3 Ways to Save Journalism from Extinction


Let this statistic sink in for a moment.

  • Total number of journalists in the U.S.: 40,000
  • Total number of Google employees: 54,000

Google was founded in 1998.  Journalism may have died around the same time.

Try this one on for size.

  • There are 3.6 public relations professionals for every single journalist.  Nearly 4 to 1.

Robert McChesney, author of “The Death and Life of American Journalism,” recently told Pro Publica:

“What we are seeing now is the demise of journalism at the same time we have an increasing level of public relations and propaganda. We are entering a zone that has never been seen before in this country.”

More than 30 percent of all journalism jobs have vanished since 2000, according to Pew Research’s latest report on the state of the news media. Readership is at all time lows – with decreases in every format except digital.  And even though audiences are moving online and to mobile technologies, media outlets have already lost the battle for digital advertising to technology companies like Google and Facebook.

The state of the media in the United States is in freefall.

Newspapers for all intents and purposes are already dead.  Ad revenues at newspapers have fallen 60 percent in the last decade.  Newspaper newsrooms are at their lowest employment levels since the birth of Ashton Kutcher (1978).  And the quality of journalism at newspapers – with the drastic cuts and reduced staffs – is mediocre at best – causing even more readers to flee in droves.

And if you believe that a free and independent media is an important pillar in living in a democracy then you should be concerned.  Very concerned.

Can journalism saved?  Not without radical change.

Here are three thought starters on saving journalism:

1. Changing laws to force content aggregators to share revenue

Technology companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Yahoo and many other aggregation sites should shared ad revenues with content creators.  Take Google as an example.  Google’s search collects, archives and categorizes content on the web and showcases to users based on their search queries. They sell advertising around this service – basically making a killing by repackaging and selling the content that other people create.  When a user clicks a  link and goes to another web site for the content that site should receive a percentage of the money Google makes from the transaction.

This revenue sharing makes sure that people who create content get a share of the revenue generated from it.  If you think of Google as a publisher then this shift is a no brainer.  Publishers (book publishers, magazine publishers, music publishers, etc.) all pay their content creators part of the proceeds they make selling their content.  The biggest and most popular content creators naturally get a larger percentage of the revenue.

This is crucial and progressive countries like Germany are already moving in this direction.  Because if Google and other aggregators put content creators like journalists out of business – then the information on the web becomes less valuable.  In fact, if content is created only by amateurs and corporate/government interests then not only does the content become less valuable, it become less reliable.

2. Make digital content the same price as print content

This already happens in places like Germany and France.  But part of the problem with digital content is that device and technology makers undercut the price of other formats.  So a hardcover book costs about $25, but the digital version is $9.99.  A music CD may cost $16, but buying the songs individually on iTunes costs $1.29.  So naturally consumers move to the cheaper formats (conveniently not factoring in the cost of the devices they need to buy in order to get the savings – typically hundreds of dollars).

The economics make no sense.  For a .99 cent song iTunes collects a whopping 34 cents while the label gets 54 cents and the artist 10 cents.  Unfair, I agree.  But at least the label is investing in the song.  They are discovering, grooming, promoting and recording the artists.  iTunes does none this.  They invest zero in the content.  They only sell it.  Ridiculous.

By standardizing pricing for the content – not the format – print (and other real-world content) has a better chance of success.  It will also stabilize the demise of the print industry and give it a chance to move strategically into digital formats without losing out to technology and device manufacturers.

3. Media companies should become not-for-profit foundations

The most successful media companies today?  I’d argue National Public Radio and its affiliate stations.  In Boston, where I live, WBUR* and WHDH may be the healthiest news outlets in the city.  The alternative newspaper, the Boston Phoenix, just crashed and burned, the largest newspaper, the Boston Globe, is up for sale by the New York Times Co., and viewership of local TV news is hovering at all time lows.

The advantage that the public radio stations have are their non-profit status.  If the other outlets became foundations – with fundraising and endowments – they could focus more on the content and their audiences and less on making investors and ownership happy.


What do you think?  Any ideas to share?  Disagree with my thought starters?  Let’s talk in the comments.

*Disclosure: I have done paid consulting work with WBUR.


PR Industry Fill Vacuum Left by Shrinking Newsrooms by Pro Publica

The Great Media Collapse Has Been Epic

Pew Research’s State of the New Media 2013 report

German Proposal for Search Engines by TechCrunch

13 Responses to “3 Ways to Save Journalism from Extinction”

  1. Interesting comments on Google and newspapers. For sure, newspapers get many hits (customers) via the Google door.

  2. Hi Mike:
    Turn that on its head. Google gets lots of traffic because people want to find the content written by newspapers.

    Besides, the readers that newspapers get from Google are likely one-offs. People doing searches and then ending up at the newspaper site – probably not even knowing where they are. Newspapers – and all content creators – need regulars – people subscribing and visiting frequently. Those regulars are the life-blood and Google doesn’t bring many of those people to the table.

  3. George,
    Saving Current Journalism is probably a lost cause. Not that we don’t need it in its best form, but the current environment for journos is at companies like the NYT, who came out with this ‘nugget’ recently:

    “It’s a significant redesign of The New York Times Company, one
    intended to accelerate the delivery of our top priorities: growth,
    particularly in our paid products business; better teamwork across
    the Company; and a special focus on excellence in plotting the
    future of our print operations.”

    hattip jim romesenko

    If you read the memo in its entirety, there is an astounding amount of blather about ‘product’ and only One mention of actual news. But it probably crinkles the nipples of investors,

    News organizations are going down the same road the banking industry did in the eighties, By making themselves from a service industry into a product industry. Think about that the next time you are in a bank talking with a representative and see how many times you hear product vs service.

    Where newspapers have an advantage that they are squandering is their vast institutional memory in their own archives. Newspapers lost the scoop battle with the first radio broadcast. Papers do have an advantage in doing in depth reporting, but online they toss that away chasing ad clicks, turning 300 words into 5 web pages, causing folks to click away. Linking and attribution for source material in articles still to this day remains a Chinese wall at most publications. And online folks can fact check your ass faster than the rest of the ads load on the webpage you first saw any story.

    One of the most profound shifts in consumption is the internet’s ability to provide participation through commenting. There are very few websites, news or personal that do not allow commenting. IN the pre pixel days a letter to the editor would end up in the trash, but online commenting allows for feedback, which can be a significant boon to newes organizations.

    A lot of news sites require registration to comment, which is not a bad thing, However one of the worst forms of electronic bigotry appears at azcentral.com with this nugget:

    “azcentral.com has switched to the Facebook comment system on its blogs. Existing blog comments will display, but new comments will only be accepted via the Facebook comment system. To begin commenting, you must be logged into an active personal account on Facebook. Once you’re logged in, you will be able to comment. While we welcome you to join conversations, readers are responsible for their comments and abuse of this privilege will not be tolerated. We reserve the right, without warning or notification, to remove comments and block users judged to violate our Terms of Service and Rules of Engagement. Facebook comments FAQ”


    If you don’t have a Facebook account you are not equal?

    There is no argument that the internet has handed the newspaper industry its ass, with craigslist gutting classifieds, car dealers putting up their own websites, and living on ad revenue subsiding subscription costs.
    The industry has to wake up and see that the first four letters in newspaper is NEWS, not classified papers, not car papers, nor any of the multitude of businesses that have moved online.

    Without compelling news, online subscriptions will remain problematic, at least for general news, but specialists can thrive in this environment aka Wall Street Journal.

    Once they reboot to their primary goal,(news) them there is a chance of saving journalism.

    This is a tough time for journalists, and probably won’t get better soon.

  4. Wow, Flopoke, now that’s a comment! Great stuff. I agree with a lot of your observations and insights and think you are right on the money when you say that newspapers need to focus on news. I’d argue that they need to focus on “journalism” more than news. Journalism is behind the news, the insights, investigations and commentary that puts news into context and perspective.

  5. Going a bit retro here, but the nonprofit, hat-in-hand public radio model alone probably doesn’t raise enough to sustain a print operation. A worker-owned cooperative might. The survival instinct is there to drive it.

    A printer/folder would be a great invention to lower overhead so you could print out your broadsheet every morning. It would combine the notion of RSS with the random unplanned encounters with inside-page news that make reading a broadsheet such a rewarding trip

  6. George,
    “Journalism is behind the news, the insights, investigations and commentary that puts news into context and perspective.”
    Agreed in so far as the practice of Journalism is sticking to such work.

    In contrast with the memo from Mark Thompson CEO and Chairman Arthur Sulzberger on March 15;
    “It’s a significant redesign of The New York Times Company, one intended to accelerate the delivery of our top priorities: growth, particularly in our paid products business; better teamwork across the Company; and a special focus on excellence in plotting the future of our print operations.”


    IN a posting on March 23, Margaret Sullivan, the NYT’s latest Public Editor had this nugget,

    “In a recent speech at the University of Michigan, Jill Abramson, the executive editor, said that excellent work would save the day: “Quality, serious journalism that is thoroughly reported, elegantly told and that truly honors the intelligence of its readers is the business model of The New York Times.”

    Somebody is not reading their memos.

  7. Hey Bob!
    Nice to hear from you.

    Agreed that the hat-in-hand approach is difficult and can annoy your readers. I’m thinking more along the lines of colleges and universities building an endowment that can run the operations. And, yes, I realize that takes a lot of seed money – perhaps provided, in part, by the government in order to save the industry?

    Not sure what you mean by a printer/folder.

  8. Hi Flopoke:
    Perhaps not reading the memos is a good thing…

  9. I agree with you and Bob on the “hat in hand” model. The sound of WBUR fund-raising last week was worse then nails on a chalkboard to me. (And I love NPR….)

  10. Jumping in and adding my thoughts. I guess what I meant on Twitter when I said I don’t agree with all these, is I’m skeptical about government intervention on journalism. That is, changing laws to protect the newspaper-as-business. (So, #s one and two, above.) There’s something about taking legal moves to control the market that doesn’t sit right with me. Like: newspapers should have figured out a profit model.

    I work in the tech/startup community, so I’m surrounded by people who are thinking of innovative solutions to problems everyone else is saying, “it can’t be done,” to. Like Airbnb, etc. I do love the idea of more news organizations becoming non-profits and foundations. But I also think there’s an innovation that will find a profit model for in-depth journalism. I think the key there is finding a content aggregator or user-generated content machine that can pay for real journalistic coverage: government, arts, etc. Imagine if Everyblock (RIP) sold advertising and used its user tips to source which stories had the most interest, then paid reporters to dig deeper into the neighborhood stories? That’s the start of a cool model.

    One thing I have to say: have you seen the building the New York Times is in? What about running a “lean” newspaper? One that doesn’t own real estate? Couldn’t journalists work out of co-working spaces? Cut the office expense bloat and start paying people to report. (Don’t pay for their swivel chair, though.) And there was bloat in staffing, too, during journalism’s heyday. Now we need to focus on bringing up journalists who can create content across multiple platforms. Sports journalists need to be podcasting. All journalists on Twitter. Promote your own content, create a personal brand. It’s part of your job. You can’t just sit around covering high school sports and the courts raking in $90,000k and expecting the machine to feed you. That doesn’t exist anymore.

    Have you compiled a list (or has someone) of profitable news orgs running today? (New ones, especially?) I’d love to look at how those models work and how they’ve trimmed the fat, if any.

  11. Hi Katherine:
    Great comments. However, I don’t think it is fair to compare newspapers to start-ups. Start-ups are founded on an idea – usually a really good idea that people are willing to fund. Start-ups that are based on bad ideas either fail or aren’t funded. Newspapers and other content creators (music business, book publishing) have had their business models destroyed by technology and the internet.

    It is much harder to be established and then try to come up with a new revenue model at mid-point. Heck, lots of start-ups can’t figure out a revenue model (Pinterest and even Facebook and Twitter struggle with that). A lot of people are trying to figure out how to make journalism work online – no one has figured it out yet. The profits aren’t there online like they were off-line.

    And very few journalists make $90K a year – and certainly no journalist covering high school sports does. The average pay for a journalist is between $20-65K.


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