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August 31, 2007

Newspapers in 2020, and more this week

John Stoehr

This week has yielded a number of reports and opinions about the direction of daily newspapering, even a prediction of what the industry will look like in a mere 13 years.

Over at Editor & Publisher, the industry organ, this report shows that financial predictions for the industry were far worse than expected. Fitch Ratings anticipated a bad year for classifieds, but not as bad as it has been, expecially for publically-traded newspapers. The report cited four major chains in particular: Gannet, Tribune, McClatchy and Dow Jones.

July results from publicly traded newspaper companies, in particular, "are obviously cause for concern," Fitch says.

Is anyone really surprised?

Meanwhile, one of the papers owned by McClatchy, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, got a big fuck-you this week when a new web-based publication in the Twin Cities announced that it had hired more than 20 veteran journalists, some of whom had taken buy-outs from the Star-Tribune.

Oh, and two of the 20-plus reporters and editors are Pulitzer Prize winners. One of those is John Camp, aka John Sandford, author of the "Prey" mystery novel series. The name of the publication is MinnPost (minnpost.com). It has about a million dollars in start up money. It plans to launch later this year. By the way, it's a nonprofit. Shareholders need not apply.

A bold step somebody needed to take.

While newspapers have taken a beating since the first of the year, so has literary criticism. Morris Dickstein recounts the book ban, so to speak, in this optimistic blog post over at the National Book Critics Circle blog, called "Critical Mass." The damage includes:

1. Teresa Weaver got the axe as book review editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

2. The Associated Press closed its book review desk

3. The Raleigh News-Observer eliminated the post of full-time book review editor

4. And cutbacks at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the San Diego Union-Tribune, and, most dramatic of all, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, which ceased being a stand-alone Sunday section and was folded into the Ideas section

Fortunately, for people who like to read about books, there's this development in New Haven, Conn., where a intrepid bunch of writers is sick of books getting the knife. They've started (and hope by the slimmest of threads) to continue a publication called The New Haven Review of Books. It was started by the former editor of that city's alternative weekly newspaper, Mark Oppenheimer, a contributor to the Huffington Post. He said they were inspired by the decline of newspaper coverage of books, but also a renewed interested in -- wait for it --

Localism.

This model won't replace the big-city, big-time book reviews; we still need them. And unless some angel comes along to fund another issue, this may be the last you hear of the New Haven Review of Books. But we're in an age of renewed attention to localism and regionalism, and book reviews -- like farmers' markets, or even local currencies -- can do their part.

A resurgence of localism and a renewed push for grassroots literary criticism (or arts journalism or fill in the blank with whatever aesthetic, philosophical, intellectual pursuit -- in a public forum -- of your choice) is a kind of analysis-based journalism of the kind recommended by Mitchell Stephens in that terrific piece for the Columbia Journalism Review in January. I keep referring to it, but it's good stuff. He writes:

The extra value our quality news organizations can and must regularly add is analysis: thoughtful, incisive attempts to divine the significance of events -- insights, not just information [my emphasis]. What is required -- if journalism is to move beyond selling cheap, widely available, staler-than-your-muffin news -- is, to choose a not very journalistic-sounding word, wisdom.

It seems almost spooky that we get similar thinking from this piece by Dave Morgan, the chairman of Tacoda, a marketing firm specializing in something called "behavioral targeting." He goes out on a limb to envision what the newspaper industry will look like in 2020, less than 13 years from now. I don't know what "behavioral targeting" is, but Morgan is on the cutting edge. Here's an edited down version of Morgan's prediction.

What does this say for critics and journalists? I've added emphasis to highlight points we've addressed here in Flyover.

• All media will be digital. There may still be some analog components in the supply chains of media companies, but analog will be a very small part of the business. There have been great advances in the development of digital, paper-like materials that are readable and can connect to digital networks; most important, I believe that the eco-consciousness that we are beginning to see is here to stay.

• Consumer attention will continue to fragment. Our news and information products won't be large, comprehensive and "averaged" for mass consumption as they are today in a newspaper*. Consumers will get best-of-breed information services from many different providers.

• There will be many, many different digital media devices. Many of these devices will be portable; all will be networked. And most devices will permit users to communicate and create, not just consume.**

• Media brands will matter -- but old brands will matter less. Consider how fast Yahoo and Google were able to build well-known, trusted brands.

• News and information applications and services will be more important than underlying data and news. Discovering, editing, synthesizing, analyzing news and information and advertising is what will attract and retain consumers.*** Sending someone to a city council meeting for three hours to file a four-paragraph recitation of events will be worthless in 2020.

• Competition will be fierce, particularly in large metro markers. In a world where digital distribution is low to start and cheap to expand, the barriers to entry that have benefited newspapers for many decades won't exist in 2020. The competition in the local news, information and advertising business will be fierce.

• There will be lots of winners. Consumers will be the big winners. They will get more, better, more diverse and much more accurate news, information and advertising than they receive today. Advertisers will also win. They will pay much less to reach their target consumers, with more relevant messages and offers than they can provide through today's analog media channels.

• Newspaper companies are very likely not to be winners. The characteristics of the companies that will win in 2020 are very different than the characteristics of newspaper companies today.

Footnotes:
* Web 2.0: good for the arts, good for journalism
** Adjusting to an active audience
*** Analytic journalism


Posted by John Stoehr at August 31, 2007 8:53 AM

COMMENTS

Newspapers, I'm afraid, really are creatures of the industrial era. Unfortunately, technology and distribution systems are not neutral: They shape how we think, how we present information, what counts as a story, how we think of audiences, the problems that we think we need to solve. Certainly individuals can break out of these conventions. It would be surprising if an institution could.

Posted by: gary panetta at August 31, 2007 11:38 AM

Thanks for this post. A lot of good stuff here.

I'm glad to discover The New Haven Review via your link, but I'd like to point out that there are lots of valuable web-based ventures discussing books that have been around a lot longer. For one, there are blogs--and I'm talking about the ones that generate their own content rather than exclusively dishing out links to print publications. See, for instance, http://noggs.typepad.com/ for a good one.

As for journals and magazines, there's a lot here. The literary journal n + 1 has been publishing web-only pieces about art and literature for some time now. So has AGNI and others.

Also, there are some newer, web-only magazines. You should have a look at Open Letters and my own mag, The Quarterly Conversation.

Posted by: Scott at August 31, 2007 4:59 PM