Yesterday the Seattle Post-Intelligencer published its last paper issue. With a skeleton staff, the Hearst owned paper now will be exclusively on line. Last week I spoke at length with my son Chris, who works for the Associated Press in Bangkok, about the economic problems newspapers face and about the dangers to society from the demise of traditional newspaper journalism. Local NPR station KPLU did a good three part series
on the subject. The third part of their story sounds a lot like the conversation Chris and I had.
The news areas that suffer most from these changes are investigative and beat reporting. Investigative stories newspapers used to cover will now have to be handled more by unpaid bloggers with passion or by hired Internet guns funded by special interest groups, and in each case, professional journalistic standards may fall by the wayside. But newspapers were not always professional, and many times investigative reporting was done with a biased vengeance. Friend Joe says when one Seattle paper was on an investigative streak, he looked to the reaction of the other paper to keep things balanced, and now that will be lost. I think the Net and the cable news continuous cycle will fill the investigative void, with varying degrees of professionalism. Lest we give print media too much credit, check the scandal sheet rack next time you check out at the supermarket.
Beat reporting is trickier. These were the people who trudged through the mundane of a specialized environment, cultivating sources and amassing a specialized expertise. There is not much financial incentive to pay for this type of reporting. Public broadcasting, PBS and NPR, provide beat type coverage for national and international news and for some regional stories. Very localized newspapers, supported solely by local advertising, provide the neighborhood news. But the demise of big city newspapers will leave a void of in depth beat reporting. Only specialized blogs can fill the void, but they are a hit or miss proposition.
Underlying this whole matter is technology, and history shows technological advances have always resulted in greater dissemination. But as volume and coverage increase, audiences have more choices, and it can be more work to sort through and find ones that are desirable. Who pays for gathering and disseminating content is something that changes with technology. Radio programming was at first paid for by the sale of radios, then after the sales market was saturated, by advertising. TV was advertising supported from the start, then augmented by cable broadcasts to increase choice and reception quality. Pay satellite radio does not seem to have caught on very well.
Most newspapers gave up charging for Internet news, relying on advertising instead. But many of us use ad blockers, so advertising revenue must be coming from the type of readers who don't know or care about eliminating ads. As long as there are enough of those, the advertising supported model will work. But if ad revenue slips, it is quite a challenge to go back to charging readers who have been getting it for free.
The Associated Press
is a news business model that has been around for over 150 years and still seems viable. It works sort of like the Internet, in that it provides content for other providers to use. It is a non-profit co-op, supported by fees paid by its members, who have exclusive legal access to the copyrighted stories. Once the AP news is published, non-members have access to its content and some of them might use it without permission. The AP has right to legal recourse, but probably would not pursue it unless it was extensive and continuous. Consumers of news want new news, not old news, so AP members are the source for the earliest news and the most complete. Maybe the AP model will be one that is successfully used by other networks of bloggers, investigate reporters, beat reporters and local news gatherers to fill the void left by papers like the P-I.