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Jan 24, 2011


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Andrew Brod

Yes, Ed, you're very down on newspapers. We get it.

All people want something for their money and they always have. I know you realize this, but it's worth piercing the snark to note that the young didn't just discover value. Newspapers have long provided value to their subscribers, but the tectonic plates have shifted on them and they haven't yet figured out where they stand now that Pangea's gone. So they're in this ungainly trial-and-error phase, and they've made numerous dumb moves. In fact, they're downright clueless sometimes. But whatever the problem is, it's not unique to newspapers and it's not a failure to understand that people want something for their money.

greensboro transplant

i hate to say it, but i don't think they're going to figure it out. they lost career advertising early on in the battle. the internet also took a big bite out of the profitable auto segment. in the past few years they've ceded most sports and business news to other providers.

the one strength they'd appear to have is local news. but as ed has pointed out, they keep reducing their ability to provide it. and, bloggers, tv, and weeklies have eaten away at it as well.

they seem to be caught in a vicious circle.

Andrew Brod

GT, you may well be right. Newspapers used to rely a lot on cross-subsidization, in which sports and lifestyle sections essentially paid for news operations. That's probably never going to be possible again, which is one explanation for the dwindling reporting capacity that Ed keeps (correctly) pointing out. But none of this is because newspapers don't understand that people want something for their money.

Ed Cone

It's easy to say everyone knows people want value for their money, harder to believe it after a career spent in publishing and a decade observing disastrous decisions.

It may be that management gets the obvious value equations, but doesn't really understand editorial quality.

Failure to recognize the relationship between quality product and competitive advantage has been one serious mistake among many for the legacy publishing industry.


"Cross-subsidization!" That's the term I have been looking for.

Start with the premise that what you want an enterprise to support is high quality local reporting and the business question is "What subsidizes that?" Start answering that question and you start getting an idea of what a successful news organization looks like.

Ed Cone

Another example of management disconnect from the obvious truth of people wanting value for their money might be found in Detroit, a generation ago. Automakers thought they owned the market, and turned out shoddy products even as Japan began to eat their lunch.

David Wharton

Rupert Murdoch seems to be able to turn a profit in the newspaper industry; maybe the WaPo and the LAT should try to figure out what he's doing right.

Ed Cone

Murdoch is not known for selling quality -- quality is not the only measure of value -- but one genuinely high-quality product he bought, the WSJ, is discussed a bit in the post's linked article.


Ten years ago, reading the NYT was a professional necessity and I would have happily spent a considerable sum to do that. These days, probably not.

The real problem is this: We may very likely see an environment in which comprehensive news that at least takes a stab at accuracy and objectivity is available only to people who can afford it, while the rest of us get "free" news from sources that abandon accuracy and objectivity for spin and agenda. I.e., the Murdoch model. All fed to an audeince that can't tell the difference.

I tend to agree with Ed on this issue, but I really do think that one factor in the demise of newspapers is that fewer people are interested in the news.

Ed Cone

The cross-subsidy issue is part of the problem, Corbs - the audience for news has always been carried by the audience for sports, classifieds, stock quotes, etc., and it may never have been that large.

I've used the example here of watching someone read the paper on a subway -- it was hard (for a reporter, at least) to see them go right past the heavy content and turn straight to the other stuff.

So, what can a news publisher offer now that the other things have been stripped away? Quality.

Andrew Brod

Ed, I suppose this is semantics, this thing about businesses knowing that people want value. I don't believe anyone in the history of the economy has ever doubted that, even though events have occasionally intervened to make it hard to know what value is. To be sure, at times the barrier was hubris or stupidity, and at times it was a legal constraint. But very often the problem was one of inference and forecasting.

In fact, your Detroit example is a good case in point. The Detroit automakers certainly adapted slowly in the '70s and '80s, and that was obviously a failure on their part (or a "fail" in modern Internet parlance). But Detroit also had to deal with fickle consumer preferences in the '70s, right when it was big-decision time. They produced some fuel-efficient cars after the first OPEC crisis because that's what everyone said they should do, but then when prices dropped, consumers went back to wanting big cars and Detroit felt like it'd gotten burned.

When prices rose again in the wake of the second OPEC crisis in the late '70s, Detroit wanted to make sure it didn't get burned again. As a result, it stood pat longer than it should. They should have read their markets better, no question about it. But what they were trying to figure out was what American consumers wanted for their money.

This isn't the whole story of the American automobile industry since 1973, but it's a part of it. Sometimes it's hard to make the right decisions when one doesn't have the benefit of 40 years of hindsight.

Ed Cone

Detroit's problems included lax attitudes toward fit and finish, as well as the product mix. While Japan was turning out reliable cars, Detroit was rattling its way to irrelevance. A decent analogy to modern publishing.

People who haven't worked in publishing may not understand the deep divide that can exist between the business and editorial sides of the operation. There are people on the sales and distribution side who would not know quality journalism if it bit them on the ass, so the argument that they understand the value proposition of a quality product is moot.

And maybe people outside the profession have a hard time understanding the sadness and frustration of watching it fail from within. It's not just the end of an era in which I got to work closely with some really talented and productive people, it's the sense that a free press matters, a lot and that we're on the verge of losing something important.

Jon A Firebaugh

I.e., the Murdoch model. All fed to an audience that can't tell the difference.
Ah, the Walter Lippman contempt for the common man, "the public".
Even Lippman admitted the public had a use. From Wikopedia:
"According to Lippmann, however, the public does have one specific role, one particular capacity, which is to intervene during a moment of social disturbance or “a crisis of maladjustment.” In such a crisis, “It is the function of public opinion to check the use of force” (74) by using its own force. Public opinion responds to failures in the administration of government by deciding—through voting—whether to throw one party out in favor or another. The public, however, moves to such action not by its own volition but by being led there by those insiders who can identify and assess the situation for them. The public is incapable of deciding rationally about whether there is a crisis: “Public opinion is a rational force … It does not reason, investigate, invent, persuade, bargain or settle” (69). It can only exert force upon those who are capable of direct action by making a judgment as to which group is better able to address the problem at hand: “When men take a position in respect to the purposes of others they are acting as a public” (198). This check on arbitrary force is the most that can be expected of the public. It is the highly circumscribed but “special purpose” of public opinion."

Your opinion that the "Murdoch model" is somehow different from the rest of the print media is just based on your own bias. If we take Lippman as the "authority" in this analysis you think your insiders (the MSM) are smarter than Murdoch's insiders.

Given the NYT has Tom Friedman, Paul Krugman, and at one time Jayson Blair, I think you should rename your Murdoch model the NYTwit model. Add in the Journolist crap and the prosecution rests.

Ed Cone

Jon, factor out the politics for a minute, and consider that there really was a Murdoch model -- Page Three girls, Page Six gossip, and screaming tabloid headlines -- that is different from the traditional broadsheet model.

It can be done successfully -- as noted above, quality is not the only measure of value delivered. But note also that Murdoch is far too smart to muck up the excellent newspaper he recently purchased with such stuff.


Bingo, Jon.

But of course, in CorblyWorld, it is the NYT that is the very prototype of his "comprehensive news that at least takes a stab at accuracy and objectivity". This is how libs talk when they think no one else is listening. These things are just accepted as undisputed truths and upon which their subsequent points expound and are predicated.


>>...the audience for news has always been carried by the audience for sports, classifieds, stock quotes, etc., and it may never have been that large.

Agreed. I just think that the subset of people who are willing to pay for news is shrinking. Can't point to anything to substantiate that, other than that I know more than a few people who have canceled their newspaper subscriptions and admit to no long watching TV news, etc. These are educated, prosperous people who used to feel an obligation to stay involved and informed, but now do not.


Jon and "Poindexter" (whoever you really are): I don't read the NYT.

And, thanks, Jon, for trolling out a entirely extraneous scarecrow from a long-dead writer and then trying to beat it to death. Perhaps someone will eventually tell me what it has to do with me.

Here is the point, not that you care: It is entirely possible to make money selling newspapers, if for no other reason than that newspapers do not need to contain much news in order to sell. That's the Murdoch model, as the Sun and the NY Post attest, as do Fox, MSNBC, etc., on the tube.

If you sell a tabloid with sensationalist and less-than-reliable reporting, plus large photos of topless women and lots and lots of sports and celebrity gossip, odds are you will sell a lot of newspapers. That's no reflection on the innate abilities of the "common man". But, if you want someone to make a decision on a reasonably complex issue, would you choose someone who reads a real newspaper or would you choose someone who buys a newspaper because it displays the over-large mammary glands of Wanda from Weymouth?

Will Tax For Food

The answer is so simple... but they'll never figure it out as innovation escapes them..

justcorbly, Are you referring to Page 3 Girls? And what's wrong with Wanda from Weymouth?

David Wharton

Ed, Murdoch also bought the (London) Times, which is still editorially independent and high quality. According to Wikipedia, it's the best selling quality newspaper in England.

The "Murdoch" model seems to be running an efficient business that provides products that a variety of audiences want, from lurid tabloids to high-end journalism.

The fact that respectable newspaper organizations sniff at Murdoch certainly provides him with great pleasure. I wouldn't be surprised if he moves into their markets and eats their lunch sometime soon.

Ed Cone

Murdoch is very good at making money in media. He uses high quality (the examples you and I mentioned), crass entertainment (early Fox network), boobs (Page Three, Hannity), etc. He's willing to lose huge sums of money for sport and influence (NY Post) and to collude with totalitarian governments where it suits his purposes.

I don't think news orgs (certainly not the publishers) sniff at Murdoch, although the tabloid formula itself can be pungent.

Brian Clarey

Why can't a "real" newspaper do both?

David Wharton

I recently heard a very entertaining interview with Murdoch on NPR. What I took away from it is that he understands that the news business is a business and that he's been very adept at pushing technology and innovation to reduce costs.

He also understands that "quality" journalism means getting the story first and getting it accurately, and that this requires a lot of hard work from reporters. When asked how hard it was to win his market in England, he said something like, "not very -- if you got your reporters to do 8 hours of work in a day, you'd be way ahead of the competition."

I think the NYT has lost much of its ability to offer this kind of quality. Case in point: its initial stories on the Tucson shootings spent a lot of column inches trying to connect Loughner to right-wing militias, noting that his Youtube rants on grammar were similar to those of some nut who had posted his stuff on the web, and that some right wing nuts had adopted some of these ideas. Clearly the reporters were doing their research by surfing the 'net. (And their logic in trying to implicate the militias was amusingly similar to that used to convict the "witch" in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.)

On the same day, the WSJ's reporting was nearly all based on interviews with people who were at the scene or with people who knew Loughner. Which newspaper provided "quality" journalism that day?


"I think the NYT has lost much of its ability to offer this kind of quality."

I first noticed it with Judith Miller's "reporting" on Iraq's WMD.

Ed Cone

BC, sorry, long thread: what are the two components of "both."

DW, not sure what you're arguing here - that the WSJ, lauded in the original link and repeatedly in this thread as a high quality publication, is a high quality publication? That the NYT, the other example of a quality winner in the original link and a daily producer of quality journalism, no longer does quality journalism? Or just that the WSJ did a better job than the NYT on a particular phase of an important story?

David Wharton

Ed, I was just adding some more thoughts and information related to your post and to the link that I thought your readers might find interesting. (In other words, providing entertainment value to your blog at no cost to you!)

My point about the NYT is pretty straightforward -- not that it "no longer does quality journalism" but that it has "lost much of its ability" to do that kind of journalism. The fact that it bobbled a major, national story right out of the gate by neglecting basic journalistic practice shows that its powers are seriously degraded.

Of course you can point to many NYT stories that are great, but that's also true of the WaPo and the LAT.

Thus I disagree with you and Hamilton about the quality of the NYT. Clear enough?

Ed Cone

Much clearer, thanks.

I don't think anyone would disagree that diminished resources have made the NYT less able to excel as often or as broadly, but it still sets a standard to which much of the industry (including lesser papers that produce some great work) no longer even aspires.

I don't see evidence that any misdirection on the Tucson story was due to lack of resources.

David Wharton

"I don't see evidence that any misdirection on the Tucson story was due to lack of resources."

Agreed. By "ability," I didn't mean to refer to those kind of resources. I was referring to a deficiency in the institution's culture. I wonder whether the reporters got a dressing-down from their editor?

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