About Me

  • I've spent more than 25 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 and startups. You can read more about me here.

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« Doodlebuzz | Main | And That's The Way It Is »

July 17, 2009



Spot on, Mark.

Folks (wilfully?) forget that newspaper circulation decline started long before the internet.

In the UK, at least, it had been falling since the late 1970s. Even while they still had the monopoly on information dissemination, print newspapers were finding it increasingly difficult to attract an audience.

The unbearable (for newspapermen) truth is that traditional journalism has been in crisis for a long time. Why? Because the product they're punting hasn't been desirable for years.

Guess what? People don't want news. Or rather, they don't want what passes for 'news' in most newspapers: the recycled press releases, the ill-concealed PR puff 'story', the presidential world tour guff (you get 600 words EVERY day just because we got a reporter on the plane along with every other hack in the universe), the lobby-fed political 'briefings' (worthless and news-less, but tied to access so the correspondent slavishly report every syllable), the corporate-advertising-masquerading-as-new-scientific-research stories, the 'amusing' man-bites-dog human interest story.

Nearly all of it is grotesque crap.

I'm a professional journalist and I've been bored to death, for at least 15 years, by this rubbish. Newspapers stopped being relevant a long time ago.

Paul Carson

Hummm. Something that doesn't provide value, eh? What about the access that newspapers and their web sites give to all manner of public documents that otherwise would not be available and easily findable? What about the significant value of exclusive news that papers post to their web sites.

Obviously you just hope to get a post on an industry web site like Romenesko -- congrats on that -- to gin up business for a struggling "entrepreneur."

After all, you stand to make a little money if those awful newspaper web sites turn to little ol' you to get some help.

Thanks, but just quit being so self-serving.

Jeff Sonderman

Great post, Mark. The metaflaw in the industry seems to be failure to acknowledge and deal with the reality that the past is not coming back and past practices aren't good enough for the future.
FYI, I'm adding you to the blogroll at http://www.newsfuturist.com . Don't know why I forgot to in the first place.


An attempt to think about this from another angle:


Tim Holmes

"What about the access that newspapers and their web sites give to all manner of public documents that otherwise would not be available and easily findable?" asks Paul Carson. Paul, you could read my local paper every day for a year and not find a single public document of the type you mention. And the same goes for most national newspapers, most of the time. Why did the MPs' expenses scandal generate so much coverage in the UK? Because for the first time in a long time there was something real to report on and read about. It was a shame that the "well-connected" political reporters did not uncover it first but then the "well connected" business and finance reporters didn't spot the crash coming either. So what do they do that's worth paying for?


Right in every aspect.

Also for Newspaper read B2B publishing.

Paul "not easily findable" ummmm....google? "exclusive news that papers post to their web sites" doesn't exist. There is nothing that goes on a newspaper site that isn't instantly mirrored around the websphere on free sites.

You should try Google.co.uk - it's a fantastic new invention on the interweb thingy.

Mark Potts

Paul Carson: Trust me, taking strong stands against the quality of newspaper industry Web sites generally doesn't lead to contracts to fix them. In any case, that's not really what I do for a living.

And Tim Holmes has it exactly right: Those documents you think newspapers are regularly unearthing don't exist on newspaper sites. But oftentimes they are on the Web for anyone to find.

Kevin Kennedy

Interesting post. I tackle some of the same issues as it impacts business newspapers in “Business newspapers sharpen focus on the future.” http://tinyurl.com/knj97r

Greg Moran

Yawn....Mark Potts with another poorly written, long long post that says: newspapers bad. Everything about newspapers bad. If they would only listen to me. Heaven help us. And yes, Paul Carlson is correct Mark, as anyone who is/was a reporter would know. Sure, some papers post accessible records (court docs, agendas, etc). But any ninny knows that the databases/document caches newspapers display are gained through records requests or, in some cases lawsuits. That is because (I'll go slow here, so you can follow) the governments do NOT make them readily accessible, on the Web or anywhere else. They do not want to give them out. That is why one must formally ask the agencies to turn them over. E-mail chains, payroll data, investigations, the list goes on. That is unique content that entertains, informs, adds value etc. If you are only willing to see it.

Tony Gnoffo

(Full disclosure: The following comes from a former member of the dead tree division of the mainstream media in Philadelphia, and knows from experience that Mark Potts is really smart.)

C'mon, Mark. Newspaper journalism does stand out compared to its free online rivals. On a national and international level, I'd gladly pay to access The NY Times, just as I have for the Wall Street Journal, because I know that despite occasional gaffes there is a very rigorous vetting process that mostly does not exist beyond the traditional media. The same is true on a local level, where here in Philadelphia, The Inquirer and Daily News consistently offer the most complete and intelligent coverage available anywhere. Do blogs occasionally beat them on a story? Sure. Is the content as good or thorough as it used to be? Hell no. But is it worth, $5, $10, $20 a month? I think so. And as I spend more time away from the newspaper business, I encounter more and more people who are aware of the difference between online reports from newsrooms and the online reports from the well-intentioned amateurs. More importantly, they'd be willing to pay to sustain the structure that makes the difference possible. They also understand that many (not all) blogs and aggregators would shrivel up and die without the content they get from real newsrooms.


Yawn ,

Another whiny post by Greg Moran misstating what was said so he can argue against what he wanted to have been said.

Milkmen and livery stable boys probably used the same ploy when their jobs became obsolete.

Tim Windsor


Yes, that's what newsrooms do.

So why don't they make it available online, aside from the occasional multi-part Pulitzer-bait, "Now with the richness of multi-media!"™

The fact is newspapers should be the ones innovating precisely because of what you cite. And yet, they're not.

So, people won't pay for it. Newspapers can put up the wall, but there will be little money passed through it. Because when it comes down to yanking out the credit card, the quick-calculus happens and most users will keep moving.


Excellent column. But, as you can see from a couple of the responses, you won't get anyone in a print newsroom to agree. They are convinced that the product can't be replaced because they have special access to documents and people, as well as skills not found in mere mortals. They really need to be paying more attention. Readers aren't killing the newspaper. Journalists are. (with a little help from their corporate overlords.)

John Hill

Wow. I was going to rant on this myself but I'm not sure what more I could add to this. Great post.

In a nutshell, the newspaper industry seems to be driven by a combination of self-inflated ego and fear that their power and license to print money is slipping through their fingertips.

I'm tempted, in fact, to borrow a page from your "recovering" theme and equate it with an addictive illness, and note that first step is for the industry to admit it has a problem. Some paper have done this. Others are in denial, thinking print is just in a recession and will be fine once the economy gets better. And then there are those who're starting to grasp that they need to turn their business over to the communities they serve. That's the higher power. The groundswell (great book) is coming and no one wants to face it.

Jeff Sonderman

Greg Moran said: "But any ninny knows that the databases/document caches newspapers display are gained through records requests or, in some cases lawsuits. That is because (I'll go slow here, so you can follow) the governments do NOT make them readily accessible, on the Web or anywhere else."

Greg, this is true, but newspapers definitely aren't the only organizations that can solve that problem. In fact, the lead on this is taken by non-news nonprofits. Check out the Sunlight Foundation for good examples: http://www.sunlightfoundation.com . Also, http://www.opensecrets.org

david holmberg

thank god for paul carson. People like Potts think they can feed on print's historically significant problems with no regard for the societal consequences.

david holmberg

Cleatus B. Bonaventure

I love posts like this because it's pretense to share some anecdotes about the ridiculous newspaper I worked for in Atlanta.

I had to leave the business for many reasons, mostly my desire to do something more lucrative but also because I couldn't stand the constant preening and prissing by the so-called "great writers" and the moronic editors who stroked their egos. These great writers who trafficked in "long form" and "narrative" journalism about four times a year that consumed Sunday A-section double trucks that were really written for about six contest judges rather than the 4.5 million people in Atlanta. These stories uniformly sucked and never won a Pulitzer. Has even a Pulitzer ever moved the circ needle even once anyway? And these regional APME, ANSE, etc., awards that so many journalists held forth like Olympic medals. That worthless culture of irrelevant awards I hope has finally entered the great dustbin of history.

We also used to have these training sessions cultivating the irrelevant abilities described above, political correctness indoctrination and other unproductive topics. One of these actually included a two-hour session on time management where the presenter showed us how to use all the various features of Microsoft Outlook. Now, that was fine because MS Outlook indeed has some handy tools. Only the entire staff used Lotus Notes. Ha, morons!

Jeff Sonderman

Mark, Another thought on this. Newspapers actually haven't been charging readers for the cost of creating content since the 1830s: http://bit.ly/MVM0M Economics says online news, in a competitive market, must be free.


Value is not the real solution, because there is no solution. The operative words are "almost all" -- online users accustomed to free content will simply migrate from those sites that charge to those who do not charge. That's the future of journalism: No one can charge for content because there will usually be at least one someone who will be willing to give it away to overcome market barriers. Once that newcomer decides to charge, then another newcomer will give it away for free. Too many voices, be they retired journalists too bored to go fishing or recent J-school grads seeking to build a reputation, are ready to fill the void left by paid sites.


Could not agree more. There is not one news"paper" out there online that I would be willing to pay for except, maybe, NYT. NYT just has soo much available out there including all of the sections, blogs, multimedia etc.

If news outlets want to charge for news they need to provide a multitude of services for the everyday person. They need to be a news outlet AND a search engine, T.V. Guide, travel agent, friend, parent, entertainer, movie station, e-mail account, shopping mall, teacher, storyteller, artist ect. They need to embrace the old AOL model and be an everything website that most people can stay on exclusively or go outside of if the need something else. Each service, if executed right, adds value. But don't get greedy. Charge people a moderate fee and don't force them into staying on the site; let them come and go easily, as they please.

Anyway. Great post!

Beverly A. Carroll

At first it seemed that you were all about identifying the problem but leaving the solutions to someone else but then I saw that you're a media consultant so I guess you wouldn't want to give away your ideas. You expect to be paid for your work.
Since you think that all newspapers are pretty much played, where do people get their news? Where is this superior journalist you hint exists everywhere else except in newspapers? The two sites you mentioned seem to have a narrow audience - political animals or people who want to know where the best food on their block is and where the latest mugging happened. Scoff at the local city commission if you will but where do I find out what they did last Tuesday? (In Everyblock, I saw art shows, restaurant openings, home listings. That's unique content?)
Obviously papers need to do make some changes, some BIG changes, but I think a great many are trying to figure it out.
For the record, I'm a jilted journalist with little chance of finding another newspaper job because I'm not willing to move. If my former paper ever gets new management with journalism experience outside of this newsroom, I think it has a good chance of becoming the paper that serves the community not only because it's the only choice but because it has what readers are looking for: local news.

Mark Potts

Thanks for your comment. I've been working these issues for more than 15 years now, and blogging about it for almost three. I certainly am far more interested in finding solutions than in simply identifying problems, and if you read back into the blog, I think you'll see that I've offered many recommendations and solutions for what newspapers should do.

To your specific question about where coverage will come from, we're already starting to see it appear. A few weeks ago I blogged about a seminar I participated in to discuss what might replace local newspapers, and the point of my contribution was that we're already starting to see many alternatives (that post is here: http://recoveringjournalist.typepad.com/recovering_journalist/2009/06/choices-in-charm-city-1.html). Are these perfect replacements for everything a newspaper does? Certainly not--yet. But some of them do things newspapers don't do, and others will grow and evolve to fill the gaps that will appear as newspapers wither.

I've also written extensively about the need to aggregate all of these narrow-interest sites into a package that's easier for people to find and navigate, and I believe that's a natural role for next-generation newspapers to play. You can read some of that here http://recoveringjournalist.typepad.com/recovering_journalist/2009/04/editors-as-curators-whats-taking-so-long.html and herehttp://recoveringjournalist.typepad.com/recovering_journalist/2009/04/its-not-the-news-its-the-packaging.html.

We're seeing a significant evolution of the media landscape we grew up in, and it's quite jarring. We're also smack in the middle of it (if not the beginning), so it's difficult to see how things will play out. I'm greatly concerned that by not moving more quickly to adapt to this new world, newspapers as we know them are going to be left behind. Into that vacuum, I have great faith, will come other entities to take their place.


It doesn't matter what anyone of you think about the value of newspapers or the value of newsrooms, or anything else. The fact of the matter is most of them are in deep, deep trouble. I am almost 40, and have never subscribed to a single newspaper, and neither have most of the people I know or work with.

For the past 15 years or so I've gotten my news online, on the radio, or on t.v., for free. There have also always been free papers that reported on much of what the non-free ones reported on.

Even if the five of you that believe papers are worth the money they charge, obviously the majority of potential customers don't. The Detroit News and Free Press had been acting like Green Peace (until they gave up on home delivery all together), staking out areas in front of post offices, and other highly trafficked locations, hounding passers-by to purchase a subscription.

There's no doubt newspapers do provide a service that many like, just not in a format, or for a price that many are willing to pay.


The paradox of content commodification is that all we need is verifiable statements from the essential sources. That constitutes the news. All the rest is duplication of that, or that with barbeque sauce, or fake wings.

The events constitute news; intelligent analysis makes for understanding of events.

When you look for evolution, don't look for it within newspapers or the news industry, because this is not where evolution will be driven from.

It will come from the end users in concert with each other, working with and against the smart editors who pinpoint smart content for specific audiences.

Posts by Haque and Searls address some of these concerns. Links to theirs and a comment here:


Aaron Knox

The "new" newspaper mantra:

"We should charge readers for our online content."

I've been working online for newspaper companies since 1997, and I feel like I very recently fell into a 10-year time warp.

That train left the station a long time ago.

Mobile delivery, on the other hand ...

Aww, who are we kidding.

It's the advertising model, not subscription, that needs adjustment.

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