Welcome to the brave new media world, where lumbering giants are being humbled by nimbler johnnies-come-lately. A world where senior editors of venerable newspapers have the deer-in-the-headlights look while those of new media outlets have a precocious twinkle in their eyes. After visiting several flagship newspapers around the United States, it is clear that the business model that the print media relied on for decades does not work anymore. Circulations are falling as the younger generation mostly consumes news online. This in turn has led to a steep fall in advertising dollars. Classified ads – cash cows that once made up to 35 percent of revenue for newspapers – have been decimated by sites like Craigslist, which took away 30 percent of it.
Papers have been forced to experiment with various online news delivery options. Many are still grappling whether to put their content behind a paywall or make it available gratis to grab a share of eyeballs that are used to free news online. The New York Times has been the most successful online, but continues to cut jobs. Journalists have been forced to adapt too, as just filing a story at the end of the day is not enough. They now have to take pictures – even video – to go with their stories. Many – especially the older ones – have been dragged kicking and screaming to adopt social media tools like Facebook and Twitter.
Newer media startups tend to be more agile, since they are mostly online and do not have a print version to bog them down. They also tend to be more adventurous and willing to break norms and innovate. One feels the energy in the newsrooms of new media entities like Politico and the Texas Tribune that is lacking in traditional media. Take ProPublica. Founded in 2007 in New York, it employs 40 journalists, publishes 50 major investigative stories a year and has already won two Pulitzer Prizes. It spends up to $400,000 on major stories, and pays salaries of up to $200,000 a year. Its mission is “to extend the techniques and ethos of journalism to the new generation”.
The Texas Tribune, founded in 2009, has 46 fulltime employees – half of them reporters – and made $55 million in revenue this year. Its reporters now form half the press corps in the state Capitol in Austin. “Change is good. Disruption is good. Chaos is good. It’s opportunity,” a Tribune editor said. Politico – also founded in 2007 – is aggressively taking on the floundering Washington Post, which was recently sold for $250m, a paltry sum for such a venerable institution. Politico “wants to do for politics what ESPN did for sports”. It aims to drive the conversation, set the narrative and fight for mindshare. Politico is also one of the rare media start-ups that have a print version too, albeit a free one.
But the Post bristles when compared to Politico. “(Politico) is not a looming behemoth. This is simply nonsense. Politico does not pose an existentialist threat to us. The Washington Post does agenda-setting stories,” argued an editor at the Post, pointing out that the Post website has 17 million unique visitors a month while Politico has only 3 million. He said newspapers had been slow to adjust to the shift to digital news consumption and found it difficult to adapt fast. But he vowed “we hope to be doing some of the disrupting than being among the disrupted”.
It seems the once-mighty print dinosaurs will have to move fast to evolve to a rapidly-changing media landscape and climate – or risk going extinct.