Newspapers and the internet; the lessons we share


The Story So Far, What We Know About the Business of Digital Journalism from the Columbia Journalism School may be the most insightful social media document of all time.

The essence is the media’s attempt to master internet and social media based strategies “and” turn a profit at the same time. But the lessons apply to all of us engaged in web based efforts.

The decline in newspaper circulation and virtually all form of media engagement is down (seehttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newspaper_circulation).

Trust in the media has been declining (see http://www.people-press.org/2011/09/22/press-widely-criticized-but-trusted-more-than-other-institutions/ ) and newsroom staffing for all media has declined; “American daily newspapers shed 5,900 newsroom jobs last year, reducing their employment of journalists by 11.3 percent to the levels of the early 1980s,” (seehttp://asne.org/Article_View/ArticleId/12/U-S-newsroom-employment-declines.aspx).

The focus of the report is on newspapers as they try to monetize the Internet. Newspapers recorded huge numbers of internet users “but” the problem is that they don’t stay very long on the site.

Those of us who grew up with newspaper readership spend at least 15 to 20 minutes per edition thus the ads within were viewed; it’s almost as if you couldn’t avoid them ever if you wanted to. I read two newspapers a day thus my time commitment to the print world is at least a half hour daily.

Now people go to media websites with a hit and run mentality; they spend little time on site and they pay little attention to the ads. They record large numbers of page views but they are there for very brief amounts of time.

Why would a business pay for that level of engagement? Thus the heart and soul of the media business (their ability to create a profit) is challenged significantly (along with declining print circulation and ad revenue).

We like to say that Google isn’t in the search business; they’re in the advertising business. It’s the same with newspapers and all forms of media.

My favorite quote from the report is in the conclusion, “Here’s the problem: Journalists just don’t understand their business.” The fundamental question is just what “is” the business of newspapers and media across the board?

Their problem is our problem:

You may justifiably ask why the above has any connection to websites and social media efforts beyond newspapers and my answer is that their problems and solutions are the same as ours.

Turn the above quote around, “Here’s the problem: Webmasters and social media practitioners just don’t understand their business.” The fundamental question is just what “is” the business of websites and social media? There are lots of successful digital sites but the majority are struggling operations.

You can easily make the case that quality journalism costs money; decreases affect the ability of any media outlet to serve our needs for information and context. That applies to us as well.

In essence, newspapers are trying to reinvent themselves. Their survival depends on it.

The same applies to everyone beyond newspapers; what brings in readers, listeners and viewers? What do we have to do to attract and engage? If we are profit based, how do we earn money?

Are there workable solutions?

Newspapers have tried everything conceivable from charging for access to an emphasis on digital-only local papers to greater coverage of local sports to getting into the website creation and advertising business; a company goes to them and they place ads in multiple places beyond their own paper including the internet. The attempts to attract people and monetize are creative and endless. Many are failures.

But my guess is that even the best among us in the digital world face the same dilemmas as to time spent on site, turning a profit or our ability to offer a quality product.

Most of us fight for every page view and our Google Analytics show short times spent on site (like newspapers) and my guess is that this applies to everyone else on the net.

Thus the newspaper industry’s dilemma is equally ours; what we could do to digitally attract people and hold an audience is the subject of the next article.

Best, Len.

Source for The Story So Far: http://cjrarchive.org/img/posts/report/The_Story_So_Far.pdf.

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Corey McCarren

A sad reality, especially for someone who would like to get into journalism someday! It seems like readership for news may be up because due to the invent of the Internet, yet profits are down. Any idea how the rise of the Internet affected broadcast news? I would imagine that it isn’t as much as it has affected newspapers, because most people like to just lay down on the couch and stare at a TV sometimes.

Dave Hebert

Thanks, Leonard. I don’t know how journalism can profit going forward, but I do have some thoughts (with a healthy dose of soapbox sprinkled in):

The existence of social media doesn’t threaten journalism by design; it does, unfortunately, threaten it by behavior. Objective investigation, accountability, and reporting are hard. Self-indulgent ranting and raving are easy. Which do most of us choose most of the time?

If we don’t collectively value truth-seeking without self-interest (or as close as we can get), we certainly won’t invest in it. And given the number of “journalists” saying “I’ve got something to say on this issue” vs. “Here are some things you need to know about this issue,” we’re not being asked to invest in it.

The curious thing is, many bloggers and other socmed-based opinion pundits will freely admit that they’ve got nothing to opine on if reporters aren’t busting their butts to actually, you know, report. So what happens if no one reports?

I don’t meant to be dramatic, and I certainly know many a good reporter who is also a good ranter/raver. The health of that balance concerns me at this point, however.

All that being said, I think gov’t is in a slightly different boat: Everything we do should serve our respective missions, which are collectively something like “serve the taxpayer at a good value.” Social media can be valuable as hell to doing that and doesn’t really have to threaten who we are, as long as it’s used to serve the mission.

Now if we, collectively or individually, aren’t sure of whether our mission is of value, we’ve got bigger problems than Twitter and Facebook.

Leonard Sipes

Hi Dave: Yours is probably the most thoughtful response I’ve had in six years of social media. Thanks for your comments.

My problem is figuring out, with a newspaper’s resources and following, why they can’t make a profit in the digital world. They were the undisputed masters of the universe 15 years ago. Now they are another AOL. But I agree with you that we depend on newspapers; democracy depends on newspapers.

Best, Len.

Leonard Sipes

Hi Corey: Journalism is alive and well, it’s just remarkably different from 15 years ago (pre-Internet). Reporters today must be ready to collect video, audio, photos as well as craft a written story. Yes, the downturn has hit television hard and radio journalists are almost extinct. But it’s an exciting time to be a “new” journalist; go to it and teach the rest of us how it should be done. Best, Len.

Corey McCarren

Yup, when I took a journalism class in college my professor said nowadays if you want to be a journalist you have to be able to do it all. Eventually wanting to go to graduate school, I’m strongly considering (when I’m ready) applying to American University’s Interactive Journalism MA. My outlook has been that if people consider it tough to get into, or a dying industry, all that means is that less people are likely to pursue it. Maybe it’s a misguided outlook, but it drives me to pursue my goals and passions regardless, and be adaptable.

Jon P. Bird

I think there is a huge social issue here. As we increase our quest for up to the minute new blurbs, we pay for this immediacy by losing much of the important detail and also the credibility. So people are reading “rushed to the computer” information, often without verification/second sources, etc., written by people pretending to be journalists. My local newspaper often runs a box titled “How we got this story” at the end of a major event. So I think newspapers are still relevant, at least for those who take the time to read them and understand that it takes time to gather and verify the information in print.

Leonard Sipes

Hi Jon: I think newspapers are paramount to democracy and I feel that newspapers control the journalistic discussion in this country regardless as to who presents the findings. Good journalism costs money. I agree with everything you said.

Best, Len.

Corey McCarren

Thanks for the advice, Leonard! I’d be glad to follow a CUNY professor. If I was still in New York there’d be a chance I’d be in his class right now.