The large building in that picture is home to the Argus Leader. How long it’s been in existence is irrelevant. History guarantees nothing for the future. The subscription levels at the Argus are also a mystery to me. It’s safe to say that they’ve gone down in the last 10 years. The numbers that really matter are the advertising revenues. That is where newspapers get a majority of their operating budget. A few weeks ago I was having lunch with a friend and someone who sold advertising at the Argus joined us. His assessment of the state of their advertising revenue was that it was bad and getting worse. Unfortunately his livelihood depends on that revenue but on a larger scale the life of the newspaper itself also relies on that revenue. The Argus leader is dying and unless they make some major changes I think they should die.
Journalists are heroes.
Great journalists dig deeper and communicate on a level that most humans cannot. They get to the truth in a way that few people can. They expose truth and change systems because of their skilled work. They are craftsmen (and women) who should be encouraged and appreciated. There are also very, very, very few of them. Great journalism is compelling, honest, empowering, easy to digest and leaves you wishing each article was longer. Poor journalism creates confusion or is just plain boring. I tell you this because I believe journalism should continue but where it is not present the “phony” journalism should die.
Here are the problems with the current newspaper model.
You can “follow” my newspaper on Facebook (here). That is how I digest most of their stories. I click through the link on Facebook, read the article and then comment on Facebook. I don’t comment on their site below the story (even though it’s a Facebook commenting system) because I want the conversation to take place on Facebook around that story. The conversation around that article uses a Facebook commenting system but I make sure to the conversation happens on Facebook. The newspaper doesn’t own the conversation when that happens, Facebook does. If Facebook owns the conversation then what benefit is the conversation to the Argus? Not much.
I read two blogs for local news. SouthDacola and Jennifer’s Musings. Their articles are usually well researched (especially Jen’s) and their commenting system is much more fun to be a part of (even though it’s not connected to Facebook). I know for a fact that some of these blogs get tens of thousands of readers a month. I also know that most if not all elected officials read those blogs because some of them get very upset by the accountability they bring. Each writer has a small army of volunteer reporters working for them as well. Volunteers sure keep the payroll down.
Yes men – The biggest problem
The local media in Sioux Falls is pretty scared. They’re scared of making public officials upset so their stories are rarely hard hitting. Watching the news is like watching a family softball game at a 4th of July gathering. There may be a little action now and then but there’s certainly no real compelling reason to watch. It’s slow pitch softball for our local government, hospitals and associations.
When your major advertiser is a hospital are you going to report on their 40% c-section rate (30% more than what is recommended)? Are you going to do investigative reporting on medical malpractice? Are you going to question the local hospital using their money to build a arena that takes away the local minor league basketball team from a city owned property? Nope. You’re going to read the press release, smile and then go to Jay with the weather. Our weatherman is awesome by the way. The television and the newspaper staff rarely hit people very hard with questions. There are exceptions to this
What can they do to save themselves?
This part is simple. Newspapers need to become the starting point for local conversation. They should be hosting forums on-line and in person where government and business and citizens HAVE to talk to each other. They should have skilled moderators and based on outcomes from those forums the newspaper should track promises and issue report cards for business and government officials on promises they made. Facebook is popular for one reason, it’s where we go to have conversations with people we know. The newspaper used to start conversations when people would sit around the table and read it over breakfast or at the coffee shop. Now we’re sitting in front of our computers or televisions (newspapers should create more video too) so that’s where the conversations are happening.
If I was an advertiser I’d rather put my money towards a forum with local officials where they get asked real questions (no more softballs). Let’s see, a full page ad that gets ignored and kills lots of trees or my company plastered all over a live show and recording that lives forever? Yeah, pretty easy decision.
Newspapers are dying because they’re relying on an old model of income and an old form of communication. The world is moving too fast for me to wait for the “news” to show up on my porch. That “news” is old news and the conversation is happening before they even put the information in my hands. Newspapers should become places where conversation is encouraged and hard questions are asked. For now it is neither. I’ve been consuming Argus Leader news for the past eight years and I’ve paid for a newspaper less than ten times. That’s not sustainable. I don’t want newspapers (and especially my city’s newspaper) to die. If they do die it’s because they refused to change. I’ll pay for my media. I’d pay to read those blogs I mentioned earlier. I won’t pay for the Argus or local television because I don’t trust them to give me the truth. That’s a sad thing to say about journalism, especially for a guy who has a degree in it.