Newspaper circulation is plummeting, and every day more people are turning to computers for free news on the Internet. Where printing a newspaper was once likened to printing money, these days the owners of the papers — some corporations, some individuals and families, and some nonprofits — are for the most part losing money.
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In Stop the Presses!, co-directors Mark Birnbaum and Manny Mendoza capably document the excruciating and massive collapse of the newspapers’ finances that has accelerated during this decade. We get a pallet-load of talk about the search for a new business model because of these apparently permanent social and behavioral shifts. To understand the scope of these losses, consider that in major metropolitan newspaper markets, the free message board web site Craigslist.org has directly reduced roughly 30 percent of metro newspapers’ former revenues from selling classified ads. You can post an ad for free on Craigslist, but you have to pay the local paper, let’s see here.... I am looking it up on their web site, and I see I can either send an email to ask about ad rates, or click this link to a .pdf of their rate card. Oops, the link is broken. You can’t even look up the classified ad rates online at my local paper right now. That’s the perfect example of a technological failure, and a reason why the online community is going to continue ignoring the local paper. Even if they succeed at reproducing their content online, it isn’t easy for newspapers to make up for the losses in print readers. According to the filmmakers, revenues from each internet reader amount to only between 5 and 30 percent of the revenues from each single-copy newspaper reader.
It’s tempting to lay all blame for this upheaval in the newspaper world at the feet of the Internet, which has changed not only the way people read news but also the way they gather and report it. The changes keep coming, fast and furious, like copies of an extra edition off the printing press. But Stop the Presses! points out that newspapers’ circulation declines had started plummeting before the internet’s rise, indicating as much of a cultural and generational divide in news consumption as a technological divide.
What are some alternative business models for newsgathering organizations? The film presents as a shining example the Poynter Institute, in St. Petersburg, Florida, which runs its newspapers as nonprofits. They strive for ten percent growth every year to sustain their operations, instead of the 20 to 30 percent growth shareholders have typically come to expect of the corporations they invest in. During the panel discussion and Q & A following the film — moderated by Robert Denerstein, former Denver Post film critic — one of the panelists noted that a few years ago, newspapers were hiring consultants and running focus groups to analyze how well newspapers were meeting local needs. We are no longer seeing much of that these days; changes made in response to these efforts didn’t have much effect on the circulation declines. One panelist found it ironic that it was the Miami Herald humor columnist Dave Barry who gave the most insightful analysis of the papers’ financial situation: Barry recounted how the paper’s editors had decided to add “more bulleted lists” to attract “people who don’t read.” A creative solution brought up during the discussion was Spot.Us, which allows writers to pitch their ideas; readers then can read the pitches and donate to the ones they like to offset reporting costs. When enough people have donated, the reporter covers the story, and can then market it to other news organizations.
Yet after all that urgent discussion about an increasingly dire situation, I left the screening and panel discussion feeling much like the interviewee in one segment who was asked for his prognosis on where the newspaper business would be in 10 to 20 years summed it up all too well: “Can I say ‘We have no fucking idea’ here?”
Perhaps that’s the best place to start when trying to solve a problem as intractable as this one appears to be. A clean slate and no fucking idea.