Top Editors Discuss Newspapers’ Future, and Web, at Columbia Panel

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By: David Hirschman

How can newspapers survive (and thrive) in the 21st Century? That was the $64,000 question at a panel at the Columbia University School of Journalism Wednesday night as some of the top names in journalism talked about different ways that newspapers can evolve to remain both relevant and economically viable in the Internet age.

On the decidedly optimistic side was American Prospect founding co-editor Robert Kuttner, who wrote “The Race,” the cover story for the most recent issue of the Columbia Journalism Review in which he declared that newspapers’ future as print-digital hybrids could be bright — but that papers needed to start pushing hard to the Web to make sure they don’t get left behind.

Repeating the sentiments of his article, Kuttner extolled the way that print publications transferred their “sense of public mission” and “ethic of verification” to the Web. He didn’t deny that newspapers faced an uphill battle — with increased competition from the Web — but he said he thought that newspapers had an advantage over blogs and other news aggregators.

“I’m certianly not saying in this [CJR article] that it’s a slam dunk,” said Kuttner, “but I think there’s a fair amount of evidence that newspapers have a shot at maintaining the craft, the professionalism, the public purpose that you don’t get in a Web site — even a really really good Web site.”

Kuttner said that, by and large, the best journalism on the Web came from online versions of print publications because they had already had a “critical mass” of reporters and editors and a sense of accountability that the public has come to trust.

Steven Rattner, a former New York Times reporter and the managing principal of Quadrangle Group LLC, who recently wrote a Wall Street Journal opinion questioning the business model of newspapers as they migrated to the Web, was less positive about the future for newspapers.

“I think [journalism on the Web is] a wonderful editorial experience for the people producing it, and it’s a wonderful editorial experience for the people who want it,” he said. “But the problem is that there aren’t enough people that want it for it to be a wonderful business experience. … It’s not obvious to me that there is a sufficiently large group of consumers out there who want it. … The loss of readership on the print side is not being made up on the online side.”

Rattner said that he thought newspapers were definitely getting better at creating a dynamic multimedia experience online, but he didn’t see demand growing fast enough to meet it, and he pointed to classified ads as an example of a traditional source of newspaper revenue that was “basically going to zero” because of Web competitors like Craig’s List.

Additionally, according to Rattner, advertisers now place a premium value on online ads because there is more of a way to measure what it is that they are getting (in the form of click-through metrics and the like, for which there is no print equivalent).

Rattner noted that there were “quasi-journalistic” models of Web sites that could work economically, but said that “unfortunately most of these examples are not things that [major newspapers] would be proud to be associated with; Huffington Post, Drudge, and things like that. …”

While journalism can be thought of as a “public trust,” said Rattner, it’s not fair to ask public shareholders of newspaper companies to foot the bill for a public service. Another model, said Rattner, is the “rich patron model,” but he wasn’t particularly enamored with it because “for every Graham family and Sulzberger family, there’s a McCaw in Santa Barbara.”

Amanda Bennett the executive editor of enterprise stories for Bloomberg News — and recently editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer — asserted that there was, in fact, still demand for quality content and that more and more people consume news than ever before. She lamented, however, that everyone has come to expect that news on the Internet should be free.

Asked whether his site would consider a paid-content model, Washingtonpost.com executive editor Jim Brady said the paper had tried several times to create a paid model, but that the paper couldn’t find one where it would make more money from subscription costs than they would lose from cutting off page views (and thus losing display ads). He said that the paper though it was better to build up the biggest audience as possible and then try to make money off of that audience.

“You do run a risk when you take your journalism out of the Web,” said Brady. “If you take your content out of it completely because you put a pay-wall up, I think you’re going to see a huge hit in traffic, and you’re going to see a hit on how you’re viewed in the industry.”

Still, putting content out there for free allows companies like Google to effectively piggy-back on all of the work and money that newspapers expend on creating content, noted the panelists. They said that newspapers needed to try to get a bigger cut for the content they were providing.

On the positive side, Brady spoke particularly of the success he’s had in integrating multimedia elements and interactivity into the site.

“You can now approach any story and say ‘How do we want to tell this story?'” Brady said, noting that the paper now has five or six videographers that it sends around the world — sometimes to support print stories and sometimes not.

Additionally, he said, 85 of the Post’s print reporters have now been trained with video cameras, so that when they are out on a story they can film it as well. “They don’t have to do it on all stories, but we’re now running maybe five or six reporter-shot videos weekly that we add to the Web site.” He noted that last year the site won the first-ever Emmy award for online video.

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