Monday, September 28, 2009

Peter Kann's Thoughts On Newspapers

This past weekend's Wall Street Journal carried an extended editorial by the chairman of Dow Jones, part of NewsCorp, Peter Kann. Kann is a longtime Journal man, and his editorial contains so much historical perspective on the sector that it almost qualifies as an in-depth strategy piece.

Pity, really, because that sort of piece is almost nonexistent in today's Journal, post-Murdoch.

But, I digress.

The headline of Kann's article, "Quality Reporting Doesn't Come Cheap," has, as its main purpose, to belatedly lecture all of us on how the demise of newspapers will hurt society, because no other entity reports raw news anymore of similar "quality."

Kann meanders through the past, noting how newspapers were advised by "bright young managers" to give away electronic copies of their print editions. Long story very short, in a decade, print circulation fell disastrously, without an offsetting revenue stream from online sites.

Kann is quick to note that the Wall Street Journal, alone among US newspapers, has always charged for access to its online paper, beyond the day it is published, and ruminates that, perhaps if the NY Times, Washington Post, and a few others, had gone along with this, the entire industry would have followed, and they'd all be in great shape now.

But these passages, near the closing, reveal Kann's emotionally-tilted "analysis,"

"The reason any of this matters has little to do with the plight of newspaper publishers or even with the future of newspapers. The real threat is to the future of news—informative, relevant, reliable news of the wider world around us. And that is disappearing as newspapers, whose reporting staffs still produce most of the news, no longer can afford to do so. As their news budgets and staffs continue to shrink, the key question is what can fill that gap?

Television does not begin to fill it. To the extent broadcast networks ever tried they now have abdicated to so-called cable news channels. These, in turn, now devote most of their resources to covering celebrities, crimes and sundry social trivia and to prime-time programming that pretends to be analysis and informed opinion while mostly offering the spectacle of extremist heads yelling at each other. There are few resources and even less commitment to covering significant news beyond floods and fires.

The Internet is not filling news vacuums either. There are hundreds upon hundreds of online sites and blogs that claim to provide news, but virtually none of them even pretend to pursue the traditional news role of newspapers, which is to invest in professional staffs dispersed around a community and across the country or the globe to cover, analyze, and only then comment on, events. Actually, all they do is comment.

As to all the free online editions of our newspapers, their business model does not begin to cover the cost of significant news reporting. So the online editions with growing audiences—largely cannibalized from print audiences—rely on the poor print editions for almost all the news they give away.

Sadly, there is less and less of that, and the ultimate loser, of course, is the public."

I actually don't agree with Kann's diagnosis of cable news. On national topics, it is more timely and possessing of greater impact than print journalism. As I wrote about a year and a half ago, on the occasion of NewsCorp's purchase of Dow Jones,

"The reality is that print is a dead, bygone medium. The CBS franchise program, 60 Minutes, breaks tons of stories. How? By using television, not print. Do you think for a moment that the same program, as a print medium, could ever have lasted? Not a chance.

What Murdoch understands is that by marrying the Dow Jones assets and brands, particularly The Wall Street Journal, to his existing multimedia empire, he will enable those brands to actually create more value while doing even more investigative journalism.

The Dow Jones board's recent Chair has been trying to goose the company's performance, to little avail. My guess is that most investors understand that the old media pond within which Dow Jones lives is going to overwhelm the effects of any one firm's individual efforts. It's time for a more modern media vehicle to properly invest in and use the Journal's brand franchise.

No, the narrow version of the journalistic independence argument won't work for a publicly held company. Maybe if Ottoway and the Bancrofts wanted to take the firm private. But that's not what they want. They want top dollar and journalistic immunity from any economic realities."

Print media simply can't deliver the same punch that a live cam feeding a cable news channel's programming, then residing on its website, can. Nobody said newspapers can't continue to serve a very local function in society. But in the era of ubiquitous cable news, YouTube, video on cell phones, and the internet, print just can't compete on national news stories. And if it has superior opinion and analytical pieces, then it has value, and product, but it's not news reporting.

However, earlier in his piece, Kann slipped this little nugget in,
"If publishers were at fault here for chasing ever larger audiences, editors and even reporters all too often were complicit. The list of modern journalistic flaws and failings is long, but surely includes the blurring of traditional lines between news and opinion and news and entertainment, predatory pack journalism, an undue emphasis on conflict rather than context, pessimism and cynicism (as differentiated from appropriate skepticism and criticism), social orthodoxy, elitism, flea-like attention spans, and more. Yes, the traditional newsprint medium was becoming less appealing, but its messages also were becoming less enlightening."
As a business person and strategist, once I read that paragraph, the rest of Kann's editorial became largely moot.
You see, what Kann unwittingly did, with these admissions, is essentially prove that poor management led to print news' downfall. The publishers made bad revenue strategy choices. The editors got carried away slanting the news, dumbing it down, and treating their customers as if they were morons.
Now, they complain that, having gutted their own product of much of its past value, nobody will pay for it.
Well, boo-hoo, Peter. You print guys did it to yourselves, and you got what you deserved. Newspapers are dying for a reason. Their operators lost sight of their strengths, screwed up their strategies, then lay weak and helpless in the face of advancing new technlology- cable news.
By the way, I doubt a Glenn Beck would find a supportive home in print, or have anything like the reach and punch he now has. And, yes, he actually reports news. And then also mixes it with analysis.
But I can't honestly say I believe, as Peter Kann does, that print could in any way rival the impact of well-honed video news and opinion programs now available to the viewing public- for free.

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