Who Will Report the News?

It’s one of Jim’s topics, I know, but this post from a former Richmond Times-Dispatch employee, lays out the topic in sobering detail. Snip:

So here’s the thing: here’s why they’re even trying to keep the RTD going, despite its inevitable funeral, despite that it’s dead already and they keep kicking the corpse around: because they have to. As bad as the situation is, the paper is still bringing in revenue — just not a profit. Online advertising is nowhere near replacing the revenue that print advertising brings in. Sure, they’ll keep reducing the staff as circulation drops lower and lower; they’ll redesign the look not to make a better product, but to cut page count, and thereby newsprint costs. They’ll save money where they can, but revenue will continue to fall . . . because the core product, the newspaper, has been replaced by news on television and the Internet.

The RTD may or may not be dead — that’s sometimes very hard to tell. But I take responsibility for taking part in its demise, because I am a former subscriber.

Little did I know that, as a Richmond.com columnist, I might also be part of the effort to keep the print paper alive:

That’s why the purchase of Richmond.com was considered a sound investment: a massive increase of page views and potentially an increase of ad revenue.

Happy to be of service. But there’s more than a grain of truth here. many locals I know read Richmond.com. The RTD? Eh, not so much. If they subscribe at all, it’s more from a sense of habit than a need for information. And that habit is an increasingly easy one to kick.

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17 responses to “Who Will Report the News?”

  1. Jim Bacon Avatar

    It’s sad. I’ll miss the daily newspaper.

    I guess you could say I swing both ways — I have the paper editions of the Times-Dispatch and the Wall Street Journal delivered to me every day. I skim through both of them while I make/eat breakfast in the morning. But I’m also a voracious consumer of information through the Internet.

    I can tell you it will be a very different world when the newspapers go out of business. If there aren’t any newspaper reporters left, where will we get our news? Amateur bloggers can accomplish only so much.

    The future of “news,” I fear, is content subsidized or sponsored by corporate, political and advocacy groups. All content published will have a spin attached to an agenda. What a world that will be!

  2. Anonymous Avatar


    “All content published will have a spin attached to an agenda. What a world that will be!”

    Welcome to the world of the WaPo. That paper has long since left the world of journalism. Stories are squashed because they don’t fit the paper’s agenda and not all of that has to do with Big P politics. The Post runs with the agenda of the developers — need those real estate ads. But it’s spinning nevertheless.

    I attended a meeting this evening and the general consensus was problems are harder to solve in Fairfax County because of the WaPo’s slanted news coverage.


  3. I must say that this whole business leaves me confused.

    1. Why are the newspapers going out of business? Because there is a decreasing demand for news? Or because the newspapers have not supplied the demanded product efficiently?

    2. The future of “news,” I fear, is content subsidized or sponsored by corporate, political and advocacy groups. How is that any different than today? Or, if you want to negate the impact of the internet, how is that different than the newspapers in the 1980s? There may have been a time when newspapers were unbiased truth seekers but I can’t remember that time.

    3. TMT hit the nail on the head with a sledgehammer. How is the Washington Post still in business? What makes them more successful than the RTD? Is it quality of product? Size of market?

    4. Richmond.Com seems like it’s a good product (from my admittedly limited sampling). Why isn’t there a NoVA.Com? Isn’t NoVA a bigger market than Richmond? And since Richmond.Com has the technology and online format defined, why wouldn’t they start a NoVA.Com? I understand they would need more people like Norm to write on NoVA topics – but so what? Isn’t that what businesses do – find new markets for growth?

    5. How does this factor into other kinds of news purveyors? Will broadcast TV news be the next to go? If the underlying demand for news is waning – you’d have to guess so. But is that observably true?

    6. Why does the Drudgereport succeed? It’s content is limited, its format is simple. It’s kind of the opposite of the flashy multi-media sites that some newspapers have developed with limited success. Side note – have you noticed that the ultra-successful Google uses a very, very simple web site design. Is there a message here?

  4. Jim Bacon Avatar

    TMT, I agree with you, a lot of supposedly “objective” journalism does have an agenda. It’s just not as visible. Maybe “news” published by businesses, politicians and advocacy groups will be no worse — indeed, may be better insofar as their agendas are made public.

  5. E M Risse Avatar

    TMT said:

    “I attended a meeting this evening and the general consensus was problems are harder to solve in Fairfax County because of the WaPo’s slanted news coverage.”

    Right on. In the early 80 when EMR was the Program Committee Chair for the Fairfax Committee of 100 we held a meeting with the editors and publisher and told them the same thing and suggested how to fix it. The answer was they knew how to run a successful business and we should butt out.

    Groveton: For an answer to your questions see THE ESTATES MATRIX. There is even a solution but be forewarned, it requires understanding the organic components of human settlement pattern.


  6. Anonymous Avatar

    I think one of the reasons there is no corresponding NOVA.com is because there is a very successful washingtonpost.com. The WaPo’s website succeeds where the RTD’s always seems to fail, providing easily accessible info about surrounding localities and local issues, lots of interactive content, etc…

    I for one will be sad if the RTD ever goes the route of the Detroit papers and cuts back its daily delivery. Cutting back on page counts is bad enough, but understandable. I guess I am always willing to make time for the paper, and while I get the bulk of my info from the internet, the daily paper still holds great appeal for my household. Especially with limitations on internet viewing being increased by employers struggling to get every second of productivity out of their workers during the day.

  7. Anonymous Avatar


    Anon 9:45 either works for WaPo or does not use it much.

    The web site is pop up ad heven and the search feature in a joke.

    If you want to search for past WaPo articles, use Google.

  8. Anonymous Avatar

    As someone who has spent 35 years in mostly print journalism, I think you are announcing he death of newspapers prematurely.
    What we’re seeing is not so much a funeral as a bloody makeover that is coming in fits and starts without any plan in mind.
    There will still be a place for print certainly in niche publications (as bloggers have noted) but also in the daily format albeit a greatly changed one.
    For starters, let’s remember that print has gone through several iterations — every city had a bunch of competing newspapers, then there were morning and evening papers, then evening papers went out due to commuting, and then every metro daily tried to stifle the popularity of hyper-locals by pretending to run targetted suburban sections. The latter was certainly the case when I worked on The Virginian-Pilot in the 1970s. The emphasis was on the Virginia Beach Beacon, the Norfolk Compass and the Portsmouth whatever at the expense of the main sheet.
    That said, newspaper executives or better bureaucrats, are sort of like Detroit auto execs — they are dinosaurs who don’t get it and want things the way they were. Just a couple of decades ago, bureaucrats at Landmark or Media General were grooving on monopolies and raking in margins of at least 20 percent on print and maybe even 50 percent on tv statioins they owned. In other words, they ran money printing machines that churned out pretty mediocre products despite all the tons of awards the Virginia Press Association throws at everybody every year.
    Boo-hoo but the Net and demographics shattered that warm little cocoon. The newspaper bureaucrats are just now reacting to market trends they so badly missed. Even the TD’s Silvestri, I am told, was against putting too much on the RTD’s traditionally awful Website because it would drain the (increasingly awful) print product. He’s not alone. The only guy who seems to figure it out is Rupert “The ALien” Murdock, who always does well somehow.
    So, pronouncing the death of the newspaper simply because you have a bunch of lousy bureaucrats running the show may be premature (read Tina Brown on the topic in TheDailyBeast.com.
    But don’t forget that Online still has not found a way to make money and serve the traditional journalism needs. There’s lots of talk about blogging and “citizen” journalism but in general, it is far, far short of the professional level that is truly needed. Training and experience do county.
    You will see a continuation of the daily newspaper in a different form with a different distribution pattern. Small town dailies do just fine. Some middle sized ones, do, too. Metros have a challenge defining themselves but this is nothing new and it doesn’t really result form the internet. Dare I say it? It has to do with EMR’s human settlement patterns. Example: I live in the far fringes of Chesterfield. Do I really care about drug-related shootings in Gilpin Court in ghetto Richmond? Not any more than I care about drug-related shootings in Norfolk’s Ocean View or East New York in Brooklyn. Media management hasn’t figured this out yet. But I wouldn’t rule newspapers out just yet.

    Peter Galuszka

  9. Anonymous Avatar

    Norm, Hope you don’t mind, but I have lifted Tina Brown’s wonderful piece here.
    Peter Galuszka

    Kill the Media Zombies
    by Tina Brown

    The great media companies are laying off employees by the truckload. They ought to start with the feckless bureaucrats who are running the place.
    The carnage in media jobs accelerated last week with hundreds getting whacked at Viacom, NBC, Time Inc., and my own esteemed publisher Doubleday. One of the runners-up in the Person of the Year award by the industry website IWantMedia.com was The Laid-Off Journalist. We’re in the middle of a volcanic realignment that’s overdue; but as Big Media fights for its life, are the right people leaving?
    As great newspapers, magazines, TV networks, and publishing houses dismember themselves around us, it would be marginally consoling if the pink slips were going to those who contributed so vigorously to their companies’ accelerating demise—the feckless zombies at the head of corporate bureaucracies who cared only about the next quarter’s numbers, never troubled to understand the DNA of the companies they took over, and installed swarms of “Business Affairs” drones to oversee and torment the people “under” them. There are floors of these creatures in any behemoth media company, buzzing about each day thwarting new ideas or, worse, having “transformative” ideas of their own when what is usually required is to revive, with a bit of steadfast conviction, the originating creative purpose of the enterprise. It’s the same with the auto companies.
    There are floors of feckless zombies in any behemoth media company, buzzing about each day thwarting new ideas or, worse, having “transformative” ideas of their own.
    The public rage towards the Big Three reflects in part the rage many employees feel today about the way their own companies have been so messed up already they were in no shape to survive a market collapse. Only now are we hearing how the innovative engineers who wanted to get into hybrids and electric cars were cut off when the accountants decreed that there was more and quicker profit in churning out gas guzzlers. Same story with Moody’s rating agency dissected in Sunday’s New York Times by Gretchen Morgenson. Her interviews show how a company built on assessing risk for lenders became more concerned with serving itself. In the pursuit of ever higher profit margins (like 48 or 53 percent, for instance) it forsook its role as a watchdog to become a lapdog yapping for a bite of the master’s sirloin.
    What do cars, debt risk, and collapsing television networks have in common? The suits running them all lose sight of what they condescendingly call “product”—i.e., whatever it was that motivated the company’s spirit of excellence in the first place. The trouble is, those guys and their appointees don’t seem to be the ones who are leaving, do they? Indeed, the recession is giving many of them air cover. “It’s not my fault, it’s the times we live in.”
    In all these big, lumbering companies every effort at innovation or practical efficiency gets strangled by something called “the process,” that long death march from an initial promising convergence of minds, not to rejection—rejection would be easier—but to indeterminate stasis. The cast of characters needed to reach a conclusion is eternally changing. One of the ironies of instant communication it seems is that no one is ever available to talk. Joe’s at an offsite but he’s on his BlackBerry. Karen’s at a sales meeting but she’s on a conference call. What happened to Kevin? Oh, he’s no longer officially around, but yeah, he’s still “in the mix.” You bet he is.
    When a meeting finally convenes, there are still more people. Tramp, tramp, tramp—in they come with their laptops and their forecasts of why it’s not going to work. There’s usually one eager newcomer at any PowerPoint presentation who has a small speaking part before the graphs and arrows appear on the screen. “Will somebody please dim the lights?” Nobody notices that in this behemoth they’d been dimmed sometime before the meltdown. Meanwhile, inside the company a “major restructuring” is announced and heads start to roll. That skill that took a lifetime to acquire—can he or she please cost it out on an hourly basis? Do we really have the time to slog through the details of a project that might, incidentally, save this company?
    Slowly but surely the talent drains away. It turns out that the two major best-selling authors only stayed at the mighty imprint because of that mousy middle-aged woman who really cared about their sentences—that’s right, the one who just got laid off. The talented TV director who made the network’s last hit series got tired of talking to a voicemail and took his next successful show to the opposing network. The investigative journalist whose Pulitzers the chairman bragged about at awards ceremony dinners was told to crank out five half-cooked additional pieces a week for the website and guess what, the paper or network doesn’t win prizes any more and the public finds it increasingly irrelevant. At the once-great Knight Ridder Group of newspapers—The Miami Herald, Philadelphia Inquirer—management was so harried to keep on raising already good profit margins it kept cutting the editorial operation until the papers went on the block. After the way the Tribune company’s ignorant, marauding CEO Sam Zell has vengefully gutted the content of his papers is anyone surprised that we now learn the company—whose assets include the flagship Chicago Tribune and once mighty Los Angeles Times—is filing for bankruptcy?
    But perhaps in the turmoil the bones of original principles will emerge at last from under layers of dead skin and rotten management. Or perhaps the diaspora of talent will re-form and succeed while the companies who ejected them collapse and disappear.
    In his fascinating piece about Dr. Samuel Johnson in last week’s New Yorker, Adam Gopnik evoked the cultural and economic forces at work in London in the 1730s as: “the old-media dispensation in crisis and the new media hardly paying.” Sound familiar? In Johnson’s day, writes Gopnik, “The practice of aristocratic patronage, in which big shots paid to be flattered by their favorite writers, was ebbing, and the new, middle-class arrangement, where plays and novels could command real money, was not yet in place.” Let the good times roll.
    Tina Brown is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times best seller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC’s Topic A with Tina Brown. She has written for numerous publications, including The Times of London, The Spectator, and The Washington Post.

  10. Anonymous Avatar

    I somewhat agree with Peter. I’ve met quite a few journalists over the years — the people who write the stories. Generally, I’ve been impressed with them (some more than others) even when I’ve not liked their stories.

    The WaPo has some good reporters, but the management and editorial staff is — well — sh_t class. The editorial staff is lazy, preferring to talk to the same people over and over, rather than learn facts. Despite what they say, someone on either the business or editorial side regularly spikes or discourages good stories.

    The Post did some good stories on corruption or, at least, shady deals on land use in Loudoun County. Fairfax’s laundry is just as dirty. But where are the stories? Some might even spent 75 cents to read a story on those issues. MWAA has apparently decided that Dulles Toll Road drivers will pay 75% of any cost overruns for Dulles Rail. Gee, might that be a big story?

    Tim Kaine has mismanaged the Commonwealth by undoing Mark Warner’s job cuts. A couple of delegates (from both sides of the aisle) have told me that state budget forecasts from Virginia are just terrible and are much worse than those of many other states. A news story? Not for the WaPo.

    A couple of local papers have carried the story that Fairfax County Park Authority officials have admitted that Tysons Corner’s plans for parks and recreational facilities are inadequate, such that residents will need to get in their cars and drive elsewhere for their outdoor and indoor recreation. Where is the WaPo?

    Why aren’t these stories in the Post?


  11. Anonymous Avatar

    Personal biases do play a role. When I was at BizWeek, steps one and two below the editor-in-chief acted as gatekeepers. They had specific biasses about who to talk to and who not to. At that time — late 1980s into the mid-1990s — they all were in love with globalization and China. They tended to turn a blind eye to Tiananmen. They hated hard-line defense types. They were in love with high tech. They really drank the Fukuyama Kool-Aid about the period being the “end of history” or other BS. And, believe it or not, they let actually me write a few editorials, usually when the elderly editorial page editor didn’t feel like it. Those were my rare chances, but, oh well.
    I’m not sure the reporters are necessarily so programmed given that there’s always tension between them, and the gatekeepers and especially the “zombies” that Tina Brown refers to. It got a lot worse on second or third-tier papers such as the Times-Dispatch.


  12. I agree with Peter.

    The business model for newspapers just like the business model for music has fundamentally changed – forever but I doubt seriously that there will be no demand for good solid news or really good music.

    Both mediums might have to cut some (perhaps a lot) of fat and some of the hysteria is because no one is really certain just what the other side of this is going to look like.

    Yes.. you can look at some articles in WaPo.. or for that matter the WSJ which I considered biased also… but both of them also have some dead-on reporting….

    and yes..I pay for the WSJ also but the online version….

    my view.. perhaps wrong… is that RTD is not the equal of WaPo or for that matter even the Examiner (at least on some topics).

    This is sorta like Wikipedia … where initially there was total horror that someone besides the traditional gatekeepers would dare to generate an encyclopedic archive…

    and the words went around about how you could not trust it…

    …and now we’ve come full circle…. because with ALL of these news sources.. and including things like textbooks and even paper encyclopedias we are finding that words on paper should be always in the “trust by verify” category..

    what we are finding out to our shock and awe is that words on paper (and now on digital) are sometimes (more often that we are comfortable with) not the truth from on high….

    change happens folks.

    get on the train or go hide in the closet.

  13. Anonymous Avatar

    One of my favorite financial writers these days is James Surowiecki of The New Yorker. He has a good piece in this week’s issue quoting from a 1960 essay called “Marketing Myopia” by Theodore Levitt.

    Levitt argues that one reasons the railroads were failing in 1960 was not because there was a dearth of demand, i.e. people or freight wanting to travel. Far from it. But the railroads were myopic and insisted on keeping their product going rather than morphing into new systems that could meet the demand.
    So, instead of buying truck lines or airlines, they pouted, sat back and clutched their beloved choo-choos.
    That is the problem, to some extent, with newspaper companies, Surowiecki argues. Instead of leading the trail into the Web or other forms of communication sich as wikis, podcasts, whatever, they stubbornly cling to their paper broadsheets.
    Eventually, the railroads found their niche by become expert freight movers. But they had to transform. Question is, will copanies like Media General transform. They have been woefully behind the curve so far.

    Peter Galuszka

  14. Anonymous Avatar

    Peter, I also add the need to write for diverse customers. Newspapers tend to write for themselves. But they have a market that is often much different than the writers and editors. Many people in NoVA were born in a different country or their parents were. NoVA has a huge SE Asian population. And there are many fiscal conservatives. But you’d never know this reading the WaPo.


  15. TMT’s comment makes me wonder.

    Is the newspaper business’s plight – worldwide?

  16. Anonymous Avatar

    Interesting point. My wife was born in Russia and we married in Moscow 20 years ago. When she goes to the Euro food store, she comes home with a clutch of Russian language newspapers printed all over the place from New Jersey, to Philly to Atlanta. These tabloids are chock full of ads. The papers are farily new although one, “Novoye Russkioe Slovo” or “New Russian Word” was started in New York for immigrants around 1900 or so.


  17. watching a History Channel episode called Retro Tech…

    a walk down tech memory lane… on previous “tech” products submerged by waves of later “tech”.

    The electric typewriter (replacing the decades-old manuals in the 1960s) – the very symbol of news reporting…

    flushed….gone… in what… two decades?

    News and the demand for it will never go away but how it gets reported in a “cloud” communications world where news gatekeepers no longer control the flow, nor get paid to do so… puts a higher premium on the source of the news and the reliability and reputation of the person or organization reporting it.

    And no more, when challenged on authenticity will any news organization be able to say “how dare you challenge us, we are the “official” news”.

    Nope.. the internet has empowered individuals and if the individual speaks the truth the larger news entities can no longer ignore it….

    but here’s an example of how the “news” failed us and individuals filled the gap.

    In the Virginia General Assembly, committee votes were often unrecorded .. key legislation flushed or passed without accountability…

    those hearings had to be “open” but the news organizations chose to not send a reporter or the reporter or the paper chose not to make the unrecorded votes an issue…

    so..what happened?

    Folks like Waldo.. showed up with flip cameras and posted the committee votes on the internet…

    and.. the rest is history…

    now we will apparently get recorded votes unless they can figure out a way to ban the flip cameras…

    RTD had the opportunity to do the same thing BEFORE folks like Waldo did it .. to do the duty that a free press ought to do … but for whatever reason they chose not to… and in the process.. advancing technology rendered their role – irrelevant .. an opportunity lost… for them to report “hard news” that would attract and hold readership…

    If they had reported the unrecorded votes on a regular basis – would the guys with the flip cameras ever showed up?

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