Sorry, you don't get off the hook so easily

Paul Fahri is right in so many details as he recounts how he deck is stacked against America's newspapers, yet so wrong in concluding that journalism doesn't share the blame. Journalism should share the blame, and journalists are not powerless.

He seems to have a notion that there is some sort of objective standard of quality that has been maintained during the long and painful descent of newspapers from the position they once held at the center of American life.

There is no such standard. Quality of journalism has much to do with relevancy and relationships, and those are moving targets.

The right question is whether newspapers are practicing journalism that's relevant to the lives and the needs of the community. And there lies the problem. The needs of the community have changed. Newspaper journalism, by and large, has not.

I could go off on a rant about how newsroom mossbacks have actively interfered with innovation, especially online innovation, over the last 15 years. There's no point; that's water under the bridge, and even the few remaining curmudgeons recognize that the world has changed (however little they want to deal with it).

The deck is stacked against the newspaper, but newsrooms are not powerless victims in the grip of some irreversible cosmic force. There is still high demand for effective local mass advertising solutions. Newspapers can be that solution -- in fact, they could be the last mass medium standing.

But you can't do it with a 20 percent market penetration, and that's what you'll have if you continue producing a 1968 newspaper in 2008.

Interactive engagement with the community transforms journalistic behaviors.

Transforming journalistic behaviors can lead to vigorous growth in readership.

I've been talking about this for years, using the Bluffton Today readership story as an example. But here's a more recent, and smaller, example.

The Florida Times-Union is a "big old" conventional full-service daily newspaper published in Jacksonville. Like most big dailies, its brand is powerful -- and tarnished in some quarters. To the blogging community, it's just another MSM sellout.

To the twentysomethings, it's just another irrelevancy produced by old people, for old people. I won't even get into the opinions held about the paper by crackpots and political kooks, of which there are plenty in Florida, just as there are everywhere. It's in pretty much the same boat as every other large daily newspaper in the United States.

But something is going on.

A couple of weeks ago, police raided a popular local dance spot and shut it down. That's not a story that most old-people newspapers would regard as important, but Jonathan Bennett, who with Joe Black runs the newspaper's Jaxdotcom Twitter channel, picked up on a Twitter reference to the raid. He "retweeted" it.

A couple of followers immediately responded that they'd been in the raid. This led to some information-gathering and a "just in" story, which of course was "tweeted." A local blogger provided a photo. Before long the raid story had become the #1 most-read story of the day for, with hundreds of comments and a real buzz sweeping through the local networked community of twentysomethings.

An old-people newspaper, on top of young-people news. Imagine that.

Rich Ray, director of digital media at the T-U, said "This non-traditional approach has garnered high praise (while strengthening bonds of trust and respect) from prominent local bloggers who usually view T-U efforts with a very cynical eye."

What should you take away from this story? Try this: There are some problems you can't solve. There are some that you can solve.

Newspapers can't survive if journalists throw up their hands and blame everything on mysterious forces. Get back to work and use the tools that are sitting in front of you to connect with the community. Have a conversation. Learn from it. Discover what people care about. And accept that journalism needs to adapt to new social realities.


I think Farhi's point was that the major problem with newspapers right now is economic, not journalistic. Not to take anything away from the community value of the example you cite, but nothing in the "cascade tweeting" journalism you described actually addresses that economic crisis. I'm not trying to speak for Farhi here, but I think many -- most? -- journalists are open to the idea of new, better forms of journalism. The problem has been that most of the tinkering at newspapers has focused on the journalism, not on the business model that pays for journalism. Many newspapers have added new media components to their package in the past few years: blogs, twitter fees, comments, RSS, citizen journalism, etc. It hasn't reversed the economic slide. In many cases cases, the slide has accelerated. I'll grant, for purposes of this conversation, that most newspapers are still woefully old fashioned, low tech, and non-interactive. They are also enormously popular, widely cited, broadly copied -- and by and large unprofitable. (I'm not sure where you're getting the 20 percent market penetration figure, by the way. 95 million Americans read a print newspaper every day; if you add in newspaper Web sites, aggregators and television stations, radio stations and bloggers repeating or commenting on newspaper content, I imagine that penetration is pretty high.) Farhi's main point -- the one I took away, anyway -- is this: Too many critics have focused on the obvious, easy target at newspapers: the journalists and the journalism they produce. Too few have offered real solutions to the collapse of a 200-year-old model of advertising-supported free news. The former is a transient annoyance. The latter is an existential crisis. Tinker with the journalism all you want. If you don't find a better business model, you're shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic. Thoughts?

The 20 percent penetration figure comes from looking at a series of major metropolitan newspapers that are going down in flames. You can download some depressing data from For example, the Los Angeles Times now has a penetration of 14 percent daily, 21 percent Sunday in its own designated market. Smaller dailies continue to have relatively high market penetration -- although most are below 50 percent -- but metros are bleeding readers like crazy. I didn't find anything in Fahri's list of economic problems that surprised me; those of us who study these things have long understood that classified advertising is largely toast and Wal-Mart has demolished many of the old mainline local advertisers. But there is still significant demand for effective local advertising, and there's still an important business there. We can't deliver effective local advertising if we lose the audience because we continue to pump out an antiquated news product. So, again, my point is that you fix the things you can fix. Newsrooms are not powerless, and all the ugly economic truths don't let you off the hook.

I like the idea that "you fix the things you can fix." But let's not pretend there's no relationship between the journalism and the economics -- either way. The failure of the revenue side is part of the reason the journalism in many areas is weak; low budgets translate into minimal staffs, minimal and inexperienced IT departments, outdated equipment, and increasing workloads on an already stretched newsroom. It don't make for good journalism. At the same time, the journalism "fixes" being pursued generally do not address or worsen the problem. You don't get blogs, tweets and multimedia for free -- it requires at least some investment of capital and, more importantly, it requires time from an already overloaded staff. Yet these same experiments, by and large, do nothing to address the revenue problem -- almost all are revenue neutral or negative, such as RSS feeds that remove the content from the already tiny ad revenue. The argument in favor of all this has generally been audience growth -- that you just need to build your audience to some undetermined level by bringing in the eyeballs, and it will translate into money. It hasn't happened yet and I've never seen any hard evidence it will. My point is that it's fine for people to keep hammering on journalists for not getting it, for being old fashioned and for failing to embrace change and engage the Facebook generation. But I think it's well past time for those same critics to come up with some hard numbers about how their methods pay for journalism. What's the point of creating the perfect form or 21st century journalism if you go bankrupt getting there? One of the few pieces I've seen that actually tries to address the business model in conjunction with the journalism model is Meyer's piece at . Well worth the read.

By the by, not to pick nits, but my point about market penetration was that the figures you're using only measure print penetration. I don't think they're a valid measure anymore of how people feel about the journalism, which seemed to me to be the way you were using that statistic. My point -- and I think Farhi's point -- was that if you look at how many people engage newspaper content in any form, online or off, it's hard to make the case that people just don't like what journalists are producing. That doesn't mean it can't be better or that journalists shouldn't explore other forms, but it does call into question whether the journalism is the major problem here. Nothing about your Twitter example, for example, will ever show up in those ABC figures, no matter how successful it is as an experiment. We need a different metric.

As I've pointed out often in the past, newspapers have been misleading themselves by adding Web and print numbers together to make a claim about total audience reach. The "unique user" Web counts that are used to substantiate the claim are cumulative monthly rollups. A single visit to a single Web page counts the same as an actual loyal user who might consume 8-10 pages every day. If you segment the online audience by frequency of use (difficult to do with most Web analytics packages, but I've done it), what you discover is that there is a small audience of highly engaged users and a vast audience of one-hit visitors. The latter audience is of very little economic value. You can't deliver an effective, motivating advertising message to one-hit visitors. Effective campaigns require repetition. The second obvious problem is that the unique figures generally tossed around aren't filtered for geographic relevancy. If you don't live in the local market, you're not relevant to local advertisers. When you filter those unique numbers by both geography and frequency, you're left with a (distressingly) small effective local online reach. The good news is that this much smaller number -- the real deliverable advertising audience of a news Web site -- is roughly as economically valuable as a print reader on an individual basis. This is the audience that local advertisers are actually buying when they place an online ad. The assumption that there is no viable online revenue model is just plain false. The fundamental business model of ad-supported news is not broken. It's damaged by the loss of classifieds and the restructuring of retail commerce into chain-owned superstores, but it is not broken. What's broken is the true size of that deliverable audience of local heavy-usage customers. It's not big enough, and we're doing ourselves no favors when we fool ourselves with a bunch of Omniture dashboards and unique-user graphs. So, we have an audience problem. This gets us back to the role of the newsroom. The newsroom is an absolutely essential player in any process that might solve our audience problem. It's not going to solve itself. This is not an issue of blame. It's an issue of solutions. Phil Meyer's book features a powerful graph of newspaper readership data dating back to 1970 that shows a long linear decline. There are a lot of things you can take away from that graph, including that the Internet isn't to blame. But the one thing you shouldn't take away is the idea that it's inevitable. We went from around 8 percent readership to over 60 percent daily readership in Bluffton, SC. There were many factors in that turnaround, including free home delivery, but the performance of the news department was a big one. The paper has captured the voice of the community. People are reading because it reflects their interests and their passions and their lives. Proper use of the Internet as a conversational tool is part of the process that made that possible. Every newsroom has the power to materially change the economic picture of its newspaper. You can't fix the recession, you can't fix Wal-Mart, and you can't fix classifieds, but you can fix community engagement and readership in both print and online contexts.

"The good news is that this much smaller number -- the real deliverable advertising audience of a news Web site -- is roughly as economically valuable as a print reader on an individual basis." This is interesting, in that it goes completely against what I've heard from any number of sources: That an online reader represents only a tiny fraction of the revenue potential of a print reader. Can you elaborate? I strongly agree with your call to engage local readers and advertisers, by the way, and it's something I'm pushing for elsewhere. Being able to demonstrate the economic value of that approach would help; the mindset out there is still very much "maximize your audience and don't worry too much about where they're coming from." It seems to me that newspapers might be well served by creating online "locals only" spaces where local news (better and more of it), blogs, government information, chat and more could be collected and available to subscribers who were verified as being locals -- a credit card check could suffice. Such subscriptions wouldn't have to be paid; but they could be a free "value added" benefit of having a print subscription. Such locals-only spaces might prove more useful and, frankly, friendly than the current "all are welcome" sites. Plus, since anybody accessing those sites would be a verified local, they might be more attractive to small and medium sized advertisers with limited budgets. It's a rough sketch working idea, but I'd be interested in your thoughts. That said, though -- it seems to me that site would have to be firewalled, at least to a degree. Or else a way would need to be developed to have advertising accompany the content on twitter, rss, etc -- or make the ability to use those latter tools limited to premium, paid subscriptions. Which gets to your point about whether the business model is broken. I agree that it isn't, offline -- but I think it is online. You know better than I do how little advertisers are willing to pay for online ads, and the embracing of technology such as twitter, rss, and other forms of aggregation, along with permitting other sites to quote chunks of articles -- all of which takes the content away from the ads -- seems to me to be a model breaker. (I'm not "blaming the Internet," by the way. But I think it's misleading to suggest (if you are) that this astonishing new information distribution system isn't relevant to what's happening in newspapers. Yes, the slide of readership predates the Internet (which I attribute to the growth of television as an entertainment medium). But the collapse of the business model came after the Internet blew up the 200-year-old model of advertising-supported free news.) All of this, of course, is why newspapers are beginning to look at ways for subscribers to pay more of a share. They're primarily doing that in the print side -- do you think there is a future for paid online subscriptions a la the Financial Times's metered model? Postscript: That's a very impressive readership increase in the Bluffton example, but to be honest, your note that it included free delivery has me skeptical. I know of papers that have blasted out the paper to untold numbers of households for free and then tried to claim a boost in market penetration. It annoyed readers and in the long run didn't work. Was there more to the Bluffton case showing how much of that increase was due to improving the product, and what specifically worked?

The Bluffton case involves complete destruction and replacement of the product with an entirely new offering, new brand, new content, new design ... one built around extensive market research and on a belief that participative community is at the heart of the process. Free distribution is just one part the formula, a part that's designed to lower barriers. You can't just take the old oatmeal and dump it on everybody's doorstep and declare the problem fixed; it's very much about changing how and what people in the newsroom do. Bluffton feels like an old story to me, but I'm still being called upon to talk about it; India last month, the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association this month, and the International Classified Media Association next month. Meanwhile, Jeff Jarvis weights in on Fahri's AJR piece.

Too many radical journalists here in America! Especially at election time!