The right way to pay for journalism

The Death of the daily newspaper toombstoneMy last post, the video of me returning the weekly ad circulars distributed by CoxOhio created a mini-viral sensation in Dayton, where residents are sick of picking up garbage that someone is getting paid to throw into their yards. Of course, the people at Cox Ohio are sick of trying to replace ad revenue that used to flow into their business like gangbusters. Besides never arguing with someone who buys ink by the barrel, money has always bought power in this country- and publishers of newspapers held a lot of both. The internet has killed the goose that laid their golden eggs.

First came Craigslist- providing free classified ads- decimating their most valuable income source, where they charged by the character count. To reinforce their revenue, they had laws passed requiring local government to publish legal notices in the “newspaper of record.”  When former local politico tried to move the legal ads to the free alternative paper- “The Dayton City Paper” where the classifieds cost substantially less, Cox sued and enforced their monopoly. The Dayton City Paper folded this year- many years later, but, folded just the same.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer just announced that they are getting out of the state, national and world news gathering operations, subcontracting that content to “Advance Local“- an organization owned by “descendents” of the PD’s founder, S.I. Newhouse.

Over the past decade or so, improvements in technology have made it possible for groups of newspapers around the country to pool their resources, especially on pages of national and international news, sports, or features. This concept has been tested industry wide, and has proven to be both efficient and effective. It allows local newsrooms to focus their editing efforts on their local journalism, which means quality can be sustained at lower cost…. and have chosen to contract with Advance Local for production of The Plain Dealer.

The savings this system offers The Plain Dealer will come largely from sharing the cost of editing and designing pages of non-local news, which make up roughly half of our newspaper. In all other ways, The Plain Dealer will remain a local institution. Editorial decision making will remain the responsibility of The Plain Dealer’s editors. Local stories will be selected and copy-edited by veteran journalists based in Cleveland.

We make this decision with some sadness, but with the long-term preservation of The Plain Dealer at heart. This change offers savings where they are least likely to harm the quality of our newspaper. It preserves local editing of local stories. It allows us to focus on the coverage that matters most to our community: in-depth breaking news, investigative journalism, stories that explain issues and events, and coverage that helps people make the most of everything northeast Ohio has to offer.

Source: The Plain Dealer will switch to a centralized production system, but will continue to edit local stories locally | cleveland.com

My father worked at the Plain Dealer for 25 years, and knew Mr. Newhouse. Both would be turning over in their graves right now.

With billionaires buying out the premium news organizations, Amazon’s Jeff Bezo’s owns the Washington Post, biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong bought the LA Times and  The San Diego Union-Tribune for the bargain basement price of $500M, the consolidation of reporting voices only in the hands of the wealthy, can cause even less diversity of viewpoints. When editorial decisions are purely based on if they will create either a “return on investment” or further a private individuals agenda, we, the people lose.

Independent, honest journalism is absolutely essential to the strength of our democracy. The court of public opinion is often times more powerful than the highest courts decisions. The costs of gathering and reporting real journalism are substantial. Daniel Ellsberg risked everything to deliver to us the Pentagon Papers. The verdict has yet to be decided on Jullian Assange, who is still holed up in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London.

We can’t afford to lose real journalism, yet, if you’ve noticed, most of my links are to a free community curated news site- Wikipedia, which relies on volunteers and charity to survive. It is not ad supported. It struggles to survive despite the huge volunteer labor pool. Also note, that the articles, including the one about me, are closely curated to link to established, trusted sources. Mine comes with a disclaimer at the top, because I’m not important enough and it’s format doesn’t match their strict guidelines.

Donations are no way to run a business. We desperately need a new model to generate revenue for news media, which is where our congressmen could step in, if any of them were actually digitally literate.

The current digital advertising revenue in this country is controlled primarily by Google (Alphabet) and Facebook, who are making old school newspaper money – exponentially. Yet, they are parasites. They create value as aggregators of other peoples content- creating very little of their own. Youtube, a Google property, is making a few people a living as youtubers, but, none of them are becoming billionaires. Facebook keeps all the ad revenue to themselves, yet, newspapers depend on click bait headlines to get people to click to their sites. The data of what we look at, is being used by Facebook and Alphabet to refine their ads effectiveness for their profit. The newspapers came too late to understand this fundamental fact of a digital economy- after their loyal, captive readers had mostly left them.

Amazon may be the wildcard player in this, becoming the worlds largest retailer, it’s hungry for eyeballs as well to generate sales of it’s products. They are home to Amazon Web Services- and provide the digital infrastructure for many publishers. Also giving them access to valuable data on who is looking.

This formula has to change. It’s time to require that legitimate journalism be rewarded for the value they provide society. Google and Facebook need to return a greater proportion of ad revenue generated by local news operations, and the larger global ones as well. It’s the only way that legitimate news will survive. You can’t aggregate content if there isn’t any.

The crazy thing is what the Plain Dealer is doing isn’t the answer. They are still thinking of their content as a “newspaper” with pages produced. There is no legitimate reason to print news and hasn’t been since Nicholas Negroponte wrote the book “Being Digital” (Amazon affiliate link) back in 1995. He said things that are created digitally should remain digital- “Bits not atoms”- the inherent cost of trees for paper, ink for printing, fuel for distribution and everything else involved with the daily distribution of a product that will be obsolete by the time it’s crafted and delivered make perfect sense. But here we are 24 years later, and still using the old model. Handing out cheap tablets would have been infinitely cheaper than the infrastructure required to print and produce the “paper.”

We already see slop in the local rag, with articles often repeated in sections as if one hand didn’t know what the other did. The Dayton Daily news (lowercase “n” intentional) already includes the national news lite edition of USA today. It’s poorly integrated content, because they still don’t understand digital.

Digital news- where your sources are only a search and a click away, or a subscription (you can subscribe to Esrati.com via email or RSS) can offer custom tailored content that you control (instead of having Facebook’s algorithm control your feed) and deliver only ads that you are somewhat interested in (and if you need help advertising effectively in these digital days, you can hire my firm, The Next Wave to maximize your return on advertising investment).

In order for newspapers to survive, we need to kill the paper part, and shift the rewards from the parasites to the producers. If you clicked on the link to “Being Digital” and bought anything from Amazon along with it you contributed a few cents to fund the work I do and a bunch of money to Jeff Bezos, further proving my point.

I still say that the $21 I spend a month on the New York Times digital subscription is the most patriotic thing I can do. The $10 a month I spend on the Dayton Daily news is pure charity – hoping that one day, they may actually realize that we’re actually in the same business and should be working together instead of against each other. C’est la vie.

Sometimes you have to kill your darlings before you can move on.

(congratulations to the two of you who aren’t in journalism who read all the way to the end) Please leave a comment if you read the whole thing as an experiment.

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