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Opening Arguments

The zombies are winning

I haven't seen a lot of zombie movies, but I still remember with fond dread the original "Night of the Living Dead" -- an ever-dwindling band of heroic real people withstanding the relentless march of the undead. I swear, it feels more and more like that in the newspaper business these days. Today was an especially bad day. First, I read a reaction to Henry Waxman's idea that the federal government should somehow save newspapers from their "market failure.":

I'm puzzled. What exactly is the market failure here? Welfare economics classically recognizes four basic sources of market failures: producer monopoly; externalities; the good to be produced is a public good; and informational asymmetry between producer and consumer.

I don't see any of these as the newspaper industry's problem. Instead, I see obsolete technology coupled to an antiquated business model.

It's like saying that the demise of the buggy whip industry was occasioned by a market failure. (Of course, if Waxman had been around back then, he probably would have bailed out the buggy whip makers too.)

"Obsolete technology coupled to an antiquated business model." Tough stuff to read about your profession. But we'll either learn to make money online, or we won't. If we don't, others will carry on. We're already seeing the emergence of Web-based populist journalism. Instead of institutions having to make enough money to support whole buildings full of infrastructure and people, there just needs to be enough to sustain pockets one or two people in here and there. Bailing out newspapes is bad for the usual reason -- government should not be choosing winners and losers -- and for the additional reason that the journalistic role of government watchdog will be destroyed if government is writing the checks.

And as fast as we're going down, there seem to be people in the business doing their damndest to make it happen even quicker. The Dallas Morning News has decided that the wall of separation between news and advertising is just too stodgy and impedes the paper's efforts to serve its "clients" who are apparently more consumers than readers:

Late this evening, Dallas Morning News publisher and chief executive officer Jim Moroney called to discuss editor Bob Mong's memo concerning the paper's new "business/news integration," which has some of the paper's section editors reporting directly to newly assigned advertising-side higher-ups.

Moroney said he'd been on the phone all afternoon with Bloomberg News and The New York Times having to explain the arrangement. It wasn't till late today, Moroney said, that he saw our original item, and he took exception to a single line contained therein: "In short, those who sell ads for A.H. Belo's products will now dictate content within A.H. Belo's products."

"That one line got to me a little bit: 'They will dictate content,'" he said. "I think people will read that as, 'Whatever sells the most will be the content that'll get put online and in the paper.' But it's about the audience first. If we don't have a loyal, engaged audience, advertisers will fade away. Our content isn't for sale. If it is, we're out of business."

But if the advertising side isn't going to dictate news content, why in the world have news side department heads report to advertising higher ups? Well, the publisher explains:  

We are trying to understand the local consumer -- what kind of relevant, important news and information does the consumer want in a particular category -- and try to build audience  loyalty and more engagement by trying to find the content people most want and that's most relevant and most important.

if you want coverage of local government or a hot debate on health care reform or perhaps a rundown of crime in your area, tough luck! But if you want a paper that's figured out what coffee brand you like and which movies you prefer, boy, have they got your number! You are not readers and thinkes.


Bob G.
Sun, 12/06/2009 - 11:26am

Somehow the word "Hedonist" comes to mind regarding such people.
(and that didn't bode too well for the late, great Roman Empire, did it?)
NAH...they are JUST "consumers"...leave 'em alone.

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