Ken Doctor’s ‘Newsonomics,’ a Fitz & Jen Book Review

By: Mark Fitzgerald and Jennifer Saba

Jen: Fitz, I remember back in school when I had to read books about the economic structures of news organizations. I use the term “read” loosely, since I could barely keep my eyes open.

Those books, which shall remain unnamed, were dry wonky affairs that failed to connect the dots between the production of news and the money machine that kept the whole thing going. Or perhaps they did, and I just never could get around to fully reading the bores.

Ken Doctor’s new book “Newsonomics: Twelve New Trends That Will Shape the News You Get” not only crisply explains what the heck is going on with newspapers, he does it in such a conversational tone that the pages fly by.

Before you know it, any reader can get a sense why the walls are crumbling down around once-august newspapers.

To Doctor’s enormous credit, he backs up grand statements with actual data. How many times have we heard that massive volumes of stories are going untold due to huge cuts at newspapers? Doctor doesn’t just eyeball the orphans, he tries to figure out a number, bringing the reader through the process. By taking the number of jobs lost in the newsroom from 2007-2008 and the average number of stories produced per staffer, Doctor arrives at a whopping 828,000 stories that have vanished or as he puts it, “neither written nor read.” This book is full of such examples.

Fitz: I don’t have to go all the way back to my college days — when by candlelight we read scrolls with woodcut illustrations about a future that will be dominated by Linotype machines — to recall dreadful media books. Plenty arrive at my desk with alarming regularity, practically daring me to plunge into them. They are either dry, as you say, Jen, or larded with imperious instructions from New Media gurus to benighted dead-tree newspaper drones. (“Get your paper on MySpace NOW or prepare to be irrelevant!”)

Doctor’s book is a refreshing departure in style and, importantly, in perspective. He’s telling what should be a familiar story to the newspaper industry, but always manages to point to truths that are too often glossed over or never really thought through in our fevered attempts to muddle through the crisis.

Jen: Yeah, like that fantastic little exercise where Doctor figures how a top draw like The New York Times’ David Pogue can bring in with online advertising revenue — $72,000 a month. Just as Doctor notes that nice amount of cash, he quickly notes that only a few dozen journalists can attract that kind of online ad revenue.

But I must admit, I rather enjoy some of the gossipy items — by newspaper standards, of course — that Doctor drops through the chapters. Like the retelling of the stalwart former Knight Ridder CEO Jim Batten and his address to editors about the business of newspapers. (Doctor was the former managing editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, then owned by Knight Ridder, when Batten was at the helm.)

“The institution of American journalism owes more to the institution of the department store than the First Amendment,” Batten told a group of “shocked” Knight Ridder editors.

I don’t know which to relish more, Batten’s succinct distilling of how the industry works or Doctor’s description of editors’ reactions: “We all would have liked to believe that our vast resources were somehow Constitutional.”

Wouldn’t we all.

Or this little piece of news that Doctor slips in a chapter about the dawn of the Internet: In the late ’90s, many newspaper operators eyed the Internet with caution making “judicious bets” and “careful transitions.” Even Wall Street agreed with the message, including one Merrill Lynch analyst Henry Blodgett, “whose drive-by visit to Knight Ridder Digital” produced the following response, according to Doctor: “Don’t worry.”

Fitz: Indeed. But Doctor’s message really isn’t, “Be afraid, be very afraid.” It’s that newspapers, amazingly, still need to accept that their old world is gone for good. But that a new press waits to be born, to serve, and draw is sustenance from, a familiar figure to newspapers — the reader.

Reading this book, I found myself reaching for a legal pad dashing down ways to improve our own operation here, inspired as much by the author’s perspective as the well-chosen specific examples of successes or potential successes.

Newsonomics: Twelve New Trends That Will Shape the News You Get by Ken Doctor. (St. Martin’s Press: New York) hardback, $25.99.

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