What will the news look like in the future?

Happy new year everyone!

The New Yorker had a nice, concise piece on the financial state of the newspaper industry recently (it’s bad), which concludes:

Does that mean newspapers are doomed? Not necessarily. There are many possible futures one can imagine for them, from becoming foundation-run nonprofits to relying on reader donations to that old standby the deep-pocketed patron. It’s even possible that a few papers will be able to earn enough money online to make the traditional ad-supported strategy work. But it would not be shocking if, sometime soon, there were big American cities that had no local newspaper; more important, we’re almost sure to see a sharp decline in the volume and variety of content that newspapers collectively produce. For a while now, readers have had the best of both worlds: all the benefits of the old, high-profit regime—intensive reporting, experienced editors, and so on—and the low costs of the new one. But that situation can’t last. Soon enough, we’re going to start getting what we pay for, and we may find out just how little that is.

A third alternative could be to bundle a “news service” fee into your monthly Internet service provider bill, as has been proposed for “illegal” music downloading.

In his “Cyber Libertarian” column for Ascii, economist Nobuo Ikeda forecasts that newspapers in Japan will become “platforms”—meaning they will eventually shed the high-cost paper distribution system and even their newsrooms in favor of publishing outsourced content under their venerated imprints.

I am not sure what to make of it all, but it’s fascinating stuff and I would love to hear your thoughts!

31 thoughts on “What will the news look like in the future?

  1. Since our last discussion of the merits and demerits of newspapers fading and more content going online, I thought of another demerit – much of the best blogging is national or international in scope. I think that the local often gets lost online. The “Big Amerian cities with no local newspaper” is a scary thought, given how often local interests are sold out (unsurprisingly, another big “Wire” theme). Many of the social problems that cause human misery have local roots and demand local solutions. While some of America’s best have provided good Iraq War coverage and that alternative to government newspeak is likely to continue, it is pretty easy to see a future where nobody has a finger on crime in Baltimore.

    While I have already forgotten where I saw this (doh), I read another interesting recent article that had a fresh take on the general issue of newspapers finding a place – print newspapers cannot compete with the net for speed so they should not try. The best alternative option could be to offer an information product that leans closer to that of magazines like “The New Yorker”. At the very least, people would be willing to pay for this sort of content online and it could do lots for brands like the Asahi. Of course, this is already being done in Japan with Shukanshi of various levels of taste and the (often fantastic) monthlies which pick up a lot of what the newspapers decide to pass. One thing that may have to go in the US is the idea of a newspaper as a one stop shop for international, national, local news and opinion. In Japan, I think that the information market is more fragmented, but this is also a source of diversity – just look at some of the ‘pop sociology’ books that came up in a recent Neojaponisme thread, they sell for 1/3 of US, UK, Canadian, Aussie equivalents so already operate as a read and toss (to Bookoff) magazine-like hybrid product. Both US and Japanese information producers should be looking at new options for cross media packaging and distribution.

    Of course, somebody also has to do something about the fact that many North Americans no longer read books. It seems like about 20% of Japanese and Koreans poll that they have not read a single book (manga not counted) in the last year while the number for Americans and Canadians is about 47%. Wait a minute… isn’t that the exact percentage that voted for McCain

  2. I am more worried about the 100% of Adamus who don’t read enough books.

    The problems of Baltimore and places like it can’t really be summed up in a blog comment, but I will say this—you are right that there should be people keeping a close eye on the situation, but even if there were a whole fleet of reporters covering the city I don’t think its problems would be solved. First off, local government has almost never been the decision-making center for things like drug policy—in fact drug enforcement policy is under Czarist rule, so to speak, directed by the zealots in the Federal government. Same goes for the local industry and general regional growth, two factors that have been missing for the lower-income Baltimore residents. Fact is, our understanding of the problem and our general priorities have been highly screwed up nationwide, and that’s what produces problems like the drugs in B-more. Comparatively, ensuring a minimum amount of local coverage is easily fixed (more funding to public broadcasting or the establishment of endowments for journalism are as mentioned above).

    Your last joke-y comment has relevance for the Baltimore question. When a community is more or less civically disengaged and media illiterate (or complete church-freaks or straight-up junkies), you could scream corruption at them until you are blue in the face and nothing good would come of it. Again this comes down to both education, opportunity, and also basic trust of the media and the desire to actually interact with the real world.

    And yes, there may be no more role for newspapers in terms of timely reporting. A recent J-Cast interview series has Takashi Uesugi arguing as much for the Japanese newspapers. Even in print form, he argues, most of them should have no business trying to do the job of wire services. Wire reporters are usually paid less than their newspaper counterparts, but the nationwide papers are in fact paying their reporters top wages to do the same job. They are supported by their oligopolies on information, relationships with power, and regulatory protection. The media in the US enjoy little of the same privileges, which is what makes the crisis there all the more urgent.

    For some reason I forgot to save the New Year edition of the Nikkei (and of course little of it is online), but it was really quite an amazingly hopeful love letter to Japan—they are hoping that Japan will wake up and get on the IT bandwagon (instead of hooking up a trailer and getting towed along by it), invest in its strengths, and actually go through with some creative destruction in the service sector. These are things they have more or less been saying for years this issue simply lacked much of the typical coordination-minded centrist tepidness and just dripped with 切実さ. One of the most inspiring pieces was on a music criticism magazine ROCKIN ON, which the publisher specifically established to form a niche of actually critiquing things instead of the usual role of music journals as a sort of promotional catalog for the industry. This story was printed next to a list of the dozen plus magazines that were shuttered in 2008. That the Nikkei, no less a part of the established order than the emperor himself, would so earnestly sing the praises of constructive criticism, particularly directed at a magazine that does not allow artists to review and censor their album reviews before publication, speaks volumes about the sense of crisis at the highest levels here.

    On a side note, Book Off is more like Book Ripoff (Book Madoff?). They buy the books for scandalously low prices then sell them for a huge profit. They are only able to maintain their hundreds of massive and butt-ugly storefronts because the Japanese people don’t know that they should be placing the books on Yahoo Auctions or Amazon Marketplace. My father-in-law sold a series of historical novels for something like 80% of the purchase price because he knew how to put his stuff up for auction.

  3. Amazon Marketplace and eBay both charge listing fees now, which makes them a PITA if you’re offloading something that might not sell in a week or a month. I was planning on listing a bunch of old books when I went back to the US for the holidays, but balked once I noticed the new up-front payment requirement.

    The biggest hurdle for blogging in the local sphere must be the lack of online source content—the bloggers have to either be a primary source or go to print sources which are hard to track down several days later. There isn’t as much opportunity to copy-and-paste with commentary. If the local dailies start disappearing I would expect much more local content to fill the void. A blog written by anonymous Baltimore cops (or dealers or garden-variety citizens) would be great, and they must want to draw attention to their respective situations.

  4. “I don’t think its problems would be solved.”

    We really, really need steps toward radical action, however. This is the most shocking thing that I’ve read in ages, but I’m really glad that there is someone out there who will take the time to write it right –
    http://www.thenation.com/doc/20090105/thompson?rel=hp_currently

    The first step toward change (for B-more’s problems as well) may just be getting people pissed off. Just how did a story like this stay out of the mainstream? That’s enough of a pissoff right there. If something like this happened in Japan, the whole English J-blog sphere and half of academia would be up in arms.

    “this comes down to both education”

    Yeah, it all has to start in education. I think that America is having a problem providing the basic tools to many of its citizens. This is reflected by the situation described in my last comment. I think that, on the flipside, a country like Japan is doing a fine job of providing those tools but not necessarily showing a majority how to use them. I’m all for a radical rethinking of how education is handeled – less math, more encouraging basic empathy and a civic sense.

    “nationwide papers are in fact paying their reporters top wages to do the same job.”

    Not always the same job. For example as was reviewed here, while the basic reporting of the Tamogami case was rather lame, we had that nice collection of features in the Asahi that fits well with the demand that I am laying on newspapers – more contextualized reporting and longer features.

    “speaks volumes about the sense of crisis at the highest levels here.”

    In the music industry maybe. Japan has had fine film and literary criticism for decades and some areas like manga have also been well served. Japanese critics have also not been afraid to bash national institutions like Studio Ghibli with films like Howl’s Moving Castle and Wizard of Earthsea getting reviews that ranged from lukewarm to unkind. I don’t really know what to make of music criticism anywhere. Was the new Beyonce song REALLY one of the best songs released ANYWHERE this year as Time Magazine would have us believe? I sorta hope not…. One thing that can be said for film critics – they have typically been far less susceptible to star power.

    On Bookoff – they do bump up the prices, but they also move lots and lots of useful stuff for 100 yen a pop. They also don’t wrap their manga so people can stay and read all day which makes them a go-to location for people into that stuff. Bookoff does pay well for some things – 50% or more for some “premium” stuff but really it is an easy way to buy cheap and dump cheap – its almost like rental system. I take advantage of it as I (and many others) could not be arsed to auction stuff that I know won’t bring in any money (I also sell 100 at a time to Bookoff). Japan actually does have a very vital online auction culture – lots of manga ends up going through those channels. But old bunko won’t sell online. Bookoff comes right to your door and takes ‘em away.

    I also think that bookoff, while hurting the publishing industry, deserves some praise for making cultural products available to the masses. You pay $23.95 for something like “Nickled and Dimed” (US working poor book) which…. pretty much makes it a big purchase for the working poor. In Japan, the most popular working poor books go for 690 yen, 200 yen at Bookoff (or 100 if you look hard enough). Perhaps this is why Japanese read more… books not being sold at luxury prices. US books do drop in price, but if you want current first run non-fiction – it is probably going to have to be hardcover.

    PBS has been making some noise about the recent US recession sparking record attendance at concerts (Messiah, stuff like that) and art galleries over the holidays…. Maybe more people in Japan will start reading if the handbags are out of reach.

  5. Listing fees? That is crappy and defeats the whole purpose.

    http://baltimorecrime.blogspot.com/

    OK, real life Baltimore is even more depressing than the Wire. 233 murders in 2008, but thats an improvement.

    First post of the new year:
    “Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld rung in the new year by personally arresting two people and seizing two sawed-off shotguns”

    .. murder #1 happened at 12:50 near Patterson Park.

  6. Simon’s “Homicide” which chronicled a full year with the division in the late 1980s, also recorded the first murder of the year at just after midnight on the 1st. 233 is “good” for Baltimore, however. I think that they saw 350 a few years back.

    While local blogs can be an important part of an information tapestry, I’m still going to stand by my earlier point that people doing good reportage should get paid well for it. The article in The Nation that I linked above – no blogger is going to turn out something like that on weekends.

  7. But did you notice the note at the top of the article?

    “A.C. Thompson’s reporting on New Orleans was directed and underwritten by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. ProPublica provided additional support, as did the Center for Investigative Reporting and New America Media.”

    If the market fails to support investigative journalism, is it possible that foundations such as these will be able to pick up the slack enough to matter?

  8. Of course, I should point out that The Nation is, and always has been, a money-losing operation supported by charitable donation. The decline of commercial media won’t necessarily have the same level of effect on foundation-supported non-profit media, such as The Nation or The Guardian. Of course, the similarly foundation-based Christian Science Monitor has been forced to all but eliminate print operations.

  9. think that the local often gets lost online. The “Big Amerian cities with no local newspaper” is a scary thought, given how often local interests are sold out (unsurprisingly, another big “Wire” theme). Many of the social problems that cause human misery have local roots and demand local solutions.

    Terrie’s Take had a recent article about newspaper/print media consolidation and pointed out that there is a Canadian-owned chain of local newspapers that is doing quite well, while focusing on local content:

    ...We were interested to read that one
    of Canada’s most successful publishers (in terms of ROI) is
    a gentleman called David Black (not related to jailed
    publisher Conrad Black). Black owns 170 community free
    papers across the Western states of Canada and makes money
    on most of them. None are large, and in fact the average
    print-run per title is a miniscule 4,818 copies…!

    Black says that the secret to his success is keeping costs
    low… (by) sharing back office costs, sharing printers,
    offering high-tech functional websites to archive and
    provide feedback, and ensuring that distribution occurs
    where people gather…

    Like David Black’s audience, Japan’s foreign population
    dwells in communities not much different in size to the
    small towns and cities spread across British Columbia.

    As a reader, I can say that the Black Chain of weekly newspapers does a good job (better than the the dailies) of covering local news.

  10. Any relation between David Black and famed newspaper mogul and Harry Potter villain Baron Conrad Black?

  11. When I get the chance I want to translate the whole J-Cast series (starts here) but basically Uesugi was saying that the newspapers do BOTH wire-style reports and in-depth pieces when they should only do one.

  12. In the hopes of persuading him to join the fray, I would like to cross post the comment of one Busan-based Baltimoron from the Bloggingheads forum. He is a very smart fellow (check what he says about a certain “good expat Japan blogger”) who has his own site here:

    The blogosphere promised, that more people could both add their experience, AND, get more information. Yet, now that the flood gates are open, some people and organizations are pushing back at the dike with standards for self-serving reasons. No one questions the value of a person’s opinion when the result is a statistical figure – or a fraction thereof – but when words are involved there is suddenly a level. And, few people knew how to challenge arguments based on statistical inference. So, instead of looking at it as “BS” or a geometric progression of worthless quanta, I see it as putting a face and a voice to what was serviceably passive quanta. I think the gates, or experts, are noticing how this change affects their margins of error.

    Those gates, like newspapers, were often loss leaders, or vanity devices, for the same incompetent corporations suffering from debt. Some of the gates might have lost the ability to attract an audience, but others might just be collateral damage. So, I think there needs to be an evaluation of what worked and what didn’t, not just accepting the current ugliness as proof of irrelevance. Perhaps one day the blogosphere can develop a standard, like peer review.

    I think George’s discrimination about the quality of science and political gates is highly unequal. Many topics that Horgan and Johnson now discuss are political, but they lack the credentials even a WaPo reporter has. I might defer to a science writer on quantum mechanics, but on economics, politics, or intelligence, no science writer on this bhTV feature approaches the experience or erudition in those disciplines. I tolerate Horgan and Johnson especially because they might hit the mark ignorantly, but I have my own favorite gates for those areas. Most sci-fi writers are similarly quite unsophisticated. And, even the best-known reporters at WaPo have suffered from so-called “sources” feeding what an administration or congressional office wants it to write. I’ve fed newspapers information, as part of my job.

    That points, too, to the deconstructive function of the blogosphere. One can assume any news story is a plant, so it’s possible if one reads enough from different angles to reconstruct the original quantum. Or, someone might just come clean. But, even then, there’s a mountain of theory to wade through to explain the quantum. Horgan and Johnson are good science writers because they can wade through theory, and weed out the chaff in all the science stories. They are not as good in other fields.

    I know for a fact that there are people like me who have sworn an oath not to divulge information, but that doesn’t count for those from whom we received the information. But, before the blogosphere, who would know to ask them, if someone like me didn’t fall on my sword. Today, someone could speak up. The question is, will professional gates like Johnson, listen? And, will their bosses, the editors, let them listen? I’m hoping the newspapers and other gates going out deserve their death for all they didn’t do, and what they never wanted to do.

    RIP! Good Riddance!

    Lest even I grow despondent, a good expat Japan blogger offers a number of alternatives to the current news regime – and with links!

    What will the news look like in the future?

    Any of these alternatives is better than the current regime.

  13. Sorry, I’m a little more saddened to see the decline of papers than you Adamu. As they go, so too does the reporting infrastructure that the rest of the media (bloggers included) rely on for fodder. The uber bloggers, such as the Huntington Post in the States or Guido Fawkes in the UK could step up and provide more primary reporting, but would even they open a branch in Iraq or hire a reputable stringer in Kabul say to break new stories? The likes of you and I sure couldn’t afford to. Newspapers are dying though; here’s hoping that bloggers can fill the void.

  14. Thanks, Adamu. And, I hope readers here will read my blog. Really, though, the Boards at bhTV are prime. The diavlogs above all else are entertaining and informative. I’ve pushed in my humble way for more Asia-related discussions, so perhaps readers and contributors can continue the struggle to bring Asia to North Americans.

    On the point, for those mourning print – and really I love my PDA for convenience – I’m noticing a trend in publishing. Foreign Policy, like this hour, unveiled its star stable of bloggers, including Stephen Walt and Abu Aardvark. But, it will keep the flagship magazine. Similarly, TNR, The Economist, and The Atlantic have the same setup. The Economist is very successful. I can’t say the same for the others. but, this seems to be the new craze in publishing.

  15. “If the market fails to support investigative journalism, is it possible that foundations such as these will be able to pick up the slack enough to matter?”

    While Thompson may have gotten support for this particular piece, it is the stable salary/employment that lies behind his ability to do it in the first place. Leaving things up to foundations could also be dangerous as we all know that the right has more money – they have a massive edge in thinktanks, for example.

    There are also areas of the mainstream that are doing just fine by contrast. Rush Limbaugh claims 20,000,000 listeners….

    Baltimore Crime Blog – For me, that is more of an example as to why blogs CAN’T be counted on to pick up the slack – most of the incidents discussed are linked to Sun or Examiner articles with little original analysis. There is no reason why we should expect average bloggers to do serious leg work for free and if we don’t pay for it, maybe it does not get done.

    Free Canadian weekly newspapers – more about the local high school hockey team and the church bake sale than serious reportage, I’m afraid. That area is also the bastion of conservative support in Canada….

    “I’m hoping the newspapers and other gates going out deserve their death for all they didn’t do, and what they never wanted to do.”

    You could argue that there is something that the blogs never wanted to do either – direct reportage. Blogs are (mostly) good for comment on establishment sources and provide a valuable alternative. Without the mainstream there as grist for the mill, however, can we even tell what blogs would look like?

  16. Hi guys,

    In response to your question, have a look at what the guys at Spot.Us are doing with community-funded journalism:

    http://spot.us/
    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/24/weekinreview/24kershaw.html

    Nothing on crime in Baltimore that I can see, but there is a story on Oakland crime:

    http://spot.us/pitches/35

    This kind of funding is clearly not a replacement for the scale of operations in MSM, but it is a model that could potentially be very effective at a local or regional scale—where people directly investing in the news coverage would have a tangible sense of their “return on investment”.

    Chris

  17. > Any relation between David Black and famed newspaper mogul and Harry Potter villain Baron Conrad Black?

    Heh, no relation whatsoever. I know a lot of people who have worked for David Black’s newspaper chain, and doesn’t sound like a terrible place to work, but they aren’t making much money.

    One way Black keeps his costs down is by hiring younger staff at the start of their careers. In most cases, a managing editor with 5 years of industry experience at a Black paper is earning 50% of what a Commerce, Engineering or CS grad in the same age cohort is earning (ie, C$35K a year).

    It’s expected that these reporters and editors will move on to more lucrative positions in the bigger papers, and will be replaced at Black by young grads.

    Of course, full-time reporting gigs at the dailies are drying up…

  18. “Common estimates suggest that a Web-driven product could support only 20 percent of the current staff”

    Gawd.

  19. I dont find that piece to be at all grim. While the Times print edition might end (as an IHT subscriber I will be sad), the vision laid out toward the bottom sounds pretty good, and pretty close to Ikeda Nobuo’s idea.

    Basically anything that might wipe the smug grin off of David Gregory’s face would make me happy (watch him on the Daily Show from the other day).

  20. http://news.yahoo.com/s/uc/20090109/cm_uc_crmmax/op_198640;_ylt=AihOdhttOLdjxbsvk2q9HDr9wxIF

    Is this the future?

    Of course, Malkin is nuts. What she calls monochrome far left views in the US media strike many people as being centrist at best and the alternative that she calls for is far, far, far right citizen / celebrity amateur journalism (not that I have any problem with airing the Israeli side, but by Joe the Plumber!?). So is the future a public sphere that is completely ghettoized? Or dominated by the far right (because they have more money)?

    We have another bad example of this type of thing lately. Ben Stien, in shilling for Creationism, has said –
    “When we just saw that man, I think it was Mr. Myers [i.e. biologist P.Z. Myers], talking about how great scientists were, I was thinking to myself the last time any of my relatives saw scientists telling them what to do they were telling them to go to the showers to get gassed … that was horrifying beyond words, and that’s where science—in my opinion, this is just an opinion—that’s where science leads you… Love of God and compassion and empathy leads you to a very glorious place, and science leads you to killing people.”

    So let’s all run screaming from “science”. This is the kind of thing that the right is able to get bankrolled (his film “Expelled”).

    I can’t help but think that while the move to the net is potentially liberating, it could also mean the fall of the last real left bastions that exist. 80% of the NYT going up in smoke is scary.

  21. Malkin’s defense of Joe the Plumber is pretty comical. Hardly anyone cares that he’s not a professional-it’s that he clearly doesn’t know anything. Showing some interviews with civilians in the rocket-targeted areas of Israel is a fine idea-but there’s hundreds or thousands of English-speaking journalists and WAY more non-journalists already over there who could do a way better job than this clown.

    Ben Stein astounds me. Who knew there were Jewish creationists?

  22. I loved this bit aboout Joe the Plumber*: “But he thinks he’s, quote, ‘pretty well protected by God.’”
    Reminds me a bit (okay, a lot) of a certain Chinese rebellion not too many centuries ago…. Didn’t work for them either.

    Ben Stein is just slimey. He is a liar, pure and simple. And the last time any of his relatives saw scientists, in the sense he apparently is referring to, telling them what to do was probably when one of them was being prepped for life-saving surgery. Seriously, Ben Stein can not be this stupid and still have a functioning brain stem.

    “Love of God and compassion and empathy leads you to a very glorious place, and science leads you to killing people.”

    Compassion and empathy are great, but they have sod-all to do with a love of God. That leads to the Hammer of Witches and other delights.

    *He’s called that as he’ll soon have a lot of lead in him….

  23. Exactly! We like the idea of a non-professional complement to journalism. Just not idiots! I also don’t mind conservative or rightwing views as long as they aren’t pumped up by strawman arguments and BS.

    Malkin has used the same arguments for academia – that people out of the club are silenced. But when you look at it, there is a lot of welcoming of the ideas of people without PhDs – many authors and filmmakers are given professorships based on experience and are welcomed into the academy with open arms (although there are some @$$es out there).

    “who could do a way better job than this clown.”

    Who ARE doing a way better job than this clown. I’ve seen a half dozen reports on feelings in the rocket hit areas of Israel (that is, without even seeking them out), but, it seems, the lowest common denominator of the far right demands Joe the Plumber.

    As for Jewish creationists – if you are conservative in the United States, I guess it is easy to get sucked in for the whole package. (BTW, did you ever see Spike Lee’s “Get on the Bus”? – there is a gay black Republican character).

  24. Hmm, I saw “Get on the Bus” but I don’t recall that character. But anyway, I’ve seen stuff from an awful lot of conservative American Jews, and I’ve never heard anyone come even close to anti-science nonsense that comes out of Stein. It’s like he’s actually converted to evangelicalism but he’s pretending to still be Jewish to help spread the nonsensical word.

  25. The Stein situation sure is strange… It looks like he is pro-life but also pro-gay rights, a republican supporter who opposes tax breaks for the rich. Quite a grab bag of ideas there. In any case, I hope he knocks the ID stuff off….

  26. Remember that game show he used to have on Comedy Central where the guest would challenge him on a trivia contest in the last round? I wonder if they left out any questions on evolutionary science…

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