Learning the news: Looking for the right mix for the next phase in journalism

We are looking for the mix of print and digital delivery methods to take local journalism successfully into the next phase, writes Roger Plothow.

Since this is the first edition of the Post Register to no longer carry a page of comics, a crossword puzzle and other traditional newspaper features, it’s appropriate to devote this week’s media literacy column to the economics of journalism.

Let’s start with some basics that I assert to be true, but there are others who would disagree. Since it’s my column, I’ll stick to my positions that: 1) Journalism is a specific, definable thing, just like plumbing, carpentry, teaching, nursing and many other jobs that require training, experience and adherence to ethical standards. 2) Done correctly, journalism is expensive. It requires journalists – real people – to spend time on the street, on the phone, in their car, gathering information and ensuring the best they can that what they write, broadcast, blog or even tweet is accurate and in the proper context.

Those who don’t accept these two beliefs can stop reading right here, since the rest of what I’m going to write is based on them. If you think that any blog, any cable “news” show, any magazine, any web site purporting to do journalism automatically qualifies as journalism because its creators say so, read no more.

This is one of the vastly misunderstood issues of modern journalism. Yes, advertising that supports newspapers and other journalistic businesses has dwindled, disrupted, as some say, by everything from Craigslist to Facebook. So, revenues are down.

But the issue is more basic than that. Many people, particularly young adults, accept some of these disrupters like Facebook or, going back a generation, cable news programs, as legitimate journalism. They like the fact that they are free, interactive and require little effort. As more and more people come to accept cable shows that are little more than one person sitting behind a desk and blasting out an opinion for an hour each evening as journalism, the more the real thing becomes devalued.

Some see this belief of mine as quaint and out of step with a faster-moving, media-saturated culture. It probably is, and that’s the problem. If a thousand unvetted web sites, a hundred thousand irresponsible bloggers, a million Facebook memes – if these are accepted as journalism, it’s not too strong to say that we’re in trouble. Not “we” as in journalists – “we” as in Americans.

A successful business model that smoothly or even roughly manages a transition from print to digital has not emerged.

Hit with the double whammy of shrinking ad dollars and a devaluation of our most valuable product – journalism – we are left to strike out on a new model.

This is playing out on the Post Register’s Commentary pages, where people are upset that we are asking them to look elsewhere – online – where the comics and puzzles and other items that cost us $100,000 a year to print can be found for free.

I get the objections. “I want it all in one place. I don’t want to do these online (or I’m not even an internet user). I don’t understand why you feel you have to change things I like.”

Some have accused me of being dishonest about our reasons, or of not caring about our readers. Neither is true. What we’re doing, put simply, is looking for the right mix of print and digital delivery methods to take us successfully into the next phase of local journalism, whatever that may be.

Sadly, online advertising works best when sold in enormous quantities. Each ad is incredibly inexpensive, so it takes a lot of them to make any money for the business selling them. Online advertising accounts for a small fraction of our total revenue, even as print advertising from a beleaguered “big box” retail industry and other traditional sources continues to shrink. All of our profit still comes from print, but the trajectory is not sustainable for the long term.

A business must be profitable to survive. We continue to be profitable. But our profits are based on a lower revenue base than at any time since 2002, the peak year for newspaper ad revenue.

Here’s what one newspaper did. In 2009, the Ann Arbor (Michigan) News, which had published since 1835, laid off nearly 200 employees and went all digital. Ann Arbor became the first American city of any real size to not be served by a print newspaper. A handful of people stayed on to produce what’s now called “MLive,” a web site of Ann Arbor news. Its content is a shell of what was in its print edition. They now print a small run of newspapers twice a week, but it’s hard to call what they do in any way comprehensive local news.

This is not Ann Arbor. We’re not ready to make that fateful leap.

And that’s today’s lesson in media literacy.

Roger Plothow is editor and publisher of the Post Register. This is part of a year-long weekly series on media literacy.