The Case Against Newspaper Companies

Here in Baltimore there is a great deal of uncertainty about the future of journalism, as there is everywhere. I have been involved in organizing some efforts by local new media publishers to study options for the future; my interest in this topic is purely personal.

Yesterday I attended a two-hour symposium arranged by the University of Maryland’s Merrill School of Journalism. In attendance on this panel were Monty Cook (Editor, Baltimore Sun), Tim Franklin (Former editor, Baltimore Sun), Jayne Miller (WBAL Television), Jake Oliver (Afro American Newspapers), Mark Potts (founder, It was moderated by Kevin Klose (former president, NPR) and sponsored by Abell Professor Sandy Banisky.

The discussion was mostly a paean to times long gone: to well-staffed newsrooms rich with sources, and benefit plans to match. It was an apologia from television to print, explicating the ability that cable-subscriber funded news operations have had to survive via subsidies that the press could never extract. It was a cursory overview of myriad efforts to invent new modes of journalism online. And it was a predictable declaration of heresy: “these so-called wanna-be websites” (Jake Oliver) “will never hold a candle to traditional journalism.” (Jayne Miller)

I quote directly.

And herein lies the problem. As observers, these trained journalists accurately state that a small, unfunded website run by “these kids” (many of whom are 20 year veterans of the press) can not effectively compete with some imagined newsroom of the past. However, these “small unfunded websites” are just starting out. They will grow. And these imagined news operations no longer exist, and the ones that still do are shrinking. The old and the new are on a collision course.

While the traditional media sticks its head in the sand and belittles the startup efforts of entrepreneurs and journalists, the world is shifting beneath its feet. And all the time spent on internal infighting, in denial, in testimony before congress, and in bankruptcy courts is time not spent reinventing the future of journalism. Their legacy costs, on health plans and labor unions and real estate and “right-sizing” are costs that aren’t being spent solving the market need.

What are the odds that the existing companies (the ones with the problem) will be the ones who come up with the solution? They are astronomically small. That’s almost never how things play out in markets.

A new, reasonably-funded journalistic startup today has access to all kinds of assets: a large pool of trained, laid-off journalists; incredible inexpensive distribution technology in the form of web, mobile, and Kindle; a motivated pool of citizen journalists; and most importantly, a startup mindset that is focused on being lean, nimble, and experimentational.

If I had to bet on whether a bloated 172-year old company that’s in bankruptcy will find the model, or whether it would be one of a field of startups, I’d bet on the field of startups every time. Why wouldn’t you?

The only coherent argument against new startups is really one of mass and heft – both in terms of startup capital and in terms of depth of connections. However, it is reasonable to expect that a reasonably-funded startup staffed with experienced businesspeople and journalists is going to be every bit as rich with contacts as a comparably-sized post-bankruptcy old-media concern. The difference? Less legacy DNA, less legacy expenses, and a lean, nimble, humble mindset that’s focused on finding the answers in an open market.

Failure of Imagination

Just as the failure to prevent the September 11 attacks was attributed to a “failure of imagination,” we see a comparable failure of imagination in journalism today.

The traditional media companies fail to imagine what the confluence of web, mobile, and citizen journalism might ultimately be able to deliver, and that it might be better than anything journalism has delivered to date.

Potential funders see all options as risky and want to bet first on “traditional” outlets. They see these brands not only as less risky, but as a restoration to a prior order.

“Restorations” are not how markets work. Things don’t get restored. They are creatively torn apart and reassembled.

The first investors to imagine the possibilities present in new journalistic startups will ultimately reap the rewards; rewards which will never be seen again in newspaper companies.

The companies that bring you local news today will most likely not be around in 10 years. A host of new companies will take their place.

The only question for those in the industry today is whether they want to be part of those solutions.