FOAT Meeting Akin to the Current Journalistic Landscape

The Friends of the Albuquerque Tribune met on Thursday to discuss possibilities of salvaging the 86 year old Albuquerque daily. The meeting itself seemed to mirror the changing media landscape and the obstacles and opportunities that arise when a demographic is faced with a regional media monopoly. The overwhelming majority of the audience was over the age of fifty. One woman quipped towards the end of the meeting "Lets face it, the majority of us here are tired activists". Her statement spurred something that had been on my mind since the beginning of the meeting... where are the hungry youth? The meeting was held at the UNM Law School only minutes from the rejuvinated department of Communication and Journalism, yet seemingly not a single interested professor or journalism student was present at the meeting. Albuquerque was on the verge of not only losing a bastion of quality journalism, it was the eve of complete print news monopoly in the largest city in the state and yet only about 40 concerned citizens were present. To be fair, Wednesday's announcement that the paper would cease to exist past Saturday most likely contributed to a low turnout.

After getting over my own initial prejudices of what a room of 50, 60 and 70-something's could come up with to save a fading media outlet, something hit me. As I listened to the brainstorming, the openness, the willingness to adapt to a new way of getting the news out, I realized something. These were not "tired activists" trying to hold on to a dying relic. These white haired folks with tired eyes were not trying to save the good-'ol-days. I was witnessing seasoned innovators, frightened for the very youth that were not present. Frightened because they knew that the integrity of our democracy depends on a variety of voices in the national as well as the local dialogue.

And while our city's future journalists were most likely scouring their favorite blogs, I couldn't help but notice the frail, white haired lady sitting a couple of seats away from me. She was knitting. Its as if she had seen it all before. Occasionally she'd blurt out an assertion or a suggestion, she didn't need to raise her hand. She'd most likely witnessed the various impacts of radio, television and cable on the print medium. Her restrained tenacity came out of many a whithered storm.

As I looked around at all the concerned faces that filled the room, one word came to my mind to describe the overall sense that these people conveyed... duty. It was not simple concern for their favorite paper that brought them out that evening, it was a sense of duty. A basic obligation as citizens to make sure there would be more than one news source in their town.

As I read through the variety of heartfelt goodbyes in the last edition of The Albuquerque Tribune on Saturday afternoon there was an overwhelming sense of commitment that came through all those nostalgic anecdotes. A seasoned commitment that had also weathered many a storm, but couldn't quite lick this one.

In this transitional period of print to digital media, I wonder if the new media journalists will have that same sense of commitment. I also wonder if the consumers and the readers will have the same sense of duty as those that were present at the FOAT meeting. Perhaps the best way to honor the legacy The Albuquerque Tribune is to keep its mantra close to one's heart... "Give light and people will find their way". Here's hoping for the light bearers and the light seekers of a new day.

Views: 8

Comment by Doc Mara on February 24, 2008 at 8:50am
Funny thing is, this is the first I heard of the meeting. As far as I know, DCF is the ONLY place talking about this. Were there any conclusions drawn.
Comment by Richard Malcolm on February 24, 2008 at 10:22am
I'd heard about the meeting, but had other obligations. No one would call me young, but I've been grabbing the Tribune daily at my busy lunchtime for years, or after work, and I've tried to absorb what I can, even if it's for 15 minutes.

I get my news from a variety of sources, and I find it's more efficient to scan a newspaper and choose from a couple of pages' worth of articles at once than scroll through a list on a screen.

Bottom line, when we no longer have time to inform ourselves about what's going on in the world, democracy is over.
Comment by John Fleck on February 24, 2008 at 10:26am
Doc -

There was an article about the upcoming meeting in the Tribune. People who cared enough about the Tribune to read the paper every day, or even to pop in to read the stories about its demise, knew.

This underlines my great frustration with the sad discussions now underway about the loss of the Tribune. (Full disclosure, I work for the Tribune's main competitor. And seeing that wonderful Craig Fritz picture on the front page of the final edition, and the Journal's picture of my dear friend Mark Holm hugging Craig, brought tears to my eyes.) The Tribune enriched the life of this community. But in a shifting news environment, fewer and fewer people were buying it.

I don't have any access to their proprietary data, but publicly available web traffic data suggests they had a good-sized Internet readership. But industry trends make clear that Internet readership simply doesn't pay the bills.

One need only look at the New York Times, one of America's great newspapers. Thanks to the web it has a larger readership than ever in its history. Going to full free access has expanded that readership. The Times is cutting 100 newsroom jobs this year.

They reality of the current news environment is that people are increasingly turning to the web for their news, and that they expect it to be free. I don't see that changing, so I think we in my industry need to accommodate this new reality. Part of that reality is that I will no longer be able to grab a copy of the Albuquerque Tribune, hot off the presses, as I have done every weekday for the last 17 years, to get their take on a day in the life of Albuquerque.
Comment by Doc Mara on February 24, 2008 at 10:38am
Fleck,

I'm pretty durn aware of the pressures that are facing newspapers right now. What is abundantly clear is that there is no way to preserve outdated notions that there is some silver bullet that will allow papers to "simply pay the bills" or keep all newsroom jobs. Yes, it does suck that there is not one magic pipeline to preserve an old business model. The same thing has held true for the music, movie, and general entertainment industries.

I knew some of the writers on staff (hell, I taught several of them at UNM), and I didn't know about this meeting. Considering I no longer live in ABQ, this doesn't surprise me, but I think it DOES repudiate your assumption that "People who cared enough about the Tribune to read the paper every day, or even to pop in to read the stories about its demise, knew." I read the paper online EVERY DAY, and did not know about this.

I follow the NY Times online through the news stories, blogs, online video, and even podcasts. As a result, I am part of the small, but growing revenue stream from online ads. Is it going to allow the Times to preserve the old business model? No, but NOBODY (including my industry) will survive these shifts without some massive PINTA restructuring. I think that leaving the trib online for a while might allow interested people to build a new Trib from the bottom up. The DCF and weekly Alibi point to one way that the trib might continue. Yes, it may take a while to find the formats that people might willingly pay for through ad, event, and/or subscription models, but the Trib didn't just pop out fully formed.
Comment by chantal on February 24, 2008 at 10:56am
So where's TV news in this mix? Is there a measurable societal shift from *reading* news to *watching* news?
Comment by Richard Malcolm on February 24, 2008 at 11:38am
I don't bother with TV news as it seems mostly worthless. (PBS may be an exception.) On a spectrum from print to web to radio to TV, I find that print generally offers the most depth, followed by web, and these two have the advantages that you can scan, rather than being a captive audience to the source, and you can save and refer to them later. Commercial radio is an embarrassment, and I say that as a former radio news reader. NPR goes into depth on some topics, but they've gotten fluffier over the years. You can also pull up their archives on the web and listen selectively.

Of course, all of these media, depending on the outlet, are variably subject to weak, sloppy, or lazy reporting that just skims the surface.

As for TV, I've sat through too many substance-free, or, worse, spin-infested (antisubstantial?) broadcasts to have patience with it. And for local TV news, how many times have you seen some hapless reporter out on a dark and stormy night, standing in front of a spot where something mildly newsworthy (or at least tittillating to the profoundly bored among us) happened six hours ago, but there's no visual evidence left, just some strange compulsion to broadcast "live" from the scene. Bizarre. In L.A., almost every night there's a low-speed car chase captured by helicopter and broadcast repeatedly.

But, apparently, it's what sells, which may explain why Bush can still claim, as he did a few weeks ago, that we went to Iraq because they threw the weapons inspectors out (never mind the reality that the weapons inspectors were in Iraq until the U.S. told them to leave because the bombs were about to fly).

So the larger question seems to be, how do you create interest in substance to the extent that it becomes a viable marketplace?

On the whole, people don't seem to want to pay attention to matters of substance, or differing perspectives . . . but wait! Are a whole bunch of previous non-voters waking up? Is there a wave to be captured there?
Comment by bleve on February 24, 2008 at 12:28pm
I think there is a sizable shift from reading news to watching it on television... which I think does a further disservice to the variety of dialogue because television news has become a bit of a formulaic joke. Network "news" consists of crime, fluff politics, sports and weather... and increasingly celebrities.

Adding to the grim situation is the complete consolidation of media by these conglomerates, who I may add find ways not to pay millions of dollars in corporate taxes for occupying the airwaves that the public owns. The lobbying system seems to be stacked in their favor because the FCC continues to strip away regulation on these monopolies.

I think not being able to shift business wise to an online model has been a viable excuse for print media in the past, but its beginning to sound more and more like like a tired excuse. The greatest possibility for huge success lies within these times of great change and transition. A print model would have to commit to drastic changes to make it work, but I believe it can work... not some time in the future but now.

There will always be a place for print, but how many people go into work today and usually have at least 10 minutes to scour the internet for news on their work computer... a lot. Regional advertising habits are shifting dramatically online and its the innovators that catch that wave that will be successful.

The monopolization of the media in all its forms is contributing to the dumbing down of America. I think the internet has the most potential to create a counter balance. Unfortunately the conglomerates have their sights on that too.
Comment by bleve on February 24, 2008 at 12:33pm
The FOAT took out a giant ad in the last edition of The Trib on Saturday... they will meet again at 7pm on Thurs. Feb. 28th in the UNM School of Law, Room 2402. Their number is 505.410.7657.

The last meeting focused on the premise of a cooperative model and what exactly is still up for sale at The Trib.
Comment by Richard Malcolm on February 24, 2008 at 12:49pm
bleve, you're very right about corporate control . . . at times, it seems like the new colonization. It crosses virtually all political boundaries on one hand, and drives politics on the other. It's fine to say "caveat emptor" in a truly free marketplace, and to tune in to NPR's "Counterspin" for a reality check, but when corporate agendas come at us not only from ads but from the press, it starts to approach something more like monopoly than a free market. And the reality checks are smal voices in the flood of disinformation. The Web, too, is increasingly a large-corporation product, and we seem to be incrementally losing the capacity to talk back, but many don't notice because we're glued to the latest celebrity scandal.
Comment by John Fleck on February 24, 2008 at 1:57pm
bleve -

It's not as though this need to shift businesswise to a new on line news model is a new thing. This has been going on for more than a decade. There are literally thousands of experiments being conducted. People have tried all sorts of things, sufficient that I'm confident the space of possibilities is being thoroughly explored.

It's not so much an excuse as a well-tested reality. Advertisers are willing to pay about 5 percent as much to reach an on line reader as they pay to reach print readers because of the relative lack of effectiveness of on line advertising. A quick back of the envelope calculation suggests that, for the Tribune to match the revenue stream from its 10,000 print subscribers, it would have had to draw 200,000 unique visitors *per day*. Those of you here who deal with web traffic numbers will understand what a tall order that is. And remember that 10,000 readers was a going-out-of-business circulation level. To make enough to pay Erik and Joline and Craig and the rest to keep going out and doing the hard work that has been so celebrated over these last months requires far more than that.

If and when someone finds a model that works, I'll be delighted. I don't have any other real marketable skills, and I think it's a bit late in life for me to take up welding, so I'm hoping my industry can figure out how to survive. But given the track record of a decade of experiments, I'm not optimistic that there is a web-based model that can pay me to do what I do.

There are models that work, and that make money. The Google and Yahoo models are the best, because they've found a way to leverage content produced by others, adding their own advertising. Their costs are low as a result, but their model is based on the low-cost republication of news (usually distributed via the AP) that was originally produced by print publications. So it's free web news subsidized by print publications. I frankly suspect this model will fade over time.

There also are publications that exist solely on line, like Slate, that have a national reach. You can take a small staff, produce some quality stuff and make money by appealing to a national audience.

In the meantime, print still works quite well, and has extraordinary reach despite the declines in circulation being seen in my industry. 100,000 people a day still fork over money to read the dead tree version of the product my colleagues and I produce. That's fewer that used to read it, but I'll take it.

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