Wednesday, May 16, 2007
Retiring Cleveland editor says readers must pay for news on the web
The work of newspapers, in whatever form, is vital
Sunday, May 13, 2007
Plain Dealer Columnist
When I got into this business almost 38 years ago, most cities had two
newspapers, nearly everyone read one of them and Walter Cronkite - the
even-tempered, erudite, gentle Walter Cronkite - personified broadcast
Now, as I prepare to leave, most cities are lucky if they have one
newspaper and luckier still if even half the population reads it. And
you'll search almost in vain to find a TV anchor even remotely
even-tempered, erudite or gentle.
But change even more fundamental than that unfolded in those 38 years.
Cable TV morphed from a novelty to a 150-channel universal presence.
Entertainment programming like Studio One or Omnibus became "Beavis and
Butthead" or "Desperate Housewives." The three network news programs that
offered sober reflection on the day's most significant events became
promotion-filled, self-aggrandizing, collections of tidbits dressed up to
look like news - accompanied by thumping music and flashing lights.
And the Internet - the medium that just a decade ago was a concept beyond
the comprehension of most Americans - now threatens to bury us in www
The sum of all that change, some say, poses a grave threat to newspapers
and the work they do.
To some - perhaps even to many - newspapers' demise would be no loss. To
them, the press is an intrusive, sensational, often malevolent, purveyor
of negativism. Worse, many newspapers rake in double-digit profits. The
mainstream media, or MSM, as they call it, has become the slur of choice
for the critics.
Perhaps the excesses of the few in this business have tainted the
reputation of the many. And perhaps the many have, at times, given critics
reason to be distrustful.
But an evenhanded review of the work of newspapers over the last 100 years
tells another story. No other institution in a democratic society performs
Go to the archives of any newspaper in America and leaf through their
pages. It won't be long before you find a significant piece of journalism
that exposes a social ill, a failed institution, an abuse of power, a
misdeed by a trusted official.
Journalism, I would argue, provides the lubricant that keeps the wheels of
democracy spinning. It is the ultimate check in our system of checks and
balances. It evens the contest between the haves and the have-nots. Even
with its countless flaws, its frequent excesses, its sometimes mindless
pursuit of the trivial, journalism ensures balance in society's balance of
Since the birth of the republic, newspapers have been providing that
service. But today, because of the radically changed media landscape,
their ability to provide that service is being compromised.
Newspapers operate on a very simple model. They carry content people want
to read. Advertisers want to reach that audience of readers, so they pay
for the privilege of having their messages accompany the news. The
resulting revenue covers most of the costs of producing a newspaper.
The formula worked to society's advantage for decades. But the Internet
began to change all that.
Content that once appeared only on paper began appearing on the Net,
thanks to newspapers' own Web sites and aggregators such as Google. These
Web sites offered content free to anyone with a computer.
Advertising also appeared on the sites, but not in the same volume as in
the paper version.
You may have heard or read some of the dire forecasts about the future of
Newspapers are a dying medium, some say, and their death is being hastened
by the Internet. The once-healthy profits are fading fast.
I hear this at least once a day: "I don't need the newspaper; I get my
news from the Internet."
Of course, that's not true. People who prefer the Internet do get their
news from the newspaper. The Internet doesn't produce the content, it
merely distributes it.
If you go to Google News or Yahoo News you will find news, but it will
have been provided by AP, Reuters, the Washington Post, The Plain Dealer
and countless other newspapers.
In other words, the newspaper, which at great expense employs reporters to
find, evaluate, analyze and present news, gives it away free on the
Internet. This can't go on forever. Eventually, something must give.
If readers abandon conventional newspapers and go to the Internet,
advertisers will be forced to look for other media - the Internet included
- to present their messages.
Newspapers will survive if readers pay them for their Web content or if
advertisers flock to newspaper Web sites in sufficient numbers to offset
the revenue lost to the ink-on-paper enterprise. One or both of those
options is likely to happen.
If they don't, newspapers - and the journalism they produce - could die.
And why will that be worth your tears? Because without journalism,
democracy and civil society will falter.
Clifton is retiring as the editor of The Plain Dealer. His last day at the
paper will be Tuesday.
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