Monday, March 9, 2009

Journalism is expensive, talk is cheap

On the way into work I was listening to a very interesting Where We Live, this morning on WNPR, during which two experienced, now under-employed journalists Mark Pazniokas (formerly of the Hartford Courant) and Greg Hladky (formerly of the New Haven Journal Register), talked about the fate of state news coverage.

I decided to call in when both reporters continued to say, "journalism is expensive," and while I got on the air at the tail end of the show, the entreaty from host John Dankowsky to ask my question quickly left me spurting out a comment, not a question, that wasn't completely cohesive and complete.

So, here are my concerns, and the questions I would have raised.

Both Pazniokas and Hladky said at some point during the hour that good, investigative journalism is "expensive."

I would argue that "expensive" is a relative term, and now a meme being repeated by laid-off reporters who have heard that very justification from the newspapers which have laid them off.

There's no doubt that the cost of a staff of experienced, capable journalists is significant. Still, I don't believe that the cost of journalist salaries are what's bringing dailies down.

The Courant began trimming news and editorial staff two years ago. A source inside the paper told me that the publisher confirmed that the Courant would have netted $41 million in 2007, if it did not have to pay down the debt incurred by Sam Zell's purchase of the paper.

That's a lot of profit. And to be fair, that was a year ago when the economy was still humming along. Since then, the economy has tanked, advertising revenue is down, and the cost of running a paper has increased. But the debt hasn't disappeared.

So, without the corporate debt, the Courant might have had to trim staff. But the huge, debilitating cuts that the parent company is now demanding would be unlikely.

The truth is that the papers that are failing in this country are largely the victims of upside down mortgages. Large corporations bought the papers at inflated prices when the economy was good, and the papers (and associated TV and radio stations) were cash cows. But the economy went in the shitter just as other factors like news on the web, and particularly free classifieds on the web, began to erode the influence and reach of the papers. Corporate debt has killed more newspapers than the cost of maintaining a solid staff of good writers.

Writers report news. News makes newspapers. Without news you lose readers. Without readers you lose newspapers.

The extension of the belief that "good journalism is expensive," leads one to conclude that eventually all legacy print newspapers are bound to fail, and that there is no way to create an in-depth news organization on the web, or elsewhere, that can feature local source reporting, and make a profit.

I think that's a fallacy, and it's one that ex-reporters ought to stop spreading. That meme allows the legacy press publishers to discourage those they lay off from rising up as competitors.

Will print newspapers disappear? The answer, unfortunately is "yes." Inevitably the cost of print, the lack of demand for print, the ease of acquiring news stories on the web and elsewhere, is bound to hasten the demise of ink and paper. But will these factors destroy the organizations publishing healthy newspapers today? The answer is likely "no." I suggest that locally-run, privately-held, commercially and publically-funded, agile newspapers will figure out how to move from ink and paper to another medium, and in the meantime, they'll continue to publish successful ink and paper until the paradigm shifts completely.

And new "newspapers" will spring up to compete with the legacy press who can't get their act together.

Hladky and Pazniokas talked about the search for a new model for news, and that it's unlikely that "blogs" will be able to do what a paper like the Courant has done. The truth is that the Courant is at the point where it isn't doing what the Courant once did, and some blogs are filling in the blanks.

What if Hladky and Pazniokas and their laid-off colleagues banded together and created a state-wide web paper (or joined forces with someone like Christine Stuart at CT New Junkie) that capitalized (no pun intended), on their vast experience, but also featured free online classifieds, obituaries, weather, traffic, movie and tv listings, sports and virtual coupons. They might find that they have something that they could sell to advertisers. They might find that they could create an income stream that would pay local reporters, editors, photogs and graphic artists, and have enough money left over to declare a profit at the end of the year.

Of course, not many journalists wants to run a newspaper. Not many news writers are entrepreneurs. Not many columnists want to balance a spreadsheet. Not many editors want to track payroll. Mostly writers want to write, and they want to work for someone who will pay them to write.

So, as I blurted on Where We Live, I don't think the discovery of the model that will work is that far off. I only think it takes an enterprising publisher to discover a way to truly compete with The Courant.

People want what the Courant and the New Haven Register once offered. They may not want it in the same way, but they want it all the same. They may not appreciate capitol reporting in the abstract, but when it comes wrapped with weather and traffic and obits and movie previews, they may come to understand how much they need and want it.

And the state, and the country needs and wants it too.

It's our duty to discover a way to keep an eye on government, and to bring well-crafted news to the governed. It's our duty to demand in-depth reporting and not to cede that duty to well-coiffed talking heads, and camera operators with a mic and a deadline. It's our duty to stop talking about the way in which newspapers have failed, and discover a way to make news work again. It's our duty to have an informed citizenry, a wary governing class, a knowledgeable set of voters and legislators and public officials who won't operate in a vacuum.

Okay, journalism is expensive. What will it cost us if it disappears?


Anonymous said...

Well said. It will take a combination of journalistic skill, media savvy and entrepreneurial smarts to pull it off.

Anonymous said...

why in the world was he listening to WNPR?? he should have been tuned into WWUH....

: -)

Ed McKeon said...

I was, until 9.

Me no like jazz.

Anonymous said...

What if Craig's List would do investigative reporting?

Why don't the newspapers do what the airlines have done multiple times - go into Chapter 11 and shed "unnecessary" debt?

Sadly, I know that Sam Zell considers his debt the most important and the value of the news staff is expendable. Can we turn that equation upside down somehow?

Anonymous said...

I'll ignore the "me no like jazz" comment to say that your argument is well-reasoned. I had the opportunity to interview Paul Giguere of the Connecticut Network, co-sponsors of the forum with the very-long name you mention in Part III, and he, too, fears the loss of print journalism. CT-N presents the facts without interpretation or "spin"but we the people need reporters to help put issues into perspective. Journalism, like any business,becomes expensive because of the overhead but good reporting should be a pre-requisite. And newspapers have all but abandoned the smaller cities and towns.

Anonymous said...

I just hate Connecticut. I hated its press before the downturn in the industry. I like them even less now. Sorry, I just hate Connecticut. They never got it.