There's no shortage of stories about the economic troubles of the news media -- particularly newspapers -- but Jay Rath's cover story in this week's Isthmus offers an interesting take on a potential pitfall for readers posed by the citizen bloggers that some see as newspapers' successors.
Rath writes about the rise of "sponsored conversations," the practice of corporations paying or giving pricey gifts to nominally independent bloggers to speak favorably about their products. Given that most bloggers aren't paid and can't expect to earn much from advertising, the temptation is obvious. The problem for readers is that they often won't know if what they're reading is a sponsored conversation or an honest opinion.
I'm sure some will be quick to point out that mainstream journalists are often offered free food and valuable swag, and that the practice has bought plenty of good press over the years for the same companies that are paying bloggers now. Fair enough, but at least most established news organizations have ethics policies intended to thwart that kind of influence and although never large, journalists' paychecks make them less susceptible to selling out.
So are independent bloggers really the future of journalism? Rath doesn't predict the imminent collapse of newspapers, but the tone of most of his sources is grim on that question. Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, who praised the story in his blog on Friday, writes: "To the extent that blogs become a primary news source, it might not mean the end of democracy, but it sure isn't a good thing."
Myself, I think there will always be a market for information that's been gathered and analyzed by people who know what they're doing. As long as that's true, then there will be journalists who don't have to be paid for empty praise.
But are those journalists going to work for companies that put ink on paper 10 or 15 years from now? I'm a lot less certain of that. An essential source for those interested in this question is Alan Mutter, whose Reflections of a Newsosaur blog is widely read in the industry. In a recent post, he lays out the "daunting reality" facing newspapers, given a breathtaking drop in ad revenue. On the other hand, he also points out that most newspapers continue to make money owing in large part to their monopoly position in most markets and their cost-cutting efforts (see the blog Paper Cuts, for the grim details on recent job losses at U.S. newspapers).
So why don't newspapers all just go online, as The Capital Times did to a large extent in 2008? While ending print would save a tremendous amount of money in paper, ink and distribution costs, it would also mean the elimination of 95 percent of most newspaper companies' revenue, as Mutter points out. Online advertising just doesn't bring in money at the same rate, at least not yet. Figuring out how to make it more profitable is the billion-dollar question for newspapers and other media companies, too. If you know how it should be done, well, I hope you'll tell me about it first.