The blogging heads of the journalism world have been dueling all week over cutbacks and paywalls at Aaron Kushner’s Register newspapers. There is Clay Shirky’s told-you-so, Ken Doctor’s response and Ryan Chittum’s defense. In case you missed it, or would rather have a root canal than read it all, allow me to summarize: Those other guys are lying liars and only I have the courage to tell it like it is.
As I say, all this I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I commentary comes on the heels of an abrupt about face for Kushner, who had been pouring money into Freedom Communication’s Register newspapers in Southern California. The investment in print products had been the talk of the journalism world and many of us hoped that such a bold bet would be a success and lead to more investment, more print journalism.
This week, Kushner and company President Eric Spitz announced a dramatic scaling back that includes furloughs, layoffs and other restructuring. Kushner isn’t conceding defeat, noting in a memo to staff that not to have tried would have been the real failure.
Buried in Doctor’s long inside baseball discussion of what went right and wrong, is a two-paragraph truism. He stipulates that the future is digital but suggests the present requires print. I couldn’t have said it better than this myself: …
… The digital-or-die argument just seems tired. Clearly we are moving toward a mainly digital and majority mobile world. The smartest publishers would love to throw the switch from print to digital and just be done with it. Costs are so much lower, likely profit margins so much higher, and the pain of transformation reduced. But 75 percent or more of the money flowing in to pay the journalists still come from print — and we know there is no digital business model yet able to pay for large local newsrooms. FiveThirtyEight and Vox maybe — The Miami Herald, Star Tribune, or Dallas Morning News, no.
So print matters, even if some would like to believe it shouldn’t. It has driven the revolution of reader revenue, and that’s a revolution important to all journalists worldwide. People, we now know, will pay for digital news, but for many that transactional leap starts with print. It may be an inconvenient fact for some worldviews, but it’s a fact nonetheless.
I think pitting print against digital is a boring thing to do. The two are not mutually exclusive. Increasingly, they offer different possibilities. Some of us will always prefer print. Others will never read a newspaper again. Perhaps the lesson of the Register newspapers is that doubling down on one side or the other is a losing bet.