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Killing innovation with kindness: The Newspaper Revitalization Act

The title of a bill introduced by my U.S. Senator tells me most of what I need to know about how its focus is misguided:

The Newspaper Revitalization Act

Proposed tagline: “Newspapers: Let’s breathe a little life into this patient.”

At its core, the idea isn’t entirely harebrained, especially the notion of making it possible for people to support journalism through donations, but I am immediately suspicious of any effort that has as its starting point that newspapers are precious things to be preserved, forever, like some kind of ubiquitous, everlasting Williamsburg of media.

If the government (the government!) starts getting in the business of propping up the fading part of journalism’s business model, forget the ethical and constitutional issues, it’ll effectively cut off oxygen to the parts of the business that are trying to innovate. In the past 6-12 months, I believe it’s been the panic around the breakdown of the old business model that has allowed more talk of change to rise to the surface in newspaper executive suites. The worst thing that could happen would be for newspaper companies to find the means to suddenly become comfortable again.

Jason Calacanis, serial tech entrepreneur and owner of Mahalo.com, talked about this on This Week in Tech (TWiT) in the most recent episode, when the host asked him what happens when newspapers and other traditional media experience the kinds of business model disruption that are happening right now:

“Most of the time people can’t make the evolutionary shift. It’s just too difficult. You’re better off just shutting some of these things down. And you know what: Don’t cry for the newspapers. It’s an opportunity for young people with new ideas to make better things than newspapers… Don’t cry for the newspaper business. I’m sick of that. Engadget as a blog or This Week in Tech as a show are much better — Lifehacker, etc. — than the tech products that came before them. They’re better than ZDNet. They’re better than CNet. They’re better than PC Magazine. Nobody’s crying because G4TV‘s gone. Who cares? Who gives a crap about TechTV? TWiT is better. People have this thing that progress everywhere else is good, but in the newspaper business, progress is bad. I think not killing trees is a good thing.” (Around 1:19 into the show)

Painful as it is, I think he’s right. If the news industry has any life — or influence — left in it, showing why this ill-advised bill is a bad idea — reporting and editorializing on it — would be a good place to start.

IMO, as they say online.

                                   
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  • Steve Singer

    I agree as well. We are going through a process of ‘winnovation’ – forced innovation through a winnowing process. It’s all quite Darwinian/

  • http://sellingprint.blogspot.com MichaelJ

    My two cents..
    Darwin – “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.

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  • Nicholas

    Capitalism is survival of the fittest. If a product or a company can’t compete it goes the way of the dodo bird and the dinosaur. If the newspaper industry can not change and adapt to people’s changing ways of obtaining information, they too will find themselves experiencing this same fate.

    How many people still use 35mm cameras? How many people still use typewriters? Companies such as Kodak and Polaroid have abandoned their old products and are now focusing entirely on digital cameras and other electronic media devices. When typewriters started to become obsolete, such companies started to produce word processors, electronic calculators, PDAs, and other devices.

    The newspaper industry is not any different from any other industry that exists under our capitalist system. It must either adapt or die. People’s ways of obtaining information are changing. There are now 24 hour cable news networks and the world wide web has democratized information. Anyone can become a reporter of sorts by blogging about an event or “Twittering” about it. CNN has even capitalized on the ability of the common person to produce news with their iReport.

    It will be interesting to see how the newspaper industry as a whole adapts to the new challenges it is facing. I do have concerns about the authenticity and reliability of web journalism. I myself stick to mostly websites such as CNN.com, MSNBC.com, nytimes.com, etc. However the newspaper industry is not so venerable or so big that it can not fail. The newspaper industry as we know it is on its death bed. Any direct or indirect bailout from the government is nothing more than putting an industry with a terminal disease on life support.

  • BenF

    You can’t have a democracy without a free press. Governments aren’t part of capitalism, either — they regularly run in the read, but we don’t make them fold over it.

    If there’s nothing to link to, what are bloggers gonna do, make it up? Then link to each other’s speculations?

    I want to see how many of those “young people” Calcanis idealizes are gonna show up with a raft of lawyers at the Supreme Court over their right to publish the Pentagon Papers.

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  • Michael Hill

    Just curious, Tim, is NiemanJournalismLab out there in the world of survival-of-the-fittest and most-innovative capitalism, or some sort of non-profit supported by contributions?

  • http://www.timwindsor.com/ Tim Windsor

    Mike,

    See Zachary Seward’s post above for a good discussion of some reasons it makes sense to explore nonprofit status for news organizations:

    http://www.niemanlab.org/2009/03/non-profit-news-outlets-deserve-a-tax-exemption-for-ad-revenue/

    My beef is with the focus of Cardin’s legislation, which is all about putting something on life support (paper) rather than focusing on how to create a possible exemption designed to help keep journalism viable. That would be worth discussing, at least. The current bill strikes me as counter-productive to that goal.

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  • http://gadsdenmetro.com Phillip Swindall

    I really don’t understand this fascination with keeping dying things around but wanting to make sure dying people aren’t cared for with this administration.
    People, animals, industries, societies, everything on this earth has a life cycle. Print journalism is in its final throes of death… let’s let it die gracefully, while we transition away from traditional journalism into a new channel.
    The passing of newspapers will be (relatively) quickly followed by the passing of radio and television journalism as it all merges onto the internet… where there is already an emerging community of truly investigative journalists online. Sadly, most “community” newspapers don’t have investigative journalists— they’re too afraid to piss off their advertisers or news sources to actually DO any journalism… they’ve just turned into Press Release regurgitators, and THAT is why they are dying off anyway… that and the exorbitant amount of money it costs to PRODUCE and DELIVER a newspaper vs a website