It’s the economic model, stupid

“Most owners of newspapers are businessmen, not newspapermen. The news is something which fills the spaces left over by the advertisers.”

– I.F. Stone

Like many of my colleagues in this self-congratulatory and under-compensated field, I don’t intend to go down with the ship, but it’s pretty clear that none of us knows which direction to swim in. We’re all Twittering, blogging, and adding video, user-generated content, and social-networking tools as fast as we can, with no idea which of these life preservers, if any, can keep big-time journalism afloat.

That’s because we don’t actually understand what’s ailing the industry. I have a hunch, though: lack of competition. In the most telling unintended contrast of last week, two days after our Hearst-owned daily reduced its newsroom staff by 30 percent, Fortune reported that Hearst plans to introduce a new electronic newspaper reader this year — like Amazon’s Kindle, but tailored specifically to newspapers and magazines.

“The larger screen better approximates the reading experience of print periodicals,” reported Fortune, “as well as giving advertisers the space and attention they require.”

Early adopters should start shopping now for a messenger bag that can accommodate a PDA, a laptop, a Kindle, and, soon, the Hearst e-reader — which may be foldable, but will still be one more thing to cart around.

Late adopters will likely never touch the Kindle or the e-reader in their inaugural forms, because the marketplace will whittle the technologies into something integrated, convenient, connected — like, I don’t know, an improved version of something that’s already on our desktops or living-room walls, in our pockets and libraries. Relatively speaking, it took no time whatsoever for our music, internet, phone, and video to end up on the same device.

What’s most interesting about the announcement is that while daily newspapers have been dying off like North American songbirds, Hearst hasn’t been banking on the content, their alleged raison d’être. Instead, they’ve been trying to find another way to control the means of distribution — in Fortune’s words, “preserving the business model that has sustained newspapers and magazines.”

In my words: Turning cities into one-paper metropolises ended up being a short-lived shortcut to market dominance. Now they’re looking for a new way to limit direct competition.

In his Sunday editorial, Express-News Editor Bob Rivard wrote of finding inspiration last week at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center, where he “was moved to see original artifacts of a free press in its national infancy,” and reminded that “most of the early publications are small in size and the work of small numbers of people.” (Ahem.)

He might have added: And there used to be a lot more of them.

If you came of age in San Antonio after 1993, after Hearst bought its local competitor, the Express-News, and then shut down the Light, you might find a trip to, e.g., London, almost alien: Dozens of daily news options, including citywide, free, and localized titles, hang on the racks at cafés and newsstands — something for everyone, whether you’re of a liberal, conservative, info-tainment, or financial persuasion.

I know that description goes against what we’ve been told ad nauseam readers want from their papers: objectivity. But if you dig into those poll results (say from the Pew Research Center for People and the Press), what readers are really saying is they want a paper that’s objective ... like them. Not a paper that engages in Rush Limbaugh-style ad-hominem attacks fueled by selectively culled facts, necessarily, but that views the world — and challenges their assumptions — through lenses that mirror their perspectives. A marketplace of ideas, we might call it. If one paper has to try to be all things to all readers, it will over time breed dissatisfaction and resentment — and, paradoxically, spend a lot of time worrying about pissing off readers. This is to some degree the dilemma dailies now find themselves in. The big daily-paper companies invested in monopolies, not journalism, and as soon as new technology made it possible, the market rejected the model.

Most importantly, print monopolies didn’t make the newspapers better. Content is king, they used to say, and it still is, but it’s rare these days to find a newspaper mogul who walks the talk. The e-reader could be the greatest thing since indoor plumbing, and still no one will pay for access to cute pet tales, lazy news reporting, and self-help testimonials.

If the papers now staring obsolescence in the face weren’t busy preserving profit percentages, they might welcome the opportunities that competition provides: a chance to define your unique value to your audience, and the motivation to work harder. How poignant that instead of embracing the new democratic technology (the modern version of the “Penny Press”) to which journalism is naturally migrating, the Hearsts of the world are busy investing god knows how much capital in another distribution method they can control. For a while.

One of the most sensible things I’ve read about journalism’s current crisis is James Surowiecki’s December 22, 2008, essay in the New Yorker. The internet has trained readers to think that they can get reliable news without a revenue model to support it, he wrote, and until they realize that’s not true, the newspaper industry as we know it will continue to suffer, and may in fact go extinct. Ultimately, I think that subscribers and advertisers will support quality, relevant news sites; the signs are already there, especially among smaller, hyper-local sites. Perhaps the real threat to Hearst, et al., is that the internet has taught us that no matter where we live, we don’t have to be stuck with one unaccountable daily news source — and no fancy new device can can solve that problem.

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