The future of newsgathering

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Eight years ago, I answered a query from a student in this space. Her query and my responses follow.

“Lauren Leak, a homeschool student, [in April 2009] emailed me the following questions for her thesis:

“I just have a couple of questions about factors that are playing into the current death of the newspaper and where you see the future of journalism going:

“1. With newspapers shifting to online mediums, newsroom staff sizes are shrinking but the news is becoming arguably more current as it is updated several times a day. Do you think that newspapers switching from print to digital sources is hurting or helping newspapers? The profession? The readers?

“2. The economic condition of the country (and world) is hurting nearly everyone. How is the economic climate harming/helping specifically the production of newspapers?

“3. Phil Bronstein, editor-at-large for the San Francisco Chronicle, said that the complacency of newspapers is partially to blame for their downfall. ‘They aren’t paying attention; they aren’t connected with their readers. They aren’t doing it [journalism] the right way.’ Do you think complacency in the newsroom has played a part in the continuing downfall of newspapers?

“4. The rising generation (my generation) has many different media sources competing for our attention. Electronic mediums such as TV and the Internet have shown themselves to be more popular when it comes to delivering the news. What predictions can you make about the next generation and their use of newspapers?

“5. Joe ‘the Plumber’ just recently traveled to Israel for four days on a citizen journalist mission. What is your opinion regarding citizen journalism, blogging, etc.?”

“The editor answers: I’m glad you asked!

“1. Digital issues: Both hurting and helping. We hurt ourselves by giving away to the world back in the 1990s what costs us publishers a lot of money to produce: news reported by trained observers. But we are forced to compete for readers and advertisers where they want to be, and that increasingly is online.

“It costs much more to print and deliver newspapers (printing presses, newsprint, delivery vehicles and people) than it does to print the same stories using a web browser on a website several times a day. But it costs the same for those people who gather, write and edit the news, whether their work shows up in print or online.

“My reporter is still expecting and getting $X for the work she does, no matter where her story ends up. Reporters have to make a living too.

“Unfortunately, web advertisers pay only a fraction of what print advertisers pay. Example: a full page ad with color may cost $1,000 or more for the print version in a paper with 23,000 circulation (like us), but online the same advertiser is willing to pay less than $200, sometimes far less, even though the advertiser is actually getting more eyeballs on his ad than in the print product (on our site, more than 100,000 unique readers a month).

“NOBODY has figured out how to pay for a newsgathering operation currently supported by print ad prices while getting a tenth (or less) of the income from web ads.

“That’s the so-far unsolved dilemma of moving a newspaper operation to a total online operation: there’s simply not enough money (yet) to make it pay.

“Almost ALL news sites that post mostly original material (as opposed to a “scraper” site like Yahoo News, which “scrapes” headlines from real news operations and aggregates them under Yahoo’s banner and Yahoo advertisers) subsidize heavily their web operations with (declining) revenue from the print operation.

“More on this later.

“2. The economy is killing newspapers! Literally.

“Even newspapers that sell subscriptions depend for the bulk of their revenue on advertising. Merchants are seeing fewer customers coming in their stores to buy fewer blue jeans and flat screen TVs, and they have less money with which to advertise their stores. Customers spend less, merchants spend less on advertising, and we who depend on advertising for a living have to scramble to make our expenses smaller than our shrinking revenue.

“A paper’s biggest expenses are (1) people (workers who expect to get paid for their work), (2) printing and delivery, and (3) overhead (rent, utilities, Internet connections, etc.).

“You gotta keep printing and you gotta keep paying the electric bill, so what’s left to cut? Right — people.

“3. Complacent? Maybe. We ain’t complacent anymore. And if Mr. Bronstein knows the ‘right way’ to do news, why isn’t he rich yet with his amazing news site producing revenue comparable to Google? I suggest we all know less than we think we do about this once-every-hundred-years technological revolution.

“4. Two things: the changing definition of ‘news,’ and where news comes from.

“(A). Your ‘news’ and my ‘news’ likely are mostly different things. But whatever set of facts that comprise both our ‘news,’ those facts have to be compiled and then transmitted.

“Think where you get your ‘news.’ Beyond HOW (the medium) you received the set of facts that comprise your ‘news,’ where did that set of facts originate and how many people ‘touched’ those facts before you received them?

“(B). And that brings me to the dirtiest little secret that NOBODY talks about: Where most ‘news’ comes from. Currently, most ‘news’ in this world comes from old-fashioned newspapers. Hang with me here.

“Radio and TV (except for the ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ stories that lend themselves to a talking head in front of where something happened) depend on newspapers to define the significant stories of that day. They take those nuggets and add video. There is remarkably little original reporting done on TV and radio that does not begin as a newspaper story somewhere.

“The Internet has almost NO original reporting or newsgathering that does not begin its life as a newspaper story. There are perhaps fewer than a half-dozen pure web-only national news operations, and they are mostly opinion jobs that still depend on newspaper stories as hooks to hang their commentary on.

“Even entertainment news — stuff about famous people and music and movies — depends on seriously devoted newsgatherers to send it to your cellphone.

“When newspapers are gone, where are the mostly parasitic news scraper websites — including entertainment, music and movies — going to get their ‘news’?

“From each other? They each produce almost nothing. They just ‘scrape’ (I say, ‘steal’) news from newspapers.

“That’s the dirty little secret nobody is facing up to.

“Your generation has abandoned newspapers, but your current sources of your ‘news’ are living off somebody else’s work, and something transformational must happen for your generation to continue getting your ‘news’ even five years from now.

News of any kind just doesn’t come from thin air. How popular will sites be if they have increasingly less news available for them to (in my opinion) steal? Somebody has got to pay somebody to find out stuff, compile it, package it and deliver it to the end customer — you. Even for the Internet, ultimately, there ain’t no free lunch.

5. Joe the plumber. May his tribe increase. And his skills as well.

About citizen journalism, blogging, etc.: My high school math teacher was something of a cynic when it came to ‘crowd wisdom.’ ‘You people are just pooling your ignorance,’ she would tell us so-smart juniors. It took a few years and some life experience for me to appreciate her hard-won wisdom.

So, really, how smart is the citizen journalist? Can you trust her ‘facts’? Or does a confusing set of sometimes contradictory facts require some sort of trained observer to sort out what’s relevant and what is just ‘noise’?

“Your generation will get to determine the answer to that question.

“Oh, will newspapers survive? Yes, but in 15 to 30 years, print products may have become like vinyl LPs — curiosities sought by collectors.

“Local newsgathering operations (like The Citizen) will survive and eventually thrive, if only because most local folks like to be able to depend on reliable information — online or whatever the future technology produces — and everyday citizens busy making a living mostly don’t have the time to seek out all the facts for themselves. Local news will always be important to a lot of average citizens.

“Good luck in your future newsgathering, Lauren, and thanks for asking.”

That was a (somewhat) younger editor in April 2009. I don’t know where Lauren is these days, but I suspect she is not working for a print newspaper. These days, we print 33,000 newspapers a week and deliver them to homes in both Fayette and Coweta counties. But we do that with fewer people than eight years ago.

In retrospect, I grade my predictions with a “D–.” I see several things I got wrong, or mostly wrong, and a few things on which I was more right than wrong. I’ll ask you: With “fake news” a common topic these days, what do you think is the future of what you hold in your hands or read from a screen right now?

Where will news be eight years from now, in 2025?

Send me an old-fashioned email, and I’ll print parts of your most interesting predictions on old-fashioned paper and upload it to a middle-aged internet.

[Cal Beverly has been editor and publisher of The Citizen Newspaper since 1993 and of TheCitizen.com since November 1996.]