Newspapers: You are selling trust. Forget that at your peril.
Click here to listen to the broadcast of You Tell Me on KTBB AM & FM, Friday, Jan. 14, 2011.
Newspapers fascinate me. I am in awe of the entire process of composing, producing and delivering a unique publication every single day of the year.
Newspaper publishers not only operate white-collar content creation operations, they also operate blue-collar manufacturing plants that turn literally tons of raw material into a unique product that is widely delivered every morning.
The daily cycle of gathering, writing, editing, composing, producing and delivering tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of copies of an all-new publication on a daily basis is relentless. The fact that the newspaper arrives in your front lawn each morning with such regularity that you can take it for granted is amazing.
Every radio station in America competes for advertising revenue with the local newspaper. In addition to that revenue competition, those of us that own or run news and talk radio stations compete with the paper for audience and community standing.
Despite that competition for eyes, ears and dollars, I would never wish for newspapers to disappear. Newspapers at their best constitute a publication of record for the events, politics, policy and opinion germane to their respective communities. A sober, competent, ethical practitioner of such journalism is something every community needs.
But disappearance, once unthinkable, is now possible. Blame a lot of factors but none more than the Internet. The newspaper industry’s economic model has been shattered.
Put very simply, at one time circulation revenue, what you paid for the paper, covered the cost of production. Display advertising, the ads for Macy’s and Sears and J.C. Penney, paid for the news and editorial staff and the classified section, the want ads and you selling your bass boat, provided the profit.
Today, circulation (of the ink-on-paper edition) is down, in some cases precipitously, display advertising is down and the classified section has all but disappeared. Layer a weak economy upon this scenario and you find the newspaper industry in a real struggle.
Every newspaper now has an online edition, many of which are excellent, but the ads you see there don’t come close to replacing the revenue lost from the three traditional sources.
With an eye toward repairing their business models, newspapers are exploring charging for online content. The Dallas Morning News is the latest to make such an announcement. Success is by no means assured but I’m pulling for them. If the Tyler Paper ever makes a similar proposal, I will support it.
But I offer this caution to the newspaper industry at large (and much more so than to the Tyler Paper in particular):
Implicit in the title ‘publication of record’ is a trust, of which many newspapers, The New York Times being the highest-profile example, have lately been poor stewards.
Every journalism student learns the five Ws; who, what, where, when and why. On any given story, the first four Ws will usually emerge pretty quickly. It’s the fifth W, the why, that can be slow to become clear, if it ever becomes clear at all.
Yet it was the Times’s Paul Krugmann, a newspaperman who should certainly know better, that went straight to the “why” within minutes of the Tucson shooting despite having not the tiniest fragment of supporting evidence for his position. In so doing, he forfeited more of the Times’s dwindling reservoir of credibility. The fact that Krugmann appears on the editorial page and not the front page is no excuse.
In the heyday of newspapers, legend has it that a sign hung in the City News Bureau of Chicago that said, “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.”
That means that the reporter writing the front page story has to find out if his mother really does love him before he puts it in the record. And it means that Paul Krugmann must similarly test his mother’s assertion before he can credibly opine on maternal love.
Newspapers are businesses and they are governed by a simple truth. If your customers don’t trust you, they won’t buy your product.
Forfeit that trust, as too many newspapers again did in the wake of the shootings in Tucson, and no business model that anyone can devise will save you.
And I would mourn your passing.