End-of-life planning for my inky friend the newspaper

The amount of journalism done on the state of journalism is exhausting to read. There’s so much of it! And so many ex-journalists producing it! But most of it is thoughtful, researched and, well, pretty much common sense in the end.

Highlights I’ve seen recently:

Clay Shirky writes a detailed postmortem on the “dying” newspaper industry and how we’re all probably going to have to spend some time in the wilderness before a new system of finding, analyzing and disseminating information to the public forms organically. (h/t Andrew Sullivan)

Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving newspapers demanding to know “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.

With the old economics destroyed, organizational forms perfected for industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data. It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem.

Deeply sobering … and also exciting. But it’s not all bad, right? Local papers are doing a little better than the big dogs. That’s the theme behind this MinnPost story by Joe Kimball, who explores how the little Minnesota town of Slayton supports TWO weekly newspapers. I happen to also know that Lake of the Woods County (a county with a population similar to a small town) also supports two weeklies and that there are several weeklies making a go of it all over northern Minnesota in close proximity to competition. Ely, for instance, is another two newspaper town.

Kimball’s story correctly identifies how small town papers can thrive alongside the information revolution seen at big papers. Success comes by collecting the nuts and bolts information people want to know about their town that can’t be replicated or repeated on blogs and free sites. I’d further argue that the financial success of these papers is directly related to the debt load carried by the papers’ owners. A small town paper owned free and clear can be a license to print money if they have community support and low overhead. A small town paper owned along with 300 other small town papers by a company that went $500 million into hock to buy the lot of them is going to be held to an impossible profit expectation that will serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure and decline.

This brings me to my third find from Monday’s web patrol, this John C. Dvorak piece from PC Magazine called “Newspaper Publishers are Idiots.” Naturally, as a working newspaper columnist still (barely) in the biz, the citation of this link shouldn’t imply that my newspaper publisher is an idiot, but rather other newspaper publishers. The stupid ones.

Dvorak joins Shirky and Kimball in identifying obvious change factors in the newspaper business that have been either ignored or mishandled by the industry leaders since the 1990s. In essence, the newspapers of the future (or whatever they are called) will find their niche in reporting of hard, useful information about the communities they cover. Because that can’t be faked. Columns, pop culture analysis, “localization stories” and blog posts can be faked. Trust me. I do it all the time.

It’s not that there won’t be columns, editorials and the like in the future. It’s that newspapers that want to make money will find a way to severely reduce the repetition of information that can be found for free online and substantially ramp up the publication of new, credible information that the public wants or needs to know. Periodically, the papers and news sites in my neighborhood do just that. But having been a local newspaper editor and an outsider looking in, I can safely say that reporters’ and editors’ ability to do good work is severely hampered by an industry that still doesn’t get it.

Elephant in the room alert: The reason all this seems so revolutionary when it actually isn’t is because this change will involve a lot of very powerful people losing an obscene amount of money.

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