Requiem for The Phoenix: Who Pays for Good Journalism?
Several weeks ago, I was on a New England Cable News show with Boston Phoenix editor Peter Kadzis to discuss the imminent sale of the Boston Globe. I got some significant pushback from both the host, Jim Braude, and Kadzis when I said the Globe should go to an all-digital format, maybe publishing a printed edition only once or twice a week. Braude seemed to lament that he still looked forward to his paper hitting the door in the morning and Kadzis said only papers teetering on the financial brink need to adopt the online, semi-published model. The Globe - and I guess by inference his own Phoenix - wasn’t there yet.
Lo and behold exactly 21 days later, Kadzis and his boss, publisher Stephen Mindich, announced this week’s issue of the Phoenix will be the last one. Stung by the desertion of advertisers and readers, the paper’s owners could no longer justify sustaining losses that were compounding - like to the tune of $1.5 million a year. Things have fallen so far and the end came so abruptly there was surprisingly no mention of a possible online only strategy for the Phoenix. As of Thursday, it’s gone. Its six-month reformatting experiment to a glossy magazine crumpled in the dust.
While some have suggested that bad management might have contributed to paper’s demise one only has to look at it and other publications to see what the story is with advertisers these days. This weekend I perused the Globe’s print edition (the e-Paper. I stopped buying the actual paper years ago). Maybe there were a few national ads - a new full-page Google campaign, oddly enough - but most were quarter page or smaller inserts for local businesses and mail-order come-ons like discount hearing aids and facelifts. Gone are the national department stores, soft drink companies, major retailers, airlines and other big ticket advertisers. The classified ads still exist somewhat but why? If you’re going to sell something - a home, a car, a computer - or buy a product or service, where do you go? The Internet, of course. The Phoenix made a ton of money pushing the envelope of escort service ads but those ads emigrated to the web a while ago.
While most media outlets have a Web strategy, the revenue available to online newspapers, though slowly increasing, isn’t nearly large enough yet to sustain good in-depth journalism.
Don’t believe me? This week the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism released it’s State of the News Media report and its findings are not surprising but nevertheless downright depressing.
Among other things Pew found newsroom employment is down 30 percent since its peak in 2000 and below 40,000 full-time professional employees for the first time since 1978.
In local TV, sports, weather and traffic now account for 40 percent of the content produced while the length of stories have shrunk. CNN cut story packages in half from 2007 to 2012. Coverage of live events by the three big cable news channels fell 30 percent in the same period. Time magazine, the only newsweekly left standing, cut about five percent of its staff early this year.
Maybe even more disheartening - if that’s possible - Pew said a growing number of news publications, such as Forbes, are using a technology called Narrative Science, which produces news by way of computer algorithm. No human reporting necessary. Ugh!
Moreover, several experiments with nonprofit news organizations that opened their doors with much fanfare have now been shuttered.
“This adds up to a news industry that is more understaffed and unprepared to uncover stories, dig deep into emerging ones or to question information put into its hands,” Pew concluded.
Reporters, particularly political reporters on the campaign trail, acted more like megaphones than investigators, the report said. Politicians, businesses and individuals now have the means to circumvent the traditional news organizations and are utilizing those methods more frequently.
Oddly enough, the appetite for news among consumers appears to be growing, Pew said. And a significant percentage of people polled - nearly 60 percent - seemed unaware that the news business is in trouble (many of those who were informed said they’ve recently abandoned a news outlet).
So what does all this mean? Do we have to resign ourselves to having more news produced by corporate handouts and (lord forbid) PR flacks? (Also see Newspapers are Dying, PR is Thriving. Why?)
The solution, I think is right in front of us. Newspapers have to make a bold move and transition to all digital formats, force consumers to make the conversion with them and sell and brand its product like it’s truly worth something - and worth paying for - and not something that hey, well, we used to give away for free but now, see, we really need the money.
Newspaper publishers are unwilling to give up the ghost because there’s still SOME money to be made in print, albeit not much. What used to be a 30 percent to 40 percent margin business is down to 10 percent and falling, according to analysts. Instead of delaying the inevitable in an attempt to squeeze every last bit of profit out of print, newspapers should make the move now.
Think of it. If someone came to you today and said they had an idea for a business that would require cutting down trees to make paper, throwing barrels of ink on it to make yesterday's news that could be delivered by gas guzzling trucks to homes every day, you'd say they were crazy and that wasn't a sustainable business model. And you'd be right. It's not a sustainable business model. Time to cut losses and join the 21st century. The advertisers and maybe even the readers will follow. It will be painful but it will pay off. We need to begin to educate the consumer that news is a product that cost money and they have to pay for it just like they pay for clothes and food. And news organizations have to compete for their "shelf-space" just like Frito-Lay and Cambell's Soup. Those that make the most investment in news, produce the greatest product, and successfully publicize its brand, will be the most successful.
As I frequently remind my students, the media exist for one reason: to attract and hold an audience for advertisers. Of course the media provide us with more (news, information, education, entertainment, investigation etc. etc.) but if it does its job well on that score, the audiences will come and advertisers will take note and follow. Then, they can start writing checks for foreign bureaus, investigative teams, expanded local coverage and on and on.
Someone is going to get the correct formula, get out ahead of the pack, and woe be it for those who dilly dally and find their digital strategy is about as worthwhile as their current print one.
There are still great brands left in publishing. The Globe, the Times, even the Phoenix. But if their owners wait much longer to completely embrace the future, they risk destroying the value of their good name and watching all their best talent head for the doors. And when they absolutely have to make the switch to electronic publication and delivery, no one will care.