Journalism is the value proposition

May 25, 2009

The newspaper business isn't dying; it's morphing.

The days when everybody wakes up and reads the morning paper are certainly long gone, but there are still quite a few of us who enjoy doing that. And it will be a while before we all check out.

In the meantime, daily publishers are responding to market trends and delivering news in other formats to consumers who want it that way. Newspaper Web sites and e-mail news alerts are just two examples.

Print and Web will co-exist for a long time, with Web—and who knows what else in the future—ultimately getting the lion's share of eyeballs. At least that's the way it looks now.

With the advent of digital tablets and items like the Kindle already in the mix, who knows what other delivery models will evolve?

IBJ is in the midst of this transition as well. Because we are weekly and because our content is specialized, this evolution will be more gradual in our space. Our reader demographics help us as well.

The key for publishers of all varieties is to find the financial model that allows them to provide content at a decent profit—in any and all formats that suit their readership. And that's the key for you, too.

Yes, I will wax philosophical here. I still believe in the basic tenet of Journalism 101: Democratic societies need an independent, objective press to inform the citizenry and to keep things on the up and up.

Reporters are professionals who are trained to research, interview, analyze and write objectively about people, situations and trends that are important to their readership and communities.

That's what you are buying when you buy a newspaper. That's our value proposition.

Granted, reporters are human and make mistakes and any given story might offend a certain segment of readers, but overall you can count on what you read in a newspaper as being a true and accurate depiction and analysis of what's out

That's a matter of personal pride for journalists, and most of the ones I know are deadly serious about doing their jobs well. With the pervasiveness of the Web and its ability to deliver whatever anyone with a computer and an Internet connection wants to write, my fear is that consumers are losing their ability to distinguish between news and opinion, or news and fluff.

Or worse yet, they don't care. That's really scary.

Most blogs offer opinions on the topics of the day, then provide links to a legitimate Web site where a professional journalist has toiled to put together a researched news story on the subject in question. Some Web sites do nothing but aggregate press releases and call it journalism. And here's the thing: It's free.

Well, you better watch out: You get what you pay for. Newspapers charge for subscriptions and advertising in print because they have to pay the light bill and the print bill, but also because journalists need to make a living as they pursue their profession.

By contrast, to date, most newspapers don't charge for their content on the Web. I would suggest that subscribers plunk down their money to subscribe to newspapers, whether in print or online, because they believe in the value proposition.

There is a reason that, as the print side of a daily newspaper experiences a gradual decline in readership, that very newspaper's Web site typically becomes a leading source of news in the community. It's that newspapers are viewed as a trusted source of information.

Ultimately, I think news consumers will be paying for the information on the Web like they've paid for it in print for years. And that will be the way they can determine whether they can take what they're reading to the bank. And that's the way the "newspaper" business will remain viable well into the future.

Katterjohn is publisher of IBJ. To comment on this column, send e-mail to ckatterjohn@ibj.com.

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