Should hurting media outlets take a big tech handout? Or hold off?

Lou Carlozo October 19, 2020

This merry band won best newspaper in the state of Iowa this year. Never mind that they’re University of Iowa students: In fact, they have a lot to teach a struggling industry.

Though I’m editor in chief at a major journalism source platform, I’m a still a sucker for click bait. Come on: Who can resist “Wait until you see Alice the maid from ‘The Brady Bunch’ now!’”? (Spoiler alert: Ann B. Davis died in 2014.) Or BuzzFeed-style fare, perhaps like, “The responses of ten celebs caught going commando.”

Though the latter would make me feel slimy for reading it.

Yes, I know BuzzFeed attempts and delivers serious journalism. Yet some of it ranks as problematic—especially when related to Donald Trump, who relishes every chance he can to Tweet-bellow “FAKE NEWS!!!” For in some BuzzFeed cases, I’m sorry to say—believe me, sorry to the point of nausea—that the Prevaricator In Chief would have a point. BuzzFeed’s Trump work is dogged by everything from posting source claims it couldn’t verify (New York Times) to highlighting the work of Jason Leopold, who has a past checkered by accusations of plagiarism and inaccuracy (The New Yorker).

Besides, bashing on BuzzFeed never gets old. Maybe I’d take them much more seriously if they got rid of the adolescent-level stuff and whoever the Weird Al wannabe is on their editing team. Put another way: A fedora and trench coat don’t exactly go well with a clown outfit.

But not to contradict myself: Can I blame BuzzFeed for its cockeyed mix? No. Because in a world where the noise floor has grown louder than a bomb—with pimply YouTube teens screaming f-bombs at a video game console, and thus winning higher viewer loyalty—media outlets must do all they can within reason to save themselves and prosper. Here, the notion of big tech coming to the rescue presents a most tempting curative.

On that subject, The Economist telegraphed a stinging upper cut over the weekend in its “Schumpeter” blog (named for the Austrian political economist and Harvard professor Joseph Schumpeter). The writer must’ve been thinking, “Why waste time [unlike yours truly] getting to the nut graf?” The title:

“Should big tech save newspapers? No. They need to save themselves.”

In the magazine, it even ran under the banner “Bad News.” The tenor of the sobering statistics should be Old News to many: Over the past 20 years, “newspapers’ ad revenues in America have fallen by about 80% (to Depression-era levels), while circulation has roughly fallen by half.” Long live the Internet! Last rites for newspapers? Not really.

Whose hands control our fate anyway?

As the Economist piece rightly points out, newspapers must take matters into their own hands of fate. That means bypassing the supposed largesse of tech monoliths such as Google. This month, Google pledged $1 billion over three years to newspapers to curate news content for its site. “Some publishers saw it as a precedent—and a tacit admission that Google should pay for news,” The Economist wrote. Or, maybe—likely—it was a handout—for “set against revenues of $162 billion last year at Google’s parent, Alphabet, $1 billion is a pittance.”

There is some not-so-precise interpretation in the piece. The blog contends that “the ad-funded business model was living on fumes even before the internet ate the world this century.” To back this up, it cites research that newspapers in America have been losing share of ad dollars to TV since the 1950s.

Yes, but… what does one make of the fact that TV has been losing ad revenue to the Netflix and Hulu? Or radio to Spotify? The digital wrecking ball and its rubble are not the least bit unique to journalism. Much more precisely to the point: Many in print journalism placed smug bets just a generation ago that the internet was “the CB radio of the ’90s,” to recall a long-lost phrase. Never heard it? Laughing newsies punctuated it with stale breakroom coffee squirting from their noses, as they sat just a few feet from the fax machine and wire feed spewing from the dot matrix printer.

Even into the 2000s, papers held strong enough profit margins that everyone from the peon to the publisher simply didn’t give a damn. To them, the writing on the wall was scrawled with periwinkle crayon by a toddler. I remember well a piece Editor & Publisher ran in its print version, with a title to the effect of “The Internet Is Coming: Are You Ready?” If it was meant to provoke a gale-force reaction, it only came in the form of yawns from the C-suite.

But overall, The Economist gets it right. I find it poignant that as far as I can tell, the E&P “Internet Is Coming” op-ed lies buried and missing in cyberspace under untold reams of digital folderol. And: that E&P itself went belly up for a time not too many years after, in 2010.

So what now? If we can’t count on tech to save print and digital media with some quid-pro-quo-dot-com, what are we to do? Well … what do I look like, an industry savior? Ohhhhhh alright. Let me play one despite my lack of qualification.

All the good news that’s fit to print, sort of

The Economist singles out the New York Times for toughing it out in days of downsized revenue, citing how subscriptions “exceeded 6.5 million this year, a number that should give the paper enough clout to bypass the tech giants.” But to what end?

Because that’s cold-freaking-comfort to newspaper brass in Denver, Des Moines, Ft. Lauderdale, San Diego or pretty much any other midsized or small market. In my mind the Times, incredible journalistic bastion that it is, serves first and foremost as an example of being large, perhaps so much so that it’s too big to fail.

But big points to the Schumpeter posse as they assert that relying on tech for a handout reeks of dangerous dependency. I wouldn’t take a dime from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, for example. His absolute ignorance of our profession has pried forever open a Pandora’s box for all matter of falsifiers, fringe lunatics and foreign malefactors. It changed the trajectory of a presidential election. What now for an encore? We’re gonna take blood money culled from our own blood? Fabulous.

Back in the comfy confines of the Fourth Estate: If we know what’s wrong, how do we get it right? How do we win back our self-sufficiency? Our readers? The public trust? Profits?

Newspaper excellence goes back to school

At least in part, I believe this needs to happen on a smaller scale, case by case and nothing like what papers enjoyed a generation or two ago. I’ve seen inspiring endeavors going on at the University of Iowa, for example, where The Daily Iowan won the state’s Newspaper of the Year award in 2020. Notice what I didn’t say: student newspaper of the year.

With the backing of its institution and the guidance of a gifted faculty leader in David Ryfe (the School of Journalism and Mass Communication director), the Daily Iowan is doing great things. They also accept donations, by the way. As does NPR and its news lineup. Something to think about as we all regroup.

I do not accept the notion that we just get to sit here, wriggle our toes, wait for a savior or debate and focus group this until agate type falls out our ears. Instead, let’s think like big tech does even as we outflank their pseudo-charity:

  • identify the pain points
  • come up with solutions
  • release a “minimally viable product”
  • test and learn
  • pivot
  • reiterate and feed our learnings back into the process

But let’s not take it too far. While tapping the office keg and riding his skateboard Zuckerberg coined the expression, “Move fast and break things.” Look what it did for the news, editorial and election cycle. His ignorance and drive to kill Twitter’s role in news delivery moved him to wield much more power than he could morally, ethically or practically control. And he got away with it because he isn’t one of us. He moved way too fast. And he broke things.

Given this, why would we ever want to take money from Facebook? Or Google, which has consistently and dishonestly rewritten its history by surreptitiously updating its archive of terms and conditions that date to its founding? Don’t believe me? Hell, I’m a reporter and have proof: Watch the stellar, criminally unsung 2013 documentary, Terms and Conditions May Apply.

Instead, let’s move fast and fix things. And in the process, make them better.

Lou Carlozo is Qwoted’s editor-in chief. All opinions expressed were made up by Jayson Blair and then plagiarized. lou@qwoted.com  

Worth a listen: Lou Carlozo’s Bankadelic podcast looks at the brutal effects of COVID-19 on the financial industry, six months later.