Tuesday, November 3, 2009

In which I tell journalists their business

I buy at least one newspaper a week. Every Thursday, the New Zealand Herald publishes a simple, easy-to-follow and mostly accurate seven-day TV guide; buying that issue relieves me of the need to buy TV Guide, with its irritating layout and pages of guff about soap stars and other people I don't ever want to know about. (The Herald's own pages of that guff are an order of magnitude less irritating.)

Some weeks I also buy The Economist. It gives me something to read in the bath. And it makes me feel as if I'm still part of the world, not completely cut off on this tiny island a thousand miles from anywhere. So that's two newspapers some weeks. Let's say an average of six per month.

On top of that, there's a couple of freebies that get dropped in my letterbox: a council newsletter of no interest (it doesn't cover anything controversial, and I haven't taken an interest in any of what it does cover), and the Howick & Pakuranga Times, a very local sheet that covers school sports, amateur dramatics, road changes and the like.

The latter is really pretty good. I read more of it than I do of the Herald, for reasons I'll come to presently.

All this dead-tree consumption probably puts me ahead of most people, nowadays. I've been hearing a lot about how newspaper circulations have dropped off a cliff. Ad revenues have dropped, and big-name players are in trouble. Back in June Richard Posner, a highly regarded US blogger on things legal, made this the basis of an argument for stronger copyright for online newspapers. Unless online newspapers are able to charge for content (Posner argued), they'd all end up out of business.

Naturally I rolled my eyes and started to dream up reasons why such a change either wouldn't or shouldn't work. But it's only more recently that I've discovered a clearer and more objective flaw in Posner's reasoning: his premise is just plain false. Not all newspapers are in trouble.

The Economist, for one, goes from strength to strength. So does the Wall Street Journal. The Financial Times has compensated for circulation falling in its home market by expanding its international subscriptions.

Apparently it's not such a bad time to be a journalist, if you're a business journalist. And that's an important clue to what's really going on in the news business.

To be sure, the Internet has changed the news-publishing game by making practically all published news available for free. Why (the conventional wisdom runs) would people buy the New Zealand Herald when they can read the whole thing online?

But conventional wisdom is severely underestimating the problem. Not only can I read the Herald online - all of it - I can also read the Guardian, Telegraph, Independent, or the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Jerusalem Post or Cape Times. Every English-language newspaper is now available in every English-language market. That's a lot of competition.

There are still things the Herald does better. (NZ TV programmes, for instance.) But those things probably aren't enough, in truth, to justify publishing and distributing a whole broadsheet paper every day.

Newspapers need to understand, not only what it is that they can deliver 'better' than anyone else, but also who their target audience is. Historically, that was clearly defined by their circulation areas, which in turn were dictated by the logistics of printing copies and distributing them to readers. Now, that's no longer the case. The Herald's target readership should include not just the northern part of New Zealand's north island, but every English-speaking person in the world who, for whatever reason, wants to know what's going on in New Zealand.

The Economist understands this. Anyone with a reasonable education in anything can pick up an issue and read it, without feeling that they're missing out on vast swathes of vital background knowledge. Try that with - ooh, any other paper you don't read regularly - there are plenty of links above. The press's central problem isn't with protecting their content, but simply with a massive global overcapacity in their business.

And that's where Posner's idea comes from. From an economic perspective, it makes sense to address that overcapacity by wider syndication of content - which would, indeed, require simpler and better ways to control unauthorised copying. Posner's problem is that he only sees a tiny part of the overall issue, and offers no way to address the rest of it. His proposal makes sense if, and only if, you trust that the big players in the market will deal fairly and honestly not only with each other, but also with every small-timer and two-bit blogger.


SMG said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SMG said...

I find the portability of print news one its best features. As a comuter I buy a paper every day because I want to kill time on the subway. I buy different papers for hard news than I do for sports or business but I walk to the subway station every morning with at least one tucked under my arm.

Ragnhild said...

We buy the Telegraph every day for something to do over breakfast. We split the paper, D gets the news etc. I take the page with Sudoku and one of their crosswords. The telegraph won't let you do them for free online. I sometimes enjoy doing a free puzzle on the Times online.


vet said...

SMG, good for you. You're one of those keeping the industry alive. But you are, forgive me for saying it, an aging demographic (like me). The "paper tucked under the arm" is a comfort thing for some people, but less so (I think) for younger ones.

And a daily paper is expensive. The recession is hitting newspapers hard - more people are "temporarily" changing their habits to save money, but there's no reason to believe they'll go back when they're feeling flush again.

R: I feel sure you could get the crosswords cheaper, if not online, then in book compilation form... Buying a paper is a habit, and one that you have no reason to break - but if you did, or if you never picked up the habit in the first place, then what would make you want to do it?