[T]he notion that the purity of newspaper journalism is the cornerstone upon which today's great metropolitan newspapers were built is revisionist history. Most of today's great newspapers were built through achieving dominant distribution in their markets, not through delivering better journalism. Most U.S. cities used to have two or more competitive newspapers. The eventual winner was almost always the one that won on the battle on distribution or advertising, almost never on journalism. Great journalism came later. For example, the Philadelphia Inquirer didn't become a Pulitzer Prize-winning machine until after it put the Philadelphia Bulletin out of business (and we won't even get into the role that some believe that organized crime may have played in that victory). Only after that the Bulletin was gone did the Inquirer have the ability to invest outsize, monopolistic profit margins into great journalism, which is exactly what it did. The same holds true for many of what we see today as great, "journalistic," metropolitan newspapers. Pulitzers don't make great newspapers. Local distribution monopolies make great newspapers.And a local distribution monopoly, or even some degree of dominance, is not possible in a digital world, since barriers to entry are negligible, compared to the sunk investment costs in newspaper buildings, presses, distribution channels and even retail shelf space.
But dropping most barriers to entry also creates huge opportunities for more and better in-depth journalism as readers increasingly turn to the web for news content.
Today, would the New York Times print and distribute the full text of the Pentagon Papers? Of course not, they'd put it all online at much less expense. But the Times and other newspapers still regularly devote multiple pages to long investigative work, often by teams of reporters. It's admirable, but it burns money needlessly. I would guess that at most 10 or 20 percent of readers get all the way through that kind of material. In fact, the average readership of any article in the paper is probably less than 20 percent. In other words, distribution of quality journalism on newsprint entails a waste factor of at least 80 percent. Since the ballpark cost of newsprint and ink on a single page of the New York Times is more than $3,000, that wasted expense is $2,400 or more per page. Publish the same investigative effort online, and not only is there no waste, but the team can freely post all their background material and all the photography, video and audio that it might want to share with an unlimited reader/viewership.
That audience is real. I linked yesterday to John Parker's piece on the growth of mass intelligence, which maintains that the appetite for intellectually challenging cultural content is growing, not shrinking. While he focuses more on the arts than on news, certainly good journalism appeals to the same consumers that visit museums, go to the opera, listen to NPR, and so on.
But art, music, dance and even public media are subsidized heavily by philanthropy. So is it necessary for good journalism to pursue a non-profit model, even when we get rid of unnecessary costs like that $2,400-per-page waste at the Times? The folks at MinnPost, Saint Louis Beacon, Voice of SanDiego would say so, as would John Thornton at Insomniactive. On the other hand, reports David Westphal at OJR, Charles Sennott and Philip Balboni considered going non-profit with their global journalism startup GlobalPost (which launches Monday), but decided that they could make money doing this.
As part of their model, they see individual journalists as entrepreneurs, which makes sense. It puts them in the same class as other providers of intellectual fodder: artists, musicians, authors—some succeed through commercial channels, some succeed through philanthropic subsidies, but none are supported by monopolistic distributors of advertising.