Newspapers need to get a grip

That’s the message from Bill Wyman in this excellent article about why newspapers are failing. The answer is competition but the way he depicts the problems is first-rate. Here is a taste:

And some of it was useful to readers. But let’s be honest. It wasn’t the information the republic needs to govern itself. A very large percentage of it was based, one way or another, on information from press releases, either physical or de facto, from organizations with products to sell.

Press releases contain dated information, the release of which is valuable only to the companies involved; in most cases, they’d actually pay to advertise it, and in that sense it has a negative news value. But vast swaths of a typical American daily is filled with news whose primary source is a press release of one form or another, from entities governmental, political, or corporate. It was part of an unspoken but implicit agreement the papers had with advertisers—that the vast majority of what the paper printed would be complementary with the advertising. (It would be complimentary too, of course.)

The irony is that this all wasn’t as corrupt as it sounds. The primary cause of this wasn’t, paradoxically, to curry favor with advertisers, though they certainly liked it. That was just a lagniappe. The big attraction of a press release? It was safe. No one has ever canceled a newspaper subscription (and no one has ever gotten into trouble internally) because of the publication of material contained in a press release. Anyway, I argue this genetic evolution made timidity the hallmark of most daily American newspapers. It manifested itself in myriad ways.

5 thoughts on “Newspapers need to get a grip”

  1. Excellent analysis. It’s amazing how often we read variations of the “three stools” theory of newspapers revenue. Newstand and subscription sales have never been a significant source of income.
    Murdoch of course understands this – he used it to drive circulation of his UK papers up with cuts in cover price. It did not cost him much but justified higher ad rates.
    I doubt that he really believes papers will be saved by putting more content behind a pay wall. Still, I would not bet against him – he is one of few media owners who care about the product. (Not necessarily in a high quality product, but one that will satisfy customers).

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  2. This article by Bill Wyman is absolutely spot on – should be compulsory reading for every newspaper worker – across the nation.  And then they need to act – but I won’t be holding my breath.  Amazing that these folks don’t seem to “get it” – something that is obvious to so many.

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  3. .. Newspapers will end up producing a lot of sections about gardening and home improvement, which advertisers want,..
    Ah, so that’s why page 3 of The Age has an article on high-tech surgery, with a glam pic. And in an era when hard looks are being taken at curbing the rate of increase of health-care costs.

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  4. Press releases are not just safe. They’re cheap, and that’s at least a big a virtue in editors’ eyes. There’s no need to pay skilled labour to get a story – any cadet can transcribe dozens of them a day.

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