The Case Against Newspaper Companies

Here in Baltimore there is a great deal of uncertainty about the future of journalism, as there is everywhere. I have been involved in organizing some efforts by local new media publishers to study options for the future; my interest in this topic is purely personal.

Yesterday I attended a two-hour symposium arranged by the University of Maryland’s Merrill School of Journalism. In attendance on this panel were Monty Cook (Editor, Baltimore Sun), Tim Franklin (Former editor, Baltimore Sun), Jayne Miller (WBAL Television), Jake Oliver (Afro American Newspapers), Mark Potts (founder, It was moderated by Kevin Klose (former president, NPR) and sponsored by Abell Professor Sandy Banisky.

The discussion was mostly a paean to times long gone: to well-staffed newsrooms rich with sources, and benefit plans to match. It was an apologia from television to print, explicating the ability that cable-subscriber funded news operations have had to survive via subsidies that the press could never extract. It was a cursory overview of myriad efforts to invent new modes of journalism online. And it was a predictable declaration of heresy: “these so-called wanna-be websites” (Jake Oliver) “will never hold a candle to traditional journalism.” (Jayne Miller)

I quote directly.

And herein lies the problem. As observers, these trained journalists accurately state that a small, unfunded website run by “these kids” (many of whom are 20 year veterans of the press) can not effectively compete with some imagined newsroom of the past. However, these “small unfunded websites” are just starting out. They will grow. And these imagined news operations no longer exist, and the ones that still do are shrinking. The old and the new are on a collision course.

While the traditional media sticks its head in the sand and belittles the startup efforts of entrepreneurs and journalists, the world is shifting beneath its feet. And all the time spent on internal infighting, in denial, in testimony before congress, and in bankruptcy courts is time not spent reinventing the future of journalism. Their legacy costs, on health plans and labor unions and real estate and “right-sizing” are costs that aren’t being spent solving the market need.

What are the odds that the existing companies (the ones with the problem) will be the ones who come up with the solution? They are astronomically small. That’s almost never how things play out in markets.

A new, reasonably-funded journalistic startup today has access to all kinds of assets: a large pool of trained, laid-off journalists; incredible inexpensive distribution technology in the form of web, mobile, and Kindle; a motivated pool of citizen journalists; and most importantly, a startup mindset that is focused on being lean, nimble, and experimentational.

If I had to bet on whether a bloated 172-year old company that’s in bankruptcy will find the model, or whether it would be one of a field of startups, I’d bet on the field of startups every time. Why wouldn’t you?

The only coherent argument against new startups is really one of mass and heft – both in terms of startup capital and in terms of depth of connections. However, it is reasonable to expect that a reasonably-funded startup staffed with experienced businesspeople and journalists is going to be every bit as rich with contacts as a comparably-sized post-bankruptcy old-media concern. The difference? Less legacy DNA, less legacy expenses, and a lean, nimble, humble mindset that’s focused on finding the answers in an open market.

Failure of Imagination

Just as the failure to prevent the September 11 attacks was attributed to a “failure of imagination,” we see a comparable failure of imagination in journalism today.

The traditional media companies fail to imagine what the confluence of web, mobile, and citizen journalism might ultimately be able to deliver, and that it might be better than anything journalism has delivered to date.

Potential funders see all options as risky and want to bet first on “traditional” outlets. They see these brands not only as less risky, but as a restoration to a prior order.

“Restorations” are not how markets work. Things don’t get restored. They are creatively torn apart and reassembled.

The first investors to imagine the possibilities present in new journalistic startups will ultimately reap the rewards; rewards which will never be seen again in newspaper companies.

The companies that bring you local news today will most likely not be around in 10 years. A host of new companies will take their place.

The only question for those in the industry today is whether they want to be part of those solutions.

The Wire and the Wireless: Marc Steiner and WYPR

In Baltimore, life is imitating art this week.

If you have followed the HBO show The Wire, you know that it’s not really just a “police” show, but is really about the economics of cities. It shows us in heartbreaking and sometimes humorous detail how the drug trade, police, politics, labor, education, and the media are all entwined, complicit in creating exactly the social landscape we inhabit. Good and bad, the show’s creator David Simon likes to say that, “this is as much America as we’ve paid for,” and hopes to show us how this ecosystem really operates.

I’m not much of a TV watcher, but because The Wire is about my hometown of Baltimore, I watch it with special interest. Besides the show’s already complicated fictional storyline, there are parallels to the real world that those of us who live here can pick up on. The fictional mayor is a doppelganger for Martin O’Malley; the city council president is a version of Sheila Dixon. Former Governor Bob Ehrlich made an appearance as a security guard at the State House. I could go on and on; for lovers of Maryland the show is a rich trove of on-location shoots, cameo appearances and, really, is a kind of love-letter to Baltimore.

The current season focuses on the media. In the show, the Baltimore Sun is facing outside ownership (really happened) and cutbacks (really happened) and the closure of its foreign bureaus (really happened). The paper staff is asked to “do more with less” and accept that fact that the newspaper business is changing. More focus is placed on the bottom line than on reporting, and naturally, quality suffers.

While David Simon (the show’s creator) has been criticized for creating an oversimplified caricature of the Sun and its woes (especially when compared to his somewhat more nuanced portrayals of law enforcement and political worlds), his portrayal of the media still rings true.

In fact, this week it seemed particularly prescient as Baltimore suffered yet another in its long line of indignities: the loss of Marc Steiner from its public radio airwaves.

Marc has been a fixture in Baltimore public radio for the last 15 years. As host of “The Marc Steiner Show” from 1993-2008, he shed “light, not heat” on the complex world we live in; on facets of Baltimore, of Maryland, and the world at large. In 2002, Marc led an effort to purchase what was then WJHU from Johns Hopkins University (my alma mater) and make it into a public radio station with significant community involvement. By all accounts, he was instrumental in helping to raise over $750,000 to help purchase the station, and to many in the public was perceived as Mr. Public Radio in Baltimore.

However, the total financing required to purchase the station from Johns Hopkins was $5 million, and other investors stepped in to fill the gap. While it was a minor miracle to have raised the initial $750,000, the remainder had to come from somewhere, and several investors, including Tony Brandon, Barbara Bozzuto, and others helped to seal the deal. Since WYPR was launched in 2002, it has been very successful. Many new programs have been launched, and it has been one of a few things that Baltimoreans could be really proud of.

The Marc Steiner Show, running from 12-2pm Monday-Thursday, has been one of its most recognizable features. Marc’s voice, his laugh, and his theme song are as much Baltimore as Natty Boh and blue crabs. Marc has been such a recognizable champion of Baltimore that he’s even been included in The Wire; once as an unseen voice on a car radio, and again as a moderator of a political debate (something that he’s also done).

The last Marc Steiner show was broadcast last Thursday. WYPR’s manager Tony Brandon cited sagging ratings as the reason for the show’s cancellation. While this may be true, a careful reading of history shows that there has been a long-standing philosophical gap between Steiner and WYPR manager Tony Brandon.

Like David Simon, who was offered a buyout deal to leave the Sun, Brandon offered Steiner a $50,000 buyout deal to leave WYPR and not speak to the media.

If there’s one thing I know, it’s that you shouldn’t try to bribe a hippie. Especially one that’s still got his integrity and that is beloved by a decent chunk of the local population.

As you can imagine, this has turned into a fiasco. It’s not clear how it will resolve itself, what should happen, who’s to blame for what, when. It’s like something straight out of season 5 of The Wire. There is a complexity at work here; however, one thing is certainly true: Marc has done a tremendous public service to Baltimore and to Maryland the last 15 years, and he deserves recognition and thanks for that service.

As a former guest on Marc’s show (I was on roughly once a month from about 1998-2001 talking about technology and internet topics), I’m a participant in the drama, even if in a small way. My friend Erik Monti, myself, and others have formed a Facebook page to help Support Marc Steiner. Whatever happens, we want to do what we can to make sure that Marc gets a fair deal out of this, and that people know how much he meant to Baltimore.

It’s a shame that David Simon didn’t get a chance to include this final coda of the corporatization of Baltimore’s media in The Wire. Now, let’s do a quick count:

We’re down The Wire and Marc Steiner. We won’t even get to hear Marc interview David Simon anymore. As WYPR’s “owners” (if they are not the public) grapple with what to give us instead of Marc, I hope they consider that ratings are not the only measurement of value.

If that was true for television, we’d have only American Idol (a ratings star) rather than The Wire (which struggles in ratings); this would surely be a tremendous loss. HBO deserves credit for allowing David Simon to create important art and entertainment that transcends the need for “ratings”.

WYPR should have allowed Marc Steiner the same freedom. Sometimes, a realistic portrait isn’t what we want to see, but we need it nonetheless.

And as for WYPR, this is — apparently — as much radio as we’ve paid for.