Death Throes Comment Count

Brian December 16th, 2008 at 3:08 PM

Warning: not about sports.

The media and its current direction is a semi-frequent topic of discussion around these parts, so this is worth mentioning:

The News and Free Press are scaling back home delivery to three days a week. This is the beginning of the end. The newspaper companies are voluntarily giving up half their subscription revenue in exchange for not losing money on the printing and distribution of a paper without sufficient ad revenue to cover their expenses. There is only one way this arrow points: down.

Allen Mutter, Silicon Valley CEO, former newspaper guy, and blogger, says the radical scaling back was the only alternative to total collapse:

“The choice was to shut down or to try to salvage the newspaper,” said the former executive, who was familiar with the months-long deliberations earlier this year that resulted in the decision to scrap home delivery four days a week at the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News.

The radical plan, which is likely to cost some 190 people their jobs by March, was not as much a carefully conceived business decision as it was an act of desperation, said the executive, who declined to be identified because he did not want to compromise continuing business relationships.

You can sign up for the News or Free Press's new half-digital, half-dead system on the internets now, and it includes options to buy single electronic editions of the paper online. Which like… if there's no paywall—and there apparently isn't—why would I pay for the newspaper in an inconvenient format that attempts to mimic the experience of having a newspaper when I have a vastly more powerful medium at my fingertips?

Look! It's the internet! It links to things. It has infinite space and can insert video or audio if it wants; it can be interactive. It does not jump to another page unless I am evil and trying to get more pageviews out of each reader. The effort to develop an "electronic" edition of the paper is going to work about as well as The Sporting News' electronic daily thing, which ends up in my inbox every morning and exits, unread, because you're completely bats if you think I'm going to wander through a clumsy PDF file in search of two hundred words about Michigan.

You're either in or you're out, and this half-measure may slow the implosion but not for long. This morbidly funny event…

While Dave and the editors of both papers promised “vastly improved” digital products to satisfy the evolving information needs of their customers, they offered few concrete details of what new products were in the offing. The live webcast of their news conference was interrupted by repeated lapses in the transmission.

…is a microcosm of the situation. None of these people has any idea how to adapt. They can't because they formed their brains in a world without an internet. You can put a thing created by people who don't understand the internet on said internet and it will still be broken because its mentality remains wrong.

Clay Shirky explains this as clearly as possible:

The things that live on the internet are communities, not institutions, and these communities are brought together by a shared love of something. My personal example is the fungal community that grew up in the old MGoBlog 2.0 haloscan threads. (Here's a 2000-comment one.) I had no idea it was even there because the sheer vast insanity of them forced me into a choice: read and understand all this, or have a blog. People in there just talked, and kept talking, and a lot of it was about Gary Sheffield.

I saw this as a problem, and when I made the move to MGoBlog 3.0 I instituted registered commenting, threading, little signatures and avatars, diaries, and so forth and so on. I liberally applied fungicide to a community I had no idea existed. They responded by complaining, then started their own blog with haloscan commenting. When haloscan annoyingly got bought by someone or changed their feature sets or something—I didn't follow the exact nature of the offense that closely—they built their own crappy, featureless, drive-by-infested commenting system. This is the Wolverine Liberation Army, a community brought forth entirely by Michigan football, MGoBlog, and the world's worst commenting system.

I have another example: my brother is the administrator of a message board called UFCK that formed in the long-long ago as a Dave Mathews Band fan site. Everyone is now ten years older and so knows better, but the community still exists because the people on it just like talking to each other, probably about Gary Sheffield. The board recently went to a subscription-only model because donations were not covering bandwidth costs, and dozens, maybe a hundred, people shelled out. For a subscription. On the internet. To a message board.

Not even the New York Times could make a subscription model work.

What does this have to do with newspapers? Nothing, and that's sort of their problem. Go read the comments on any particular newspaper article and see how healthy their communities are.

What is there to love in the Free Press or News? Extremely little. About the only time in the past couple year's I've thought either local paper was useful was during the Kwame Kilpatrick scandal(s), because only they would dig it up and take Kilpatrick out. Other than that, it's just a bunch of content that touches the surface of things. I don't care about most of it and what I do care about I know is shallow.

The newspaper model is to appeal just enough to a vast swathe of a metro area. It's a monopoly model. Successful things on the internet usually appeal a great deal to a fervent niche.

I don't think the Detroit News is going to be around much longer, and the Free Press will continue to shrink in relevance and power until it's just another something. Neither institution deserves better, and in the interim between newspapers and whatever replaces them there is opportunity and chaos. Buckle up!

Etc.: Clay Shirky is really on top of this stuff; if you are seriously worried about what a journalist-free future looks like, 1) probably not going to happen, and 2) the internet has many, many upsides.


MMB 82

December 16th, 2008 at 3:19 PM ^

print journalism in general. Pretty soon the NY Times will go to Sunday delivery only, mark my words. Layoffs are massive throughout the industry, and local broadcast news is starting to go the same way, soon to be followed by network broadcast news except for 24/7 channels like CNN, Fox, MSNBC, etc. A few months back people were suggesting Brian try to take a job opening up at AANews, and I commented that he probably was doing better with THIS gig- and he slyly confirmed it....

Moe Greene

December 16th, 2008 at 3:25 PM ^

Dumb q from former Mich resident from way back in tha day:
Didn't these papers work jointly in the 80s? Why on earth didn't they go back to that model? Does Drew Sharp have dirt on the editors?


December 16th, 2008 at 4:06 PM ^

Actually, they still are working jointly under the Joint Operating Agreement- the Freep puts out a Sunday edition, and the News puts out the Saturday edition. They've been doing this for 17-19 years or so. Apparently the driving force behind this is, believe it or not, the cost of ink, paper, supplies to make the papers, and not the local economy. (Or rather, that was the nail in the coffin).

The Freep is more liberal, and the News tends more conservative. (Relatively).


December 16th, 2008 at 3:46 PM ^

Why do they need two papers? I know one leans left and one leans right, but I can't think of any other comparably sized city with two major daily papers. And even in cities where there is only one, that one is doing the impossible and losing money as a monopoly.


December 16th, 2008 at 3:52 PM ^

......most cities had more than two dailies.

Not sure which Det papers leans which way.....i'm sure die hard conservatives think they're both liberal and thats why their going out of business....meanwhile, your diehard liberals think they're too conservative and dying as a result.

And, yes, people who are too intense about their political sides are about as irrational as your standard SEC fanbase.


December 16th, 2008 at 3:54 PM ^

...for pretty much the newspaper industry and journalism as a career. Four years ago today, my Columbia grad classmates and myself celebrated the end of the Fall term with the equivalent of a Winter Ball/Homecoming/Prom type event after busting our asses reporting, writing and, in a broadcast major's case like myself, recording, editing and scripting. I don't think any of us four years ago could foretell what would happen today cause otherwise we would have all gone to law school or something.

In any event, it is the beginning of the end--the good is maybe certain writers people hate will go by the wayside. Even the cream-of-the-crop papers (like the prominent one I work at) are bleeding and I'm pretty sure it's just the beginning. The web is the new way and until the old dogs who refuse to learn new tricks figure it out, the vestiges of times past are going to fall hard one by one.


December 16th, 2008 at 3:57 PM ^

The disaggregation of media is going to happen everywhere. Thanks to MGo/Brian and the other Michigan football sites, I have little use for I imagine that this will be a similar story for fans of other teams as they gather around sources of greater in depth analysis.

A few headline worthy, broad spectrum reporters will have a loyal following and either make a mark on their own or capture the vast portion of the revenue of a given site, taking the revenue currently paid to the Pat Forde's out of the world.

The days of a lazy POS like Sharp having a reporter job are clearly numbered.


December 16th, 2008 at 4:03 PM ^

Yes, this does make me sad on many levels. I worked as a print journalist for over a decade. Loved it. It was such a rush. Of course, I made no cheddar and worked the job 24/7. Crazy, crazy times in my life. Awesome memories.

So, its sad.....but only in a way when your 85-year-old grandfather is wasting away in the hospital with painful cancer and disease. Sad to see him pass, but a blessing.

Blessing may be hyperbole in the newspapers case.......but i am encouraged by the evolution of the new the last five years, I am a more informed sports fans thanks to sports blogs like this and other and more informed in current events thanks to on line sources like politico, roll, kos, than I ever was from reading and watching the more traditional sources of news.


December 16th, 2008 at 4:33 PM ^

and even take some pride in delivering the News (and later the Free Press).

Til I got old enough to be embarrassed -- and embittered -- by having to collect from people every week.

But it dont take a weatherman...


December 16th, 2008 at 4:53 PM ^

Yeah? Yeah? medium can be read at the breakfast table with a coffee and a biscotti.

That, and marketers still get a lot more business from display ads instead of online ones. Until the market pays for banners what it pays for 1p4c's, rather than less than a tenth of that, the print media will be fine.

Not everyone moved to Switzerland when their economy was better than the United States.

The crap economy has slashed ad budgets and media are taking it in the teeth, but I see it as a temporary thing, not a seismic shift.

We will not go quietly into the night. We will not go down without a fight. We're going to live one. We're going to survive.

And if you thought Drew Sharp was bad, go read comments on Youtube. Paper can be dumb at times, but consider it took me over two decades of Michigan fandom to find this blog; when I moved to another city, it took me less than a minute to find the town's paper of record.

If we are mark'd to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.


December 16th, 2008 at 6:07 PM ^

Nothing compares to this site for current news/analysis about Wolverine sports. (major sports)
I used to scour the internet looking for articles about the Wolverines. Now I have deleted bookmarks linking to DetNews, Freep, Mlive, Esspin, Fox, and others. I get all the news I can use right here.


December 16th, 2008 at 6:29 PM ^

There is a reason that, say, ESPN sensationalizes everything and never checks its sources and reports incorrect stuff with no remorse ...

The checks and balances system is gone. There is no culpability anymore, because it's all about bringing in more eyes to the website. Reporting and journalism is dead.

It's all anonymous sources and rumors now. That leads to lots of horrible reports and so forth. The death of newspapers is not good for accountability.


December 16th, 2008 at 8:00 PM ^

When have newspapers been "accountable"? It seems to me that as they lose their readership they have gone further and further into the negative that to take their stories as exact truth is lunacy.

Take Mitch Album for example. In the newspaper industry he is a giant. To those of us that pay attention and have other outlets, he is a farce. For one, his articles build off the same shtick over and over. He repeats one line in his articles numerous times. He's been doing that since I was just starting to read the sports page around the late 80's. He's still doing the same act. I won't even get into his "novels" which are a total joke.

Also, lest we forget his little white lie about Manteen Cleaves being at the NCAA tournament. That little lie pointed to a bigger truth, that the newspapers are not accountable, and now that we have other sources they are dying.

For you to say that the newspapers are providing some sort of moral high ground is to be foolish. As their readership has died off they have delved further and further into the muck. They are no more "truth" than any blog out there.

Sgt. Wolverine

December 16th, 2008 at 7:42 PM ^

"Successful things on the internet usually appeal a great deal to a fervent niche."

That, I think, is one of the reasons there should be something other than the internet. Something like newspapers. The internet is great for many things, but to this point its personality has leaned towards creating a million tiny communities formed around a million tiny things (most of which harbor hostility toward some other tiny community -- the internet is a remarkable source of unfiltered faceless vitriol). That's fine, but it can't be all there is.

Believe me, I love the internet, but I don't think it's nowhere near as wonderful and rosy as this post makes it sound. My hope is that the newspaper industry adapts and sticks around, if for no other reason than to balance the internet.


December 16th, 2008 at 7:52 PM ^

My concern is not just for the newspapers, but also for local television news. I don't think many people truly appreciate just how much local events affect them. The newspapers and local television expose a lot of things that happen around us everyday that we are otherwise oblivious to.

The newspapers alone handle (or used to handle) a lot of local news events. Even if local television news sticks around, that's a lot of additional information to cram into half an hour or an hour.

The internet might be an okay replacement for larger metropolitan areas, but not for smaller cities, towns or rural communities. Not unless there is a business enterprise associated with it.

chitownblue (not verified)

December 17th, 2008 at 1:29 PM ^

But what level of knowledge do you get about local events by watching people spend 2 minutes glossing over a fire on the southside. I agree that local events effect us, but the Local News doesn't report on it - they report on missing white girls, fires, and lotto winners. In Chicago, we get cursory coverage of city and state politics - the vast majority is:

Missing Children/Fires/Lotto winners


December 17th, 2008 at 2:12 PM ^

As a Chicagoan myself*, I agree that the Local News (by which I assume you are referring only to television) is bad enough as it is. But at least it's an outlet. My concern is that a demise in the newspapers leaves a void that cannot be filled by the 2 minute clips on the Local News. Certainly not with the depth of coverage that can be provided in written form.

My further concern is that there is a demise in the Local News, which leads to no outlet at all. I'm not convinced that the Internet, for all its power, can adequately fill the void of both the newspapers and local television such that local news reaches the people most affected by it. Brian’s point about internet communities being brought together by a common interest is correct. But when people don’t appreciate the effect of local news in the first place, they’re not going to come together to learn about local crime, tax increases, zoning shenanigans, etc. In that case, you need a mass distribution of information pushed out on the populace. People can ignore it at their peril, but at least the information is getting out there.

This may never be the case in a city like Chicago. I'm sure one way or another, we would hear about Stroger's tax increase, or the absolutely convoluted property tax system. But in smaller markets (e.g., SW Michigan), I think it’s of greater concern.

*Chicagoan by transplant, not by origin. I'm not even sure I can call myself a Chicagoan until I've been here longer.