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Newspapers need specialization [ClearOnMoney]
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Commentary

Newspapers need specialization

15 Mar 2010 by Jim Fickett

Today the Pew “Project for Excellence in Journalism” made its annual report, “The state of the news media”. The agony continues: newspaper ad revenue fell another 26% during the last year. Since newspapers have lost their local monopolies, the old revenue levels are not likely to come back, so it is time to quit wasting money on widely duplicated activities that add little value. Instead, we need specialization and efficiency.

The Pew report, "The state of the news media", which was released today, begins:

Overview

By the Project For Excellence In Journalism

Introduction

What now?

Inside news companies, the most immediate concern is how much revenue lost in recession the industry will regain as the economy improves.

Whatever the answers, the future of news ultimately rests on more long-term concerns: What are the prospects for alternative journalism organizations that are forming around the country? Will traditional media adapt and innovate amid continuing pressures to thin their ranks?

And with growing evidence that conventional advertising online will never sustain the industry, what progress is being made to find new revenue for financing the gathering and reporting of news?

The numbers for 2009 reveal just how urgent these questions are becoming. Newspapers, including online, saw ad revenue fall 26% during the year, which brings the total loss over the last three years to 43%.

There is an aura of desperation about the report, but one point does provide a basis for hope:

it is difficult to see how reportorial journalism will not continue to shrink, regardless of the potential tools offered by technology. …

Among the critical questions all this will pose: Is there some collaborative model that would allow citizens and journalists to have the best of both worlds and add more capacity here?

(emphasis added)

Yes. A collaborative model would help a lot. There is huge inefficiency in the newspaper industry right now: how many reporters all look at the latest Census Bureau retail sales report, and independently try to think of something intelligent to say about it? Far too many. This is a holdover from the days when each newspaper had a local monopoly on the news, and had to cover everything. (And for whatever reason, clearly AP and Reuters do not solve the problem.)

Today it would make much more sense to specialize and syndicate. Econoday, just for one example, covers US retail sales much better than 95% of the newspapers. Syndicate it. Calculated Risk writes more intelligently about the US housing market than 95% of newspapers. Syndicate him. If today's reduced revenue will not support all the current reporters, eliminate all this duplication of effort. Instead, have a few really good reporters do some real reporting.

One could even go further. Much reporting consists mainly of the reporter calling up an expert and then writing an article in which 90% of the value is the quote from the expert. Why not just get out of the way? Set up a forum where experts can comment directly on recent news, and then ask them to do so. A comment system with ratings of expertise/reliability, like that run by slashdot, would go a long way.

If there is less money, quit moaning about it, and spend it on something that really adds value.