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Howard Kurtz Critiques the Press and Analyzes the Media

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, May 11, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz will be online Monday, May 11 at Noon ET to take your questions and comments about the press and media coverage of the news.

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Out of Print: You write this morning that Google "vacuums" content from newspaper and other news sites without paying them for it. Could you please point me to actual newspaper content on Google that you're talking about? All I see are headlines and links back to stories on newspaper sites. (Exception: AP stories on Google, for which Google pays AP a hefty licensing fee.)

Google, therefore, drives an enormous amount of traffic to news sites that they then monetize with advertising. Why should Google pay for that? If anything, the news sites should be paying Google for the traffic it sends them!

Howard Kurtz: I like Google. Perhaps that's why I use it 50 times a day. I'm not part of the "Google is evil" crowd. Google helps newspapers in a very important way, by driving traffic to their Web sites. At the same time, though, Google has built a huge business by linking to content--including news content--for free. If all news organizations were to go out of business, there would be no news on Google News, since the company employs no journalists. Now maybe it's the fault of newspaper companies -- who I certainly didn't spare in this morning's column -- for not creating a better revenue model. Or for not building more compelling Web sites that make people want to stick around, rather than just pass through when clicking on a single article through Google or some other search engine. It's encouraging that The Post and Google are in discussions about some kind of limited collabortation, although details are difficult to come by.

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washingtonpost.com: The Death of Print? (Post, May 11)

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Frederick, Md.: Hi Howard. Excellent column today. I'm wondering if you read Frank Rich's piece, The American Press on Suicide Watch, and what you think of his points. Do you think it's possible that the American public simply isn't engaged enough to support high quality journalism? Is it possible that the problem is not the medium by which news is delivered, but the audience? People seem willing to pay for, pardon the expression, "crap," such as reality television (anything with Brett Michaels), prefab food (Ruby Tuesday's), and highly produced music (Spears, et. al.). What are your thoughts on a changing customer/reader culture where the most valuable information is disregarded as "elite" or nerdy?

washingtonpost.com: The American Press on Suicide Watch (The New York Times, May 9)

Howard Kurtz: I did read Frank's column and thought we overlapped in some areas. The last time I wrote about this, I concluded by saying that people get the news they pay for. I don't care what else they want to spend their dollars on; one person's crap is another's enjoyable entertainment. But I do think newspapers and magazines erred by putting their entire contents online and not charging a dime (except for limited experiments that failed). Yes, the culture of the Web is that everything should be free; who doesn't like free? But free doesn't support the sizable newsrooms, like this one, that do high-quality reporting.

Ultimately, people can't have it both ways. If they refuse to pay, say, even 5 bucks a month for online content, or spare change for a single article, many of our top news organizations are going to go broke or continue as shrunken versions of themselves. People who feel they can always get their fix from AOL or Yahoo or Google are in denial; those portals get their stuff from journalists who, not surprisingly, would like to earn a living plying their trade. So ultimately the public is going to vote up or down on whether they care about real journalism and are willing to support it.

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The A-Team!: Wow McCain, Gingrich and Cheney all over Sunday morning. Those producers must have really been humping it to get such relevant, visionary guests. Who looks worse here, the GOP (who I feel for) or the Sunday gabbers?

Howard Kurtz: You can't fault television shows for wanting to book the former vice president, the former speaker and the 2008 Republican presidential nominee. The problem for the GOP is developing new national spokesmen who develop a sufficient following to make the party's case on television.

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The online buffet: Howie, you and several of your colleagues keep writing that the best part of a print newspaper is that you can just happen upon stories or whatever -- your "buffet" concept. I can't for the life of me figure out why you think this concept is limited to print. I read the Post online every day, and I am constantly stumbling into terrific stories that I wasn't looking for. I browse, I give stories a chance to grab me before I move on.

I'm sure lots of people "cherry-pick" online, but I'm not sure what makes you think those people don't cherry-pick the print edition. I don't see how format affects it.

Howard Kurtz: Yes, you can get the buffet online if you spend time at the Web sites of The Post, the New York Times, the L.A. Times and hundreds of regional and local papers. But at least half our online readers don't come in through the home page. They come for one piece linked through a blog or search engine and then surf away. We bear some responsibility for not enticing them to stay, but if that's the new model, the iTunes model, then we can't afford to put out the buffet anymore. Serving up national, international, local and financial news along with Style, sports and lots of other features ain't cheap. So we love all-you-can-eat readers as opposed to those who just grab dessert.

(By the way, I still find things in the paper at night that I missed online; the old dead-tree version is still a great package.)

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Arlington, Va.: I watched the White House Correspondents Dinner on C-Span, and my reaction was that this looked like a very prosperous group chowing down on cuts of beef that I haven't seen on my table in many years. Here are my two questions: 1. Aren't there an excessive number of correspondents covering the White House? They filled half of a very large and packed ballroom (the other half were their guests). 2. And why should we take seriously legislation Congress is considering to bailout the press when news companies supposedly in financial trouble engage in this sort of public excess? For me, it was an in your face "let them eat cake moment," or a p.r. mistake similar to that made by Detroit car executives who flew their corporate jets to Washington to plead for Congress to give them taxpayer assistance.

Howard Kurtz: Number one, the food is widely regarded as bad. Number two, the dinner long ago stopped being about White House correspondents; that ballroom was packed with all kinds of journalists, news executives, advertisers, pols, operatives and bold-faced celebrities. Number three, there is no serious effort in Congress to bail out the press, and there shouldn't be. The government has no business propping up failing media companies, especially given the inherent conflicts of interest. And if news organizations can't make it without federal subsidies, they don't deserve to survive.

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On newspapers: Howie, every time you praise the wonders of the print newspaper, you talk about the few, insignificant ways that the print Post is superior to the online Post and ignore the many ways that the online Post is superior to the print Post (like this chat). But then you seamlessly segue to a very different distinction, in the ways that any newspaper -- online or print -- is superior to a fly-by-night blog/aggregator with no new reporting.

I understand that online publications can't afford to do investigative reporting. But it would seem that newspapers can't afford it anymore either, so I fail to see why we should look at the ink-on-paper version as superior. Shouldn't papers be putting all their efforts into figuring out how to make money online, where the readers are?

Howard Kurtz: In theory, yes, but The Post's print advertising brought in $74 million in the first quarter, and online ads brought in $22 million. Until someone figures out how to fix the revenue model, the ink-on-paper version is paying most of the bills.

Your earlier point is off. I love The Post's Web site: the chats, the video, the blogs, the comments, the 24-hour nature of it. I live online. It's clearly the future. But it's a future that, at the moment, is not capable of supporting a newsroom that delivers the breadth and depth you've come to expect.

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Washington, D.C.: After a fiasco like the overblown swine flu hysteria, will journalists ever take the time to look back and examine where they went so wildly wrong? Is there any sort of "lessons learned" process to avoid such overhype in the future?

Howard Kurtz: I think there's been almost no soul-searching over this. The swine flu story has now virtually vanished, from television at least, without so much as an acknowledgment that the media played a crucial role in pumping it up. It's like Emily Litella: never mind.

Here's what I said on Reliable Sources a week ago:

We may look back on this as a textbook case of media hype, of shouting "Fire!" based on some embers.

And here's what I said yesterday:

I have good news to report this morning. We're not all going to die...

The tone and the volume were just out of proportion to what we knew about the outbreak. Of course it was a story that people were interested in, that journalists had to cover, that had the potential to turn into a public health crisis. But the key word is "potential."

Even as medical reporters sounded cautionary notes, the saturation coverage turned excessive, even scary. And then, well, the thing fizzled...

I can't tell you how many people have complained to me about what they see as the media's wild overreaction on swine flu. Whatever short-term bump you might get in the ratings is outweighed by a loss of confidence among news consumers, and there's no vaccine for that.

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Faulting the Shows: Actually it is pretty easy to fault the shows for wanting to book people with zero constituencies (2 out 3 in this example). McCain is a permanent fixture on the chatters, but when has anything he has said mattered to anyone? Cheney and Gingrich are two objects of scorn. They have one constituency only, TV bookers who don't seem to be aware that in today's world every time they book non-entities like these, they drive another nail in their product's coffin.

Howard Kurtz: Cheney is quite unpopular, according to the polls, but not everyone regards him as an object of scorn, as you obviously do. And McCain is a veteran senator who beat Romney, Giuliani, Huckabee, Thompson and the rest last year to run against Obama. The losing presidential candidate often gets plenty of media attention after the election.

The two Republican leaders of Congress are Mitch McConnell and John Boehner. I don't know whether they're seeking Sunday show invitations or not. They may have concluded that others, such as Eric Cantor, are better on TV. And the party chairman, Michael Steele, seems to be staying off the tube for awhile after a series of blunders.

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Richmond, Va.: I have a suggestion to keep people on your site if they have linked in through a search engine. If they come through the front door they see a cluster of stories to choose from. Let them know what's available. If they are just linking in then they only see the story. You have nothing on the side to catch their interest about other stores. The Post needs a column on the side showing other ongoing stores to keep the reader around. Just my two cents.

Howard Kurtz: I agree. On my column this morning, there are links to some of my other pieces, eight headlines from Slate, "People who read this also read," links to who's blogging about my column, an opportunity to comment, and links to share the piece on Facebook, Twitter, etc. Should there be more about other WP content? Would that make the layout too cluttered? These are intriguing questions.

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you talk about the few, insignificant ways that the print Post is superior to the online Post : Oh, no bias here, huh? Sorry, but I can't take the on-line post out to the porch and spill coffee on it. There's a place for both versions, and I would gladly pay for the on-line Post if that would bring back the Book World and other features I miss.

Howard Kurtz: Well, Book World still exists, just not as a separate

Sunday section. I think that hurts the print paper but shouldn't matter online.

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is not capable of supporting a newsroom that delivers the breadth and depth you've come to expect. : But this is not the fault of the medium. It is the fault of the short-sighted people who run the business end of newspapers.

Howard Kurtz: Maybe. I certainly didn't let them off the hook in this morning's column.

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The government has no business propping up failing media companies: I agree. But I also worry about newspapers. Can the government give monies to a nonpartisan foundation-type group who then doles out cash to the most worthwhile papers?

Howard Kurtz: Who would appoint the directors who would dole out the money? It would be hard to keep politics completely out of it. I think newspapers have to find ways to make it on their own, without taxpayer dollars, even if that money was provided indirectly.

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Correspondents' Dinner: Why do we go through this "inappropriate" exercise almost every year about the comedian at the WHC Dinner? They hire people who are edgy to begin with (Don Imus, Colbert, now Sykes) and then are shocked that he or she does an edgy routine! When will they learn?

Howard Kurtz: Never, apparently.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I realize this is a media chat, but I really liked reading your remark above, although I would have changed it to "The government has no business propping up failing 'private' companies, especially given the inherent conflicts of interest. And if 'private' organizations can't make it without federal subsidies, they don't deserve to survive."

Too bad those inside the Beltway can't adhere to this, the possibilities would be boundless. Just my thoughts.

Howard Kurtz: I take your point, but if the feds had taken that approach to the big banks -- which bear so much responsibility for their reckless behavior -- it could have crashed the entire economy.

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Charleston, W.Va.: Mr Kurtz, I agree the free content is killing the newspapers. But technically, the Internet is not free, I pay an Internet service provider (ISP) a sizable monthly fee for the hook-up. I wish I could think of a business model that has the ISP and the content provider (you) share my payments.

Howard Kurtz: Sounds good, but with zillions of content providers out there, there isn't a snowball's chance in hell.

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McLean, Va.: So when will there be a Kindle version of the Post with the comics, Toles cartoon, and the rest of the content that is currently missing? It seems that the Post could distribute Kindles to subscribers who were willing to give up the Dead Tree edition, distribute the paper that way, and save money on distribution.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know. Amazon is unveiling a new, bigger Kindle. But my gut instinct is that this is never going to be the answer for more than a fraction of the population.

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Washington, D.C.: You said "But at least half our online readers don't come in through the home page." One of the reasons that so many of the WP readers don't use the home page is that it is a lame way to find news in the WP, the WP online search system stinks and it is much easier to find 10 articles in the WP online using Google or something else than the WP Homepage. I rarely if ever use the homepage but probably spend 30 minutes a day reading WP online. If your IT folks told you that readers coming in through somewhere other than the home page is bad, it must have been the person who designed the homepage.

Howard Kurtz: The search function could be better, in my opinion, and the navigation is far from perfect. But this is a problem that is much larger than The Washington Post. Every news Web site gets a big chunk of its traffic through links and search engines--and we want those people! If someone wants one article on what Obama is saying today about health care reform, I'd prefer it be on our Web site. But one reason that online ads produce much less revenue is that readers get less exposure to them when they don't stick around very long.

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Washington, DC: I have just a comment on the entire WHCD Wanda Sykes/Rush Limbaugh kerfuffle. Clearly, Sykes'a version of humor is what the organizers expected and wanted when they invited her, and Rush is as capable as anyone of handling it. But when the president of the United States sits there and laughs, he contributes to a coarsening and vulgarizing of the political debate in a way that I find disturbing. The POTUS should be above the type of ad hominem attacks you see in the comments here. Thank you.

Howard Kurtz: I was surprised to see Obama laugh when Wanda Sykes went into her Rush as 20th hijacker routine. That was over the line, and the president knows there were cameras on him at all times.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Howard,

I think that part of the problem here is a bit of generational cognitive dissidence: I, and (I have a feeling) most people my age, don't cherish taking the paper out on the porch to read over coffee.

I read the paper online at work during the week. I have a Sunday-only subscription, because that is the only day I'd even considering reading the printed paper over the online version.

I don't think that news making is free, and if the time comes to pay for the Post's online content, I'll happily do it. But I do think that the newspaper industry is ill-served by focusing on the "good old days" aspect of printed newspapers.

Industries and consumer necessities evolve. My parents probably can't imagine not having a landline in their house; I've never had one. The telecommunication industry saw that demographic trend coming and get ahead of it. I certainly hope newspapers start to catch up and do the same.

Howard Kurtz: That's fine, if you'll "happily" pay to read The Post (or any other newspaper of your choice) online. I'm not sure how many people are willing to do that, given the free culture of the Net. But we may find out sooner rather than later.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: What am I to make of watching reporters, Democrats and Republicans snipe and carry on at each other all week on CNN, Fox and the various political blogs and forums all week only to see everyone sit inside a banquet room on Saturday night acting like their are attending a chummy lodge meeting with lots of inside jokes for them to share in. It seems to me that the press is walking a very fine line between responsibly covering the Congress and the White House, or leaving the impression with the public people outside the Beltway that everyone in Washington is part of one big inside joke that the American public is not part of.

Howard Kurtz: That is an inherent problem with the dinner: it looks too cozy, like we're all part of the same gang (as when David Gregory and Karl Rove were rap-dancing at the Radio-TV dinner a couple years back). But I don't lose much sleep about it. It's a few hours of fraternizing. The news business has much deeper problems.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: One major annoyance I have with the post online (which overall I think is pretty good) is there is no wireless version. MSNBC, CNN, etc... I can read on my BlackBerry. Washingtonpost.com does not format correctly for it.

Thanks

Howard Kurtz: There is a Washington Post version on BlackBerry. I have it on mine. Maybe it needs to be improved, but it does exist.

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Baton Rouge, La.: If they refuse to pay, say, even 5 bucks a month for online content, or spare change for a single article, many of our top news organizations are going to go broke or continue as shrunken versions of themselves.

Howard, could part of the problem be that because consumers already pay for online access that we don't also want to pay for online content. I spend $50/month for online access. I can't see myself paying any additional $ for online content. To say that everything online is free is not quite accurate. It's just that the service providers are the ones making the money, not the content providers.

Howard Kurtz: Fair point. Everyone pays for Internet access. But that's like saying you already paid to buy a TV set, so why should you now have to pay for cable? (And look, some people don't.) I grew up thinking television would always be free, and now people pay cable providers--and pay extra for premium channels--because they think the content is worth it. Computers and online access aren't cheap, but content also costs money, and iTunes is but one example of how people are willing to pay for what's important to them.

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the WP online search system stinks: It does. Even the "Print Edition" option isn't very good. The New York Times site is far superior. Why can't the Post site have an option where all story titles are listed down the left side of the page labeled Metro, Style, or whatever?

Howard Kurtz: I guess The Post thinks it's doing you a favor by grouping headlines (beyond the top stories) according to subject matter. And there are links such as "Politics" that give you the full smorgasbord in that area. But I agree it can be hard to find certain things. I imagine it's always a work in progress.

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I, and (I have a feeling) most people my age, don't cherish taking the paper out on the porch to read over coffee. : OK, I'm retiring this month, with another 30 years of life ahead of me. During which I will be taking the paper outside to read over coffee. Why should I and my ilk have to conform to your workplace preference?

Howard Kurtz: Clearly, there are people who prefer print, people who prefer online, and those, like me, who enjoy a mixture. The question now is whether we can find a business model that will allow us to continue to cater to both camps.

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Omissi, ON: Howard, how come talk of the "death of journalism" always omits the wire services. It seems that the Associated Press, Reuters and Bloomberg are the true backbone of national coverage, not the newspapers. They seem to be muddling through.

You seem to have genuine problems at the local small town and even mid-sized city level, but I'm unconvinced that national and international coverage is even remotely jeopardized.

Howard Kurtz: The AP is having problems right now, having raised rates and watching a number of papers drop or threaten to drop the service.

I'm glad you're confident about the future of national and international reporting. But look at the major providers. The Post, at the moment, is losing money, cutting sections and shrinking the staff. The New York Times has laid off 100 staffers, mortgaged its headquarters, borrowed $250 million from a Mexican mogul at sky-high rates and threatened to close the Boston Globe. The L.A. Times is in bankruptcy, as part of the Tribune Co.'s Chapter 11 filing. Rupert Murdoch's revenue for the Wall Street Journal has plunged. Papers like the Baltimore Sun and the Globe have gotten out of the foreign reporting business and slashed their Washington bureaus. It's not a pretty picture.

Thanks for your good wishes and constructive suggestions on this difficult topic, which affects not only this newspaper but all newspapers and the future of the media.

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