It’s not exactly the best time in the world to be running a newspaper. More than enough “ink” has been spilled covering journalism’s woes. So let’s look forward.
Once we get over the hand-wringing, wailing, and gnashing of teeth, how are we going to find new models that allow newspapers to make money online? I think the first thing we have to realize is that there will not be one answer, but many.
In the past, newspapers have had a monopoly on their markets, so one model – subscription and advertising – seemed to be enough to keep the presses running. But that monopoly has gone the way of the dodo. These days, I can easily read, hear, or watch all of the world’s great media on my computer. I have choices. Failure to understand how choices have upset the newspaper applecart is the thing that most print executives have failed to grasp, in my opinion.
Recently, in an excellent opinion piece in Newsweek, Jacob Weisberg, who runs the Slate Group for the Washington Post, laid out the case for a multitude of answers, rather than just one. In fact, Mr. Weisburg points out that the idea that subscriptions have been the only way to fund media is also mistaken. Media has a long history of finding new ways to fund itself.
“Nearly all of the most important journalistic institutions in the free world are hybrids of one form or another – for-profit, but underwritten by generous owners or other profitable businesses; not-for-profit, yet entrepreneurial; cooperative, or government-subsidized,” he writes. “While big-city newspapers were for many decades highly profitable, their news-gathering operations have usually required some form of external support. Even at their most successful, top-tier media institutions have never adhered to a simple, or single, business model. They are even less likely to follow one in the future.”
Even now, people are experimenting. This newspaper will soon start publishing its Monday to Friday “editions” online and a weekly print edition with unique content. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer said it might start publishing online only. The Detroit Free Press will move some of its publishing online.
Hearst, which owns the P-I, is also experimenting with the idea of creating a Kindle-like electronic-reader device for its publications. People would receive the gadget when they subscribe, and it would regularly download issues. While there are still questions about how cheaply Hearst could create such a device, it shows that its executives are thinking outside the norm, rather than just throwing in the towel.
There is also the Pro Publica model. This nonprofit news organization has 28 reporters and is funded by gifts and grants. It offers, not sells, stories to news outlets. Editor Paul Steiger, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, notes that 20 newspapers, several online publications, and major broadcast news sites have taken the material produced by Pro Publica.
Recently I spent some time brainstorming the idea of an entrepreneurial-journalism class with a friend who teaches at the University of Maryland.
It’s an idea I like a lot and one that I think all journalism schools need to consider. Answers for the future will not necessarily come from those whose ideas were molded in the past. Young journalism students who have grown up with new media are not afraid to imagine something different and find ways to make it work.
I’m not a Christian Scientist, but I always like to keep in mind something church founder Mary Baker Eddy said when she started the Monitor: The paper should “keep abreast of the times.”
That’s a pretty smart idea, even if the Monitor is 101 years old now. And her words are what all media outlets should heed if they want to keep moving into the future.
Editor's note: The original version of this article mistakenly said that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer had decided to publish online only. While many expect it to, the paper has not made an official announcement. In January, Hearst said that it would cease print publication, unless a buyer emerged in 60 days. That deadline passed this week.