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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 07:45 AM ET, 06/27/2011

Could newspapers have saved themselves?

If you hang around in the news media business long enough, you’ll hear a certain lament about the last 15 years. It usually comes in a couple of layers:

* If only news organizations had banded together to pool their precious content on the web.

* If only they had started charging for their stuff right from dawn of the Internet.

Then, the thinking goes, darkness wouldn’t have fallen on the industry.

That argument surfaced just last week via James O’Shea, author of the new book The Deal from Hell: How Moguls and Wall Street Plundered Great American Newspapers. A former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune and former editor in chief of the Los Angeles Times, O’Shea told the New York Times, “None of this had to happen.” His book contains this riff: “The Internet and declining circulations didn’t kill newspapers, any more than long stories, skimpy attention spans, or arrogant journalists did. What is killing a system that brings reliably edited news and information to readers’ doorsteps every morning for less than the cost of a cup of coffee is the way that the people who run the industry have reacted to those forces.”

Contrary to popular mythology, it’s not as if they didn’t try. As O’Shea outlines in his book, nine newspaper companies in the mid-’90s joined forces to create the New Century Network (NCN). If the title sounded evangelistic, perhaps that’s because it was: The papers were trying to bring about a new day, one where all their goodies would be packaged nicely and sold for reasonable prices to online readers.

It lasted not even three years. O’Shea chalks up the demise of NCN to “differing philosophies, internecine warfare, big companies, and even bigger egos.” No shock there -- the network consisted of the New York Times, The Washington Post, the Tribune Company, Cox and Hearst, among others. Who would have expected them to get in the boat and row in the same direction?

When I asked O’Shea about this, he responded in part, “With all of that high-quality content available for pay, we would see a completely different landscape today.” More: “Had the industry explored the NCN further, or had the newspapers modified it into something more feasible, they would have diversified their revenue streams, would have made ad revenue less crucial, and they would have created an incentive to monetize their content. Instead, they gave it away for free in hopes that they would get enough ad revenue.”

One problem here: Though the content from member companies may have been quality product, it wasn’t singular, unique. A lot of it was commodity journalism -- a gaggle of reporters at the same event, churning out essentially the same report, published in a variety of outlets. The Internet has been ruthless in devaluing that journalistic species.

So to edit O’Shea’s phrasing, a lot of this did have to happen. (See Jack Shafer’s similar conclusion.) And it’s facile for O’Shea to blame the “people who run the industry” for the collapse. Think of all the people who’ve been blamed for ruining newspapers, including Craig Newmark (Craigslist) and Sergey Brin and Larry Page (Google). Those folks didn’t need a whole boardroom of partners and member companies to accomplish their revolutions.

Why couldn’t an innovative newspaper vet -- O’Shea, for example -- have stepped in and saved the industry? Look inward, author.

By  |  07:45 AM ET, 06/27/2011

 
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