Making Newspapers Matter: The Tragic Value of Content

“Hey Gary: After a year of unanswered emails to the
editor of the Portland, Maine, Press Herald pleading for better local reporting
and editing…I started a blog a month ago…” T.C. Munjoy, Pressing the Herald (

ONE MORE BLOG IN THE WORLD is not the end of traditional journalism. Even the target of Mr. Munjoy’s
citizen reporting, the Press Herald of Portland, Maine, will unlikely feel any
pain, at least in the short term. But what Mr. Munjoy and countless others have
done by starting blogs for the purpose of either enhancing or supplanting local
news is nothing less than apocalyptic.

Consider this one simple
fact: Mr. Munjoy distributes his product on a platform he uses for free. If he
ever decides to charge a fee, it will be for his blog’s content, not its distribution.

And herein lays the Achilles
Heel of newspapers: their costs are all in the distribution, not the content. In
fact, contrary to what newspaper executives may want you to believe, newspapers have never
charged for their content – which is why the newspaper industry is, and for the
foreseeable future will be, in serious trouble.

The Big Mistake
Five cents, 10 cents, 25
cents, 50 cents…whatever the cost of your daily paper, that cost goes to pay
for the means of distribution. Paper, ink, presses, gasoline, tires, vending
machines and so on – all means of distribution. The same goes for advertising –
the more ads you can sell, the more pages you can print, the more there is to

Obviously some of this
revenue goes to pay for reporters and editors, but in a purely business sense,
the content they produce merely allows the company to distribute a product. And
as I said, that’s how newspapers make money, by distributing their product.

This worked fine until the Internet Age. Newspapers made the mistake of looking
at the Internet as simply another means of distribution, assuming that people would
come to their web sites and read the news, and more importantly read the ads
that helped pay for the web servers and Net access fees.

But search trumped any
vision of people reading the news only at a newspaper’s web site. Now they
could read the news on Google, Yahoo, MSN or via RSS feeds straight to their
computer desktops. The new media companies like Google saw value in the
content, not the distribution, and traditional newspapers have been trying to
catch up ever since.

Some newspapers tried to
charge for content, but having not placed any value there before it was
difficult to make that case now (there is, however, a legitimate argument over
whether news aggregators can publish copyrighted material without permission.) Niche
publications did better than mass market ones, but with the free content genie
out of the bottle and more and more information available from more and more
sources, content itself became commoditized.

As the public turned more
selective, news turned more subjective. After all, if you want people to value
content, you have to make it stand out. But in trying to save their business
model, newspapers have injured journalism.

Where we are Today
Television had its role in
this tragedy as well. In the Golden Age of TV news, daily broadcasts were not
expected to make money. News was seen as a loss leader, its existence seen as nothing
less than fulfilling a sacred public trust.

But television was also a
business, and as profits rose from the entertainment side of the house, pressure
mounted on the news divisions to earn some of that valuable ad revenue. So
television news, because it came into people’s homes for free, looked to its
content to attract viewers – to entertain them if not inform.

And this is where we are
now, in print, on the airwaves and online – a journalism where placing value on
news content means a world of infotainment and hyperbole, of diversion and

There is plenty of good work
to be sure, but how long will it last? How long will newspapers focus efforts
on the “paper” part of their monikers instead of the “news” – on supporting an
obsolete distribution infrastructure rather than new business models that place
value on content that is truly valuable?

We don’t have the answers
yet – but like any good journalist, getting to the answers starts with asking
the right questions. Let’s hope there are some good journalists left to ask

Good luck, Mr. Munjoy. The
future of quality journalism may someday turn its lonely eyes to you.

4 thoughts on “Making Newspapers Matter: The Tragic Value of Content

  1. It seems to me that you are doing better on the touchy-feely posts (social media measurement) on comments 😉
    You came to my attention from Micro Persuasion, then Authenticities. I write and think about how new media is changing journalism – created a whole series on that and actually exported my thinking back to Italy on occasion. A conversation for another day. Glad to read you.

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