Twelve Commandments for a Better News and Newspaper Future from Charles Overby, Chairman and CEO of the Freedom ForumAugust 9, 2009
The last decade in the history of American newspapers is in fact the lost decade, so says Charles Overby, Chairman and CEO of the Freedom Forum and CEO of the Newseum. Mr. Overby, a journalist, editor and publisher was the recipient of The 2009 Gerald M. Sass Award for Distinguished Service to Journalism and Mass Communication at the Association for Educators in Journalism and Mass Communication annual convention this past week in Boston. Mr. Overby, in his acceptance speech, outlined the problems facing newsrooms and newspapers in today’s market place, and offered his views on how to reverse the declining trend facing the industry today. (Picture: Charles and Andrea Overby with the Gerald Sass Award)
Here are Mr. Overby’s “great dozen” ideas for the problems and solutions of today’s newsrooms and newspapers:
1. Free is not a business model:
Free is not a business model, certainly not for newspapers and news is and always has been a business. A free press does not mean free news. The survival of the free press, as we know it, depends on the public paying for it. If we want newspaper-size newsrooms, people have to pay for it. If we don’t, then forget it. It does not matter. But the idea that profits for newspapers are designed for greedy newspaper owners, I think, is missing the point. We need a revenue base that will support robust newsrooms and robust journalism.
2. Internet cannot replace the newspaper-sized newsroom:
We must resist the notion that the Internet, social networking and twitter can adequately replace newspaper-sized newsrooms. This doesn’t mean that you have to be against those new media. That is not the case at all. They are nice add-ons, but they are not a substitute for newspaper-sized newsrooms.
3. Preservation of the newsroom:
The issue is not narrowly the preservation of newspapers; it is the preservation of the adequately funded newsrooms.
4. Charging for content does not make you technically illiterate:
Rupert Murdoch announced this week that News Corp. plans to start charging for news content on the Internet at all his properties worldwide. Immediately Murdoch was labeled as technically illiterate. It is interesting to me that when cable companies charge fifty dollars or more a month to consumers they are not seen as technically illiterate.
5. Publishers are waking up:
I believe newspapers publishers are waking up to this reality and I think you will see many other legacy media outlets charging for their content. It is about time they did so. Not everybody will choose to pay for content. That’s OK, ten, twenty years ago not every body chose to subscribe to a newspaper. But many people who value substantive serious news will pay.
6. Publishers are to blame for their papers’ demise:
If people in the future asked the question who lost the news people, if traditional media disappeared as we knew it, whose fault will it be? I think the answer will be it was the fault of those who worried more about extending their brand for free on the Internet, than those who focused on preserving the value of their brand. Let us hope it will not come to that.
7. The underline principle of news has not changed:
The changes for the most part have involved the delivery of the news from drawing on cave walls, to smoke signals, to the pony express to satellites. But the underline principle of news has not changed; seek the truth, tell the story as fully and fairly as possible. There has been one other constant until recently. Over the years people have understood that you pay for news. That was true in the days of the colonial press; it was true even in the days of the penny press. But now it seems to be a debatable concept. For those who think that people should pay for the news, now incredibly, are often characterized as luddite, hopelessly out of touch. The dilemma has brought newspapers to the edge of a cliff. The future of newspapers, and I would say journalism as we know it, hangs in the balance. I recognize that some people have already written off newspapers and some of you may have already compared newspapers to dinosaurs. I believe that is a mistake.
8. The last decade is the lost decade
It is difficult for me to comprehend how steep the decline of newspapers has been in the last decade. I consider the last decade as the lost decade for newspapers. Virtually every thing about newspapers has gone down in the last decade. Circulation is down, advertising is down, profits are down and in some cases gone, news hole or the amount of space available for news stories is down, the number of editors and reporters is down.
9. Negative trends are the result of publishers’ disastrous decisions:
These negative trends are largely the result of the disastrous decision about ten years ago of newspaper publishers to put virtually all the newspapers’ content on the Internet for free. The thinking ten years ago went like this; we have to be on the Internet. We can’t miss this opportunity. We will figure out the business plan as we go along. The optimist thought the move to the Internet might ultimately allow newspapers to eliminate the two biggest expenses printing and distribution. The optimist also thought the Internet will bring in many new readers that will result in major profitable advertising.
10. Free is a trendy thing:
This move to free content is a very trendy thing, very seductive particularly with young people…there is even a book called Free. I point out that the book is not free it cost me $26.99.
11. Newspapers can’t survive if they continue to give their content for free:
Newspapers publishers are only now beginning to recognize that can’t survive if they continue to give their content free. If the free content trend continues you can bet the size of the newsrooms will decrease even more. That is bad for local communities, it is bad for journalism and I think it is bad for our democracy.
12. Reversing the trend:
The question is can this trend be reversed or stopped? Will people now pay for news content after growing accustomed for decade for getting this for free? I believe the trend can be reversed and that people will pay for news, perhaps in combination with print and the Internet. Readers have to see and understand substantive value for what they are paying for. They will not pay for a newspaper, or its equivalent, that continues to shrink in size and resources.