where the royal family is some kind of national treasure, I might understand such over-the-top, second-to-second pursuit of each detail as they proceed toward a royal wedding.
But here in America, Will and Kate are not our own; interest in their nuptials strikes me as being borne of respect for our longstanding relationship with England as a friend and ally. Does it require sending squads of journalists to stand outside the gates of Buckingham Palace to get weepy and about the storybook nature of their love?
Simply: No. It doesn’t have the same meaning in England and America. There it’s a fairy tale; here it’s a pleasant news item. The mass media’s effort to transport the fairy tale aspect of it across the ocean and across cultures is not reporting; it’s editorializing.
It’s not journalism; it’s distortion. And it’s part of that problematic blurring between news and entertainment that seems to have infected all for-profit media.
Journalists are historically thick about the notion that they are part of a business model; that they are employed not so much for the public good but because somebody has figured out how to make more money from their work than it costs to produce. That thickness is part of what makes them good at what they do; good journalists tend to follow the trail of information regardless of how they fit into someone else’s profit motive. It’s also why the outsider complaint — “The reporter only wrote that story to sell papers” — never gets any traction.
But the business model under which most journalists have always worked is under attack right now, and that’s changing the very basics of the job: who wants to hire them, what the job requires, and how much it pays.
In recent good times, a newspaper would bring in about $1.35 in revenue for every $1 spent to run the place. That includes such inelastic expenses as distribution and printing. If you eliminate those expenses from the equation (which an economist wouldn’t do, but this is a journalist-centric view, in which the value of a newspaper to its readers and advertisers is directly proportional to the quality of its reportage) then the economic value of a journalist is at least 1.35 times salary and benefits.
But in times like this, newspaper profits are down — which means the economic value of journalists is down too. The work of the newsroom simply produces less profit so, therefore, the value of each person in that newsroom is less.
Media companies deal with this as any business would: When profits drop, you reduce costs. Most media start with manufacturing: production, printing and distribution. (Tips for reducing production costs; 34 tips for cutting costs; United Media cost-reduction strategy.)
But when profits continue to drop, people start to lose their jobs. And despite what journalists like to think about their value, cutting reporters and editors usually stops the bleeding pretty quickly. That’s because producing news isn’t the same as producing, say, cars or other manufactured goods.
If you cut people from the auto assembly line, you can’t make as many cars. Which means you can’t sell as many cars. In a recession, that’s OK because fewer people want to buy those cars anyway; jobs get cut because there’s an imbalance between supply and demand.
But in media, you can cut an untold number of reporters and editors without actually reducing output (Journalism jobs decrease 34% Jan 08-Jun 09). The quality of the reporting might suffer; graphics might not be as well thought-out; typos and errors may increase. But the audience still gets the same quantity of news, and the advertisers still get the same audience.
When a recession ends, a car manufacturer can’t sell more cars unless it hires back workers to increase production. But a newspaper can see advertising revenues increase at the end of a recession regardless of whether it puts more people back into the newsroom. That’s why financial and spreadsheet types like investing in media; the correlation between employment and profit is indirect enough that they can choose to ignore it.
This can go on for a long time, and it has. Eventually, people start saying things like, “That newspaper is just a shadow of its former self.” And any rational explanation about declining profitability should include the long-term effect of decreasing quality and comprehensiveness.
But that’s simply not the entire reason newspapers, magazines, radio and TV are struggling; I’d argue it’s not even a major factor — just a bad symptom.
The real reason is competition. Years ago, a major metropolitan morning newspaper’s only competition was the afternoon paper. (Remember, the competition isn’t for readers; it’s for advertising revenue). Then came radio, television, cable television, city magazines, alternative weeklies, etc. They may all serve readers differently, but their money comes from the same pot of regional advertisers. More recently, add Google Ad Words, online magazines such as Slate and Huffington Post, bloggers like Matt Drudge, social networking like Facebook and Twitter, and dozens of other business models I can’t even think of. The one thing all of these have in common is that they demand a piece of the same marketing budgets that are the financial foundation of newspapers.
Many of these newer organizations pay journalists — but none pay as much for as many journalists as did the old-line media. So not only do newspapers have more competition, journalists have more competition.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying I’m not patient enough to calculate the actual economic value of a journalist. But the following items seem clear: