Twelve Commandments for a Better News and Newspaper Future from Charles Overby, Chairman and CEO of the Freedom Forum

August 9, 2009

Charles and Andrea Overby at AEJMCThe 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.


  1. The author of “Free” gave the book away electronically for a limited time, getting it into the hands of people who would talk about it and generating demand for the physical book among people who prefer the physical form/fetish. Many authors now are doing that. The free/paid dichotomy is a false one.

    Publishers need to get comfortable with the idea that they are information brokers and SMEs, not the pushers of paper and not the keepers of secrets. Information is more valuable as its distribution increases. Knowledge held close is not information, it is secret, and secrets are financially unsustainable. Find a way to link your libraries to calls to action for people’s real-world needs beyond random advertising placements and make your content work rather than cloister it away.

    Giving content away does not immediately follow with losing money on it. That’s the fallacy old-guard publishers are still holding to, and it will be their demise.

  2. Two points:

    1) I am not picking a fight with you Evan, in fact I agree with you, but I have yet to hear an online proponent explain a business model that would, for example, keep the newsroom robust. How do you have a free on-line model that will, for example, actually cover news (and not press releases)? Every model I have looked at is unsustainable on the scale necessary to even decently cover a mid sized city.

    2) While I like the first step that Overby took in #9, he failed in the follow-up and to me, until the major publishers acknowledge part 2 of the disastrous business decisions they made, we’ll never move forward. These guys sold and resold their companies for billions. They made money, investors made money, reporters, editors, sales people all got cut and are now still paying for the owners bad decisions. Many papers and publishing companies would be making successful transitions to electronic media TODAY, if they weren’t tied down paying off debt acquired so Grahm III and Buffy Jr. could get out of the family biz with and add to their estates.

  3. Let’s not forget the huge shift away from family-owned companies to publicly held corporations, courtesy of our glorious M&A industry. Publicly held publishers, under pressure to “earn back” their acquisition fees and show a positive gain to shareholders, moved directly to layoffs, greater use of wire stories, and a general dumbing down of some of the nation’s great papers (and magazines). Family-owned businesses were able to limp through the bad years, a luxury public CEOs don’t enjoy. Worse, many of these new owners don’t have experience in publishing — and some are outright hostile to the publishing ethos. We can’t blame everything on the Internet and the cyclical downturn in ads.

  4. […] (The explanation for these can be read in full on this website) […]

  5. The twelve points are certainly successful in terms of provoking thought, so its a great posting. And I think the lost decade is a great concept – very appropriate, and felicitous for moving forward.

    I’d say about half of the points are fairly sound, while overall, they seem to offer a complex mixture of incisive long-range thinking and observation with unexamined assumptions and programmed analysis.

    For starters, “free” news did not originate on or with the Internet (what was the fee to watch Walter Cronkite?), and while publishers are generally appropriate blame-holders, their great mistake has not been putting too much content online too fast – especially not over the last ten years. Most newspapers are _still_ amazingly inept web site operators, even in simple dissemination terms.

    In my local community, just for example, the best news has been published for decades in a free weekly, while the ancestral subscription-based daily newspaper stuck to old-boy-network-friendly blather. Having the functional equivalent of a good newsroom is essential. Having a newsroom per se is not nearly enough.

    New media are in currently caught in the classic “crossing the chasm” situation of technology product introductions. In addition to very badly disrupting the flow of funding from advertisers to publications, the classic contradictory dimensions of a “product category” (news, in our case) caught in the chasm tend to leave traditional linear analysis spiraling in bewilderment.

    Across the chasm, where publishers committed to journalism are slowly headed, the skies are blue and the hills are green. Serve your readers, stay hungry, and stay innovative, to survive the crossing and get eventually to those greener pastures.

    More on this here for instance…

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