By paulgillin | April 5, 2010 - 9:49 am - Posted in Fake News, Hyper-local, Paywalls

Victor Navasky and Evan Lerner throw some cold water on the iPad party, suggesting that e-readers could save the floundering magazine industry at the expense of journalistic standards. They point to research by the Columbia Journalism Review (which Navasky founded) that revealed  that magazine editors admit their practices are sloppier online than they are in print. Copy editing and fact-checking standards are looser and editors are more aware of the need to drive traffic to their work, which increases the temptation to sensationalize or invent. “Where advertising is based on traffic, and traffic is thought to depend on the speedy posting of new content, we’re seeing a gradual breakdown of [the ad/edit firewall] as journalistic standards become even more flexible to allow for greater and greater speed,” they write.

Apple iPadTheir oped  raises an important point about the influence of traffic on journalistic quality and the declining value of circulation. As we noted last September, circulation at some of the country’s largest magazines is down between 60% and 75% over the last eight years. This threatens the business models of these publications and the journalistic standards that they support. Here’s why.

Circulation is a complex and arcane discipline that is critical to the health of publications. Publishers manage circulation carefully, each seeking an ideal balance between subscription and newsstand sales. For consumer publishers, a high percentage of newsstand sales creates subscriber churn which delivers new blood that is desirable to their advertisers. For professional and trade publishers, many of which don’t distribute on newsstands, renewal rates signify reader loyalty, which their advertisers crave. In all cases, circulation quality is at least as important as circulation quantity.

All magazines have paid subscribers who contract to receive the publication for a defined period of time, regardless of whether they actually read it. Subscriptions provide a degree of security for publishers because they increase the likelihood that a reader’s perception of the product will be shaped over time rather than by one headline. One of the reasons newspapering has been such a stable business for so many years is that renewal rates for newspaper subscribers have been astronomically high. Subscriptions create incentive for publishers to produce information that has broad appeal to their target audience. While some would argue that this leads them to “dumb down” content, it also gives them the luxury to deliver information they believe readers need to have, even if they don’t want to have it.

Google Is the New Newsstand

Michael Jackson death on TMZOn the Web, of course, there is no circulation. While a few professional publishers do limit access to their content to paying subscribers, most rely upon search engines and referral links for the traffic that sustains their business. This severely disrupts their business models. When the luxury of subscribers is gone, publishers must compete for readers on every single story. This means that speed, sensationalism and search-friendly headlines like “Top 10 Tips for Whiter Laundry” become more important factors in delivering a volume of visitors that can be monetized (Consumer magazines honed this to a fine art years ago). It also creates an incentive to shortcut quality for timeliness. A notable example of this was the death of singer Michael Jackson last June, which was first reported by the celebrity gossip site TMZ. The Los Angeles Times reportedly had the story at the same time but held the news because of lack of verification. Quality lost out to speed.

The impact of the industry’s shift from subscriptions to search results and links is enormous. Publishers now have to compete on every single story, which means anything that doesn’t deliver a large audience is bad. You can imagine how this influences reporting on niche topics. It also creates an incentive to make stories bigger than they really are. The problem is compounded when editors are rewarded solely on the basis of page views. Balance gives way to expediency and errors are more easily excused when they can be quickly and quietly fixed online.

Navansky and Lerner implore people who care about journalistic quality to “take up the challenge of debating and discussing — and, we would add, codifying — the values, standards and practices that ought to prevail online.” It’s an admirable call to action but unlikely to result in any enforceable standards. As long as publishing success hangs on a thin thread like traffic, the temptation to practice bad journalism will remain strong. If publishers can come up with a persuasive way to sell the quality of their audiences, then the tide might begin to turn. Until then, we’re going to see a lot of articles on whiter laundry.

Speaking of the iPad, TechCrunch reports that Apple sold 300,000 units in the US as of midnight Saturday. That’s about 10% more than the total number of iPhones sold during that product’s first week on the market. However, it’s worth noting that when the iPhone went on sale, there was no iPhone to compare it against. In contrast, the iPad has the momentum of the iPhone’s popularity along with a substantial base of applications. On that note, the product’s opening week performance is notable. Apple said customers downloaded over 1 million applications and over 250,000 e-books.



This entry was posted on Monday, April 5th, 2010 at 9:49 am and is filed under Fake News, Hyper-local, Paywalls. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


  1. April 5, 2010 @ 2:17 pm

    […] Will iPad Hasten Journalism's Decline? | Newspaper Death Watch […]

  2. April 5, 2010 @ 2:22 pm

    […] wieder kurz zurück zum Thema – Quo vadis, Journalismus? Newspaper Death Watch hat zur Frage, Will iPad Hasten Journalism’s Decline? einen lesenswerten Artikel mit sehr aufschlussreichem Einblick auf die Konsequenzen der Verlagerung […]

  3. April 5, 2010 @ 5:56 pm

    Journalism was already in decline before the Ipad was launched. What will you be writing about using you Ipad that will make you a better or worse journalist? The demise of journalism started years ago when journalists started to write desperate articles just to get the information published. Now, it is mass media journalism. It’s got nothing to do with ethics or factual writing. Get the information or misinformation out and that is what journalism boils down to. To make it worse, bloggers think they are journalists! lol

  4. April 6, 2010 @ 8:05 am

    Journalism’s decline has nothing to do with the display technology.

    Every Tom Dick and Harry making a living wage re-writing Bob’s original report is the problem here.

    The internet by lowering to cost of distribution to damn-near zero means that I can now get Bob’s report directly.

    It sucks to be Tom, Dick or Harry but there it is.

    Posted by msbpodcast
  5. April 11, 2010 @ 6:49 am

    I don’t understand the point of the TMZ vs. LA Times comparison. You’re not saying that TMZ incorrectly reported Michael Jackson’s death, are you? Or are you simply upset that a nimble, aggressive New Media site scooped an old, plodding (but respectable!) Old Media outlet? This sort of thing is happening more and more often.

    Posted by DrMaturin
  6. April 11, 2010 @ 7:05 am

    The point is that the Times put accuracy ahead of expediency in adhering to the journalistic tradition of confirming information. TMZ didn’t and got the scoop. TMZ also gets a lot of information wrong for this reason. It happens that they were right on the money in the Jackson case. This isn’t a value judgment. It’s the way it is.

    Posted by Paul Gillin
  7. April 11, 2010 @ 7:16 am

    Perhaps a different example would have made your point better. After all in this case TMZ was right. Also, out of curiosity, how do you know TMZ didn’t confirm the story?

    I don’t wish to come off combative, I really like your site and find it informative. I have a son who is a professional journalist (with AP) and I worry for his future.

    Posted by DrMaturin
  8. April 11, 2010 @ 9:02 am

    TMZ has never identified its source, but it’s pretty clear that the site puts a premium on speed. Much has been written about the journalistic issues in this story, including this piece in the LA Times, which was embarrassed by the incident. See also here and here.

    My comments weren’t meant to criticize TMZ, which has scooped the mainstream media on many stories. The point was that traditional journalism values are increasingly a luxury in a news culture that’s dominated by speed. In 2008, An editor at TechCrunch was quoted saying that the site will go with a story if they’re only 75% sure it’s true. Traditionalists cringe at comments like that, but that’s the way journalism is going. Like I said, not a value judgment.

    Posted by Paul Gillin
  9. April 15, 2010 @ 11:45 am

    This is my first time posting since I just found this site today. I have been doing research for a paper in my English 1010 class, of which the subject is a question as to why newspapers are beginning to die. I have been directly affected by this trend of slow extinction as the small newspaper called The Sentinel located in the relatively quaint town of Spanish Fork where I live, and of which I was working for as a photographer and part time writer, published it’s last issue March 31, 2010. The irony of it is that it had received I believe over a dozen awards at a conference held to acknowledge outstanding papers, and it actually received an award for being the best paper in state. Of course, I live in Utah, so what weight that carries to others in the newspaper industry out of state I really don’t know.

    Now, there is another paper actually located in the same town, it’s a branch of the Daily Herald called The Spanish Fork Press. The kicker is that even though it is a “local” newspaper, it reports only small amounts of local news and focuses more on the county and state and is copy heavy. The Sentinel on the other hand, focused on the town in which it was located and several smaller cities surrounding it, but didn’t concern itself much with things other than that area. It focused a lot on the high schools, and let’s face it, covering relatively small towns there isn’t anything bigger than high school sports and activities of course it also covered almost any event it caught wind of that was happening. The Sentinel was the only paper I’ve seen that is actually photo heavy rather than copy heavy, having large pictures on each page, including a page devoted to nothing but pictures of the most notable event of the week called, “Around Town.” Many people loved The Sentinel, but it fell victim to decreased subscriptions and ad sales.

    But I digress.

    Reading your latest couple of posts, along with the other articles I’ve read today, and the fact that one of the local newspapers went out of business, I had a sudden realization: all local papers will die without exception. They don’t have the resources or the reader base to even dream of transitioning to and surviving in the volatile realm known as the internet. It just isn’t possible. So, that means that only large papers, statewide and national, will be the only ones who could possibly be left standing, those at least that are successful in their immigration to the internet in the face of an economic and technologically based genocide.

    So the question I have to ask is what about local news? What will those towns who don’t have the circulation possibilities to keep up with rising printing costs, as well as a dying base of readers, do to circulate in town news? Of elections, events, etc.

    Sorry to be so long winded, but I kind of wanted to show where I was coming from.

    Posted by hometownnews
  10. April 17, 2010 @ 4:03 pm

    Actually, many local papers are better positioned to survive than major metro dailies. Independent local papers have held their circulation better than the big guys and their lower production and distribution costs make them competitive for local advertisers. It’s true that a lot of local papers have been shut down over the last couple of years, but those have mainly been titles owned by big publishers, who are trying to cut costs to save their cash cows.

    One advantage that local papers have is that they publish information about their readers. People like to see their name and face in the newspaper and develop an affinity for the local weekly that they don’t have for the big daily. That’s not to say that small locals have it easy. It’s a low margin business and the work is hard. But I would actually give a nod to the locals to ride out this crisis in better shape than the big-city competitors.

    Posted by Paul Gillin