Sunday, February 25, 2007

Bad finances and good journalism

An editor writes to ask what I thought of Jack Shafer's latest piece in Slate (False Profits: When bad financial news for newspapers is good news for journalism.)

Here's what I wrote back:

I guess I'd say that Shafer is right in some fundamental sense, although he is
wrong on many specifics. (Interestingly, almost *none* of these noted pundits
ever call us to ask questions about our operations, or the deal, or our
perspective. They just opine.)

What's overarchingly true about The Present Troubles is simply that conditions changed. Newspapers were highly profitable and commanded huge sales prices largely because we used to have
monopoly enterprises with an exclsuive advertising franchise (classifieds) and
very high barriers against competition. None of these three things is true now
(mainly because of the web) and so papers make smaller profits and are worth
when you buy or sell them. It's not about greed or stupidity or malfeasance
(though our industry, God knows, has seen plenty of all three). Things have just

It's not raining on us. It's just raining.

I do think Shafer's right to suggest that the journalism can (and, in my world,
must) survive the economic shifts. That's why we talk constantly about being
mission-driven; I am willing to do what it takes if we can keep honest,
independent journalism at the center of things.

If we can migrate successfully to new platforms, master new techniques and learn to operate in today's world of partnerships, alliances, interactivity, audience empowerment and the like, we can become even more successful at our core mission: holding government accountable, building community cohesion, speaking truth to power and the like.

The good news: we're moving there very fast, now, and I have every confidence we'll do so successfully.


  1. Larry P.6:49 PM

    This reminds me of what I heard while taking a couple of MBA courses: Railroads got into trouble in the early 1900s because they thought they were in the train industry, not realizing they were in the transportation industry.

    So the challenge for newspapers is to decide what industry they're now in ... news, information, entertainment -- newspapers have provided all three -- or is there a larger term that captures it all?

    And what are the critical factors? Speed of delivery? Completeness? Quality of content? Or, again, all three plus others?

    E-mail was an unanticipated artifact of DARPAnet and Bitnet, is that kind of surprise still ahead for folks in our industry?

  2. Larry P.7:26 PM

    And one of the things we're not doing yet on the Internet -- or not doing as well as I think we could -- is providing context.

  3. Anonymous5:31 PM

    The thing I like about Howard and, from all evidence so far, about McClatchy is that it has its values straight. What we do that nobody else does anymore is serious journalism. The public needs it and wants it. We just have to figure out how to make it work in a new business model.