Historic Changes in the News Business

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History will record that the nation's recent financial crisis coincided with a devastating depression for newspapers: closures, widespread layoffs, and bankruptcies. The narrative is unquestionably fixed. Newspapers, the bedrock over centuries for informing the citizenry, have been diminished as an industry in a way that is likely to be permanent. But it is also increasingly clear that the news business overall has simultaneously been in a period of extraordinary activity -- much of it innovative, some of it profitable -- and that story will ultimately shape the long-term judgment of our information culture at least as much as what has befallen newsprint in the 21st century.

Market experts report that many small and medium-size local newspapers have weathered the crisis and are developing effective digital strategies.

By now, commentators by the score have had their say about the sale last week of the Huffington Post to AOL for $315 million, a meteoric rise in commercial value for an initial investment said to be about $2 million. There is definitely something perverse about the takeaway riches of Huffington's founders and investors based mainly on material aggregated from other sources and bloggers who get paid zip. Nonetheless, the transaction highlighted for me just how much has been happening in our industry. In perspective, the crash of so many newspapers seems somehow less catastrophic, even if it deeply saddens those of us whose devotion to them remains strong.

Very briefly, it has to be said that the worst for print may be over. Market experts report that many small and medium-size local newspapers have weathered the crisis and are developing effective digital strategies. The New York Times has certainly stabilized. The Wall Street Journal, with Rupert Murdoch's commitment and billions, reports growth in circulation and revenue. The Washington Post, USA Today, and the major Tribune Company newspapers (still in bankruptcy) have been humbled, but with the right leadership and savvy business management could combine their traditional roles with meaningful online ventures and continue to play a major part in our national life. The metropolitan dailies -- Philadelphia, Denver, Seattle, San Francisco, and elsewhere -- may be too far gone to ever really recover, but there are still some daredevils. Watch the Dallas Morning News, whose publisher, James M. Moroney, is determined to reinvent the model with a higher subscription price, pay walls, and a smaller circulation, or go down fighting.*

In the days after the Huffington Post deal, I made a list of some of the extraordinary range of developments in the past two years, some creating altogether new enterprises, others revamping legacy organizations revitalized by changed ownership and some surprisingly entrepreneurial innovations by ink-stained wretches risen from newsrooms. The fire sales of Business Week and Newsweek brought two of our most important magazines back from the brink. Bloomberg Business Week, almost overnight, became a significantly revamped journal backed by the Bloomberg news empire, which gives it every chance of regaining a valuable niche. Tina Brown's consolidation of Newsweek and the Daily Beast is already a reflection of her almost superhuman energy and networking skills. Tina (a friend) will certainly attract readers and buzz. The biggest question for "Newsbeast" will be the patience of its funders (Barry Diller and Sidney Harman) as they wait for their investment to provide revenue.

The news agencies Bloomberg and ThomsonReuters now employ about six thousand journalists to gather material and data as well as traditional news, and both have cash flow that assures prominence in the years ahead. The Associated Press has never been a better journalistic operation and, with its investments in video and digital licensing, has expanded beyond its time-honored role. But the disarray among the newspapers that dominate the cooperative's ownership has created internal tensions that could impact its current form. I'm betting on the AP because I admire the people who run it and the journalists I know who work there.

In the arena of nonprofit news organizations, the launches and expansion of the field has been much greater than could possibly have been predicted as recently as five years ago. ProPublica's superb investigative reporting has already earned accolades and its partnerships in print, online and over the airwaves has worked well so far. The Center for Public Integrity and the Center for Investigative Reporting have expanded their work and gained traction, exposure, and funding for their output. In almost every city where newspapers have suffered, new organizations for generating news content have been started.* Three of the most prominent -- The Bay Citizen in San Francisco, The Texas Tribune in Austin, and the Chicago News Cooperative (which I helped in its initial stages) -- supply regular pages to the New York Times for regional editions. If they can get the financial support to expand and prove sustainable, they will become significant factors in their communities. I have written many times about public radio. This has been a bumpy season for NPR, but the audience continues to grow.

Cable news is its own universe with audiences that are much smaller than their impact on our national discourse would suggest. I was encouraged to see Mark Whitaker (also a friend) named the new global managing editor for CNN. With his background at Newsweek in its heyday and more recently at NBC, it would be hard to find a news executive with more experience and demonstrated integrity. If his recruitment is an indication of CNN's commitment to news programming (as opposed to B-list talk shows), then 24-hour cable news can recover an honorable place in the news ecosystem. The Economist, the Week, The Atlantic, and the Financial Times, each in its own way, have strengthened their position as print publications with digital operations that are important adjuncts. The coverage of the 18-day revolution in Egypt across multiple platforms demonstrated how many ways major news is now distributed, with quality that is stunning (the video in real time, the analysis in leading newspapers like the New York Times, in print and on-line).

There isn't time, or a need, really, to go on making the case that we are in the midst of a period of profound change. Yes, newspapers will never have the same place in society as they did. But history, I predict, may well be as much about what has been added in this era as about what has been lost.


* This post originally referred to the Dallas Times Herald in place of the Dallas Morning News. It also misidentified the full name and location of the Center for Investigative Reporting. We regret the errors.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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