Every thinking American wants quality journalism, but who defines what qualifies?
The country’s media elite now think they should be the arbiter. The elite have banded together to form the News Media Alliance. It’s chief goal is to get the U.S. government to lift anti-trust restrictions that prevent newspapers from operating collectively as a cartel.
Think OPEC, and you’ve got the idea. The Alliance wants to control news the way the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries once controlled oil.
“Legislation that enables news organizations to negotiate collectively will address pervasive problems that today are diminishing the overall health and quality of the news media industry,” says David Chavern, President & CEO of the Alliance. “Quality journalism is critical to sustaining democracy and is central to civic society. To ensure that such journalism has a future, the news organizations that fund it must be able to collectively negotiate with the digital platforms that effectively control distribution and audience access in the digital age.”
Heavy with representatives of the old media – the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, Hearst Newspapers, Gannett Co. – the Alliance is trying to claim the high moral ground, but what this is really all about is money.
All across the country, once powerful newspapers are struggling to survive. They’ve lost classified advertising to craigslist and others. They’re bleeding subscribers. The value of their print advertising is falling along with the exodus of print readers because advertisers don’t want to pay as much for ever-shrinking exposure.
Meanwhile, some of these operations remain too big, too fat and too burdened with overhead to survive on the cash flow from online advertising, and attempts to monetize the internet with paywalls generally aren’t working well.
Anchorage’s lone, 6-day-per-week newspaper is in so much trouble it has stopped paying its bills. And at a court hearing Tuesday over a lawsuit involving a settlement Alaska Dispatch News owner Alice Rogoff is refusing to pay Alaska Dispatch.com founder Tony Hopfinger, Rogoff’s attorney revealed that the paper was a staggering $4.5 million in the red only two years after its purchase from The McClatchy Company, a California corporation that made tens of millions of dollars in Anchorage before the highly profitable business of journalism soured.
Blame the internet
Only a decade ago, media companies boasted profit margins over 20 percent. Today, many are struggling just to break even as they try to transition from print to the internet. It is an evolution of uber proportions, and there are indications newspapers will enjoy no more evolutionary success than buggy-whip makers.
The Alliance blames a “duopoloy” sucking a lot of the money out of the tubes.
Old school publishers say they need the power of a cartel in order to enter “concrete discussions with the two dominant distributors of online news content, Google and Facebook, on business model solutions to secure the long-term availability of local journalism produced by America’s newsrooms.”
Simple English translation: Newspaper publishers don’t think traditional American newsrooms can survive the competition from the internet.
Facebook and Google do exert a lot of control over news, but it’s not like they’re actively trying to kill the mainstream. As an aggregator of news, Google News is a bastion of the old media. If anything, it’s doing its best to kill independent sites like this one.
Open Google News and see if you find this story aggregated in the Alaska news there. Odds are you won’t. Even when small, independent, Alaska sites break news in the 49th state, Google News generally ignores them. Part of the reason the website Alaska Commons died is because it lacked the kind of internet traffic Google News could have helped generate.
AlaskaDispatch.com, the website that eventually rattled McClatchy enough to convince it to sell the once very profitable Anchorage Daily News to Rogoff, spent years breaking stories before it started popping up on Google News.
If the mainstream media think its entire problem is Google News and Facebook, get in line because those two internet powers are a lot more of a problem for independent journalism than institutional journalism.
A thriving dead business
There is no doubt that American newspaper are dying except in those places where they are not. At least three newspaper wars are now raging in Alaska. As this is written, there are two newspapers duking it out in the tiny, ski town of Girdwood (population 2,000), two newspapers battling in the small port of Seward (population 2,500), and three papers fighting for the market in the Anchorage suburb of Chugiak-Eagle River, a comparative boom town of 35,000.
None of the publishers or writers for these publications are getting rich, but they’re hanging on. Marc Donadieu, the publisher of the Glacier City Gazette in Girdwood, describes small-town newspapering as a labor of love, but he wouldn’t be doing it if he didn’t believe he could pay the bills.
He and the rest see niche markets in places where there still exist a sense of community.
“There’s no reliable news source for local news,” Donadieu said, “and people want to know what is going on locally. If (Anchorage news outlets) do swoop in, they don’t have the background or the context.”
Like most local weekly newspapers in the U.S., the Gazette is tightly focused on community news. Regional papers – like the Dispatch News in Anchorage – struggle to hit shifting targets, sometimes seeming unsure of what it is on which they want to focus:
The big national or international story of the day? State news? Local news? Various components of any of these – politics, business, the environment – or components of the components – Alaska oil, climate change, the partisan political divide?
The Dispatch is now surveying readers for their opinions on what it should cover. It’s an odd approach in an age when the ADN.com website tracks what readers actually read. One can look at the metrics, see what traffics, and try to produce more like it.
Giving the customers what they want is a business norm, but journalists have trouble accepting that idea. The burden of self-imposed journalistic responsibility – the idea the important stories must be covered even if no one reads them – can be crippling. So, too, the drive to be the “newspaper of record” vacuuming up every tidbit of news.
“They’re way overloaded, and they’re in a market in flux,” Donadieu said.
“There is also of course this other manner that we might want to consider,” journalist Tim Worstall writes at Forbes. “My fellow journalists think that having a large and vibrant newspaper industry is oh so terribly important to the citizenry of the country. By their actions the citizenry seem to be less convinced of this. I tend to think the people should get what they want, not what they’re told they should desire….let the newspaper industry adapt to the changing economic geography.”
That’s easy to say. It’s not so easy for journalists, or their supporters, to do.
Instead of adapting to that economic geography, Rogoff, a supporter of journalism though in no way a journalist herself, has tried to put the burden on readers with the suggestion they have a responsibility to support the newspaper. They don’t.
Back to the future
For most of U.S. history, news readers were allowed to vote with their pocketbooks on what news they wanted to read. What is now happening in Girdwood, Seward and Eagle River was the norm in most cities.
Only in post World War II America, as Worstall observes, did the “economic structure” become such “that each major urban area really had the one monopolist newspaper. This is where that famed ‘objectivity’ comes from too. If there’s going to be the one newspaper then it’s going to try to make sure there’s no room for another by steadily occupying the middle ground on anything and everything. This is just the hotelling problem all over again. Swing too viciously left or right (on any issue, political, social, whatever) and there might be room for someone to sneak in from the borderlands. Thus the very milquetoast indeed political views at most of these newspapers.”
The minimal costs to publish on the internet are shifting this dynamic back to the days of old. The news business is diversifying and shifting its political tone. Alaska is only starting to see that with the appearance of such local sites as The Midnight Sun on the left and Must Read Alaska on the right.
Worstall, a Brit, predicts U.S. media is destined to become more like British media, which has long been competitive over much of the country and thus escaped the period of selling objectivity as the holy grail.
“The likely outcome I would expect to be many fewer first line newspapers staffed by many fewer people in much the way that the UK market has worked for near a century now,” he writes. “I would also expect to see them using political stance as a differentiator just as in Britain.”
He envisions “perhaps half a dozen national titles to cover the varied political and sociological bases (so, as in the UK, rightish vernacular, rightish intellectual, leftish intellectual, leftish populist and so on).”
He may well be right. How far that trend expands into regional and city markets is harder to say, but there is already trickle down and sure to be more. Whether it will be good or bad for American democracy no one knows, although the country appears to be so politically divided today one truly has to wonder if the divisions can get any worse.
And there will always remain, hopefully, a place for the arbiter of facts who cares less about the politics and more about policy, honesty and fairness.
As someone who has been a journalist in Alaska since the 1970s, first in Fairbanks, then in Juneau and finally in Anchorage, it is depressing to watch the old ways fading, but this is life. It is ever-changing. It is the circle of the old dying and the new being born.
Alaska journalism is at a low point, but it will rise again for the simple reason Donadieu states: “People want to know what is going on.”
And it doesn’t need the help of a cartel. Cartels aren’t geared to protecting press freedoms. Cartels are geared to protecting the interests of cartel members. And a free press, no matter how messy and chaotic, trumps a neat and clean press controlled by powerful interest no matter what pleasant platitudes to quality its leaders mutter.