Save newspapers! Burn them with fire!

Save newspapers! Burn them with fire!

There is something of a cottage industry now in elegies to journalism. From books like, “No News is Bad News” to reports like the Public Policy Forum’s “Shattered Mirror” or articles like this one from the Toronto Star. The sentiment is repeated, mantra-like, in political circles and even news rooms themselves. News is dead, we live in a world of “alternative facts” etc. While the news media is crumbling across the continent, I’ll focus here mostly on the Canadian context. Here’s a diagram of the current environment:
Dumpster Fire
In all seriousness, there’s a good chance that thing was chock-a-block with newspapers.
The standard narrative, perhaps most poignantly articulated in the “Shattered Mirror” report is that digital technology, specifically social networks and search engine aggregators, have undermined the business process of newspapers and nothing adequate has replaced their function. Since there’s no business traction, there’s no market. No market, no news. This is roundly demonstrated by the closure of regional papers across the country, the hyper-centralization of the remaining papers (it used to be, “get big or die” it’s now, “get big or die first”) and the displacement in consumption of primary source journalism with secondary source opinion (like this blog!).

But why weep for the buggy whip maker? Well, the standard reasoning and sentiment is that newspapers fulfill a centrally important function in propelling the democratic process, without their presence, especially in public institutions, there is no scrutiny for powerful actors, and ipso facto no accountability.

Well, then, how do we save the newspaper?

Best as I can tell, this is the wrong question.

Oh, damn.

Newspapers are dying because their revenue model is collapsing faster than they can reduce their costs to compensate. Advertising dollars online are a fraction of what they’d get for the same content in paper production. I worked in marketing long enough to know that this is due mostly to the fact that online ads are priced by performance rather than scarcity and, while print ads on the whole were almost certainly less effective than publishers claimed, online ads have vanishingly small returns for anyone without a marketing budget in the millions.

The decline of ad revenues is true, but it is not a full explanation. The other side is that newspapers are the media equivalent of The Homer.
The Simpsons’ parodic version of GM’s Edsel, The Homer was a vehicle designed by the consumer
Newspapers aren’t lean, focused publications with tight performance in their specific area. Quite the opposite! They are jangling hodge-podges of disperate bits of information kludged together hastily, revised under absurd deadlines and stuffed between two broadsheets. The only constraints were the vaguely defined boundaries of geography and budget. Their central value, for virtually their whole history, was that they were a portable omnibus of time-sensitive information across a range of topics. The Internet provided a much better method of doing that two decades ago, so the very notion of an omnibus publication in such a format is as absurd as trying to revive card catalogues – they’re gone and that’s good.

What’s left?

Newspapers will have to go through a process of functional decomposition if their value is to be retained. Let me explain.

Area One – Local Coverage

Let’s assume the average regional daily paper is a 40 page broadsheet.
40 broadsheet pages.
A simplified 40-page daily broadsheet.
Take away the ads, that knocks us down to, generously, 25 pages.
Advertising is frequently in excess of half the total page count.
Now, let’s remove all the content better left to dedicated outlets: national politics, professional sports, recipes, music and movies, fashion, travel, national business, technology trends, international news wires, crosswords, comic strips, letters, op-eds, etc.
After you excise all the non-essentials, you’re left with very little content.
Let’s say that leaves 5 pages of substantive, local journalism that could not be adequately delegated. I think 5 pages is a little generous, but I’m trying to account for occasional long-form investigative pieces etc. Effectively the domain of newspapers is now only that which is geographically too granular for a national news outlet or international “vertical” to capture. This amounts mainly to municipal and regional politics, crime, live performance and a handful of other “beats”.

The newspaper is not alone in this model. The bundling scheme is how virtually all media works and it was undone very swiftly by digital technology and organizations everywhere are scrambling for a solution. Cable fragmented into hundreds of micro-networks of topically focused channels, studios reintroduced product-placement, unscripted television proliferated, Netflix offered an elaborately packaged copy-protection scheme, the list goes on. Bundling is inherently consumer hostile and the ceaseless march of technology breaks any attempt to force consumers to accept the bundle. Newspapers demand we buy a bunch of cruft we don’t want to get at the things we do. It’s a system undone by the web and one we legislated away in our cable providers.

So, if the 5 pages of an original 40 is really all that’s worth keeping of the product, it’s reasonable to predict that the organ of its production would contract as well. Even if revenue were to shrink to just 15% of what it was to produce all and only those 5 pages of content, that’s still proportionally more money than they had before.

This view of news is nothing new – it has been lurking on the pages of newspapers for decades in the form of wire services. Associated Press and Reuters handle most of the heavy lifting for coverage outside the scope of regional papers and most simply reproduce wires with little or no modification. This is commodity news and it follows commodity trading – the harsh logic of that economy has finally trickled all the way down to local papers who can no longer enjoy rents on their news media.

This means that local newspapers face a stark choice – become micro wire services or die.

You’re rightly thinking, “but aren’t those 5 pages much more expensive than the other 35, isn’t that the point of having them?” This is true to a point, but it should be contextualized with the next part.

Area Two – Journalistic Expertise

Those 5 pages represent the output of a process. Ideally, this process is predicated on commitments to rigor, verity, wisdom etc. all the moral imperatives on which newspapers allegedly wield a monopoly. Fact checking, editing, research, illustration, etc. all serve as inputs to the process that, hopefully, takes many non-obvious facts and distils them into esculent formats.
I throw up in my mouth a little whenever I’m reminded of this smug nugget.
The key observation is that many of these duties need not be a) colocated with the journalists doing the work and b) need not be geographically isolated to the area doing the coverage. Your beat reporter is basically the only worker in the process chain that needs to be “on the ground,” everyone else in the process can be “in the cloud.”

That is, they can be generalized service providers that carve out their niche without it being bound simultaneously by topical focus and geography – one or both of those constraints can be relaxed. Your Victoria Legislature reporter can have their Access to Information Requests prepared by someone in Richmond, their work facts checked by workers in Kamloops and a source interviewed by a contractor in Winnipeg.

In the software industry, this idea of disaggregating work processes into small modules and networking them together dynamically is called “service oriented architecture” and is used as a way of solving the challenge of gigantic software monoliths which pose serious engineering problems to software developers tasked with maintaining or updating them in a way that keeps pace with the changing environment of the organization.
Not the ideal model for an adaptive enterprise.
Large, colocated monolithic systems make sense when your primary concern is maximizing economies of scale through volume of output and you have only one instance of the system. This is no longer the primary economic impetus driving newspapers, or any mass media because not only has the cost of communication fallen to zero, the cost of coordination, even in real-time, is quickly falling to zero as well.

But there’s more to journalism than reportage.

Yes, obviously the most valuable journalism isn’t simply relaying facts but lies in contextualizing those facts to provide insight, however too many newspapers are behaving like a aristocratic passenger on the Titantic futily attempting to haul their steamer trunk filled with silverware onto the lifeboat – leaving it behind is agonizing, but take it with you and you die.

Supporters of traditional news pound the table over the demise of local papers because they believe journalism is essential to the proper functioning of democracy. Newspapers are, thus far, uniquely capable at providing the wherewithal necessary for citizens to participate in what the Shattered Mirror report called the “commonweal”. This is mostly patent, but we have to be clear-headed when we distinguish between eliminating something that is wonderful and pleasing, versus eliminating something that is necessary for the continued functioning of democratic society.
Well, the US kinda got that…only it’s being run by Breitbart and Fox & Friends.
Newspapers historical failings are precisely in the vein of contextualizing the daily lives of their readers and providing guidance, history, and insight, especially in a compassionate, rational and thoughtful way. They claim, over and over, that they are uniquely essential to holding the powerful accountable, which is true! Which is why it was so frustrating that they’ve been so routinely bad at doing just that.

So the death of newspapers presents a new opportunity for better, less institutionally corrupt systems to take their place.

So, aside from your weird tech analogy, what does it look like?

Bear with me for a minor detour. Dotcoms have gone through a very rapid learning cycle in the last two decades. In very general terms it followed three generations. The first wave was made of the wild-west, money-burning organizations of SuperBowl ad infamy. The relatively tiny commercial audience and the infantile flailing at marketing to them resulted in their demise when venture ran out.
Remember this asshole?
The second generation, exemplified by Facebook, were the “social media” companies aka “Web 2.0” These were about establishing digital fiefdoms where you could provide services and impose taxes (service fees). This is the model of Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android and nearly all the major web companies are second generation. The third generation of start-ups are just emerging.
This was the landscape nearly 10 years ago.
They are built on a principle of specialization and promiscuous integration, known in the tech world as the “Unix philosophy“. These companies focus on providing one simple function that integrates well with the 2nd-generation ecosystems. Slack, Twitch, WhatsApp, are good examples and most are built around commodity pricing or positioning for acquisition by a major player.

It seems to me that any future journalistic enterprise will look a lot like modern dot-com startups; that is, they focus on doing “one thing” (ie reporting on regional politics) and otherwise integrate well with the platforms of their audience. While some get snapped up by bigger players, most trundle along employing a dozen or fewer people.

Newspapers have traditionally scaled in the model of manufacturers – that is, they focused on making each factory even larger and more productive, this is scaling up. From now on, newspapers will have to scale in the model of Starbucks – to have hundreds of tiny adaptions to niche opportunities that, in the aggregate, make meaningful revenue, this is scaling out.  Now, remember,  newspapers will never return to the kind of revenue they used to maintain – we’re still talking about those 5 pages.

This won’t even be close to tenable for traditional news outlets – they just demand too much money. For example, the Desmarais family apparently set aside $40 million for the development of Le Presse+, TorStar apparently spent $25 million to transition to the same technology. The Toronto Star has a circulation of just over 300,000 on a good day.
This is what $40 million in cutting-edge news tech looks like….yeah.
For comparison, the Wikimedia Foundation, the NGO that runs Wikipedia has a total annual budget of $85 million USD, a bulk of which goes to operating costs to keep the network online. Wikipedia is the most heavily trafficked content-focused website on the planet, with 20 BILLION page views a month. The Foundation not only maintains Wikipedia, but dozens of ancillary projects, mobile apps, translations, AI agents, and of course the software powering the Wikis themselves. While I’m keenly aware that newspapers form the backbone for whatever integrity Wikipedia has, my observation is not about the content and more about the size and scope of the resources necessary to sustain the enterprise.
The daily unique users of Wikipedia is double the population of Canada.

Okay, so what does the landscape look like?

There are at least 3 references to the disruption of taxis by Uber in Shattered Mirror but no mention of the implication of what that disruption actually means for newspapers. Uber’s disruption signalled that the value-add that taxis offered was not actually a value many people wanted (it was a bundle, sound familiar?). What taxis offered that made them profitable was something that could be eliminated from the transaction and the customers would happily take the lower value service at the significantly lower price. There is more to it than that, but that’s the central takeaway. The same story applies to Airbnb and hotels.

So, the implications for journalism are roughly similar though more complicated. Much like Uber, I think for a time there will be a market for low-skill citizen reporting – nearly everyone has access to the rudiments necessary for reporting and I think an enterprising start-up will provide the brokering and coordination services necessary to incent people to do the work.

The central problem will be managing quality – which must be handled via a trust network and rating system similar to Yelp! or product recommendation systems in things like Netflix or Amazon. Uber and Airbnb don’t have an intense vetting process to become a driver or user – the rating system filter pushes out bad actors instead. These reporters won’t need to be full-time workers, but will instead be transactionally contracted at a highly granular level.  Importantly, the consumers of this material won’t be, for the most part, ordinary readers, but will be credentialled journalists, activists, businesses etc. Crucially, these low-level reporters need not be employees of a media organization, just as Uber drivers need not be employees of Uber.

These workers form the lowest link in the media food chain,  the “micro news wires,” whose reports are the atomic elements composed into actual stories and context by entities further up.

In the Shattered Mirror report, a model is described between Systems A & System B journalism. System A reporting is the paradigmatic journalism of newspapers – slow, rigorous, investigative, vetted, fact-checked etc. System B is the journalism of most websites – fast, opinionated, reactive. Crucially, both systems will have cause to consume the outputs of these micro news wires because it allows them to share the burden of sustaining a presence in every civic space for routine coverage but the adaptability to commission more active investigatory work when a lead presents itself.

Where’s the money?

It bears repeating, there is relatively very little money in the future of journalism if the market is based solely upon that 5 pages of content newspapers did well. Perhaps there is so little money that no soluble private company can operate – it will, therefore, fall to non-profits, which is, in my view, desirable.

Revenue gets injected into the lower level by groups with resources who have an interest in accessing these micro news wires in aggregate – businesses, especially corporations, will want detailed coverage of city council activity, for example. NGOs can be spun up around coverage of specific “beats” that gets disseminated generally.

This system also potentially dissolves the fair dealing copyright problem identified in the Shattered Mirror by levelling the playing field. When everyone has access to the same baseline level journalistic services in the form of micro news wires, the public interest insulation fair dealing introduces to copyright obtains to that content, but it effectively becomes open source. The exclusive content is analysis, which is all second order and therefore much harder to argue that its dissemination falls under fair dealing.

Doesn’t this effectively abolish investigative reporting?

No, but it doesn’t make it easier, it transforms the problem from one of vigilance in the context of routine reporting to one of pattern detection in a noisy environment of multiple simultaneous communications. Journalists will have to act more like CIA handlers with many low-yield assets and less like personally involved detectives. Put less provocatively, journalists will be the general contractor, not the tradesperson.

Groups that fund and pursue investigative reporting likely won’t be media outlets per se, but will instead by the media wing of domain-specific organizations such as NGOs. Obviously, this opens the door for propagandists, but that door has been ajar since Mosaic was downloadable, at least now everyone has access to journalistic services.

Obviously, this implies that there will be far fewer journalists in the future. But again, our concern here is with protecting democracy, not propping up an employment sector.

But will it work?

I don’t know – but fundamentally, it has to. Civic reporting is a crucial aspect of the democratic project, especially when the powerful cannot be trusted to even fulfill even the most basic and unambiguous campaign promises.

The name newspaper will likely take on the same sort of skeuomorphic connotations that “phone” does in a world of “smartphones” – the central function of news will be abstracted out of the medium of its consumption and the basic function of extracting primary source content from communities will be its stock and trade. Being a “beat” reporter will be a low-paying, risky job occupied largely by semi-skilled people – while this isn’t the utopian idea of the intellectual and rigorous press, it’s far better than a system predicated on alternate facts and ideologically-derived arguments teetering under the combined mass of their internal contradictions.

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