Seth Godin has earned a reputation as a marketing guru who provides both intelligence and buzzwords. It was a disappointment, then, to see him venture recently into unknown (to him) territory with an ill considered and hastily assembled blog post titled “When newspapers are gone, what will you miss?” The post reveals clearly that Seth knows little about journalism—neither the practice of it nor the economics. Truly, no one will miss Seth if he gracefully bows out of the conversation about journalism’s future.
Summarizing the offending post as briefly as possible, Seth dismisses what he sees as content better served up on the web—sports, weather, opinion pieces, cultural pieces, reviews. He also complains about content he views as superfluous fluff—fashion and personality pieces. I won’t bother to comment on the merits of all this, restricting myself to what comes next as Seth, closing his eyes and spreading his arms in hopes of taking flight, asserts the following:
“What’s left is local news, investigative journalism and intelligent coverage of national news. Perhaps 2% of the cost of a typical paper.”
If Seth had reviewed any major newspaper’s content and budget, he’d know that the cost of his little list of reporting chores is more likely in the 15% to 25% range, not counting the intelligent coverage of international news, which doesn’t even make Seth’s list.
Figure for a moment that the average experienced reporter on a big-city daily makes $80,000 to $100,000 a year. Add standard benefits and it’s $120,000. Now assign five reporters to a major investigation of political contributions. Keep them at it for six months (which can be typical of a serious project). Assign an editor or two to it. Put the piece through the copy desk. Get a couple photographers and a graphic designer on the project. Suddenly you’re looking at half a million bucks just to take a serious look at a single subject and fill most of just one page on a Sunday.
Here’s the serious news that Seth clearly understands: Democracies depend on an informed citizenry, not just an opinionated one. But the practical fact that apparently escapes Seth is that running a real reporting operation is extremely expensive; America’s newspapers now spend several billion dollars a year (I’d guesstimate $5 billion) on news gathering. In the past, this money has come primarily from advertising. That source of cash is quickly disappearing. While there are many experiments going on at the moment, no one who understands the economics of journalism has any idea how to pay for news gathering when traditional print advertising goes away.
Last spring, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, in a study cited by the Pew Foundation’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, estimated that newsrooms lost 5,500 journalists in the first seven years of this century—a 10% decline. By my rough estimate, that could be $400 million in salary cuts alone. And it doesn’t count 2008, which certainly was far worse for the news business than any previous year.
The survival of newspaper newsrooms becomes even more critical when you realize that the world’s major dailies set the agenda for virtually all reporting and commentary in all media. The cable news pundits, the networks’ assignment desks and most online bloggers take their cues daily from the pages, print and web, of big daily newspapers. It’s a matter of simple economics: big dailies are the only organizatons spending the billions of dollars annually that are necessary to do the original reporting that keeps a democracy alive. I’m hoping to see some solid reporting in the near future on exactly where our news originates and how much it costs to gather. That would be a great contribution to the increasingly vital debate about journalism’s future in an era of media upheaval.
Meanwhile, Seth, the next time you want to formulate an opinion about this problem, you should first do a little reporting. But, oh dear, I almost forgot: that would take time and cost money