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The Internet Makes Trust and Insight Scarce Commodities, and Makes Newsroom Veterans More Valuable

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NEWSPAPERS
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Recently I have been looking at the newspaper as a service and as a business (for reasons that will become apparent later). Something is becoming clear. While the Internet makes information plentiful, and this in turn may be a challenge to some aspects of the newspaper business, deep insight and trust remain as scarce as they have ever been. Indeed, the value of deep insight and trustworthy information may have increased in the digital era.

"Commodity news" made up of superficial coverage and parsed press releases is plentiful online. But deep insight remains sufficiently rare that some publications can charge for it. Thus, The Financial Times and The Economist remain essential reading despite the availability of zero cost alternatives. This deep and explanatory (see Jay Rosen) journalism can only be built by an expensive newsroom staffed by veteran reporters who have built expertise and relationships with sources over many years. The newspaper that is viable in the digital age must maintain a level of expertise in its newsroom that can not be accessed elsewhere.

And because trust remains scarce despite the volume of information now available, the core strengths of the grey lady newspapers are more relevant than ever. In a world of many competing voices the "paper of record" is a compelling product. These papers are not only a filter but a standard.

Example of disaster: Times-Mirror and then Tribune Company chase profit at The Baltimore Sun

Consider the contrary example of The Baltimore Sun. The paper was bought from the Abell family by the Times-Mirror Group in 1986. In the mid 1990s the paper's new masters initiated rounds of voluntary redundancies to increase the paper's profit margins. Some of those who took redundancies were veteran journalists who departed for the Washington Post and New York Times (see former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon's take here).

The Baltimore Sun's newsroom was being rendered incapable of producing deep news at the very peak of newspaper circulation in the U.S. (data). As Simon writes:

Amid buyout [read "redundancy"] after buyout, the Baltimore Sun conceded much of its institutional memory, its beat structure, its ability to penetrate municipal institutions and report qualitatively on substantive issues in a way that explains not just the symptomatic problems of the city, but the root causes of those problems. ... beat reporting and any serious, systemic examination of issues was eschewed in favor of "impact" journalism, special projects and Pulitzer sniffing.

And at this point, as the newsroom was being stripped the things that would allow it to produce the deep coverage that would differentiate its product from Internet news sources, online connectivity was beginning to rapidly expand. Between late 1994 and mid 1995 the number of Internet connections grew from 3.4 to 12.8 million. As Internet connections rose, newspaper circulation declined. By 2009 U.S. newspaper circulation had fallen from its 1995 figure of 62 million to what it had been in 1958 -- a mere 46.8 million.

And against this background of decline matters got far worse. The Times-Mirror Company was bought by the Tribune Company in 2000 and redundancies accelerated. In 2007 the real-estate mogul Samuel Zell took control of the company. Zell had a focus on the bottom line an almost total disregard for journalism as a public good and installed a radio shock jock in control of innovation. Zell's response to a journalist at the Orlando Sentinel, one of his papers, gives an insight into his regard for high quality journalism.

The tenure of Zell's management team ended very badly indeed (resignation 1 and resignation 2).

What Zell and other buck-chasing newspaper owners failed to realise was that sophisticated journalism and a deep newsroom is more essential now than it was before the Internet.