The Line Editor Responds: Your questions about the terribleness of media explained
Should municipalities fund newsrooms? Why aren't the Globe and Times failing? and why are news websites so damn awful?
In a piece here at The Line last week, we explained why conventional media is struggling. But we also explained why it isn’t struggling — and why most of the gripes and complaints levelled at media, though perhaps true, have nothing to do with media's decline. The legacy media's problem is simple, really: it relied on advertising to sustain itself, and the emergence of the tech giants in the digital age destroyed that model by luring the advertisers away.
Please do read the piece, if you hadn't already. We ended it by soliciting questions from our readers. Find those below. (We have edited them for clarity, and when one question was asked more than once, we've written a version that reflects the spirit of the questions, for simplicity.)
Reader Question: Competent and independent journalists are critical to a functioning democracy. The only news outlet that consistently meets this standard is The Globe and Mail which I read every day, by paid subscription. How can we as a society divert revenues to keep the Globe and Mails of this world functioning and return other news outlets to a decent standard of reporting? Do you see a way to accomplish this?
The Line Editor: We don't want to get into debating the relative merits of the Globe vs. The Rest, as that is in the eye of the reader. We think media is moving away from general interest publications in favor of niche outlets that cater to specific topics of interest for narrower audiences. Ideally, this would include news. The problem is that news reporting is extremely expensive. The Line, thus far, is a commentary and analysis site because that's what our limited budget permits. Reporting is time consuming. It requires staff that can devote many, many hours of work into reporting on subjects that may not lead to actual stories. Many reporters chase down tips only to conclude there's no there there. Now imagine a whole staff of such people. It's very expensive. Are news-oriented outlets possible? Sure. But they are either limited in scope, expensive to subscribe to, or both. A charitable model might be an option for this kind of work. Taxpayers also already devote significant public funds to the CBC, which really ought to be narrowing in on this section of the market.
Q: What I don't understand is how digital advertisers think they are getting a return on their investment just because it popped up on my feed. To this day I have not watched an ad to conclusion. The "skip this ad " button is my friend and I use it always.
A: As opposed to the supposed effectiveness of print advertising?
To be frank, it doesn't really matter to the media if the advertisers are getting a return on their investment so long as the advertisers think they are. Unlike print, digital advertising allows advertisers to track metrics like views, clickthrough rates and sales in real time. And remember, digital advertising is cheap. Companies often run many slightly different versions of each online ad, and track which perform better. Low-performing ads are replaced with new ones, and the new batches are compared again. It is a ruthlessly competitive environment and these companies, presumably, are happy with the results they are getting.
Q: Are we witnessing the electronic version of the forbearer of modern print media, the self-edited, often self-financed pamphlet borne by the author? I recently saw an interesting panel discussion that included such people as Bari Weiss and Jonathan Haidt regarding the move to venues such as Substack. They noted costs for consumers would place a large selection of writers out of reach for many. The contention was a need for a consolidation of such authors in which consumers could select a package of their choice for a reasonable price.
A: It's hard to pluck a specific question out of this, but we wanted to include it simply because we ... agree. The technical revolution permitting easy online micropayments, plus (we suspect) a greater willingness to actually make such payments, is what separates this Substack Era from the Blog Age. So yes, we could be seeing a return to something like pamphleteering. That's more our opinion than a factual answer, but there you go.
We also agree with that latter point: we think there's a pretty hard upper limit to how many individual authors any given consumer will be willing to pay for. One of the advantages of the old newspaper model was that it crammed a bunch of different things into one package — and for the consumer, that's a good thing! There is a reason The Line seeks to include a variety of voices and contributors. We think, in the long-run, it makes sense to offer this for one price, rather than each of us going to compete against each other with our own paid venues. A solo Substack might work for a writing superstar, but most of us like to read something fresh and new every day. The pamphleteering model will therefore be, we suspect, a relatively brief transitionary period, rather than a new normal.
Q: In your conclusion you talked about the need for the media to find alternative lines of funding. I live in Windsor, where we have two daily news options: The Windsor Star, which is a Postmedia outlet, and Windsorite.ca, which is an online, hyper-local outlet run by a lean staff of six. The Windsor Star, in theory, has a much larger reach — but a glance at their respective Facebook pages makes it clear that Windsorite's audience is far more engaged. Is dialing in their focus a way that legacy media might be able to hang on (especially if a narrower focus means more specific demographics for advertisers)?
A: Short answer? Yes. As noted above, if we are in a transitional "pamphleteering" era, the more niche and local, the better. The Line isn't local, but it is fairly niche in editorial tone and space, and it's working thus far. But there's tons of other niches that could be sustained by a highly motivated local or specialist staff.
However, we would caution against confusing social-media engagement with revenue. People scream at each other online all day for free. Ask anyone who is Twitter-famous how much of their social media engagement translates into hard cash.
Generally speaking, small outlets with nimble staffs covering a geographic area or a specific hyper-focused beat supported directly by a devoted readership, is a plausible way forward. We think we'll see more of it. But it won't do much to help the big legacy companies. The very thing that makes them valuable to society — large newsrooms with resources to do in depth reporting — is the very thing that makes them difficult to rationalize in this revenue environment. It’s easy to make the math work for a newsroom of six, but not 60. Legacy’s cost structures and accumulated debt loads are just too crippling for them to successfully make the transition to the new era.
Q: Some large companies have made the transition — the New York Times and the Globe and Mail being obvious examples. How does your argument account for this?
A: We don't actually know how well the Globe has transitioned. It does, indeed, seem to be relatively healthy, compared to its major competitors, the Toronto Star and National Post, both of whom are known to be struggling. But the Globe, unlike the Star and Post, is privately owned and does not publish detailed financial data. We would suggest that the semi-frequent staff culls there are an indication that they aren't immune from what we're discussing.
The fact is, the Globe has legendarily wealthy owners, and while we don't know how much loss those owners are prepared to eat out of a sense of mission , we suspect the answer is more than zero!
Meanwhile the Times is a genuine example of a paper that seems to have made the transition, but it moved aggressively, early and had the obvious inherent advantage of being, well, the New York fucking Times — arguably the best-known paper in the English-speaking world. "Just be the New York Times" is alas not a solution that can be replicated at scale
Canadian newsrooms are also at a disadvantage to their American counterparts simply by dint of our smaller size. If online advertising and subscription bases require millions of clicks and members to make decent money, a Canadian news outlet that is competing for an audience 1/10th the size of an American outlet is going to be at a perpetual disadvantage.
Q: Does the demise of mainstream media put more pressure on publicly funded organizations like CBC to up their game? What I am referring to is more robust and balanced reporting.
A: Yes, but it probably won’t.
The CBC is, to be blunt, kind of its own ... thing. There is surprisingly little crossover between the CBC and the rest of the non-CBC Canadian media in terms of staff. We at the The Line have done freelance work for the CBC, but have never been inside, so to speak. It's our impression that the CBC tends to get lost up its own belly button over internal mini-scandals and focuses more on scooping the privately owned competition (or outright ripping it off) than it does filling a void left by contracting or shuttered newsrooms. There is an obvious role for the CBC to respond to the collapse of privately funded news, but we haven't yet seen much sign that they understand this.
A mandate review for the CBC is long overdue. Redirecting its subsidy into fielding an army of reporters and editors covering stories across the land seems an obvious role for the public broadcaster.
Q: Could the tax system be used to herd advertisers towards traditional media and away from the Google-Facebook duopoly? One could, for example, make ad buys in traditional Canadian media be tax deductible, but not buys on Google or Facebook. Or offer tax credits structured the same way, or both.
Advertising buys in the Canadian market already are tax deductible with some restrictions. (See: Line 8521 - Advertising, or speak to your accountant.) The Senate has urged lawmakers to reconsider whether ads on Facebook and Google ought to be similarly deductible, but nothing appears to have come of that idea yet.
We at The Line think giving preferential tax treatment to print advertising is defensible, but it’s not going to make up for the simple fact that Big Tech is offering advertisers a cheaper and more effective product. A post hoc tax deduction may help legacy media to be more competitive, but it isn’t going to fill the gap.
Q: If local journalism was something that would be subsidized by either the feds/provinces or even municipalities, would it be cost-effective? Are the costs of running a digital newsroom on par with other city services considered essential (ex. sanitation, police, fire, engineering?)
A: We don’t think this is the answer. If there’s one thing we’ve learned in media it’s that the man who cuts the cheque makes the rules, and it’s hard for us to imagine any government-funded media enterprise resisting the pull to become a communications shop. It can be done — the CBC has enough heft to run a genuine journalistic outlet, for example. But a one or two-person outlet is going to have a hard time resisting this problem. Even small governments already have communications professionals. They don’t tend to spend a lot of time grilling their bosses.
As to the question of cost-effectiveness, it’s difficult to answer because it depends entirely on the scope of the enterprise. People would be surprised by how, ahem, affordable journalists are. The economic problems of legacy media have put relentless downward pressure on wages and freelance rates. Many reporters start their careers these days in the low $30,000 range — and that's probably less than a lot of municipalities would pay their sanitation workers.
Q: A lot of early newspapers were founded by rich people wanting a large megaphone. Is this viable? Are there too many conflicts of interest?
Hey, the rich can do what they want with their money. We've got two U.S. billionaires literally waging their own private space race, and one of them also just happens to own The Washington Post, too. So sure.
Conflicts of interest are a problem — but no more than they have always been. Remember that newspapers have always made attractive soapboxes for robber barons. If anything, we’re a little disappointed by how few mega-rich donors have stepped up to save journalism. We need to make owning a newspaper the mark of a true high-status individual again. (If you know anyone, they can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Alas, the lack of uptake so far leads us to suspect that the future could easily be one where we have three things: thriving space colonies, a lavishly staffed Washington Post, and news deserts across the rest of the planet(s).
Q: Why is the web experience for most news sites miserable?
A: Because we never learned to code.
Many news websites are just awful. And having spent more time than we'd like banging our heads against them, we can assure you that they're even less friendly to the poor writers and editors operating them.
A lot of the answer is money. Maybe print media isn’t a lucrative pad for people with leading edge computer skills. We don't mean to insult those toiling on the web dev groups for news organizations, many of whom are no doubt talented. But they're understaffed, underfunded and badly overworked. The rate of technological change, and the proliferation of numerous new devices in use by the readers — websites! Now smartphone apps! Websites again, but optimized for tablets! — has simply run many news organization websites into the ground, leaving them a weirdly cobbled together mess of legacy code no one uses anymore, half-functional patches and new features bolted badly onto increasingly rickety old systems.
The entire problem is compounded by a desire to maximize ad revenue per reader, which is what leads to such experience-killing features as autoplay videos and those terrible ads that pop up as you read through an article, shifting the text you were reading entirely out of view. Clean reader interfaces are absolutely possible, as are pleasant operator experiences — the Substack publishing toolkit is minimalist in sometimes annoying ways, but it works well for both operator and reader. It's not that it's impossible. It's just that the big orgs don't have the staff or money to do it.
Well, we hope that was helpful everyone. We hope to have more of these Q&A type sessions soon. If you have a topic you’d like us to discuss or explain, please drop us a line: email@example.com
The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: firstname.lastname@example.org