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.
August 3, 2009; 6:17 PM ET
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