The Deadline: What can be learned from the problems with print media?

Last Wednesday, the Chicago Tribune reported that Sam Zell, the new chief executive of the Tribune Company, expects to cut 500 to 600 jobs company-wide, including 100 at the Tribune alone and 100 more at another esteemed Tribune Company jewel, the Los Angeles Times. “I can’t turn this ship from its course of the past ten years within just a few months,” Zell said, adding, with epigrammatic aplomb, “But, make no mistake. This is not my ultimate strategy for our company. I believe we can achieve greatness. I have staked my reputation on it.” Considering the decrease in revenue that led to Zell’s changes–in the past month, revenue down five percent for the entire company, and a double-digit drop in ad sales–his statement reads like famous last words, another line on print media’s tombstone. The print daily has been careening toward near-extinction for a few years now–a storyline as old as the rise of the Internet–but what’s even more remarkable is how nobody working on the business side of any paper in the United States has conceived a working alternative model to the ad-based print daily.

This article is not meant to be another ponderous meditation on the fate of print media at the hands of the Internet, nor a prescription for curing the industry’s ills. Instead, I mean to introduce two essential truths that are consistently overlooked, and both can be learned from close attention to alternative media.

The Internet, with its promise of self-selected, immediate news, did not deal the print newspaper a fatal body blow simply because of its infrastructural potential, which is indeed great. It is the final nail in the coffin of an industry that has been unable to evolve its business model for over forty years. As former alt-weekly kingpin-cum-Internet media titan Dan Pulcrano told DN Journal, “Daily circulation remained flat for half a century while U.S. population more than doubled. Big Media consolidated markets and formed joint operating agreements–legal monopolies–with their competitors, or informal duopolies that had the same price-fixing effect. They made obscene profits by punishing their customers with higher rates, not by delivering more readers or better value. Their smugness, arrogance, and inability to innovate made them sitting ducks.” The most important way that big dailies have dominated the news industry, however, has nothing to do with price-fixing tricks, but with every organization’s complicit assumption regarding the way news should be delivered.

There is no doubt that the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Washington Post are in constant competition to break the next big story. But they all agree on how the story will be broken: with an editorially supervised, inverted-pyramid story that will appear above the fold. For decades, even with the advent of television news, print media never wavered in its strict adherence to a stodgy style. Time-tested, user-approved.

Again, the Internet may seem to be the definitive signal away from the leads of news stories, with blogs proliferating as preferred sources of information, but competition from the outside was forecasted as early as the ‘80s, when corporatized descendants of the alternative press first started making inroads in the big boys’ hometowns. They brought a whole new perspective to the newspaper game, reporting thoroughly and writing irreverently on local issues, all the while buying up whole categories of advertising. The Tribune’s RedEye has best reflected an industry awareness of the potential in a free weekly, reinvented as a free daily. Of course, some of those same papers are now suffering alongside their brick-and-mortar brethren (though most alt-weeklies are actually still growing, according to the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies), but a similar taste for crackerjack reporting, offbeat stories, and brilliant insight can still carve out a major market niche. Though Time and Newsweek continue to reduce their base circulation rates while paying strict attention to flavor-of-the-week stories, another weekly magazine has increased its circulation (and revenue): the New Yorker.

Considering the advantages of specialization and stylistic changes, it would not be a bad thing for the formidable media companies to simply dissolve and the current journalistic establishment to fragment. Because of all the uncertainty in the future of print news, one verity has remained unchanged: people still need news, and they still need careful professionals to deliver it. Journalists shouldn’t be the most worried about going unused. The people who should be worried about their jobs are plate-makers, truck drivers, and press operators. Oh, and the MBAs whose failure of imagination has precipitated the current crisis.

It would seem that the most sensible route for general-interest hardcopy establishments to go would be totally digital. Richard Karpel, director of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, has sensibly pointed out to Gawker Media: “For newspapers, a single print reader still generates more than 100 times the revenue of each online reader. For instance, more than ten times as many people read the New York Times online as in print, yet the NYT still only derives ten percent of its revenue from its online operations. Any competent publisher trying to decide where to deploy resources in the real world must deal with those numbers.” Karpel’s statistical argument, however, neglects the fact that Internet operations are much cheaper to maintain than those for print, and the margins for online advertising widen if the production cost of print editions is slashed and online rates raised. At this point, it seems far wiser to use print editions as “halo products” that establish brand names for newspapers even though they are money-losing commodities, while devoting more reportorial resources to the Web. When done sensibly, success stories do happen, if not spectacularly. Take the case of Slate Magazine, now owned by the Washington Post Company, or, better yet, the garage start-up Salon.com.

If anything, the bottom line is that the journalistic enterprise need not be forgotten because its primary delivery vehicle has broken down. The world needs reporters and writers just like reporters and writers need jobs. It’s just that the world requires a fresh kind of journalism in a new package. The best kind of reporting has always abided by the kind of prescription Chicago’s literary son Nelson Algren applied to any kind of writing: “Compassion is all to the good, but vindictiveness is the verity Faulkner forgot: the organic force in every creative effort…that gives shape and color to all our dreams.” When fulfilled, this impulse can provoke the following response, written to Chicago Reader reporter John Conroy after an article he published exposing police torture: “It is so important to have a reporter who knew the whole story, who did the reporting, and told people, over and over, what was really going on.” The letter was written by Jo Ann Patterson, the mother of an inmate who was freed after his confession, elicited under duress, was proven false by Conroy’s story. For his trouble, Conroy was laid off by the Reader. Declining overhead was the paper’s stated concern.