City Desk

Kurtz on Newspapers’ Demise: Off Base

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Writing today in the Washington Post, media reporter Howard Kurtz posits that newspaper companies failed to position themselves for the upheaval that's battering their industry. Here's Kurtz on the matter:

The people who run such companies bear a considerable share of the blame. In 1993, just before the Internet became a consumer force, I argued in a book that newspapers had become too cautious, too incremental and too dull, tailored largely for insiders. The rise of hugely profitable monopoly papers in most cities made them increasingly bland, seemingly allergic to controversy.

Then the Net changed America, but newspapers remained mired in two-dimensional thinking. They created sites that were largely a static replica of their print editions. There was little updating, little sense of the dynamism of the Web, and when I started writing a blog for washingtonpost.com in 2000, I had little company in the mainstream media.

Those graphs have a few things going against them: 1) They're self-serving: If you forgot that Kurtz was a pioneer of online journalism, you get a nice reminder here. 2) They generalize about the scourge of "replica" sites without mentioning sites—boston.com, sfgate.com, philly.com—that sought, unprofitably, to become community "portals"; 3) They constitute a facile reduction of what has happened to newspapers.

Blame it all on the moguls—that's essentially the tack that Kurtz is taking. He indicts them for passing up "missed opportunities," which he says were "endless." Whenever you say something's endless, you have to proffer an example or two, and Kurtz supplies the following:

For the first time in half a century, newspapers could compete against television with real-time reporting, but didn't. The Globe's previous owners turned down a 1995 offer from the founder of Monster.com to put Globe classifieds online, before his site became a smash hit. Why did no establishment media company create a Craigslist, a Huffington Post, a Google News, a Twitter, or other sites that have altered the boundaries of news and information?

Let's take these missed opportunities one by one:

1) Failing to compete against television with "real-time reporting": Two problems here. One is that, as far as I know, newspapers did undertake real-time reporting. And if they didn't do it early enough to satisfy Kurtz, surely they're doing it now. As to the strategic question of whether they competed effectively against television, I'm not sure how pivotal that was. After all, how profitable is television news these days, anyway?

2) Of the Globe and Monster.com. OK, fine—a missed opportunity. But how much of one? A red-letter moment in the failure of newspapers this was not. Think about it: If the Globe had indeed moved forward with the job classifieds, it would have been a pioneer within the news industry, and others would have jumped on board. Yet: What made Monster.com special was that it's a dedicated site—one of those verticals that the gurus are always praising—where people could come for one thing. Merely throwing up the same application on a newspaper site wasn't going to save the Globe or the newspaper industry.

3) Not creating a Huffington Post or a Google News or a Twitter. The idiocy in this slam is beyond comprehension. Let's take these one by one as well. HuffPo is indeed an innovative experiment, with tons of aggregation and an ever-expanding menu of original content. Perhaps a mainstream outlet should have come up with this model. But are HuffPo's revenues these days going to save any decent-sized newspaper company? No way. Next up is Google News, and this one's a real laugher. If I'm interpreting this correctly, Kurtz is holding newspaper publishers responsible for having not launched Google News. Which means he's holding them responsible for not launching Google—because without Google, there's no Google News. So, in effect, he's holding them responsible for not owning the entire Internet. Those idiots. Now for Twitter. Yes, Howie, they should have invented Twitter. And perhaps they should have patented the Snuggie, too.

A more thoughtful look at this same question came earlier this year courtesy of Slate's Jack Shafer. His story discussed the entire history of newspapers' attempts to safeguard their future via infotech.

By questioning why newspapers didn't author some of the Internet's great innovations, Kurtz actually comes close to answering the question that he poses. The central problem of newspapers, as we're learning, is that their journalism is losing its commercial viability, to the extent it ever had any. The only way to keep journalism "alive," accordingly, is to dabble wisely in adjacent ventures, as the Washington Post did with Kaplan and its cable systems. If your diversification approach involved other newspapers, as the New York Times did with the Boston Globe, you're sunk.

In other words, newspaper publishers erred in trying to keep publishing journalism. To suggest that "missed opportunities" would somehow have yielded a far more healthy industry is to diminish the forces that have pushed the sector toward extinction. Structural changes in the economy that have leveled department stores and other reliable advertisers. The migration of readers to a new platform where newspapers have no inherent advantage in terms of distribution. And, now, a recession.

Photo courtesy of Matt Callow

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