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Who's to Blame for Newspaper Revenues?

The headline of Sunday's lead Outlook article was "How Gawker Ripped Off My Story & Why It's Destroying Journalism." The first part was true. The second part wasn't.

Gawker did rip off Ian Shapira's excellent article about "business coach" Anne Loehr. But it's much less clear that Gawker's rip-offs matter for the future of American journalism.

Take the apparent harm of Gawker's long excerpt: Not many people clicked through the link to read Shapira's piece. That's bad. But step off the fifth-floor elevators and you'll be right next to The Washington Post's crack PR team. They spend all day trying to get television programs and radio stations to run segments on our stories and use our reporters -- generally for free -- as commentators on their programs. In that case, no link is expected, and none is even possible. They also send our articles out to blogs and online publications that might link to them. We literally pay people to do all this. We don't think they're destroying journalism, or we presumably wouldn't be paying them.

And this is as it's always been. The most successful Washington Post articles will not attract many more paying customers than the least successful articles. Newspaper articles aren't like box offices, where a great piece is measured by impressive foot traffic. What they'll do is be endlessly reproduced and repurposed by other outlets and mediums. Great journalism is important, not profitable. Happily, local advertising monopolies were profitable, even if they weren't very important. And newspapers had both. Now we only have one.

One of the problems with the whole discussion over the death of the traditional newspaper business model is that so much of it is done by newspaper writers. That leads to a focus on the journalism side of things rather than the business side. But good journalism hasn't stopped being profitable. It simply never was profitable. The problem is that advertising has collapsed, and readers have moved online, and department stores have merged, and all the rest of it. If Gawker, and everyone else, was more fastidious about links, there's no evidence that newspaper revenue would rebound.

If you want to blame someone, then, don't blame Gawker. Blame the New York Times. And, if you're at the New York Times, blame The Washington Post. Beyond all that, blame anti-trust law. David Simon can explain why.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 3, 2009; 6:17 PM ET
Categories:  Journalism  
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Comments

A man who says nothing over the weekend has much to say on a Monday -- perhaps a proper lesson for those significant others of the world who encourage "saving up" for a special occasion.

"Newspaper articles aren't like box offices, where a great piece is measured by impressive foot traffic. What they'll do is be endlessly reproduced and repurposed by other outlets and mediums. Great journalism is important, not profitable."

Easily said (before closing a day at 6 PM) for a person -- neither radical nor revolutionary -- who (at the ungodly early hour of 7:40 a.m.) began the day by echoing Thomas Jefferson's remarks (see collected works at uchicago.edu) regarding the role (in health care and healthy living) of x-year-olds versus the role of those who are older.

My experience of the night -- which, being a typical Monday night, involves a visit to various local pubs -- suggests that moderation (of all things) is the wisest path. Breaking a cycle, even a news cycle, is not enough: there is a significant difference between a significant other announcing that her cycle is broken and a friend who announces that his cycle broke and he therefore could not attend a rally at which 31 others were arrested. Which one would you favor?

"Not all market activity is useful market activity. This is not useful market activity. It's parasitic market activity. And therein lies an opportunity. The government needs more in the way of revenue if it's going to continue to fund important basic services."

Two ejaculations (the one quoted above being another which favors Jefferson's viewpoint) that hit the spot in one day is more than anyone could ask.

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PS: "But good journalism hasn't stopped being profitable. It simply never was profitable. The problem is that advertising has collapsed, and readers have moved online, and department stores have merged, and all the rest of it. If Gawker, and everyone else, was more fastidious about links, there's no evidence that newspaper revenue would rebound."

And you PAY to subscribe to how many newspapers? Should we infer from that number that newspaper employees are less important in society than, say, out-of-work 'blog authors?

Society PAYS for what it values. So BUY a newspaper tomorrow, dude.

Posted by: rmgregory | August 3, 2009 7:55 PM | Report abuse

"But good journalism hasn't stopped being profitable. It simply never was profitable."

Journalism - good or not - was profitable when print was the main form of daily mass entertainment. In 1910 New York had at least seven mass-market daily papers, not counting the Brooklyn papers and papers in languages other than English. Every city had at least two papers- morning and evening - and most had three or more. These papers sold news.

What killed the profitability of print journalism was radio and TV. Once that happened, newspapers began to fold up and die. In all but the very largest markets, only one paper could survive, and those with two operate under agreements that allow them to share advertising and marketing.

One paper per market was able to retain profitability because the newspaper distribution system was the only cost-effective means of distributing large quantities of advertising information. In effect, the surviving paper had a monopoly on the distribution of advertising.

But the internet does that better and cheaper.

Posted by: Bloix | August 3, 2009 8:02 PM | Report abuse

The news industry is changing rapidly, and this article and others are creating a lot of discussion about it. Check out www.colby.edu/lovejoy to read the blog. It's quite thought-provoking.

Posted by: andygoldfarb | August 7, 2009 7:10 PM | Report abuse

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