"The Future Lies Ahead"--But What Does It Hold?

By Becky O'Malley
Tuesday January 04, 2011 - 05:49:00 PM

“The Future Lies Ahead.”

As the year turns the temptation to consider this topic, time-honored at hundreds of thousands of high school graduations, becomes irresistible. And the break in routine provided by the winter holidays made it possible to read other writers’ speculations on the topic, particularly what’s being opined about the future of what is loosely called journalism.  

This week we’ve finally gotten around to reading the December 16 issue of the London Review of Books, which always comes a week late in the mail, but has been languishing in our in-basket for a few more weeks under the catalogues and Christmas cards. Despite its name, the LRB is not so much book reviews, á la the increasingly truncated and boring snippets in the New York Times, but long well-written essays on interesting topics, sometimes though not always motivated by books.  

In this issue, John Lanchester, an LRB editor, vamps on two pieces he’s read recently about the future of newspapers. The OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) provided him with a long, statistics-packed and depressing treatise on The Evolution of News and the Internet, glibly summarized by Lanchester as “red ink all the way.” Bad news all around, Europe, U.S. and everywhere, and getting worse.  

He also draws on an analysis Alan Rusbridger contributed to the online Guardian of the geography of the media landscape as divided into three parts: “1. The press. 2. The big public broadcasters. 3. The new media, which are lively, chaotic, decentralised, prone to fads and crazes, and are opening up access to public spaces in all sorts of new ways.” Lanchester proposes to address only the first category, which for him seems to mean newspapers, whether distributed in print or online, 

His solution? “…what the print media need, more than anything else, is a new payment mechanism for online reading, which lets you read anything you like, wherever it is published, and then charges you on an aggregated basis, either monthly or yearly or whatever.” Temptingly simple, isn’t it? I-tunes is cited as a model. Well, maybe. 

This algorithm is predicated on somewhat loosey-goosey figures, not from OECD, which purport to show that more than half the cost of print papers is creating and distributing hard copy: “The production and distribution of newspapers is fantastically, outlandishly expensive.” Minus that, we are advised, it should be clear sailing for “newspapers” or “the press” (and here we do get into definition creep, because they’re no longer identical.)  

Lanchester notes approvingly that Rupert Murdoch (with obligatory disclaimer: “I think Murdoch has been a strongly negative force in British life and I don’t wish his enterprises well...”) seems to be planning a publication called simply The Daily which will be distributed via I-Pad in partnership with Apple for 99 cents a week.  

(One questionable detail: “There’s a rumour that they wanted to call it the Daily Planet, the paper that Superman worked for, but DC Comics said no.” My own knowledge of intellectual property law, on a topic which I investigated carefully some years ago, suggests that this ‘rumour’ isn’t accurate. Murdoch might need to talk to us about the name, as well as to the Twin Cities Daily Planet, a well-established online paper, however. We haven’t heard from him yet.) 

Overall, it’s a good piece, well worth reading free online, but as someone who’s devoted too much of her life to laboring in trenches entrepreneurial and journalistic, I fear it glosses over some key questions. 

First and foremost, what is news? 

The recent WikiLeaks explosion adds spice to this perennial discussion. At press time, probably early December, John Lanchester was sure that what Julian Assange was handing out wasn’t the real stuff: 

“…the WikiLeaks episode(s) shows both what the digital media can and can’t do. Its release of information is unprecedented: but it is not journalism. The data need to be interpreted, studied, made into a story. For that we need number 1, the press.”  

Well, what if the press can’t get ‘the news’, but amateurs like Julian Assange can? Should he be prosecuted for treason for spreading it around in his unprofessional way, while the ‘journalists’ at the Guardian and the New York Times go free? 

In any case, news, real news, is difficult and expensive to gather, whether you plan to distribute it on paper, over the airwaves, or via new media in its infinite variety. There’s less news in newspapers all the time. Lanchester again:“.. eventually newspapers will either die or (more likely) be so hollowed out by cost-cutting that they exist as freesheets with a thin, non-functioning veneer of pretend journalism.” 

At the Berkeley Daily Planet for financial reasons we’re currently engaged in trying to collect and disseminate a minimal amount of significant local news with mostly volunteer reporters, and, folks, it ain’t easy. Our readers also have at least four other purported sources of news about Berkeley which they can access via various media, sources with much more money to spend, but it’s still slim pickings, mostly aren’t-we-proud-of-our-talented-kiddies or celebrity-seen-at-local-restaurant, plus the usual run of litely re-written press releases and blatant steals from other publications.  

Americans in particular have gotten used to having advertisers pay for everything, and, as previously noted, the advertisers have left the building. It didn’t help the Planet to have zealots who didn’t like the reader commentaries we ran bullying our advertisers, but in truth that was a minor irritant as compared to our share in the general decline in ad revenue experienced all over the world by all kinds of publications. The OECD report cited by Lanchester provides a mind-numbing amount of detail on the topic, if you’re interested.  

In this context Lanchester offers a useful marketing tip based on his own editorial experience: 

“For the LRB, the internet offers a new way of getting readers outside the traditional channels of direct mail. The trouble with direct mail is that it’s expensive, and its audience is confined to an existing ‘universe’ of potential customers from mailing lists. The internet expands that audience to anyone with access to a web browser; in addition, the paper’s content becomes its own form of advertising. Another factor may be the length of the LRB’s articles: if you’re reading this online, your eyes are probably bleeding by now.” 

There’s a concept: Perhaps the way for “newspapers” (whether printed on paper or not) to squeeze their reporting costs out of readers is to concentrate on serious long-form articles which are just too much to read in full online, and then charge for printed or printable versions. LRB sells PDFs (easily printed graphic images) of its articles to non-subscribers for the modest fee of £2.75. We’ve taken a small step in that direction by making all of our copy available online as PDFs which can be printed out at home or at copy shops, but we haven’t been charging readers for the privilege—maybe we should. 

The form factor is more important than Lanchester’s willing to concede. We’re constantly besieged by former readers who plead for resumption of print publication, swearing that they just can’t—won’t—read their news on a computer. They seem to prefer no news at all to news in the wrong form, and they claim they will never change.  

Of course the Planet was previously free—would such people pay the real cost of a print paper? Doubtful, though a new local feel-good publication seems to be planning to test that concept one more time. Berkeleyans tend to be mingy: speaking out boldly for unions but shopping at union-busting grocers because (surprise!) they’re cheaper.  

As of this week we’re creeping up on a short thousand “subscribers”, that is to say readers who get a personal note every week with embedded links to the most interesting online articles. There’s no charge for this service. 

We’ve suggested that those who want to see more original reporting in the Planet can contribute to the independent non-profit Fund for Local Reporting, and a dozen or so have done that. They’ve paid for a few good stories, like Joe Eaton’s report last month of dark doings at Berkeley’s Aquatic Park, and Richard Brenneman’s update on LBNL’s expansion plans in this issue.  

But perhaps readers aren’t actually looking for news news in online papers, but are instead taking part in a rarefied form of social networking: exchanging ideas in the ether with people somewhat like themselves whose views interest them. Our genteel “letters to the editor” format produces mostly well-thought-out short opinions, and our long reader commentaries are usually informative. We’ve been considering adding direct comment forms to each article, but we’re put off by the rude mouthing-off which seems to dominate many of these in other publications. (We’re tired of “robot” letters, computer-generated on assigned topics, so we usually skip them.)  

Our speculations have reached the eye-bleeding length at this point with no obvious conclusions, so here’s where it’s time, once again, to ask you, our readers, what you think about these topics. If you read the LRB piece you’ll be an instant expert. This is just the Cliff Notes version—many more piquant propositions are offered in the 5,000 words original with its two footnoted and linked source articles. And if and when you make up your mind about what The Future holds for journalism, share your findings with us.