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American Journalism 2009

Just in time for the New Year comes this heartbreaking account of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s impending demise:

Then, on Friday, the e-mail message from Oglesby. It was a body-less e-mail, the only text being that foreboding subject line: “Please join me in the newsroom for a few minutes for an announcement.” People in both newsrooms by now had a sense that it wasn’t going to be good news for the P-I.

There’s nothing to purchase,” Lewis said. “We’re a room of people in a rented building. I’d happily offer my services. But I don’t know what they’d buy. I guess they’d get a letterhead and some pretty battered laptops, but there’s just not a lot there to buy.”

That roomful of people is worth more than nothing, but I’ll return to that in a minute.

Lots of newspapers are going to go out of business this year. “Dying industry” has become a popular catch-phrase but that’s not quite right – newspapers in American cities are going out of business for the same reason that the United States’ steel industry went mostly belly-up: poor management and an inability by said management and ownership to react to a changing world. Just like it wasn’t previously-well-paid steelworkers’ fault that their employers got it wrong, so it is not journalists’ fault that their bosses have screwed up so royally. Online it’s become popular to criticize the not-getting-it tendencies among American journalists, their knee-jerk anti-blogger sentiments and predjudice in favor of the status quo ante. I’ve indulged in it myself. But that’s not too useful and, at this point, kind of cruel.

That’s in no small part because the effect of lots of newspapers going out of business, is that many of the nation’s finest reporters will be without a job (bad for them) and without a forum (bad for us). The economic downturn is acting as an accelerant on pre-existing trends – newspapers that were already seeing declining revenues (from fewer subscriptions and less advertising) now see those revenues go through the floor as their advertisers batton down the hatches for a potentially long recession. And as the PI reporter notes, with many newspapers there’s not that much to “buy” – except for the capacity to report on the news, which right now doesn’t make that much money, at least in text-version. It will, sooner than many think, as advertisers abandon print entirely and realize the value of online advertising in local contexts (Google, of course, will continue to be the big winner here), but that’s an aside.

What’s available right now for the right investor – and given the economy, that’s a big ask too, but this is a real bargain – is a burgeoning national network of world-class reporters who’ll be desperate to continue in their chosen profession. Let’s say over the course of the year a major newspaper goes out of business in 20 of the United States’ 30 biggest cities, and that there’re half a dozen truly world-class reporters at each of those papers (this is probably both too conservative and too liberal depending on the city). Hiring at their previous salaries probably won’t be tenable in any construction, but let’s say $50,000/reporter, for $300k per city; add health insurance, expenses, equipment and call it $500k for a city bureau. If there’s 20 cities, that’s $10 million for the shoeleather.

Infrastructure, however, doesn’t need to be that expensive – you can start publishing each city’s Bootstrap Newspaper on a Drupal engine, and editors and fact-checkers (who are also finding themselves increasingly jobless) can do double-duty for  a few cities, with several tech-heads to keep the servers up (easy to scale up as the enterprise increases). Give reporters a decent digital camera (or give good photogs a laptop and let ’em write) and you’ve got pictures. Call that another $3-5 million/year for personnel and infrastructure, and for $15 million/year (which is $1 million more than the Post-Intelligencer alone lost last year) you’ve got a national journalistic enterprise of unprecedented scope and quality.

The real question – could it make money? I would say yes but in the short-term that’s not necessarily that important. $15 million is both a lot of money and really not that much – given the right leadership and local buy-in, this is an effort that could be supported both by local communities who want to keep reading their favorite reporters, and by the increasingly large number of people who get their news online exclusively regardless of it source – but who have a very keen interest in quality journalism. Yes, (some/many) bloggers would support this. And an increasingly formidable local/national news site would be a great place for even those advertisers feeling the pinch of recession.

No, it’s probably not going to happen. But really it should.

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