Someday I’m not going to feel the need to react to tales like that from Poynter’s Romenesko about a journalism professor whose admission that he went without a newspaper subscription for a while enraged a newspaper columnist. The columnist’s objection, in summary:
“A journalism department chairman who can’t be bothered to actually subscribe to a daily newspaper? How do you think your students might one day actually get paid for their work?”
If every journalist in the world subscribed to a newspaper, that wouldn’t keep them all employed, nor would it convince all the non-journalists around them that they ought to subscribe too. Most importantly, if newpaper circulations rebounded to what they were 10 years ago, that wouldn’t necessarily convince advertisers to put all the money back in newspapers that they have diverted elsewhere, and it definitely would never recapture the classified advertising that has flown forever to such places as Monster.com and craigslist. (Hey, journalists, do any of you still pick up Editor & Publisher if you need to look for another job, or do you go to journalismjobs.com?) The news business has an advertising problem, not a paid-circulation problem. At current industry subscription rates, if you lose circulation but your advertising grows 25 percent, you’re in high cotton; but if you have a 50 percent increase in circulation but a 50 percent drop in advertising, you are headed for layoffs.
News people can’t worry about advertising problems. What we can and should think about is the larger issue represented by the professor’s decision to go without a paper for a while: changes in society in how people get information. If a newspaper (or TV news show) is no longer seen as vital, why is that? Is that our fault, or largely a change in technology and lifestyles? If part of it is our fault — how we present the news, the kind of news we present, the topics we don’t present — then is it fixable?
UPDATE: The Nieman Journalism Lab checks in on Newport (R.I.) Daily News, which appears to be having success charging for online access — but note that the company’s goal is not to make online news a self-sustaining enterprise but to prop up print circulation, and from there the task remains selling advertising.