Saturday, February 04, 2006


Newspaper attack on blogs may be as financially motivated as investment attacks on newspapers

Not having participated in The Washington Post's recent and not entirely felicitous attempt at getting acquainted with their readers, I was puzzled by what seemed like an excessive reaction on their part to reader comments. Was it just thin journalistic skin, or was there something more to it? So, I provisionally accepted the Washington Post's claim that it had been hit with a torrent of abusive blog postings, a claim repeated just today by Yuki Noguchi: Both the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, for example, have aborted projects that invited open critiques of their editorial content after being deluged with crude comments. After spending a lot more time than I should have believing the Washington Post, I determined that: 1. There were no posts threatening harm or posts that included racial or religious insults. 2. Posts that could in any way be regarded as obscene or genuinely abusive accounted for fewer than 2% by the WaPo's own accounting. 3. Of those posts, perhaps 6 called Deborah Howell a "whore," but clearly in the sense of "a venal person," with no sexual overtones or, alternatively, a "b-tch," in the sense of "posted by someone with no class whatsover." The remaining posts using a word frowned on by the Disney channel were substantive criticisms, with the word "sh-t" applying to the writing rather than the writer. So, why are they continuing to make a huge deal out of this? After long reflection, I realized that this is business. Again and again I read in industry publications that newspapers are facing a desperate future of decline, and that their principal competitors are... blogs. Take for example this comment by American Journalism Review: It's a bear market for newspapers, in any case. Since the news of Sherman's raid on Knight Ridder, financial analysts have wondered aloud why anyone would want to buy a newspaper company. A writer for Fortune magazine asked rhetorically how Sherman had gotten himself "mired in newspapers, a business that seems destined for dreary decline." Conrad Fink, a former journalist who teaches newspaper management at the University of Georgia, says he's never seen such panic over newspaper stocks before. The pessimism is mainly due to shrinking circulation and a strong fear of advertisers defecting to the Internet. Also, consider this, from the Newspaper Association: Newspapers “first choice” media of only 3.2% of 18 to 34 year olds vs. Internet at 45.6% (OPA, 9/04)... 2004 circulation scandals (Chicago Sun-Times, Dallas Morning News, Newsday) reflect pressure... Online siphoning revenues: e.g., Craigslist = lost revenues of $50 million annually in the SF Bay Area... BB [Broadband] users the most desirable consumers And the fact that the one area where online newspapers could grab revenue is in targeted political advertising, in which it competes against blogs (an NAA link I have mislaid), and suddenly it sounds as if we are asking the wrong question. Not, "Are newspapers politically motivated in attacking blogs?" but "Are newspapers financially motivated in attacking blogs?" There is a confluence of politics and finance. The investor listed as being on the attack against Knight Ridder (coincidentally one of the only media outlets to ask any questions of Our Dear Leader) is Bruce S. Sherman, of Naples, Florida. That would be the following person: SHERMAN, BRUCE MR NAPLES,FL 34108 PRIVATE CAPITAL MANAGEMENT/CEO 4/8/2004 $25,000 Republican National Cmte SHERMAN, BRUCE S NAPLES,FL 34108 PRIVATE CAPITAL MANAGEMENT/C.E.O. 1/21/2004 $500 Mack, Connie SHERMAN, BRUCE S MR NAPLES,FL 34108 PRIVATE CAPITAL MANAGEMENT/CEO 11/6/2003 $2,000 Bush, George W The Bruce S. Sherman who very oddly invested in newspapers looking for a 20% return in a business that has been consolidating for 40 years and is demanding that Knight Ridder liquidate because, according to AJR, he has promised his clients more than he can deliver. If I had invested through Bruce Sherman, I would be talking to my lawyer about how best to get a clear explanation from Mr. Sherman as to why he was expecting such an implausible return and, indeed, had committed a full 14% (!) of the portfolio to newspapers. Isn't lesson #1 of investing, "Diversify"?
Speaking of newspapers, this Decatur, Alabama, newspaper would like our opinion of the big Dick Cheney on how he's doing at his job:
Happy to oblige, Joe.

But where was the selection for "criminal"?
I just have one question
There are two inescapable facts about newspapers and other print sources. First is that print is expensive both to produce and to distribute. This alone probably will make it obsolete for most journalistic purposes. Second, a printed source can't compete on getting stuff out fast. While this is an advantage in some ways, IF and only if the newspaper is careful to print factual information - a practice that most of the large dailies are not engaging in these days- it will seem increasingly stodgy and useless. While speed has huge liabilities, as anyone who has ever seen cabloid "news" knows, it is the way of the future.

The newspapers might not like it but that is the way it is going to be just as certainly as the recorded music distribution system will be radically different. Musicians and ensembles who don't like it don't have to but that won't change a thing.

Another thing that won't change by them going into a swivet is the criticism of their work. When they grow up they might realize that the only thing they can do about that is to stop acting as establishment mouthpieces and start doing fact based reporting. In other words, they have to take up a new profession.
I wonder how much of the decline is due to costs and how much is due to anger at the way journalism is done, EPT. While most print media was collapsing, The Nation logged 50,000 new *print* subscriptions. They have doubled in readership in a few years. Some of that may be rebound from dumping Hitchens, of course.

When I like a publication, I often buy it even though I read the online edition. I know that reporters need to eat. Julian Borger is welcome for a meal anytime, whereas if I passed Jim Vanderhei in the gutter, I would be hard pressed to give him so much as a brotherly smile.
Blogs can be traffic drivers and good partners for newspapers, if they will make it so. Both North Carolina's News Observer and South Carolina's Bluffington Times both had reader blogs as part of their site.

Washington Post practice of showing Technorati links is concrete evidence of reader interest. Measurement of unique hits and page views is inexact and Technorati links is something you can take to your advertisers to demonstrate online ratings.

Their real problem is a power struggle. They can no longer impose group think. Their editors are still coming to terms with that.
I agree, Alice. In fact, The Nation's surging print subscribership is, as I understood Katrina vanden Heuvel, due to positive interactions to online people. The Post has been working very hard at angering its readership for years.

But the financial issue shouldn't be ignored. Paper like The Post are, above all, top down financial empires, whereas smaller papers are either independents (rare) or part of a chain and therefore with some local freedom of action.
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