“With the direct sale of its words, the Inquirer has mortgaged their value,” says Loren, arguing that the “bone-picking investors” who bought the once-proud Inquirer have crossed the line in their desperate efforts to scrounge sales for the struggling property. “Newspapers exist through a delicate balance in which advertising funds the platform, but it doesn't directly fund the content.”
Well, excuse me, Loren, but advertising does indeed directly fund the content of a newspaper – and everything else, too, including payroll, paper, presses and pixels. Except for the pixels, that was the deal well before any of us got into the business. If newspapers survive as commercial enterprises, it will be the case evermore. So, get over it.
The problem is that revenues are getting hard to come by, forcing newspapers (and other media companies) to get increasingly creative about what they are willing to sell – and where they are willing to sell it. And some papers, as Loren rightly notes in his must-read commentary, may be getting perilously close to the point that they would auction a writer’s oeuvre to the highest bidder.
As a former business columnist and unreconstructed journalistic purist, I shuddered, too, when I heard about the Inky’s dinky plan. And I winced when I discovered at approximately the same time that a bilious green ad was squatting in the lower right corner of the cover of my hometown paper, the San Francisco Chronicle. My Chronicle happens to be owned by Hearst, the same company that owns Loren’s Chronicle. So, it’s entirely possible that he ain’t seen nothing yet.
The struggle over where to draw the line between journalism and commerce isn’t new. Well before newspapers got themselves in trouble by denying the threats and opportunities of the technologies that have disrupted the once-cozy media business, publishers often leveraged the power of their presses to grub for money in unseemly ways.
A few years ago, for example, a friend told me that his first big assignment at a major metropolitan paper in a city famous for its beignets was to investigate building-code violations at several downtown department stores. A few weeks after his multi-part series hadn’t been published, he worked up the courage to ask his boss what happened to it. “Don’t be silly,” responded the editor. “That was just something to help the advertising department negotiate this year’s contracts.”
The biggest issue facing journalism today is not that the ever-oscillating ethical line has begun moving more erratically. The real scandal is the lack of imagination and enterprise that has forced the industry, in its desperation, into a position of increasing ethical agility, if not to say fragility.
Instead of turning their account reps into feet on the street for Yahoo to buttress their sagging sales, why couldn’t newspapers have come up with the sort of creative online business being brought to market by my friend Alan Jacobson?
He is starting a video classified site that he might have called Craig’s Tube but instead will be known as RealPeopleRealStuff.
Alan is launching on a shoestring under the noses of some of the nation’s leading media companies. Among the clever, but not particularly ground breaking, tactics he will employ will be the viral, pass-along viewership that built YouTube into a $1.6 billion brand.
In stealing a march on the powers that be, Alan is not only outsmarting them but underspending them, too. His launch budget is bound to be considerably smaller than, say, the combined expense accounts of the newspaper executives who put together the Yahoo deal.