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Hunger for News Thrives, But Will the News Business?

Slate’s Jack Shafer, in “Newspapers are dying, but the news is thriving,” writes:

Newspapers whose readers are as much constituents as they are readers are the best bets to thrive as they decline. The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times will remain musts for a long time. Luckily for the (Washington) Post, it should continue to be required reading for government employees, lawyers, lobbyists, other journalists, and the new-class types at nongovernmental organizations, think tanks, and universities. Might one of the Detroit dailies eventually navigate a profitable path out of the decline by focusing more heavily on the auto industry?

The days have long since passed when Detroit was the true center of the auto industry. The concept here is a good one, however — but it really has less to do with the print product than the Web.

Look at the Washington Post. As Online Journalism Review noted last year, the paper’s:

print edition remains a local animal, with only the National Weekly Edition circulating broadly outside the capital. Instead, has basically become the national and international edition of the paper while also serving a huge slice of the local constituency.

This is the smart move. The Post online, given the right kinds of investments, could win big. As a political portal, the Post isn’t there yet. But the people inside the place seem to understand their opportunity.
They can turn the Post’s online operation into the place to come for the best American political coverage, a site where people all over the world will find key news and interpretation of what’s going on inside the globe’s most influential capital. Now that is a franchise, or could be.

This, in a different context, is what we were trying at the San Jose Mercury News in the 1990s. We realized we were in the epicenter of the major economic and business story of the era: the rise of the technology industry to global prominence. For a time, we turned the Mercury into one of the must-look publications for anyone who cared about what was happening in the tech world.

What we missed, however, was nailing the online component, namely the “vertical” website that Knight Ridder ran and, until next week’s sale of the company to McClatchy, still runs: This was a golden opportunity for the company to capitalize on something we’d been handed on a plate, our location and ability to set a baseline. relied mostly on the coverage from the Mercury, with some add-ons like my blog and the still-great Good Morning Silicon Valley blog. But there was no serious inclination to leverage the name, location and potential in a major way. So, largely because Knight Ridder never invested the proper resources, never achieved the kind of critical mass that establishes a serious franchise. We might still have been clobbered by CNET and other media that cared only about tech, but we’d have been a serious player.

In his piece, Shafer is pessimistic about how a regional paper like the Philadelphia Inquirer will endure the huge changes. And he questions whether the Los Angeles Times could survive on the comparative advantage of covering the entertainment and aerospace industries, two of the local mainstays that have global followings, at least with anything like the profitability, much less circulation, that it has today. I doubt it, too.

Where I question Shafer’s analysis is when he implies that people’s insatiable appetite for information (he calls it “news”) will save journalism. This is a business question, not a matter of whether people want to read news. Will they pay, or, alternately, will someone else pay a subsidy (e.g. advertising) to keep them in the audience? The answer to the first question seems to be, Not very often. The second is difficult because advertisers are going to more targeted kinds of advertising places, such as eBay and craigslist. The business issue is more troubling than the journalism one, and will remain so.

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