Newspaper survival: Collusion?

By The New Guy

Well, collusion might be too strong a word these days. But not long ago, the thought of a meeting between the heads of media giants was viewed with immeasurable suspicion among journalism practitioners. Now, not so much. Just looking at my own little world being the editor/manager of a small trade publication has me reaching out to hither and yon to partner up with organizations and (gasp!) publications that don’t compete directly with mine in effort to find some way to help each other gain attention and, in turn, eyes on the page.

Thinking about the virtual forest fire burning its way through tree-based journalism stalwarts across the country (in our neck of the woods, the Star Tribune recently declared bankruptcy), one would think it’s high time for the heads of those companies to have a confab about what the future holds. Except a meeting of that kind is sorta illegal.

David Carr of The New York Times has a solid commentary today on just this very thing, and a few ideas on what form survival may take. I’ve gone back and forth on how much content a paper-based publication should supply on its Web site, but I find myself drifting more toward Carr’s line of thinking: It costs money and time to produce solid, well-sourced journalism, and consumers of that journalism should pay for it. It is a product, after all.

The Web has yet to produce ad revenues to sustain a newsroom (or a social networking site), but Carr suggests that perhaps Big News shot themselves in the foot by providing much content for free in the first place. It’s an argument to be made, but problematic: technology advanced too fast and furious, and many publicly traded media companies when times were still fairly flush were more concerned with profit margins than maintaining editorial staff and investigating just how to approach the Internet (The New York Times is lucky in that regard, but is soon facing hard fiscal decisions).

Many ideas are being tossed about, including a customized, printable newspaper by MediaNews Group, but the problem with that is many aggregators (Google News, anyone?) are supplying that service. But Carr points out that those aggregators should start paying those that generate the news, too.

It’s an interesting debate, one that is increasingly urgent. An important part of any democracy is its transparency, and that transparency is supplied in large part by a free press. The free press needs money to operate, and now it doesn’t have any.

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