Five years ago today I posted a 29-word squib on the question of whether bloggers are journalists. With that inauspicious beginning, Newspaper Death Watch was launched. Nearly 600 posts and about a half million words later, it’s still here, though its charter has changed over that time. In many ways this blog is a microcosm of the forces that have all but swept away the once-mighty US newspaper industry and replaced it with the seeds of something that I believe will ultimately be much richer and and more valuable.
This blog was launched out of our frustration at my failure to find a publisher for an op-ed piece I wrote in 2006 forecasting the collapse of daily newspapers. The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times were polite in their rejections. The Boston Globe‘s Joan Vennochi, displaying the arrogance that was typical of that newspaper in those days, didn’t respond to multiple phone calls and faxes. Op-ed editors’ lack of interest in my point of view was understandable; 2006 was the best revenue year the newspaper industry ever had and forecasts of catastrophe seemed ridiculous. I knew from many years following the technology industry, however, that businesses often enjoy their best years just before their collapse. I self-published a longer version of that essay and started this site to document the death spiral that I knew was about to begin.
The five years since then have been pivotal years in the history of media. The turning point came in 2009 when two venerable dailies – the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer – shut down with little notice, and several big papers, including my beloved Globe, were threatened with the same fate. More background here. The industry came out of that experience with a sense of urgency about its own survival and made changes that will prolong its decline but not change its fate. As Pew recently reported, most publishers are moving toward a digital future slowly and reluctantly. This still doesn’t look good.
The death watch began to bore me after 2009, and I’ve spent the last two years focusing more on the experiments that are sprouting up to preserve and evolve the craft of journalism. The good news is that there is a lot of innovation out there. I’m impressed by Pro Publica, Politico, Minn Post, Voice of San Diego, AllVoices, Global Post, California Watch and Sacramento Press, to name just a few. These startups all proceed from the assumption that good journalism can be practiced without the overhead of presses, paper, delivery trucks and newsstands. In fact, when you remove the expense of printing and delivering a newspaper, the actual cost of the journalism is pretty low. Then you can do some innovative things on the business side to pay the bills and maybe even make a profit in the long run. I applaud their work and the work of many others like them.
Power of One
It’s been amazing to see how much attention one person can attract with a little perseverance and the right tools. I’ve been interviewed on Al-Jazeera and CNN, featured on Australia’s leading network news program and spotlighted in a documentary. Spain’s largest daily newspaper featured me in a center spread. I’ve been cited in the Journal, USA Today, The Economist, The New Yorker and many other well-known publications. You can find a complete list of media mentions here. I get e-mail inquiries from media outlets every couple of weeks and always help out as best I can.
More rewarding have been the opportunities I’ve had to work with journalists and students through fine organizations like Poynter Institute, USC Annenberg, the American Press Institute, Boston University, Emerson College, SUNY Stony Brook and Emmanuel College. My point of view hasn’t always been popular with the editors and teachers I’ve met, but I’ve found most of them to be open-minded. I try to emphasize what I’ve said many times: The problem with newspapers isn’t the quality of their journalism but the weakness of their business model. It’s ironic that readership of newspaper content in print and online is at an all-time high while the revenues of the US industry are at a 60-year low. We should be focused not on preserving newspapers but on preserving journalism.
Power of Free
I earlier called Newspaper Death Watch a microcosm of the changing media industry and here’s what I meant: This blog has annual expenses of $57 for website hosting. It is a labor of love and an outlet for passion.It has long been a top Google result for queries about the decline of newspapers, and a couple of years ago Google decided to make it one of the top search results for “newspaper industry.”
As a result, the site gets between 400 and 600 visitors on an average day and has more than 1,200 RSS subscribers. One day in February, 2009 it was visited more than 3,000 times. I get a steady stream of e-mails from students asking about journalism careers or seeking help with term papers. Fifteen years ago that kind of visibility would have cost tens of thousands of dollars to create and thousands annually to sustain. International reach was almost unthinkable. Today it’s basically free.
This is just one small example of many thousands of blogs that are making a difference because the bloggers have something to say. The ability of one person to create conversation today is stunning. Last month a man in North Carolina pumped eight rounds from a .45 into his daughter’s laptop to protest her selfish behavior. He posted the video below on YouTube and within three days started a global conversation about parenting, generational conflict and the impact of social media on young people. These kinds of events are commonplace today. They represent a fundamental shift in power and influence from the media to the individual.
It used to be said that power resided in the hands of those who bought ink by the barrel. Today it resides in the hands of those who have something to say and the passion to find a way to say it. What could be wrong with that?