Very bad news

The resignation of the LA Times’ publisher in a spat with the paper’s new owner, Tribune Corporation, over how profitable a newspaper should be and to what degree that profit should be attained by cutting its news staff, is probably too bad for the paper at the moment, but it’s a symptom of a very big problem for everyone. Everyone, because even people who don’t care to read the paper have to experience the government that a news-poor world entails.

The traditional business model of a paper newspaper, in which readers’ attention is sold to advertisers by placing the ads next to news on a physical page, is broken. One fracture is a very broad withdrawal of public attention from anything that takes very long or much effort to engage with, from music to books and news; another is the IT-driven transformation of text from a product that can be denied to anyone who doesn’t payfor a physical object to a practically non-excludible public good. Still another is a phenomenon not fully understood, which is the much greater difficulty advertisements have drawing attention on a computer screen than on a paper page, evidenced by the flashing ads that now pop up screaming for attention over content on newspaper web pages. And we may also be seeing an example of “Baumol’s cost disease”, the steady increase of the relative cost of products like expert, competent, writing (music performance, in his example) that can’t take advantage of productivity improvements through technology.

There have always been lousy newspapers and only a few good ones; many of the former are no great loss except for local issues. But the LA Times is a great newspaper, well written and probing, with a wonderful tradition of “print it once and print it all” that has generated long, interesting, expensive stories that can help you understand a complicated issue or situation in one sitting. The usual recipes for providing cultural capital in the face of market failure, like government provision, are non-starters in this case: no-one wants Villaraigosa in this business, nor even a California State Department of Public Information, at least not as a newspaper. Some sort of very mechanistic public subsidy program might help keep ‘papers’ alive, but it won’t make anyone read them.

This is not a problem that will be solved by twiddling some media outlet ownership legislation, nor by any other quick fix, and not solving it is simply not OK, as the last few years of public sector disasters indicate. I have no cheerful summary, nor clever policy recommendation to offer. We’re in a lot of trouble here, and without a map.

Feel free to enjoy the rest of your weekend.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

6 thoughts on “Very bad news”

  1. Don't forget the impact of Craigslist on classifieds, too. That's been a huge impact.
    Shame about the Times, it's a better paper than the Chronicle, and so I wonder if we'll be dependent on the Sacta Bee for best California reporting.

  2. Is there evidence of "the much greater difficulty advertisements have drawing attention on a computer screen than on a paper page" other than the flashing ads? I haven't studied the topic, but I imagine that web advertisers are dissatisfied by click-through rates mainly because it's easy to collect such statistics for web ads.
    What percentage of people turning to a particular newspaper page immediately call a phone number given in an ad on that page? Surely the percentage is much, much smaller than web ad click-through rates, yet people did and still do buy newspaper ads, because that's not the only measure of the effect of an ad.

  3. Good question about the web ads. I've never consciously read one or clicked on one, and I'm pretty sure I at least note some newspaper ads. I think it has something to do with the small window: my whole screen is a third the size of a newspaper page, and the browser window is half of that. What's the equivalent of a fullpage ad on a newspaper website? a popup that just makes you impatient?
    Also good point about the classifieds, and it's not just Craigslist, but also EBay, which has destroyed classified ads for chattels of almost every kind. I read somewhere that classifieds are the most profitable of all newspaper advertising, very tough on the bottom line to lose them.

  4. And the simultaneous demise of the NYTimes and Wapo leaves an increasing number of people dependent on the web for real news: Thanks, Al Gore.

  5. Lengthy, well-written articles are ideal for magazines where people do read them. Why is a change of venue for information unacceptable?

  6. But the LA Times is a great newspaper, well written and probing, with a wonderful tradition of "print it once and print it all" that has generated long, interesting, expensive stories that can help you understand a complicated issue or situation in one sitting.
    I'd love to hear Mickey Kaus' take on that statement.

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