Meanwhile, most consumers of online news do it from roughly 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. They are at work, and what they have time to see primarily are headlines. They don’t pay for what they see and probably won’t. And because the daily readership numbers are relatively small and the audience often geographically dispersed, the advertising hardly covers the cost of gathering the original stories. As Washington Post President Stephen P. Hills said recently, the Post newspaper is a $600 million business; its Web site is a $50 million business.
Nevertheless, there has been an outburst within the journalism community that the end is near. Serious people have proposed what in time will be considered absurd ideas—turn papers into nonprofit organizations; charge for each downloaded story; turn into Web-based publications; make Web aggregators, such as Google and Yahoo, pay for carrying newspaper stories.
NYTimes.com had some twenty million unique users for the month of October, making it the fifth-ranked news site on the Internet in terms of total visitors. The newspaper is sold to 800,000 readers a day, rising on Sunday to over 1 million. Without thinking, someone might say the Times Web site readership far exceeds the newspaper’s. But the definition of unique visitor is someone who within a month’s time visits the Web site more than once. It is not apples to apples, but by dividing the twenty million a month by thirty you get at best roughly 667,000 readers a day, which is short of the paper’s daily circulation.
I recognize that journalistically I am old-fashioned. I was going to say, an old fogey. But thanks to Microsoft Word, I have learned that a “fogey” is a reactionary. And Microsoft tells me its antonym is “activist,” which is a title I embrace. So I have to stand by Microsoft.
Like other industries caught up in today’s economic downturn, newspapers, which just a few years ago were rapidly expanding, have to reduce expenses, including staff. We also should look for other ways to use the materials we already collect and produce. The Post and other publications have taken first steps in joint ventures with network television news. I believe we will see a time when a major newspaper and a major television network jointly produce a daily news show.
But when it comes to editorial content, meaningful news about government, politics, and foreign policy is only one of the saleable elements. Good newspapers have to go back to delivering a daily product that our mass audiences want, and which provides to advertisers a unique means to reach consumers. Like supermarkets, newspapers must deliver quality in all departments.
Yet at the same time, owners, editors, and reporters should push issues they believe government is ignoring. They should do it factually and in articles short enough to read daily, but spread over time. That is how Americans absorb information—by repetition.
They should remember that “newsmakers” are intent on using the media to influence readers, listeners, and viewers to take up their ideas. The electronic and print media today probably have more power over public opinion—and thus government—than they had fifty years ago. But I fear they turn much of that power over to those who create news events to get coverage.
The press should play an activist role. That’s the reason a free press is important. Mine is a romantic and unfashionable view of journalism, but that is why many of us took up the profession in the first place.