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Aug. 11, 2014, 9:37 a.m.
Business Models
LINK: www.nytimes.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   August 11, 2014

We have dueling visions of the print newspaper future from Michael Wolff and David Carr today:

Carr:

So whose fault is it? No one’s. Nothing is wrong in a fundamental sense: A free-market economy is moving to reallocate capital to its more productive uses, which happens all the time. Ask Kodak. Or Blockbuster. Or the makers of personal computers. Just because the product being manufactured is news in print does not make it sacrosanct or immune to the natural order.

It’s a measure of the basic problem that many people haven’t cared or noticed as their hometown newspapers have reduced staffing, days of circulation, delivery and coverage.

Will they notice or care when those newspapers go away altogether? I’m not optimistic about that.

Wolff:

A reasonable business method might be to just pick one approach and bet on it. On the other hand, no newspaper or magazine has yet truly reinvented itself and unlocked the secret of future success. So perhaps it is best to keep all options open until a promising way appears.

And, too, there is a natural desire not to throw away what has worked so well up until just a short time ago. This is not only because there are still vast numbers of readers and because many print businesses still make a good buck, but also to not be so cavalier about one’s way of life and achievements.

The recent shedding of print assets by previously diversified media companies is a perfectly fine hook for this sort of talk. But let’s not forget that, other than a few public companies’ desire to appease shareholders, nothing fundamental has shifted in the newspaper business over the past couple of weeks. The trend lines are maddeningly persistent.

Meanwhile, in fantasy land, we have Rick MacArthur, the publisher of Harper’s, saving his articles to 3.5″ floppies on “an ancient beige PC” and declaiming against the microchip and the damage done:

He described being trapped in a corridor in the early 2000s “by a small mob of what I can’t help but refer to as ‘young people.’” Those youths, he wrote, demanded that he open the magazine to online readers. What he told them was “essentially, forget it.” The web, to him, “wasn’t much more than a gigantic Xerox machine” designed to rob publishers and writers.

[…]

Mr. MacArthur, silver-haired and stylishly rumpled at 58, has an exasperated intensity. “I’ve got nothing against people getting on their weblogs, on the Internet and blowing off steam,” he said. “If they want to do that, that’s fine. But it doesn’t pass, in my opinion, for writing and journalism.”

[…]

His thesis is built on three pillars. The web is bad for writers, he said, who are too exhausted by the pace of an endless news cycle to write poised, reflective stories and who are paid peanuts if they do. It’s bad for publishers, who have lost advertising revenue to Google and Facebook and will never make enough from a free model to sustain great writing. And it’s bad for readers, who cannot absorb information well on devices that buzz, flash and generally distract.

Whenever I talk to a group of college students, I like to ask them about The Atlantic — a brand with which they’re all familiar, and whose work most of them have read online in the past, say, week. Then I ask them about Harper’s. There’s usually a confused silence — most haven’t heard of it, and none have read it. When I was their age, in the early 1990s, Harper’s and The Atlantic were peers: esteemed monthly magazines with a whiff of the Ivy League and a reputation for quality. Today, one of them is a thriving operation, bigger and better than ever. The other one is Harper’s.

Update: Add Jeff Jarvis as a fourth view, responding mostly to Carr:

But Brother Carr has renounced his vows right from inside the old scriptorium. Fucking Gutenberg. “Nothing is wrong in a fundamental sense,” he writes. “A free-market economy is moving to reallocate capital to its more productive uses, which happens all the time. Ask Kodak. Or Blockbuster. Or the makers of personal computers. Just because the product being manufactured is news in print does not make it sacrosanct or immune to the natural order.” Or how about asking Netflix?

No, market forces are not an excuse for fatalism and ultimately suicide. Market forces are an opportunity for — forgive me, for I do know I’m getting carried away with this religion thing — resurrection. There is still time as no one has yet challenged all our old-media assumptions about content and print and reinvented journalism as what it should be.

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