Claremont Insider: News of the News

Monday, December 22, 2008

News of the News

Newspapers have been taking it on the chin for some time now, not just from the Insider and not just about their proofreading.

The Tribune Company's recent bankruptcy filing is merely the latest example of the extreme set of troubles currently hitting the print journalism industry: online competition for classified ads (think Craigslist); a dead real estate market leading to fewer real estate ads; a global recession; rising labor, energy and material costs; and a steady, general decline in subscribers.

James Surowiecki, who writes the New Yorker's Financial Page column, had an essay in the magazine last week about the paradoxical decline in newspaper readership at a time when more people than ever are getting their information from newspaper websites:

....The peculiar fact about the current crisis is that even as big papers have become less profitable they’ve arguably become more popular. The blogosphere, much of which piggybacks on traditional journalism’s content, has magnified the reach of newspapers, and although papers now face far more scrutiny, this is a kind of backhanded compliment to their continued relevance. Usually, when an industry runs into the kind of trouble that [marketing scholar Theodore] Levitt was talking about, it’s because people are abandoning its products. But people don’t use the Times less than they did a decade ago. They use it more. The difference is that today they don’t have to pay for it. The real problem for newspapers, in other words, isn’t the Internet; it’s us. We want access to everything, we want it now, and we want it for free. That’s a consumer’s dream, but eventually it’s going to collide with reality: if newspapers’ profits vanish, so will their product.

Does that mean newspapers are doomed? Not necessarily. There are many possible futures one can imagine for them, from becoming foundation-run nonprofits to relying on reader donations to that old standby the deep-pocketed patron. It’s even possible that a few papers will be able to earn enough money online to make the traditional ad-supported strategy work. But it would not be shocking if, sometime soon, there were big American cities that had no local newspaper; more important, we’re almost sure to see a sharp decline in the volume and variety of content that newspapers collectively produce. For a while now, readers have had the best of both worlds: all the benefits of the old, high-profit regime—intensive reporting, experienced editors, and so on—and the low costs of the new one. But that situation can’t last. Soon enough, we’re going to start getting what we pay for, and we may find out just how little that is.

As Surowiecki points out, newspapers have been slow to come to the realization that they are not in the newspaper business but are in the information biz. This short-sightedness, along with considerable pride, has prevented newspapers from doing what other online information services do best: link to a wide variety of outside news sources, including sites belonging to rivals. It's what Surowiecki calls the "not invented here" or walled garden mentality.

For news consumers, it's all a good deal. If you're looking for news, you can get it for free from the New York Times' or the Daily Bulletin's websites, or any number of other news and information sites. However, the free news party can't continue forever, and something's gotta give at some point. Some of that reckoning may take the form of more layoffs at places like the Dean Singleton-owned Los Angeles News Group's papers (of which the Daily Bulletin is one) and at the Tribune-owned Los Angeles Times. And all those layoffs eventually will eventually result in a decline in the quality and quantity of that free information we are all getting.

Singleton, who runs MediaNews Group, certainly has made no secret of his desire to downsize and to consolidate his operations - What's so important about having writers with local knowledge about the communities we're reporting on? says Singleton. Last October, former Claremont Courier reporter Gary Scott wrote about Singleton's outsourcing ideas:
Dean Singleton, speaking Monday to the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association, urged his belt-tightening brethren to consider "consolidating and outsourcing news operations" in these tough economic times. From USA Today:
MediaNews Group CEO Dean Singleton, who also serves as chairman of the board of The Associated Press, told the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association that papers should explore outsourcing in nearly every aspect of their operations.


Singleton said sending copyediting and design jobs overseas may even be called for.

"One thing we're exploring is having one news desk for all of our newspapers in MediaNews ... maybe even offshore," he said during the speech.
Singleton added after the speech, "In today's world, whether your desk is down the hall or around the world, from a computer standpoint, it doesn't matter."

And, earlier this month Singleton consolidated his Inland Empire copy desks for the Daily Bulletin, the San Bernardino Sun, and the Redlands Daily Facts into one office in West Covina with LA News Group's San Gabriel Valley operations. Gary Scott reported on that as well.

If this talk of outsourcing by local news organizations sounds familiar, you might be recalling James McPherson, the man behind the online Pasadena Now. In May, 2007, McPherson made the national news when he hired some workers in India to cover the local Pasadena scene, including city council meetings, via the Internet. Other less well-known online news sources quickly followed suit.

The McPherson news, even in the Internet Age, apparently didn't get around all that fast. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd jumped right on the story on this past November 29th, 18 months after the story first broke.

The mainstream media's going to have to move a bit faster if they hope to compete with a person typing away in Bangalore, India, for a penny a word, as Dowd noted:
[McPherson] said he got the idea to outsource about a year ago, sitting in his Pasadena home, where he puts out Pasadena Now with his wife, Candice Merrill. Macpherson had worked in the ’90s for designers like Richard Tyler and Alan Flusser, and had outsourced some of his clothing manufacturing to Vietnam.

So, he thought, “Where can I get people who can write the word for less?” In a move that sounded so preposterous it became a Stephen Colbert skit, he put an ad on Craigslist for Indian reporters and got a flood of responses.

He fired his seven Pasadena staffers — including five reporters — who were making $600 to $800 a week, and now he and his wife direct six employees all over India on how to write news and features, using telephones, e-mail, press releases, Web harvesting and live video streaming from a cellphone at City Hall.

“I pay per piece, just the way it was in the garment business,” he says. “A thousand words pays $7.50.”

A penny for your thoughts? Now I knew my days were numbered.