Monday, August 04, 2008

Is the Death of Journalism at Hand?

Today I came across a simply spectacular blog post by an Orange County journalist named William Lobdell. He worked at the Los Angeles Times for years and years but has now, as he puts it, "gone digital" (read: he's not at the LA Times anymore).

In his inaugural post, called 42 Things I Know, he pretty much nails what the problems are in contemporary journalism.

I don't know Mr. Lobdell and I sure hope he won't mind my posting these, but I just have to -- they're so on the nose. And please do keep in touch with his blog. I know I will.

1. I made the right decision leaving the newspaper business.
2. That’s not to say I’m happy about breaking up with my one true career love.
3. But the business model for newspapers is broken.
4. No one has figured out how to fix it.
5. That’s probably because it can’t be fixed.
6. The smaller the newspaper, the longer its life span in print (four exceptions: the New York Times, Wall St. Journal, Washington Post and USA Today).
7. Technology has run laps around the print media — giving readers instant news, open-source journalism, no barriers to become publishers, and an infinite news hole.
8. The idea that your daily news is collected, written, edited, paginated, printed on dead trees, put in a series of trucks and cars and delivered on your driveway — at least 12 hours stale — is anachronistic in 2008.
9. As a friend told me last week, “Bro, face it. You guys are the 8-track cassette of news.”
10. Other seemingly indispensable industries have been rubbed out by technology, leading to the unemployment of scribes, steamship captains, and the Pony Express riders. Why not newspaper reporters?
11. Newspapers were unbelievably slow in embracing the Internet, even though younger reporters have been pleading with their bosses for years to embrace the Web.
12. Amazingly, it took until 2005 for top editors at The Times to realize the Internet not only wasn’t going away but might lead to the demise of newspaper.
13. Prior to that, the Internet operation at The Times was used as a place to hide reporters and editors who had fallen out of favor.
14. For a news operation filled with journalists with a mostly liberal bent, few people embrace the kind of progressive change necessary to save, or at least delay the fall of, the franchise.
15. Business side of the paper was worse in recognizing the Internet’s potential and its threat to the newspaper business. I once suggested that, since Craig’s List had arrived on the scene, The Times should match that business model and give away most of its classified ads (since we were already losing it already) in exchange for Internet readership and premium ad prices for corporate advertisers (such as employers). The business people laughed.
16. Even after realizing the Internet was the future, newspapers are having a difficult time adapting to the Web.
17. You can’t just transfer a news gathering operation from print to the web. Revenue on the web is fractured (like cable TV) and a news web operation can support far fewer journalists and layers of editors. It requires a different mindset.
18. Entrepreneurs — for example, Kevin Rose at Digg — have developed news sites in just a few years that have drawn far more readers than the Los Angeles Times. Digg doesn't feature original content, but The Times (and other newspapers) could have added a Digg element to its site.
19. And The Times, despite its journalistic credentials, has launched only one blog (Top of the Ticket) that has cracked the top 1,000 list. On this point, the mainstream media has gotten its butt kicked, repeatedly, by the Pajamas Media.
20. Sam Zell isn’t the ultimate villain. Though I originally thought he might be the kick in the ass we needed, I can't stand the guy. But in the long run, he’s just an accelerator for a downfall that is happening naturally.
21. For all his business acumen, Zell has allowed his executives to concentrate, at least publicly, on the stuff that needs the least fixing (editorial content and design). I'd argue that, for now, 100% of their effort should be given to increasing sales and readership -- in print and online.
22. Maybe Lee Abrams could direct his memos to the sales, marketing and circulation staff.
23. The fall of The Times had other accelerators.
24. First, the editorial department. We operated as though we had a monopoly on truth and great journalism for far too long. We didn't listen to our critics and sometimes our readers. That cost us.
25. Second, the Chandler family. The heirs of Gen. Otis, wanting dollars in their pockets, cashed out and handed the family newspaper over to the Tribune Co.
26. Third, the Tribune Co. Its MBA-worshipping executives were great at managing a monopolistic enterprise that threw off a high profit margin. But they were completely baffled when faced with a business situation that required innovation and not textbook, budget-cutting measures.
27. Fourth (and it pains me to say this), former top editors John Carroll and (and to a lesser extent) Dean Baquet. During their combined tenure, the local news operation was gutted in order to re-establish The Times’ international and national reputation. The result: shuttered Ventura and valley editions, a decimated Orange County edition (which had great reader demographics and tons of local advertising), and one reporter each left in the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys.
28. Fifth, the business side of the newspaper. This is the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, especially evident in the revolving door of ad directors (and no one in that position since February, despite it being the most critical sales period in Times’ history).
29. Maybe that says something: that great salespeople don’t want to lead the Los Angeles Times at this time.
30. The paper also doesn't have a publisher for the first time in its 125-year history.
31. The Times could extend its lifespan significantly with some innovative leadership in sales.
32. If I were publisher (a job I wouldn't take, thank you), I’d explore a partnership with Google or, more realistically, Yahoo or another proven Internet company that would combine news gathering and advertising forces.
33. If I were publisher, I'd have a clear mission statement for The Times' editorial department (if you ask 100 journalists at The Times about their mission, you'd likely get 100 different answers).
34. I’d stop Lee Abrams from writing his dumb-ass memos that are supposed to inspire Tribune workers, but only serve to piss everyone off. It says something about Zell’s leadership that scores of great journalists -- many wanting to embrace the future and lead the newspaper -- have voluntarily walked away from their jobs/careers while Mr. Abrams continues to pull down a large salary.
35. I’d get realistic estimation on the size of The Times' future work force and then make one large cut to get it there (good sources say another 150-200 layoffs are on the horizon). An internet operation can’t support a huge newsgathering operation, and morale would improve if everyone knew no more major layoffs loomed. People can deal with reality; it's just this surrealistic no-man's-land that make it impossible to move forward and has good people bailing out.
36. I’d take the very talented journalists I had and develop a SERIES of websites that provided the best information for that beat/subject matter. The Web is all about niches. The Times, for instance, could have the premiere sites for every professional and college sports team in Southern California. It could be THE place to turn to for news on City Hall, Los Angeles Unified School District, and Los Angeles Police Department. Not to mention Southern California environmental issues, LAX and the coast.
37. These could run under the banner: Another Los Angeles Times website/blog.
38. You could combine all these different blogs/websites under the banner, but make it simple for readers to navigate to the sites they want to become attached/devoted to.
39. For The Times to survive -- in print or even on the web as one of the nation's top news sources -- it's going to take herculean efforts by all departments within the company.
40. I have no doubt my newsroom colleagues who I left behind can adapt to the challenges of the New Media environment.
41. But I've seen no evidence that other parts of the company -- especially the "leaders" -- are willing, able and competent.
42. And this is ultimately why I left The Times. Though the paper has been in business for 125 years, it had become riskier to stay than to go.

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