Do journalists understand what’s happening to newspapers?
I’ve long been an admirer of Declan Lynch, whose mordant observations on life, death, sport, telly, drink and the whole damn thing are an excellent excuse to keep buying the Sunday Independent.
However, his column yesterday depressed me, because it revealed again how even the smartest, wittiest, no-bullshit journalists are failing to get to grips with the challenges which now face newspapers.
The column takes a strong position (nothing wrong with that) on paying for content, arguing that newspapers need to agree among themselves that they will cease publishing their content free online:
The newspaper industry agonises endlessly about the challenges of the internet, and flagellates itself for failing to develop a “business model” for the online age. But then there has never been a business model, and there will never be a business model, which is based on giving it away for free.
Which would all be very true, if it were not completely false. In fact, free newspapers have been the single largest growth sector in the business over the past 10 years. And, more broadly, lots of thriving media businesses are based on ‘giving it away for free’. When Declan sings the praises of Newstalk’s sport programmes, he’s describing a product which is ‘free’.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t charge if we can and where we can. When it comes to the whole paywall/free debate, this writer is an agnostic. The challenge facing those of us in the traditional media is to find new ways to sustain credible journalism against a backdrop of declining revenues – whatever it takes. If charging for content forms part of a successful strategy, then I’m all in favour. But the jury is still out on that. And focussing on paywalls to the exclusion of other issues (such as, for example, the fact that the biggest problem facing newspapers isn’t declining circulation; it’s declining ad revenues) doesn’t particularly help.
It may well be true that the decision which newspapers, including this one, made in the mid-1990s to put all our content online for free was the Great Original Sin which has led to all our travails since. Certainly, if we’d known then what we know now, we would have done things differently. But here we are. And, looking at the music industry, which took a diametrically opposed position on copyright, free online distribution, etc, one could argue that it might not have made much difference anyway.
For the music industry, the newspaper industry and (coming soon) the TV and movie industry, the same disruptive technology is having the same effects. To confront that challenge, we need to be smart and flexible and quick. And not be spouting nonsense like this:
Compared to Wikipedia, for example, the lowliest provincial paper in the most remote part of the English-speaking world is virtually a work of art, composed by magnificent writers and laid out by geniuses who are not just profoundly devoted to The Truth, they are decent, law-abiding, and they actually write under their own names.
Sigh… Wikipedia, for all its faults, is a magnificent, admirable, fascinating resource. Sure, you shouldn’t use it to cure your cancer, but to fail to recognise its extraordinary value is to be sadly out of touch with the real, actual modern world.
From there on, Declan’s column descends into familiar territory: if it wasn’t linking to proper journalism, Twitter would just be about what people had for their breakfast. And bloggers are ‘just self-regarding bores without the writing talent or the commitment to the task that would get them a proper job in a newspaper’.
This is the sort of ill-informed rent-a-rant guff one expects from the Sunday Indo, but not from Declan Lynch.
Declan should really take himself along to the Irish Film Institute this weekend. Andrew Rossi’s fly-on-the-wall documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times is showing there from Friday. Not only does it lay out the real issues faced by newspapers with admirable clarity: it also, in media correspondent David Carr, has a real journalist who does the legwork and understands what’s going on.