About Me

  • I'm CEO of Newspeg.com, a social news-sharing platform. I've spent 20 years at the intersection of traditional and digital journalism. I've helped to invent ways to read and interact with the news and advertising on computer screens and iPads, and before that, I wrote news stories on typewriters and six-ply paper. I co-founded WashingtonPost.com and hyperlocal pioneers Backfence.com and GrowthSpur; served as editor of Philly.com; taught media entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland; and have done product-development and strategy consulting for all sorts of media and Internet companies. You can read more about me here.

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« Isn't It Ironic? | Main | Will News Tablets Finally Come Down from the Mountaintop? »

February 28, 2009



Seeing newspapers fall apart brings me joy. Not for those suffering loss of income of course, but rather I see a tremendous opportunity for entrepreneurs to serve customers for social gain and profit. In their present incarnation, newspapers are regional monopolies of sales and distribution of display advertising. As such, they charge exorbitant fees for their advertisements to support and protect their monopolies – leaving few resources actually gather news. I left that business after I witnessed the way the monopolists practiced it.
Entrepreneurs exist to slay bloated, mismanaged so-called businesses just like these. And monopolist newspaper owners know this. That is why they have developed – for decades, at every deliberate step – a program of undermining competitive business practices. For this reason, we all want to see them fail, no matter the cost or collateral damage. Joint Operating Agreements demonstrate the most obvious example. Natural monopolies define the business. High barriers of entry: fancy offset web color printing presses, wide geographic house-to-house distribution and big staffs. The way the business was originally established, it was very difficult to gain a foothold. Only the most daring would spend the amounts of money required to compete. To punish them, media owners with political influence convinced lawmakers to permit the ultimate competitive abomination, the Joint Operating Agreement. A JOA allows a single capitalist to take control of two separate, supposedly competitive media entities to extract the profit from both.
The solution to the economic equation admits two variables: capital and labor. The JOA allowed a constraint against competitive capitalists, but what about competitive laborers? This was the only business that was allowed to hire child labor into the 1980’s. I know: I was a legally employed child laborer employed by a monopolist newspaper corporation operating under a JOA in the 1980s. I woke up at 6 a.m. to throw papers on doorsteps at $0.15/piece plus tips. The only reason newspapers stopped hiring children was because eventually they realized they could hire ex-cons with driver’s licenses and $800, gas-guzzling, 15-year-old clunkers – and pay fewer of them the same rate as the children they once employed! But it’s worse than that.
I am convinced these monopolists loaded up journalism schools with operatives to teach students one thing: that journalists should not expect high wages. Then drape the profession in the flag and a noble patina and inculcate students with the expectation of low pay. The monopolists installed these operatives at places like Columbia and Northwestern who charge how much for a degree? What other profession trains their workers never to expect to be successful? Why should any worker providing a valuable service to millions of customers not expect to become wealthy? Was it this way in the days before large monopolies took over? I expect when there was competition among producers – a time when being a journalist was not defined by possessing a qualified university liberal arts degree – a journalist would expect her superior talents would allow her to rise up the income ladder, as with other industries.
The journalist laborer’s expectation of low wages – repeated from the first j-school professor to the last suburban line editor – comes from the top, BY DESIGN, as a cost of protecting the monopolist profit. Who endows and supports these positions politically within the university system? What sort of academic credentials does a typical journalism professor possess, compared to, say, a physics or law professor? A guy with a J-school degree and 20 years experience as a mid-level night city editor is damn happy to get a square 9-to-5 teaching gig with benefits. And he owes a debt of gratitude to his benefactors. This is a perverse way to train professionals but a great way to ensure cheap labor. What is happening to all these journalism degree holders now after being laid off and forced to compete in other fields? What is the value of that credential, training and newspaper experience? I believe the monopolist extracted it.
The monopolists also get away with providing an inferior product: day old news wrapped in layers of plastic weighing five pounds. The informational, or “news,” yield of news versus total ink content is probably less than 30 percent. The commercial yield is, let’s say, 20 percent of coupons and information about other commerce. The rest is literally garbage. This thing is dumped off at your doorstep (if you’re lucky) by someone possibly an ex-con (which is not to say that describes ALL delivery people, but such people find it easier gaining employment as newspaper deliverers than fast-food cashiers. And excellent fast food cashiers probably expect raises or they work somewhere else). The opinions are usually unhinged screeds rather than sustained appeals to reason. If someone made arguments like these in another professional context, how long could they keep their jobs? Maureen Dowd calls George Bush ignorant names. Pulitzer-Prize opinion maker Cynthia Tucker calls white conservatives racists because they’re white conservatives. These are not arguments. And at their worst they are dangerous incitements. Karl Marx at least presented an argument, even if it was against monopolist behaviors exemplified by the employers of Maureen Dowd and Cynthia Tucker.
And the reporting. Of the news-ink to total-ink content described above, celebrity and sports coverage is probably close to 50 percent. Wire coverage from distant areas, say, another 20 percent, leaving about 30 percent for local news. Obviously the monopolist knows the cost of celebrity and wire news compared to local original reporting. As a former reporter myself, I realized that the newspaper was a ridiculously inefficient means of getting valuable local information to people in the community compared to what is technically and economically feasible. The newspaper paid me a wage to collect information about a local area. I went out and conducted interviews with important officials lasting many hours. I collected data on important meetings, reviewed legal proceedings, observed political processes, etc. I collected thousands of documents, maps, spreadsheets, court filings and pages and pages of interview notes. Now reporters collect other images, audio and video. One day of solid reporting could literally return many, many megabytes of valuable data about a community. The result – a two paragraph brief that runs on page D-16 usually presented outside of any useful context. Other than the low pay, this to me was the most dispiriting aspect of reporting. Most of it was literally a waste of time. Under this scenario, how does one worker stand out from another when it’s so difficult to publish the reporting? By kissing a lot of ass, that’s how. Consequently ignorant incompetents abound at high levels and quality and working conditions suffer. But the monopolist does quite well, thank you.
I guess my point here is that there is nothing about the practice of daily journalism (and perhaps journalist training) that could not be improved by eliminating these toxic monopolist practices that pervert newsgathering and presentation. Going from natural monopolist perverse newsgathering to competitive market newsgathering requires one first crucial step: That the monopolists fail. It will be difficult for any lean, focused newsgathering operation to gain a commercial identity in the shadow of these monsters.

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