Strib Post-Bankruptcy Still Needs New Economic Model

The StarTribune will emerge from bankruptcy this month, and that’s a strong step toward survival. But the underlying problems will all remain.

Austin put forward his solution months ago, and as usual he makes a ton of sense. I’ve been thinking a lot about all this, and listening to others’ ideas, and I’ve come to the conclusion the economic model is out of date. Here’s a piece I wrote last month for MPR’s new commentary section on their web page, shepherded by former Strib op-ed editor Eric Ringham.

My basic point: journalism and advertising aren’t enough to keep a major new organization going anymore. See what you think:

The way newspapers have gathered an audience and sold it to advertisers – which is how the newspaper business works – is kaput; and so are many newspapers.

And newspapers are scrambling to find a new way to survive – but they’re thinking in old patterns. They’re now trying to figure out how to get people to pay for what the papers have been giving away free on the internet – journalism.

But it was never just the journalism that got people to buy papers – and as a former reporter and current journalism teacher, I hate to admit this. Sure, lots of readers wanted to know what’s happening in their community and state. But lots of people also bought the paper for the comics, the TV listings, the crossword and Sudoku, the car ads and the grocery coupons – and the sports, which is really entertainment, not news.

Now, if a newspaper like the Star Tribune is going to survive – in some form, not necessarily on newsprint – the people who are trying to save the “paper” have to get over the narrow focus on journalism. They need to come up with new ways to gather and serve a variety of groups of consumers of information.

And that’s where creativity has to come in, and that’s where I believe Minnesota can develop a model that can save an evolved form of the Star Tribune. I’ve been listening to a lot of people with good ideas – and not just newspaper people. Civic groups, digital marketers, academics, entrepreneurs, all have some very cool approaches. Pull together an audience by doing a local version of Craig’s list – access to local services and professionals. Pull together a music community by not just covering local music, but selling it song by song through the internet and giving people the opportunity to talk with and about local bands and hear them live online. Pull together an audience by capturing all the speeches and presentations that go on in Minnesota every week – digest them and also let people listen to them whole. Cover local news by connecting professional journalists with the local people who are already running clearinghouses online for community information.

These are baby-step ideas. Put together enough creative thinkers and we’ll gather a number of small audiences that will add up to a large enough audience to support a major news organization. Just like the small audiences for different parts of the newspaper added up to a large audience. Some of these audiences will be attractive to advertisers. Some of these audiences will pay fees – for music, for access to good service people. And yes, each of these small audiences will also be exposed to the journalism that the whole enterprise supports – and maybe they’ll pay for it by the story, or pay a subscription, or get the journalism free if they pay for other sorts of information the “newspaper” offers.

The solution is to become a clearinghouse for all kinds of useful and entertaining information – including strong journalism.

And don’t get me wrong — our community needs the kind of strong journalism the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press have provided. To keep us informed and keep democracy working, we need professional journalists who know how to dig and investigate and questions and analyze and tell us our stories. We need those dogged reporters who sit through the meetings and sift through the documents and show us what government and courts and cops and educators and businesspeople are doing well that should be celebrated or doing poorly that should be improved. MPR does a good job, the TV stations do some journalism, a few radio stations have a reporter or two, but these all add up to a small group of journalists. Nobody has more feet on the ground and more eyes on Minnesota than the Star Tribune. Yes, there are bloggers working too, and some do a good job of presenting smart thinking. But few bloggers do the tedious work of uncovering the news. It takes a lot of motivated, trained, pesky professional journalists to keep us informed about our community.

I have this perhaps naïve idea that we can pull together a group of thinkers who value journalism but don’t think like traditional newspaper people, and they’ll come up with a way to keep something like the Star Tribune viable. There’s a guy in the Warehouse District who runs a digital marketing company and knows how to make a computer screen talk, sing and dance. There’s a creative spirit inside the Star Tribune daydreaming about how the paper can out-Craig’s-List Craig’s List. There’s an entrepreneur in Eden Prairie who thinks the newspaper’s fleet of trucks could deliver groceries along with papers. There’s a businesswoman who knows publishing and how to tailor services to customers and she’s dying to try a new business model on her morning newspaper. There’s a journalism prof at the U of M who’s got some wild ideas about blending professional journalists with neighborhood watchdogs to shed light on their community.

I believe Minnesotans – who have come up with new models for health care and farming and generating green energy and sticking things together – can come up with an innovative way to run a major news organization in a constantly evolving information world.

Maybe it’s community ownership. A non-profit. A local investor group partnering with an entrepreneur and a young journalist to create a new approach nobody’s thought of. Maybe there will be print versions of the paper, maybe not – maybe smaller, more-tailored, less-frequent print versions. Maybe there will be only one “newspaper” – not two – in the Twin Cities. Maybe MinnPost.com, the brave experiment some top journalists have been conducting for more than a year online, will be part of the mix, along with some existing broadcast news and bloggers. Maybe the creative thinkers at MPR will lead the way. Perhaps we’ll be paying for reading and watching our news differently, and perhaps the reporters will be paid for gathering and presenting it differently. Everything is open for being re-invented, rethought, reborn. That’s what a crisis calls forth.

This is a national and international problem. Advertising has migrated online, readers are increasingly online. All over the country and the world, experts and observers are talking about the death of newspapers. Death? Not so fast. Rebirth in a new form? Yes.

In Ann Arbor, Michigan, the Ann Arbor News just stopped printing a paper version of the paper and went to an online news operation. AnnArbor.com CEO and president Matt Kraner said the online news operation wants to be “the hub of connection” for the community.” If you start thinking about an evolved “newspaper” as a hub of connection, providing information and services that connect people to their community using old and new technology, you open up a new way of looking at a news organization that can support the professional journalism we all need.

Let’s create a new “newspaper” in the Twin Cities. All we need are ideas, hope, some entrepreneurs willing to take new risks, and a dedication to keeping our community informed and engaged. If you have an idea, email me at bbenidt@aol.com.

11 thoughts on “Strib Post-Bankruptcy Still Needs New Economic Model

  1. Jon Austin says:

    Benidt is – as usual – a thoughtful observer of the world and particularly the world of journalism he knows from so many angles. The “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach he advocates will eventually produce some winners.

    Winners:

    1. Consumers. We have more high-quality journalism a click away than ever and this will continue to be the case even after we have to start paying for it (enjoy the freebies while you can because their day is coming to an end right soon). No only that, but our journalism consumption is no longer dictated by the sensibilities of old white guys on the East Coast with Ivy League educations or the luck-of-the-draw geography of our local market.

    2. Journalists. Despite the pain of the last 5 years across their profession, I believe we are heading toward a golden age of journalism when practitioners will be able to find a sustainable audience for almost any form and subject of reporting they want to pursue. Credentialing will be less important, perhaps, so I’m not rushing out to endow a chair at my local J School, but reporters will be able to keep more of the revenue their work produces.

    3. Communities and taxpayers. We will get more transparency and better behavior from our officials because they will know as a matter statistical certainty that somebody is always watching and that the butterfly effect is alive and well (ask the ACORN organizers).

    Losers.

    1. Lots of rich people. Historically, the way to make money in the journalism racket has been to own the means of production – printing presses, television studios, delivery trucks, antennas. As the McClatchys and the Avistas of the world will tell you, that’s no longer case. In fact, the newspaper business is a lot like the airline business in that the best way to make a million dollars in either industry is to start with $10 million.

    This disintermediation is not going to reverse itself any time soon and I suspect Benidt is right in speculating that the brands that survive will look a lot more like aggregators and curators than anything else.

    2. Journalism professors and schools. As I mentioned above, I think credentialing is going to be less important in the future than it is today and that’s bad news for those in the credentialing business. As would-be students decide the cost-benefit of attending school doesn’t add up, expect a decline in enrollment.

    3. 3. Communities and taxpayers. Yes, they’re on both lists because greater transparency and scrutiny is not an absolute positive. If everything and everyone is always on the record in politics, there is much less ability to explore compromises, common ground or to engage in legitimate “horse trading” (and that’s not an oxymoron) that is essential to getting things done.

    Almost every community, commission or agency I’ve ever worked with or observed has had an informal, never written down, never acknowledged way of working around open meeting or sunshine laws. Not because they wanted to do bad things but because it’s a necessity to actually get things done in a pluralistic form of government.

    – Austin

    1. PM says:

      I have always been fascinated by the progress and purpose(s) of credentialling. Sometimes it works very successfully*–doctors and lawyers and MBA’s spring to mind–and other instances less so–teachers and journalists are good examples. I think that basically, a credentialling institution needs to be tied in with a form of governmental licensure (medical licence, law licence, financial licence of various kinds) so as to be able to limit the numbers practising in a particular field.

      Pretty much anyone can become a journalist, particularly now that you don’t even have to be hired by anyone to practise (all you need is a blog, and the barriers to entry are really low there, as we all know…). Frankly, only the insiders now recognize the signals of a good journalists “credentials”–who among the public knows where the good journalism schools are, or even that there are such things?

      Until there is some way to limit access, credentialling isn’t going to work. Access was limited (somewhat) due to the limited numbers of organizations that controlled the broadsheets and the airwaves. Now what seems to govern access to an audience is more akin to publicity, fame, notoriety and exposure. Lets face it, Paris Hilton can get a bigger audience than any top recent grad of Columbia (to pick just one example). Celebrity sells. And it is driving out professionalization.

      The one other hope is that the public might become more discriminating, and demand “quality”–which, hopefully, might just coincide with the results of credentials and professionalism. But I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for this.

      *success in terms of monetary reward, principally.

      1. Yes, I’m wondering about the future of journalism in higher education. The career prospects seem exceptionally grim because “anyone can become a journalist.” For instance is there a need for the in-depth long form magazine writing (that I personally found so compelling) when the industry is sucking and the potential to connect with it is so remote?

      2. In theory, “anyone can manage a business,” too, but that — management — is one of the more popular majors at my alma mater, St. Thomas.

        Just because anyone can be a journalist doesn’t mean there’s no need for training journalists. It could, in fact, be a sign of an impending increase in the need for people like Ellen Mrja to shape the impressionable young masses of future journalists.

      3. PM says:

        I do not think that there has ever been a feeling that “anyone can manage a business”–indeed, that is why the really good ones (with supposedly great results) get paid so much more than the run of the mill managers–because it is seen as a relatively scarce skill, and the competition for top managers is fierce. (maybe those poor suckers who are paying all of those $$ to St. Thomas for an MBA think that–but that is another bubble that is likely to burst–just like law degrees).

        Not only is it a lot easier to measure the difference between various managers than it is to measure the difference between various journalists (ie, to tell the good from the bad), but most people feel that it is a lot more important to them and their lives to have good managers in charge of their portfolios and investments and companies and jobs (and government) than it is to have good journalists in charge of their news. They think one is more critical to their lives than the other, and are willing to pay more attention, and, ultimately, more money, for the best.

      4. That’s kinda my point: Anyone can manage a business in so far as there’s no official licensing process or anything. But everyone knows the benefits of good managers vs. bad managers.

        Just because “anyone can do it” doesn’t mean those people who do it well are in harm’s way.

  2. William Dewey says:

    I used to live in Ann Arbor (oh, some 40 plus years ago) and I faithfully read the AANewsevery night while I took off my tie. They had good local journalism, I just wasn’t into it then. If they can survive online, the Strib, with its strength of tradition, should be able to. My best wishes!

  3. Joe Loveland says:

    Here’s what I worry about: Too few are equipped to distinguish between good information — coverage that is logical, fact-checked, below-the-surface and discloses any biases — from bad information – coverage that is illogical, loose with the facts, superficial and hides biases. For this reason, and because producing good journalism is more expensive than producing half-assed stuff, the producers of good information might not get enough customers to survive.

  4. […] Saving Journalism from the Bottom Up, from The Same Rowdy Crowd. As the StarTribune newspaper of the Twin Cities emerges from bankruptcy, former journalist and current communications savant Bruce Benidt issues a call for ideas on saving the newspaper industry.  His point: Let’s get a bunch of smart, original thinkers together, create highly local communities of information and commerce around the civic life of our community, and re-build a model that will support the professional journalism we need from there.  Is there a community organizer out there who can help Bruce make this happen? […]

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