American Culture

Newspapers’ big problem: failure to distinguish meaningful from meaningless

Warren Buffett, the newspaper-loving Oracle of Omaha, isn’t loving newspapers quite as much these days. Speaking of the industry’s attempts to create a viable business plan, he told USA Today’s Rem Rieder, “We haven’t cracked the code yet.”

Said Buffett:

Circulation continues to decline at a significant pace, advertising at an even faster pace. The easy cutting has taken place. There’s no indication that anyone besides the national papers has found a way.

JournalismWell, duh, Mr. Buffett. We’ve known about your first two sentences for a decade. And the third? The New York Times is the only “national paper” I pay to read, as a digital subscriber. But I routinely read stories in The Washington Post, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal — as I’m doing this morning over breakfast. The Times gets a ten spot from me every month. Everyone else gets squat.

Unlike millennials, for whom all information must be free, I’m willing to pay. That’s because at my age, I have a long history of paying for news. That’s how newspapers operated: Pay us and read our ads, and we’ll provide you the news you want and need. That was the fair exchange under the previous, and now failed, business model newspapers rode to riches (well, at least their owners) for more than a century.

But newspapers have not created a workable (so far) means for me to actually pay for what I read. No, I’m not going to subscribe to WashPo and USA Today. That’s insufficient value for me for one or two digital reads a day from each. But I’d shell out a dime for each one I read. In the era of micropayments, that ought to be possible. (Some think micros are a bad idea; some think they’re a good idea.)

But I’m not paying for what I read (save for The Times), and no one’s working hard at giving me the means to pay for that fair exchange. One read, one dime. Some days, maybe even a quarter.

Buffett knows that history. From Rieder’s interview:

Buffett feels strongly that newspapers made the mission much tougher when they began giving away their content on the Internet. “We missed the boat not charging for digital,” he says. Once people “expect to get something for free, it’s hard to change.”

I read other writers’ work, too, in other pubs. Just this morning I read pieces from TechCrunch, the Associated Press, Reuters, the Telegraph, the Guardian, MediaLife, and Politico.

I paid bupkis for each.

Links to these stories come to me via people I follow on Twitter and Facebook. Like so many people of any age, I’ve built my own personal wire service. Five days a week, for example, the Pew Research Center emails me a digest of stories relating to journalism and media. That’s how I got to Rieder’s Buffett interview.

I’m not alone in finding news without a paid subscription or a purposeful visit to a newspaper’s own website. A Pew study released this week said “a majority of U.S. adults – 62% – get news on social media, and 18% do so often.” And there’s more bad news for newspapers and their own legacy websites:

News plays a varying role across the social networking sites studied. Two-thirds of Facebook users (66%) get news on the site, nearly six-in-ten Twitter users (59%) get news on Twitter, and seven-in-ten Reddit users get news on that platform. On Tumblr, the figure sits at 31%, while for the other five social networking sites it is true of only about one-fifth or less of their user bases.

Sure, those legacy sites get linked visits — but usually because someone saw that story on Facebook first. Mr. Buffett, how often is that click on a Facebook link, to use your language, “monetized”? (Not everything on FB counts as a money-making Instant Article, whose initial purpose was to reduce load times on smartphones.)

My desire to pay for what I read is qualified by concerns about the quality of what I read. Buffett recognized that: “They don’t tell me as much new as three years ago, let alone 10 years ago. … There’s less and less in the newspaper.” Writes Rieder:

For newspapers to succeed, Buffett believes, they have to be essential, providing information readers can’t get anywhere else. But the rich smorgasbord of content on the Internet complicates that task enormously. Obituaries and high school sports remain among the few newspaper-only strongholds, Buffett says.

I cannot pinpoint when I lost faith that newspapers acted as a trusted intermediary between what I didn’t know and what I needed to know. That’s their real failure. It’s much more difficult now to determine what matters and what’s bullshit.

Newspapers operate in a communication environment in which their increasing and foolish dependence on a rising quantity of publish-it-now bait for clicks outranks studied and resourceful reporting. That so many newspapers have republished fake news without checking on veracity is evidence enough.

Yeah, I’d pay for what I read … if what I am offered has value to me. These days, that’s a crapshoot. And there’s still that little problem of how to get my dime to the provider of that news story.

So, Mr. Buffett, should I just write a check for 10 cents to Facebook?

1 reply »

  1. This makes me wonder if anyone is exploring the possibility of a centralized micropayment network of news sources. I’m not sure how to phrase that, so I’ll just have to wing it and see if it makes sense.

    Let’s start with the possibility a first company comes along, XYZNewsPay. They’re not terribly selective about what news sources get paid, just that they do, and that XYZ gets a cut for being in the middle. You’d sign up with XYZ for, oh, $10/mo with the option of topping off your pre-paid news account. Affiliate news sources (whoever they make the arrangement with, let’s say WashPo, Chicago Trib, Boston Globe, Fox, WorldNetDaily) start charging a nickel an article. XYZ takes $0.02 for sitting in the middle. You’re not nagged for constant pennies, and it’s just one account you need, so one login to rule them all, so to speak.

    Maybe it turns out that people don’t want to pay $10/mo for a completely mercenary service that would even bother to include WND. So LimNOP comes along with a Cadillac plan. $20/mo, and their editors only make quality news available Maybe the articles are a bit more expensive. A dime to you (automatically debited from your pre-paid account). LimNOP could take a whole nickel and the news source would still do better than they would have through XYZ.

    Maybe market pressures would drive crappy XYZ out of the market altogether and maybe even accidentally create ideological or subject area silos for themselves? Maybe writers could be encouraged to use and link to relevant sources if they’re cut in on each click-through to another micro-paid article. Could that be impetus to avoid single sourcing? Would customer satisfaction force better quality linked sources?