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Jan. 24, 2020, 7:38 a.m.

Newsonomics: Here are 20 epiphanies for the news business of the 2020s

After ten years of writing for Nieman Lab, Ken takes a big look back and ahead, defining the state of affairs for the troubled world of journalism.

It is the best of times for The New York Times — and likely the worst of times for all the local newspapers with Times (or Gazette or Sun or Telegram or Journal) in their nameplates across the land.

When I spoke at state newspaper conferences five or ten years ago, people would say: “It’ll come back. It’s cyclical.” No one tells me that anymore. The old business is plainly rotting away, even as I find myself still documenting the scavengers who turn detritus into gold.

The surviving — growing, even — national news business is now profoundly and proudly digital. All the wonders of the medium — extraordinary storytelling interactives and multimedia, unprecedented reader-journalist connection, infinitely searchable knowledge, manifold reader revenue — illuminate those companies’ business as much as digital disruption has darkened the wider news landscape.

What is this world we’ve created? That’s the big-picture view I’m aiming to offer here today.

Those of us who care about journalism were happy to see the 2010s go. We want a better decade ahead for a burning world, a frayed America, and a news business that many of us still believe should be at the root of solving those other crises.

I call what follows below my epiphanies — honed over time in conversations around the world, with everyone from seen-it-all execs to young reporters asking how things came to be the way they are in this business. These are principles that help me make sense of the booming, buzzing confusion that can appear to envelop us. Think of it as an update to my book Newsonomics: Twelve New Trends That Will Shape the News You Get, now a decade old.

Here I’ve distilled all my own concerns and my understandings. I’ve taken a big-picture, multiyear view, knowing that like it or not, we’re defining a new decade. You’ll see my optimism here — both as a longtime observer and as a later-stage entrepreneur trying to build out a new model for local news. (I wrote about that back in October.) I do believe that we can make the 2020s, if not quite the Soaring ’20s, something better than what we just went through. But I balance my optimism with my journalism-embued realism. In many ways, 2020 stands at the intersection of optimism and realism — a space that’s shrinking.

So much has gone off the rails in the news industry (and in the wider society) over the past decade. Amid all the fin-de-la-décennie thinking, I think Michiko Kakutani best described the country’s 10-year experience: “the indigenous American berserk,” a borrowing from Phillip Roth.

So much of what happened can be attributed to (if not too easily dismissed as) “unintended consequences.” Oops, we didn’t mean to turn over the 2016 election to Putin. Gosh, we didn’t mean to alter life on earth forever — we just really wanted that truck. We just wanted to connect up the whole world through the Internet — we didn’t mean to destroy the institutions that sort through the facts and fictions of civic life.

As billions have disappeared from the U.S. newspaper industry, the words “collateral damage” served to explain the revolution that led digital to become the leading medium for advertising. That damage is now reaching its endgame.

The Terrible Tens almost precisely match the period I’ve been writing here at Nieman Lab. In that time, I’ve written enough to fill several more books — 934,800 words before this piece. Almost a million words somehow accepted by our loyal readers, who still, remarkably, laugh and tell me: “Keep writing long.”

Let’s then start the 2020s off right. With one eye on the last decade and another on the one to come, let me put forward 20 understandings of where we are and how we build from here.

What’s the next merger?

At first, the news world was stunned: GateHouse is buying Gannett!? But then, as with all the tumult in the local newspaper business, people got used to the fact that America’s two largest newspaper companies would merge into one — managed by one private equity firm, deeply in debt to another — that would own and operate around a fifth of the country’s 1,200 dailies.

That felt like huge news — but what if it really only represents the beginning of a greater rollup? Last month, I sketched out how five of the largest chains could become two this year.

And yet there are even worse potential outcomes for those of us who care about a vibrant, independent press. What if a Sinclair, bent on regional domination and with a political agenda, were to buy a rollup, and keep rolling?

In a way, GateHouse’s builder Mike Reed has done a lot of the heavy lifting already. From a financial point of view, the CEO of New Gannett has already done a lot of rationalization. GateHouse bought up a motley collection of newspaper properties, many out of long-time family ownership, and brought some standard operating principles and efficiencies to them. We can ask whether his big gamble of borrowing $1.8 billion (at 11.5 percent interest) from Apollo Global Management will prove out over the next few years. Or we can think of that megamerger as just prologue.

After all, the same logic that drove the GateHouse/Gannett deal pervades the near-uniform thinking of executives at all of the chains. Job No. 1: Find large cost savings to maintain profitability in light of revenue declines, in the high single digits per year, that show no sign of stopping. And the easiest way to do that is merging. A merger can massively — if only once — cut out a lot of HQ and other “redundant” costs.

It buys some time. And newspaper operators are craving more time. “Ugly” is the simple description of the 2020 newspaper business offered to me by one high-ranking news executive. Revenue declines aren’t improving, so the logic remains. The only questions are: How much consolidation will there be, and how soon will it happen?

Heath Freeman, head of journalistic antihero Alden Global Capital, has already begun to answer that question. The hedge-fund barbarians aren’t just inside Tribune Publishing’s gates — they’re settled in around the corporate conference table. Alden’s cost-cutting influence drives the first drama of the year: Can Chicago Tribune employees fend off the bloodletting long enough to find a new buyer for their newspaper before it’s too late? They know that, despite a national upswell in public support for the gutted Denver Post in 2018, Alden was able to remain above the fray and stick to its oblivious-to-the-public-interest position.

Meanwhile, McClatchy is trying to thread a needle of financial reorganization. Then there’s Lee, operator of 46 largely smaller dailies. All of them are subject (and object) of the same financial logic.

While financing remains tough to get, at any price, there remains an undeniable financial propulsion to bring many more titles under fewer operations.

There’s no law preventing one company from owning half of the American daily press. And no law prevents a political player like a Sinclair — known for its noxious enforcement of company politics at its local broadcast properties — from buying or tomorrow’s MergedCo — or orchestrating the rollup itself.

After a decade where we’ve seen the rotten fruit of political fact-bending, what could be more effective than simply buying up the remaining sources of local news and shading or shilling their coverage? Purple states, beware! Further, the price would be relatively cheap: Only a couple billion dollars could buy a substantial swatch of the U.S.’s local press.

Alden is a virus in the newspaper industry.

It sometimes seems like we’ll run out of epithets — “the Thanos of the newspaper business,” “the face of bloodless strip-mining of American newspapers and their communities,” “industry vulture,” “the newspaper industry’s comic-book villain” — for Alden Global Capital. Then someone helps us out.

“Alden is a virus in the newspaper industry,” one very well-connected (and quite even-keeled) industry executive told me dispassionately. “It just destroys the story we try to tell of the great local journalism we need to preserve.”

Think about the big picture. The industry is flailing; behind closed doors, it’s throwing a Hail Mary, trying to win an antitrust exemption from Congress. It argues that in the public interest, it should be allowed to negotiate together (rather than as individual companies) with the platforms. It wants the big payoff they’ve dreamed of since the turn of the century: billions in licensing from Google, Facebook, and Co.

It pines for and makes comparison to the kinds of licensing revenue that both TV broadcasters and music publishers have been able to snag. But thus far, that’s been a heavy lift in terms of negotiation or public policy. But Alden adds more weight, letting governments or platforms say: “Wait, you want us to help them?”

Which leads to…

Can a duopoly licensing deal be the “retrans” savior of the local news business?

In 1992, local TV companies were in a bind. Cable and satellite companies had to pay the ESPNs and CNNs of the world to air their programming. But local TV stations — available for free on the public airwaves — got nothing for having their signal distributed to cable customers.

But that year, federal legislation allowed local TV stations to demand compensation from cable and satellite systems — retransmission fees. Essentially, distributors paid stations for the right to their programming, including local news — despite the fact that anyone with an antenna could get their signal for free.

What started out as a small supplemental revenue stream now amounts to about 40 percent of all local TV station revenue, according to Bob Papper, the TV industry’s keen observer and data/trend collector through his annual RTDNA survey. “Retrans money is skyrocketing, and that should continue until it levels off in 2023-24.” This year, it will likely add up to $12 billion or more.

Advertising revenue has been fairly flat for local TV companies (setting aside for a moment the two-year cycle in which election years pump them full of political cash). Digital revenue hasn’t been much better, accounting for only six or seven percent of station income, Papper says — way less than newspaper companies earn.

And yet these local TV businesses are stable, profitable, and facing nothing like what’s happened to newspaper newsrooms. Papper notes the wide variance across stations in the depth and breadth of their news products. While many still stick with the tried-and-tired formulas, his surveys of station managers list “investigative reporting” as their No. 1 priority. When it’s funded, it’s a differentiator in crowded TV markets.

It’s that retrans money that makes all the difference.

Clearly, the news industry is a major supplier of high-engagement material to the platforms — a supply that helps energizes their dominant ad businesses. While both Google and Facebook have deployed a motley fleet of news industry-supporting initiatives, they’ve steadfastly refused any large-scale “licensing” arrangements.

If there’s increased public pressures on the platforms as the society’s digital high turns part-bummer, and if the political environment were to change (a President Elizabeth Warren, for example), it’s not hard to imagine the tech giants ponying up a billion here or there for democracy-serving news, right? (Both Google and Apple count more than $100 billion in cash reserves, net of debt, with Facebook holding more than $50 billion.)

Google, when asked over the years why it doesn’t pay license fees, talks about the complexity of the news market, among other objections. Expect a new argument: You want us to pay an Alden, or a Fortress Investment Group?

The financialization of the press may indeed makes the daily newspaper “public service” argument more difficult to make. While still true — though now wildly uneven in its actual daily delivery — it might be an artifact of a bygone age. The question may turn from “Will platforms finally pay license fees?” to “Who can make a good argument that they deserve them?”

The first metric that matters is content capacity.

In our digital world, just about everything can be counted. So many numbers adding up to so few results for so many.

Look forward and we can see that content capacity is and will be among the biggest differentiators between the winners and losers of the news wars. In fact, I’d call it a gating factor. Publishers who can offer up a sufficient volume of unique, differentiated content can win, assuming they’ve figured out ways for their business to benefit from it.

People aren’t the problem, no matter what the headcount-chopping Aldens of the world have preached. People — the right journalists and the right digital-savvy business people — are the solution.

In models as diverse as The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Athletic, The Information, the Star Tribune, and The Boston Globe, we see this truism play out.

Certainly, having more skilled journalists better serves the public’s news needs. But the logic here is fundamentally a business one. In businesses increasingly dependent on reader revenue, content capacity drives the value proposition itself.

Rather than reducing headcount — and thus spinning the downward spiral more swiftly — increasing headcount can lead to a magic word: growth.

The news business will only rebound when it seeks growth.

Across America’s widening expanse of news deserts, we don’t hear many whispers of that word, growth. The conversation among owners and executives is pretty consistent: Where do we cut? How do we hold on?

That’s meant more M&A. More cutting print days. More cutting of business operations. More cutting of newsrooms. All in an effort to preserve a diminishing business — whether the underlying mission is to maintain even a semblance of a news mission or just to milk the remaining profits of an obsolescent industry.

Of course, local news publishers poke at new revenue streams to try to make up for print ad revenues that will likely drop in the high single digits for the fourth year in a row. But the digital ad wars have been lost to Google and Facebook. Marketing services, a revenue stream pursued with much optimism a few years ago, has proven to be a tough, low-margin business. Digital subscription sales are stalled around the country, not least because of all that cutting’s impact on the product. Most see no path to a real “replacement” revenue stream. (Maybe CBD-infused newsprint?)

Cutting ain’t working. Decline feeds decline.

Only an orientation toward growth — with strategies that grab the future optimistically and are funded appropriately — can awaken us from this nightmare. Replace “replacement” strategies with growth strategies and these businesses look different.

Happily, we do have growth models to look at. Take, most essentially to the current republic, our two leading “newspapers.”

Today, The New York Times pays 1,700 journalists. That’s almost twice as many as a decade ago. The Washington Post pays 850, up from 580 when Jeff Bezos bought it in 2013.

The result: More unique, high-quality content has driven both publishers to new heights of subscription success, the Times how with three times as many paying customers as it had at its print apex. Readers have rewarded the investment, and those rewards have in turn allowed further investment.

It’s a flywheel of growth — recognizable to anyone who’s ever built a business, large or small. What it requires is a long-term view and patience. And, of course, capital in some form — which shouldn’t be a problem in a rich country awash in cash. But what it also demands is a belief in the mission of the business, an in-part seemingly irrational belief that the future of the news business can, and must, be robust.

Some big numbers tell the big story.

  • We may have underestimated the dominance of the New Gannett. According to Dirks, Van Essen, Murray & April, the leading newspaper broker, the new Gannett now owns:

    • 20.4 percent of all U.S. daily newspapers
    • 26.3 percent of all U.S. daily print circulation
    • 24.8 percent of all U.S. Sunday print circulation

    So in rough terms, it controls a quarter of our daily press. The chart below, produced by the brokerage, compares the megamerger to the industry’s previous big deals on the basis of percentage of newspapers owned and percentage of circulation controlled. It should send a chill down every American spine.

  • There are probably fewer than 20,000 journalists working in U.S. daily newspaper newsrooms. There’s not even a semi-official tally anymore, but that’s a good extrapolation from years past, given all the cutting since. That compares to 56,900 in 1990 — when the country had 77 million fewer people than today.
  • The daily press still depends on the print newspaper for 70 percent or more of its revenue. That’s after 20 years of “digital transition.”
  • The daily newspaper industry today takes in more than $30 billion less per year than it did at its height.
  • $1 trillion: The market value reached by Alphabet (Google) last week.

The brain drain is real.

What’s the biggest problem in the news business? The collapse of ad revenue? Facebook? Dis- and misinformation? Aging print subscribers?

Surprisingly, over the last year numerous publishers and CEOs have confided what troubles them most: talent.

It’s hard enough to take on all the issues of business and social disruption with a staff that can meet the challenge. Increasingly, though, it’s hard for news companies to attract and retain the talent they need, especially in the business, product, and technology areas that will determine their very survival.

Who wants to work in an industry on its deathbed? Especially in an already tight job market.

What do the people who could make a difference in the future of news want? Fair compensation, for sure, and local news companies often pay below-market wages, on the TV side as much as in newspapers. Perhaps more important, they want a sense of a positive future — one their bosses believe in and act on every day. That’s a commodity scarcer than money in this business.

No industry has a future without a pipeline of vital, young, diverse talent eager to shape the future. And that’s especially true in the live-or-die arts of digital business. As the just-released Reuters Institute for Journalism 2020 trends report notes, “Lack of diversity may also be a factor in bringing new talent into the industry. Publishers have very low confidence that they can attract and retain talent in technology (24%) and data science (24%) as well as product management (39%). There was more confidence in editorial areas (76%).”

At the same time, we’ll be watching the flow of experienced talent as it moves around the industry. As Atlantic Media continues to grow and morph under the Emerson Collective, a number of its top alumni are moving into new positions elsewhere. Longtime Atlantic president Bob Cohn now takes over as president of The Economist — an early digital subscription leader, the storied “newspaper” now seeks growth. Meanwhile, Kevin Delaney, co-founder of Atlantic Media’s innovative Quartz, has taken on a so-far-unannounced big project at The New York Times’ Opinion section, where the appetite for impact has grown appreciably.

Finally, as The Guardian ended the decade with happy reader revenue success, Annette Thomas becomes CEO. Thomas has earned accolades for her innovative work in science publishing. These three, plus numerous others moving into new jobs as 2020 begins, can now bring their decades of digital experience to the job of getting news right in the ’20s.

Print is a growing sore spot; expect more daycutting.

Just for a moment, forget the thinned-out newsrooms and consider a fundamental truth: The physical distribution system that long supported the daily business is falling apart.

The paperboys and papergirls of mid-20th-century America have faded into Norman Rockwell canvases. As Amazon’s distribution machine and Uber and Lyft suck up available delivery people across the country, publishers say it’s increasingly hard to find paper throwers. (And why not? Paper-throwing sounds like a sport from another age.)

Why not just throw in with the logistics geniuses of the day, and partner with them to deliver the papers? The newspaper industry has indeed had talks with Amazon, buyer of 30,000 last-mile delivery trucks over the past two years. We’ll probably see some local efforts to converge delivery. But think about who still gets that package of increasingly day-old news delivered to their doorstep? Seniors — who want the paper bright and early, complicating delivery partnerships.

Not to mention that, with print subscribers declining in the high single digits every year, deliverers now need to cover a wider geography to deliver the same number of papers — and that problem will only get worse.

To add an almost comic complication to the challenge of dead-tree delivery: California’s AB5 just went into effect. Its admirable aim is to bring fairer benefits to those in the gig economy. But its many unintended consequences are now cascading throughout the state — spelling millions more in costs to daily publishers while wreaking havoc among freelancers.

Is seven-day home delivery now a luxury good? Or just a profit-squeezing artifact? Either way, it’s become clear that publishers’ years of price increases for seven-day aren’t sustainable. One of my trusty correspondents reported this last week that he’s now paying $900 a year for the Gannett-owned Louisville Courier-Journal. There are Alden-owned papers charging more than $600 a year for ghost titles, produced by a bare handful — sometimes two — journalists.

As print subscriptions have declined, publishers have continued to price up. That’s death-spiral pricing, with a clear end in sight and boatloads of money to be made on the way out the door.

Earlier this year, I wrote about “the end of seven-day print” and how publishers have been modeling and noodling its timeline. There’s been lots of trimming around the edges, mainly at smaller papers; McClatchy’s decision to fully end Saturday print is a harbinger of what’s to come. The company planned the end of Saturdays meticulously, with a keen eye toward customer communication, and proved to both itself and the industry that it can be done.

(Let’s allow time here for a brief chuckle by European publishers who have been successfully publishing “weekend” papers for decades.)

But cutting Saturday alone doesn’t save you a lot of money. Those twin pressures — on one hand, needing ever-larger cost savings, on the other, the collapsing distribution system — mean we’ll see more ambitious and adventurous cutting in the year to come. They’ll do while swallowing the existential fear one CEO shared: “They are scared to death this will end the habit.”

How big a deal is all this — the declining mechanics of print distribution? Very big.

Consider that The New York Times — the most successfully transitioned of newspaper companies — still only earns only 43 percent of its revenue from digital. Most regional dailies still rely on print for 75 to 90 percent of their overall revenue. If the physical distribution system starts failing faster, how much of that print-based revenue — circulation and advertising — can be converted to digital?

At a national level, the direct connection between readers and journalists has never been stronger.

Listen to the commercial breaks of The New York Times’ breakaway hit The Daily. A lot of them aren’t commercial spots, but what we used to call house ads in the print business. Maggie Haberman talking about Times’ reporting in the era of press vilification; Rukmini Callimachi sharing the danger and cost of reporting from terror-stricken parts of the world.

These ads aren’t about making the newsroom feel better — they work. The Times now has more than three times the total paying customers than it did at the height of print, with 3.9 million digital news subscribers paying the Times. Why? The journalists and the journalism.

In the halcyon days of print, advertising drove 75 percent of the Times’ revenue, a number that often hit 80 percent for local dailies. Now the digital world has forced — but also enabled — the Times to forge a very direct connection between its journalists and readers. Readers understand much more clearly that they are paying for high-quality news and analysis. They value expertise and increasingly get to know these journalists individually, whether through podcasts or other digital extensions.

Journalists believe more than ever that they are working for the reader, with the Times the trustworthy intermediary. The new more direct relationship between reader and journalist fosters growth. And the same is true similarly for The Washington Post, The Athletic, and The Information, in different forms.

If the local news world had followed suit, we’d say that the age of digital disruption has been a boon for journalism overall. Clearly, it hasn’t. This lesson is a guidepost for the decade ahead.

Advertising remains a vital — but secondary — source of revenue for news publishers.

The war’s over; the platforms won. With Google and Facebook maintaining a 60 percent share of the digital ad market (and 70 percent of local digital ads), publishers no longer expect to grab a bigger slice of the pie. The drama drawing the most attention: How much will Amazon eat into The Duopoly, as Mediaocean CEO Bill Wise summed up “the five trends that threaten the Google/Facebook duopoly” at AdAge.

Contrary to some of the conventional wisdom of the moment, that doesn’t mean advertising is no longer a part of publishers’ diversified revenue streams. Yes, reader revenue is clearly the driver for successful publishers of the ’20s, but advertising — best when sold and presented in ways that don’t compete directly with the platforms — will be in the passenger seat.

The evolving formula of the early ’20s is a mix of 65 to 70 percent reader revenue, 20 to 30 percent in advertising, and then an “other” that includes things like events. While this model may be more diversified, it’s not made of discrete parts. The better publishers get at profiling their reader-revenue-paying customers, with increasingly better-used first-party data, the better they can help advertisers sell. At this point, it’s a wobbly virtuous circle of money and data, and the successful publishers will find ways to round it.

A local news-less 2030 America is a fright beyond comprehension.

The word of the moment in almost every conversation about local news is “nonprofit.” At so many conferences and un-conferences about the news emergency, the notion that there’s a commercial answer to rebuilding the local business seems almost out of bounds.

What created this anti-profit sensibility? Acknowledging the power of the duopoly, to be sure. But that’s not the only rationale. For generations, many journalists considered themselves proudly unaware or uncaring about the business. Now the ascendance of Google and Facebook has given too many permission to eschew advertising as a significant, if secondary, support of reporting.

Secondly, the industry’s Heath Freemans and Michael Ferros, among too many others, have stained a local news business that was once both proudly profitable and mission-driven. Profiteering is now associated by many with local news.

Nonprofit news, too, though requires capital — just like any kind of growing service or product. Somebody has to actually pay journalists. So those advocating nonprofit news as the new future have turned to philanthropy. They look to foundations, national and local, to finance this vision. Nationally, more than $40 million has now flowed into the American Journalism Project, headed by Elizabeth Green and John Thornton. Most of that’s come from national foundations. The AJP announced its first grants in December, a down payment on what it envisions as a fund of up to $1 billion.

Now we’ll see if AJP can significantly move the needle on what is plainly needed: replacement journalism. As it tries to catalyze a movement, it hopes to multiply the philanthropic response to the news crisis. It’s a hope we can share. AJP’s pitch is straightforward: Communities should support news the same way they support public goods like the ballet and the opera, things that in many cities plainly couldn’t sustain themselves as creatures of the market.

That’s a worthy thought, but with two big issues attached.

One: There’s not much of a tradition of such support. Newspapers made so much money for so many years that they were the ones who started foundations, not the ones asking them for money. Relatively few communities’ foundations are oriented in that direction — and foundations don’t change direction or priorities speedily.

Two: Scale. So much local news coverage has been lost that it would take substantial and ongoing philanthropy to even begin to resupply community news. There’s not a lot of evidence yet of a readiness to do that.

To be sure, hundreds of dedicated journalists have build smaller operations in cities across the country. LION Publishers and the Institute for Nonprofit News are looking for new and better ways to support and nurture them. But the old world is disappearing far faster than a new one is being created.

Ace industry researchers Elizabeth Hansen and Jesse Holcomb recently laid out their thinking, which should serve as a reality check for all who care about the next decade of local news.

Yet even with a game-changing funding renaissance in local news (which would require the significant participation of community foundations), it probably won’t be fast enough or big enough to refill the bucket as local newspaper talent and jobs continue to drain away. There may not be enough philanthropic capital, even on the sidelines, to support the scope and depth of local news-gathering that our democracy requires.

But it was the concluding paragraph of their Nieman Lab prediction that really best summed up this epiphany looking ahead to the end of this decade.

A New(s) Deal for the 21st century: If all forms of philanthropic support for local news are truly not enough, we predict that by the end of 2030, we’ll be seeing large-scale policy changes to publicly support more sources of local news. It may not seem like we’re that close on this one, but trust us, it could happen.

I know Hansen and Holcomb are trying to spark a note of optimism, but their realistic reading of the landscape should strike terror: A local news-less 2030 America is a fright beyond comprehension. Imagine this struggling country 10 years from now if the news vacuum has become the new normal and our communities are democratically impoverished.

My own view: All good journalism is good. Support it by philanthropy, advertising, events, reader revenue, or by winning lottery ticket. Given the peril, we all need to look more widely for support, not more narrowly.

The free press needs to be a better advocate of free peoples in the 21st century.

The Wall Street Journal has long proclaimed itself the paper of free people and free markets. That formulation has made a lot of sense over time in the face of state-run economies of various flavors. But it’s insufficient to meet the demands of today.

Free peoples — those able to speak, write, assemble, vote, and retain some dignity of privacy — make up an uneasy minority of the world’s population. Now the twin dangers of growing strongman despotism and tech-based surveillance societies threaten us all.

Most recently, The New York Times’ investigative report on facial recognition painted a deeply disturbing dystopian portrait. The piece came on the heels of many beginning to describe China’s “surveillance state,” an ominous system intend to enable lifelong tracking and rewarding of state-approved citizen behavior.

We’re moving from a decade of cookies gone wild to what until recently seemed to be Orwellian fiction.

Combine the tech with the spreading rash of authoritarianism afflicting the globe. From Russia to Hungary to Turkey to Brazil to the Philippines to, yes, our current White House, the 2010s produced strongmen who we thought had been relegated to the history books.

Who best to represent free people in the coverage of would-be despots and in the tech-driven threats to several centuries of hard-earned Western rights? A free and strong press.

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” Czech novelist Milan Kundera memorably told us in his 1980 book The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. (John Updike’s masterful review of it is here).

Memory. Our job as journalists is to remember. To connect yesterday to today to tomorrow.

Like the climate crisis, the threat of a surveillance society registers only haphazardly among the American populace, even as California’s government and others begin to take it on.

We’ve seen the beginnings of a backlash against tech run amok, with Facebook’s role in the 2016 election a seeming turning point. But here we are again, as Emily Bell points out, going into another election with the same issues — and huge questions that go well beyond the social behemoth.

If news companies are, at their base, advocates for the public good, news companies must lead in securing a free society in the face of technological adventurism. Media needs to get beyond its self-interest — ah, first-party data! — and focus on the bigger picture.

Who better to take that stand than those who’ve long advocated free peoples and free thinking? Who better to do that — and perhaps be rewarded for it in reader support — than mission-oriented news media?

The press’ business revival is part and parcel of its advocacy for the people it serves.

Australia is burning, and Murdoch’s newsprint provided the kindling.

For years, Australian press watchers have pointed to the dangerous slanting of environmental news by much of the nation’s press. A majority of that press is controlled by Rupert Murdoch’s empire. And those papers, joined too often by other media, have long skewed the facts of climate change. The result is a society ill-prepared for the nightmare that’s befallen it.

While this month has seen more complaints about Murdoch publications’ coverage, they’re in line with what that coverage has looked like for years. Now even scion James Murdoch has spoken out, as have some of Murdoch’s employees, seeing the heartbreaking, country-changing toll the fires have taken on Australia.

History will record Rupert Murdoch’s three-continent toll on Western civilization. The Foxification of U.S. news, Brexit support, and Australia’s inferno serve as only three of the major impacts Murdoch’s press power has had around the world. It is a press power weaponized and then turned on the very societies it is supposed to serve.

And don’t let the whirl of events let you forget the odious phone hacking scandal. “The BBC reported last year that the Murdoch titles had paid out an astonishing £400m in damages and calculated that the total bill for the two companies could eventually reach £1bn,” former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger reminded us this week in discussing the British press’ tawdry history with the royals.

Disney, for one, has recognized the toxicity of Murdoch’s remaining brand. Fox Corporation now owns the Fox broadcast network, Fox News, and 28 local Fox television stations, among other media assets. But “Fox” is no longer part of Twentieth Century Fox, the storied studio, and related assets that Disney bought from Murdoch last year. Now it’s only out of sync when it comes to time: 20th Century Studios. (Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton offered up a wonderful history of the Fox brand in the U.S., beginning with a third of a Brooklyn nickleodeon 115 years ago, on Twitter.)

The Murdoch empire has generated plenty of good entertainment outside of its own brands — witness the Emmy-winning “Succession” and last month’s Bombshell. But we haven’t yet come to grips with how his publications’ fact-slanting has literally changed the faces of free societies.

Expertise rises to the top.

The end of the print era is killing off the generalist. Every daily newsroom has its legend of the reporter who could cover anything. Wake him up from a drunken stupor, point him (almost always him) out the door, and you’d get your story.

Great stories there sometimes were, but the legend exceeded the truth: Too much news reporting was a mile wide and an inch deep.

Flash forward to today: Ruthless digital disruption — of both reading and advertising — means that inch-deep stories have less and less value. (Remember back at the start of the last decade, the content farms — Demand Media, Contently, Associated Content — that were going to revolutionize journalism?)

If commodity journalism and sheer volume are out, one the most refreshing trends into the 2020s is single-subject journalism. It needs a better name, but the results have been profound. In topic after topic, the focus on expertise — in reporting, writing and increasingly presentation and storytelling — have produced their own revolution.

In health, we see Kaiser Health News excelling and expanding. In education, Chalkbeat (with its new five-year plan) and the Hechinger Report drill into the real issues of the field. They’re now being joined by the university/college-focused, seeking to bring the same level of experienced, knowledgeable journalism to the often-cloistered academy.

The Marshall Project squarely meets the many mushrooming questions around criminal justice in our society. InsideClimate News is growing to try to meet the interest, and panic, around a warming earth. More-than-single-subject-oriented ProPublica’s investigations, often done with partners, have done what great work is supposed to do: set and reset agendas. There are many more, including at the regional and state level, led by The Texas Tribune and CALmatters.

All together, they may add up to fewer than a thousand journalists at this point. But their impact is great, and I believe it will become greater as awareness and distribution increase.

As Google and Facebook have won the ad wars, pageview-thirsty commodity journalism has largely (and thankfully) met its demise. Now we’ll see how much the market — not just those foundations — will support real expertise in reporting.

Free media has better tech skills than state media.

While Iran’s state media was spending days denying any possibility its military had shot down the Ukranian airliner, The New York Times found the likely truth early on. It assembled its own small group of experts. It used the best tech available. And it could report (under an increasingly common four-person byline) that an Iranian missile had in fact likely done the deed.

It wasn’t about suspicions, guesses, or bombast. It was about finding a truth in plain sight — given the human and technological resources to do it.

At first, Iranians believed their own media, as NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly reported from Tehran, that the downing was U.S. propaganda. But then, amazingly and overnight, Iranian citizens responded to the American-driven truth. They piled into the streets, seeing the mistake and its coverup for what it was: another sign that their government, without its own checks and balances, couldn’t be trusted.

Watch what privately owned newspapers do.

By necessity, we pay a lot of attention to the industry’s M&A mating games. These largely involve the dwindling number of publicly owned newspaper companies, which struggle both with operating realities and the need to convince shareholders to hang on through short-term earnings and dividends. They’re the biggest players, the most riddled by financialization, and the ones who have to report numbers publicly.

But given today’s realities, the stock market really isn’t the place for newspaper companies to be. Only long-term, strategic, capital-backed, and for the most part private or family-controlled businesses can make it successfully to 2030.

In the middle part of the 2010s, those papers got more focus. John Henry with The Boston Globe. The Taylor family with the Star Tribune. Frank Blethen, fighting the long fight in Seattle. And then they were joined by Patrick Soon-Shiong with the L.A. Times and San Diego Union-Tribune.

For the most part, we don’t hear much news out of these enterprises. They don’t have to report to markets quarterly, and they’ve taken more of a no-drama-Obama approach to the tough business. They are also, not incidentally, the leaders in digital subscription among local dailies. They remain important to watch.

Just as importantly, consider two newspaper chains that keep their heads down: Hearst and Advance. In the early 2010s, Advance made lots of news by cutting print days at its papers in New Orleans, Portland, Cleveland, and elsewhere. It will likely soon get a fresher look: Long-time Advance Local CEO Randy Siegel announced last week that he’s stepping down. No successor has yet been named.

Hearst also remains intriguing. A very private company — and one now that now generates less than 10 percent of its revenue from newspapers — its very name bespeaks a long commitment. But the top two executives of what now is a profoundly diversified media company both grew outside of the news trade. Will it stand pat in its markets? Will it look for acquisitions? (The old GateHouse was its nemesis outbidding Hearst for the Austin and Palm Beach papers in 2018, but the Gannett deal should keep it out of the buying game for a while.) With antitrust enforcement apparently on the wane, will it try to build a cluster in the Bay Area around its San Francisco Chronicle? Or complete a Texas big-city triangle by adding The Dallas Morning News to its Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News?

Bankruptcy is nothing new in the newspaper industry.

McClatchy’s pension-led financial crisis in November surprised many. The words “potential bankruptcy” tend to focus the mind.

But consider this: By one close observer’s account, more than 20 daily newspaper companies have visited the bankruptcy courts since the Great Recession a decade ago.

Ironically, two of the ones that emerged became acquisitive consolidators. Today’s MNG Enterprises, driven by Alden’s in-court and out-of-court strategy, in fact declared bankruptcy twice in its various corporate iterations. GateHouse, re-birthed by Fortress Investment Group in 2013, was able to restructure debt totalling $1.4 billion — double what McClatchy now owes — and has gone to become the biggest newspaper company in the land, even able to buy the better-known Gannett name in the process.

So if McClatchy does indeed go into a pre-pack bankruptcy, the news won’t be that filing. It’ll be what the company does — as a business and journalistically — afterward.

We have to find a way to keep trillion-dollar stories in the public eye.

Through a year full of remarkable stories, perhaps the most remarkable was one that’s gotten little continuing attention.

In December, The Washington Post published “At War With The Truth.” It took the paper three years to pry loose the trove of documents through Freedom of Information requests. It is remarkable reporting, and one that put a price tag on our ignorance.

Here’s the lede: “A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.”

The eerie parallels to the Pentagon Papers — a previous generation’s documentation of enormous waste, financial and human — were obvious. And yet it seems to have caused only small ripples in public discourse.

Politicians drive the daily news cycle, wielding wedge attacks on those — disabled, immigrant, poor — already falling through the now-purposely cut safety net. They say they do this in the name of saving taxpayer dollars. And yet this literal waste of $1 trillion pops in and out of the news in a politician’s second. This isn’t a question of politics; it’s a question of the public purse, and performing that watchdog role is our birthright as journalists.

As we reform and rebuild the journalism of the 2020s, we need to use the digital and moral tools of the day to hold power accountable and keep big stories alive over time. So far, we’ve barely touched the surface in connecting the latest happening to its deep historical context, making readers realize how a story connects to a larger issue or narrative, in ways both intuitive and knowledge-building.

I have confidence we’ll figure out how to do that in the 2020s.

“Mediatech” may be the new “convergence.”

There’s a new word taking hold out there: “mediatech”.

That’s how German behemoth Axel Springer is rebranding itself. CEO Mathias Dopfner and his team have rigorously pursued a transition away from print for more than a decade. “Mediatech” tells us both what they’ve learned and where they are going. In August, Dopfner’s new partner KKR bought out a minority interest in the company, taking it private and preparing it to be a bigger player this decade.

Springer, like its sometime partner Schibsted, will be one the big survivors in the brutal media game. Both have learned that modern journalism is now driven by both journalists and by technology. It’s the melding of the two — in audience definition, targeting, and service, and in product creation and delivery — that will determine the winners ahead.

Springer’s question for the ’20s: How much will the company keep investing in journalism itself, as it also pursues other digital business byways? Dopfner laid out the strategy, in friendly but direct sparring with Mark Zuckerberg, here.

Ah, life remains better in Perugia!

Travel coincidentally brought me to the doorstep of the most you-gotta-go-there journalism conference a couple of years ago. The name says most of it: the Perugia International Journalism Festival. Not a conference, or even an un- one, but a festival, inviting, of course, allusions to Nero fiddling. The truffled pasta and the views can’t be beat. The Sagrantino was magnificent.

The conference’s agenda and its exhibitor halls said it all. Walk into the main hall and Google and Facebook offered dueling expanses, with many enthusiastic company-clad representatives touting their latest and greatest. And half the agenda seemed to be, in apparently unintentional self-parody, sessions on how to work with…Facebook and Google. It’s the very best setting for platformitis.

In the time since, we’ve seen an even greater proliferation of news-aiding initiatives out of both companies. The new Reuters Institute study corroborates my own reporting, among publishers, of how that work is going and how it’s seen:

Google’s higher score [in the Institute’s own surveying] reflects the large number of publishers in our survey who are current or past recipients of Google’s innovation funds (DNI or GNI), and who collaborate with the company on various news-related products. Facebook’s lower score may reflect historic distrust from publishers after a series of changes of product strategy which left some publishers financially exposed.

The overall sense from our survey, however, is that publishers do not want hand-outs from platforms but would prefer a level playing field where they can compete fairly and get proper compensation for the value their content brings.

Short of that business-changing historic payout — see above — it’s unlikely that platform aid to publishers will itself significantly alter any of the trendlines in place.

There’s no natural ceiling to digital subscriptions.

Imagine if Reed Hastings has gone with advice of management consultants in the early 2000s, who might have “sized” the market for “on-demand” video and likely found it negligible. Netflix, nurtured on red envelopes, instead created a whole new category of customer demand — and willingness to pay.

As the company has grown, analysts have consistently undershot its growth potential, in the U.S. and globally. The company that was once asked “Will people really subscribe to on-demand movies?” reported on Tuesday that it now counts 167.1 million subscribers, and added 8.8 million in Q4 2019.

Upstart Disney (two words that don’t seem to pair) has already had its Disney+ app downloaded 40 million times. Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO Max, Apple TV+, CBS All Access, Peacock, and more are all opening wallets.

What’s instructive to the future of the news business here? There’s no natural ceiling to digital subscription, though media reporters love to ask me that question. Create a value proposition that works and consumers will pay. Obviously, national and global scale — what the Internet provides — are hugely helpful. It is though the product proposition that drives payment.

For a moment, consider all the digital subscription success stories in news: The New York Times, the Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, The Athletic, The Boston Globe, the Star Tribune, and more. What if this is just prologue? Could better products — with more and more useful content, priced, sliced, and diced smartly — reproduce some of the scale success of streaming?

In a word, yes. And that’s our best hope for the decade ahead. Into the 2020s, bravely!

POSTED     Jan. 24, 2020, 7:38 a.m.
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