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Business - Written by on Friday, January 25, 2008 14:12 - 11 Comments

Denis Hancock
The death of the newspaper: murder or suicide?

For many people, it’s a cut and dry issue – newspapers are dead or slowly dying, because the Internet has destroyed their underlying business models. But a few days ago, David Simon (who some may know as the executive producer of “The Wire”, an incredible show that everyone should see) published a fascinating perspective on what’s actually happened to them entitled Does the news matter to anyone anymore? Most of his account is based on what he experienced as a Baltimore Sun reported from the early 1980s to the mid 1990s, and what he’s seen since then, with a particular focus placed on the role that consolidating monopoly power has played.

There are so many insights and questions that emerge from this piece that they are impossible to list. From a business perspective, it’s worth contemplating whether excess short-term profits were captured at the expense of destroying long-term value. As Simon notes he “did not encounter a sustained period in which anyone endeavored to spend what it would actually cost to make the Baltimore Sun the most essential and deep-thinking and well-written account of life in central Maryland.” Underlying this comment is his notion that what newspapers had to do was up their game in terms of interesting content, while most did the exact opposite.

But the bigger issue here is really on a social level. Discussing the situation that now exists in Baltimore, Simon notes:

So in a city where half the adult black males are unemployed, where the unions have been busted, and crime and poverty have overwhelmed one neighborhood after the next, the daily newspaper no longer maintains a poverty beat or a labor beat. The city courthouse went uncovered for almost a year at one point. The last time a reporter was assigned to monitor a burgeoning prison system, I was a kid working the night desk.

It’s obviously not hard to draw the connection between the failure of this newspaper to cover such seemingly important issues, and (say) the criticism directed towards many media outlets for their failure to ask a few more questions about (say) whether a country should go to war.

Personally, I agree with Simon on many fronts, and the article is well worth reading in its entirety, but there’s one thought that continued to trouble me as contemplated it. While it is easy to place the blame on greedy monopolist newspaper owners for increasingly replacing real investigative journalism with fluff, and it’s possible to then connect this failure with their slow demise (with the Internet acting as an accelerant), one still must consider the very real possibility that they were accurately reading the market demand.

This line of thinking would say stop blaming the owners/ writers, and start blaming the readers, because one would think that if enough of them really wanted and valued in-depth coverage on issues like poverty, the “greedy monopolists” would have had no problem giving it to them. In other words, the problem is not that you’re more likely to get an update on Paris Hilton’s escapades than (say) the Hurricane Katrina relief “effort” when you look to the news, but rather that this is exactly what people want to see.



11 Comments

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Kin Lane
Jan 25, 2008 14:22

Why does there have to be any blame in the demise of newspapers.

Time changes things. Those who cannot adapt go away.

It is the nature of the world….not just technology.

Geoff Livingston
Jan 25, 2008 17:57

I agree full heartedly. The fifth estate (blogging, etc.) has risen to prominence because fourth estate papers like this are blowing it. I actually wrote a social media manifesto on the topic:

http://www.livingstonbuzz.com/blog/2008/01/06/welcome-to-the-fifth-estate/

Geoff Livingston
Jan 25, 2008 17:57

I agree full heartedly. The fifth estate (blogging, etc.) has risen to prominence because fourth estate papers like this are blowing it. I actually wrote a social media manifesto on the topic, which I linked to in my signature.

Denis
Jan 26, 2008 12:10

Thanks Geoff – that’s a very interesting and well written manifesto! I’m STILL working through some of the various links!

Kin – when big changes happen, I think it’s important to look at/back for reasons why. It’s not so much about assigning blame… as looking for insights and lessons.

Fifth Estate Trends Continue: Survival of the Fittest Newspapers » The Buzz Bin
Jan 28, 2008 7:04

[...] newspapers have failed to adapt, and are not serving their communities.  Monopoly power has made them drunk on power. A recent WaPost article guest written by The Wire’s David Simon (found through [...]

Wikinomics » Blog Archive » Does the digital world endanger the reading brain?
Feb 6, 2008 22:02

[...] few people have indicated that I was over thinking the issues I presented in my recent blog post death of the newspaper: murder or suicide? Naturally, this led me to think about the issues some more, with a particular focus on reading [...]

Wikinomics » Blog Archive » If Nelson declares the newspaper is dead, it must be true
Mar 29, 2008 8:37

[...] Nelson declares the newspaper is dead, it must be true Denis Hancock previously posted about “The death of the newspaper: murder or suicide?” and referenced an interesting article in the Washington Post by David Simon (the creator of the HBO [...]

Will D
Apr 1, 2008 9:25

It is interesting to consider that readers might have preferred trash to quality. If not, why didn’t they put up more of a protest over falling standards? It is easy to see tabloid journalism as the result of media outlets more concerned over selling papers than informing readers. But is there some right or responsibility for newspaper owners to give people what they should want as opposed to what they do want? On the one hand, it seems a little arrogant to tell people what they should be reading. But on the other hand, it seems a bit pathetic to excuse someone for being party to the deterioration of civic society just because no one else seems to care.

As newspapers and other ways in which we engage with civic society move online, we might find ourselves becoming more fragmented. People may give up reading the local paper for something more specialized. This may erode the ability of leaders to enforce community standards: such as by maintaining the journalistic integrity of the local paper. And it may make us feel less engaged in our communities and civic institutions.

It is important that as we embrace more and more technology, we recognize and facilitate the continued need of communities to find and connect around shared interests and values.

Wikinomics » Blog Archive » Some hope, at least “on paper”
Jun 2, 2008 19:08

[...] popular topic on the Wikinomics blog (see here, here, here and here), “the newspaper” has come under a lot of scrutiny (read: criticism) for [...]

Newspapers today, the move to fluff…… « Kern Latino
Jul 8, 2008 12:23

[...] Denis Hancock – The death of the newspaper: murder or suicide? -For many people, it’s a cut and dry issue – newspapers are dead or slowly dying, because the Internet has destroyed their underlying business models. But a few days ago, David Simon (who some may know as the executive producer of “The Wire”, an incredible show that everyone should see) published a fascinating perspective on what’s actually happened to them entitled Does the news matter to anyone anymore? …..While it is easy to place the blame on greedy monopolist newspaper owners for increasingly replacing real investigative journalism with fluff, and it’s possible to then connect this failure with their slow demise (with the Internet acting as an accelerant), one still must consider the very real possibility that they were accurately reading the market demand……. In other words, the problem is not that you’re more likely to get an update on Paris Hilton’s escapades than (say) the Hurricane Katrina relief “effort” when you look to the news, but rather that this is exactly what people want to see. Link to complete story here… [...]

Shawn
Jan 11, 2009 23:44

As someone who has seen this issue from a range a bit too close for comfort, I think critics sometimes forget that newspapers, like so many other businesses, can loose sight of the essential value they once gave their customers and become outpaced by stealthy competitors. Instead of lamenting that readers don’t take the time to read newspapers anymore (or more importantly, I suspect, that businesses no longer want to advertise) publishers should be asking themselves why they ever did…and what, if anything, can be done to reverse the trend.

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