Commonwealth Club event at San Jose City Hall: Who Needs Ink?
- Ex-Mercury News tech writer Dan Gillmor, currently of various citizen journalism initiatives
- Jerry Ceppos, ex-Knight Ridder news executive (and Merc alum)
- Peter Appert, a Goldman Sachs analyst
- Joan Walsh, Salon‘s editor-in-chief
- Jim Bettinger, communications prof from Stanford (and Merc alum) is moderating
- And about 60 audience members…(It is a rainy night…)
[ooOOh: There is free wifi at City Hall. Go figure… By the way, the SaveTheMerc folks were at the registration table.]
The Future of Newspapers is pretty timely at the moment, with the future of the Mercury News (way) up in the air, along with the 11 other KR orphans.
Oh, and I don’t have my camera with me tonight, but for nostalgia’s sake, you can check out this shot of Dan Gillmor with a couple SJSU faculty members from last year. (I am not a photojournalist.) If anyone took pictures tonight, I’ll happily link to them. (Steve Sloan’s got a shot here)
Okay, enough preamble…questions are being asked by Bettinger.
[Ed. note: If it’s not in quotes, it’s paraphrased.]
Do investors think the business model is broken?
- Appert: There will still be a paper on your doorstep tomorrow and the next week. Revenue growth is sliding, and if you’re public, there’s pressure from the shareholders to get more value out of the company.
- Gillmor: “The facts are the facts. The business model is eroding…” Newspapers under attack by “nimble, hungry” competitors. (Who is he talking about? Blogs? Alt weeklies? TV? I dunno.)
- Ceppos: “We clearly have a great new way to distribute the news, but there still is a print culture in our newsrooms.” Take half your staff, and point them at the Internet. For real. Not “Hey, file a story online before you write your important story for the paper.” The culture of the newsroom has to change. Free dailies will do well, but the Web is the thing. It’s the content that matters, not the channel.
Can the Web revenue grow fast enough?
- Ceppos: Probably not, but let’s figure out how to make money off it.
- Appert: Internet ad revenues for news orgs are growing, but the print revenue is shrinking faster. Web ad rates are a fraction of print rates. (Ed. note: Charge More.)
- Ceppos: Ditching the stock tables from print is a bright idea, and it has been for years. Why did it take so long? (What I want to know: What else can print cut out this year?)
- Walsh: Yesterday’s wire stories? Ditch ’em. Everyone read those online last night. The Rosenstiel report: more outlets doesn’t mean more news. What took big orgs like the NY Times so long to integrate print and Web? “We have to think of ways to make newspapers essential again, and they might not be newspapers.
Are newspapers dinosaurs? Slow, lumbering and tiny-brained?
- Ceppos: Yes. The NYT’s e-mail the bylined writer schtick – once a day the writer gets a set of e-mail. Plus, the Times Select op-ed writers’ e-mail addys are still hidden behind the paywall.
- Gillmor: Newspapers are in the manufacturing biz, not the news biz. “That’s what really runs the business.” How do you get out of that while maintaining enough good journalism? “Clearly, killing the stock tables is a very nice first step.” Appert: “I love the stock tables.” Gillmor: Understands the NYT’s fear of gobs and gobs of reader e-mail, but they should still get it. News people have to understand that the audience is an active participant now. Cue We The Media Mantra: “My readers know more than I do.”
- Appert: “The freight is paid by the advertiser,” so how do we make the newspaper more appealing to the advertiser so we can make money to make great news?
- Gillmor: Journalism isn’t getting the high-margin ads (the classifieds). Walsh: Advertising can’t really drive the discussion. Success is going to come with feeding your audience what the want – be nimble, be creative. Appert: “Tragically, I think you’re wrong.” Editorial has to be aware of what the advertisers want.
How has Salon been profitable?
- Walsh: “We cut costs to the bone and it wasn’t pretty.” Then, they focused on what they do best. At one point, they talked about subscribing to the AP wire and rewriting stories “the Salon way.” We’ve got a subscriber model – if you subscribe, you don’t see the ads. That’s not actually working out that well. (The advertisers want the opinion leaders’ eyes, eh?) Comments are on, and there’s no flood of crap to edit for libel/death threats, but it’s going alright. The WaPo comments flap, and the WaPo plagiarist blogger kerfuffle.
- Gillmor: The Web works great because you can experiment and cherry-pick the winning ideas.
Verification before publication, or publication and self-correction?
- Gillmor: Most blogs are conversation, not journalism, so don’t sweat it. Factual errors can be fixed quickly. Citizen Journalism doesn’t mean that everyone’s a journalist; it means that some people “from time to time, commit an act of journalism.” Dan’s new rules for journalism include transparency.
- Ceppos: The best newspaper sites are getting the news out accurately.
The Google/Yahoo News question – aggregation vs. creation?
- Ceppos: Pretty neat, but I don’t need to read the same story 10 times. People want news, they need news, they’ll get news. Will there be any money to pay for news? Yeah, but put that big bunch of staff on the online edition.
- Walsh: Newspapers are overstaffed. Cue Chronicle joke. This is a Merc room… Great journalism has not been rewarded – KR’s Iraq repoprting was best.
Has the print industry outlived the business model?
How many audience members read a daily newspaper?
- The demand for instant news, without a physical product…
- Gillmor: Hopefully there’s some sort of way to package news to create context in communities.
- Walsh: The NOLA Times Picayune rocked after Katrina. Went straight to the Web, then published readers’ stories. “The readers became experts.”
- Appert: Demographics are a challenge. Newspapers have a depth of local coverage you can’t get from other media.
What should J-Schools be doing to prepare students for the future?
- Ceppos: We should focus less on convergence and the specifics of how to build web pages — we should be teaching them how to cover the news and file stories in different ways. Focus on the basics, but know how to file for all media.
- Walsh: At NY event she was at, news execs were falling over each other to make content deals with J-Schools. (Ed. note: PAY US. Please do not refer to students as “cheap labor.” It’s not cheap for us, mmkay?)
Tom Paine + Ben Franklin = blogs? Death of newspapers is okay, right?
- Gillmor: “Blog” is just a
“foxy word” “proxy word” [CORRECTED 4/1/06 – Thanks Dan!] for “doing things ourselves.” Ninety-five percent of everything (not just blogs – everything) is crap. How do we surface the really good stuff? We need to get past the Daily Me and to the Daily We. “The Tom Paines of tomorrow are probably going to be doing it with video” and other forms that are native to the next generation of mediamakers.
What direction should news orgs be “sprinting” to in search of the new business model?
- Appert: It’s not that bad yet, but it’s getting worse, so sprint.
Why print out Web stories to read them, fellas?
- Ceppos: The lack of portability.
- Gillmor: Screens aren’t pleasant enough to read yet for long periods of time. Good stuff coming soon, and more portable too. (Ed. note: think e-paper.)
- Ceppos: You want to pass a section of the paper back and forth over the breakfast table with your spouse. (Ed. note: Bathroom reading did pop up as another reason.)
Local weeklies, dailies?
- Gillmor: Consolidation has made weeklies crappier. But they should be better, and have a chance, because a lot of these areas are too small for Craig’s List to get into.
- Ceppos: Still not convinces that people care about their hyperlocal news.
- Appert: Hyperlocal papers have the best penetration rates. Chorus: They’re free.
- Gillmor: Metro dailies could let communities talk to each other about their local issues.
Vision/Mission statement for a new print paper?
- Ceppos: “Be famous for something.”
- Walsh: Great reporting and writing, and “a place for the reader at the table.”
Last question: What’s the most important journalistic value that needs to be preserved, and how?
- Walsh: Accuracy. “It’s not very sexy…” but you can’t separate the current news problems from the accuracy and credibility problems.
- Gillmor: “Telling the truth,” a slight twist on accuracy/objectivity. Help readers sort out the important issues instead of just reporting he said/she said. Laments for the KR Washington bureau that stood up re: Iraq.
- Ceppos: “A new kind of fairness that goes further than we’re comfortable with.” Though the WaPo’s right-wing blogger idea wasn’t bad. “Preferably, don’t hire a plagiarist to do this…” Change traditional news-covering habits to avoid imbalances. (He told his Republican pumpkin story — those who have heard it once or twice before know what I’m talking about.)
- Appert: The industry can’t survive without journalistic principles, BUT “profability is required to support good journalism.”
(For the answers to a few more questions, check out Edupodder Steve Sloan’s podcast, recorded last night after the panel discussion.)
My take: First one to figure out a new business model for newspapers WINS.
Personally, I think the print newspaper should either be a luxury item or a rock-bottom bare-bones tabloid. Perhaps both, eh? Charge more (alot) for the fat luxury version, and charge advertisers more (alot) to reach the demographic that can afford it. In the tab version, print just top national news, more local news, sports, and the funnies. Make the tab free, with appropriate ads for the demographic it reaches. The luxury version is what subscribers get at home, the tab is what you pay 50 cents for at the newsstand, and the online edition is completely free, with lots of multimedia, audio, video, opinion, blogs, forums, and comments are on everywhere. But that’s just me.