The readings thus far for EJ13 constantly remind me how much — and how quickly — things have changed in our industry. I was working in it both when newspapers reached their peak historical circulation (1993) and their revenue peak (2005). As we now stand knee-deep in the wreckage of what remains, it’s mind-bending to consider that both of these peaks occurred within the last 20 years — and the revenue peak a mere eight years ago.
Of course, even in 1993 the popping of corks had a hollow sound in our Potemkin village. We all knew newspapers had been losing younger readers for decades — barely thumbed industry reports on that problem lined the walls of every editor’s office — and the more clear-eyed among us knew that our gains merely served to hide the fact that newspaper circulation had failed to keep pace with population growth since the introduction of television.
Still, by the time the peak revenue year of 2005 arrived, concerns about falling circulation, an aging readership and competition from the Web (It’s hard to believe now, I know, but conversations were continuing at that point about how vigorously papers needed to adapt to the rise of the Internet) were obscured both by the blizzard of greenbacks and a kind of group myopia about the hangover that follows every party.
It’s also important to note that by this time, church-and-state mentality that always characterized relations between editorial and the business side had hardened into a kind of a blind and willful arrogance about newspaper finances. (The arrogance wasn’t limited to finances, but that’s another story.) It wasn’t just someone else’s job to worry about funding the news operation — it was beneath us to even think about it. Let the bean counters worry about the books — we were busy serving the public interest!
Well, as the great songwriter (and proud New York City resident) Steve Earle once wrote: You know the rest.
So, the EJ13 readings remind us that in the entrepreneurial news universe it’s everybody’s job to worry about funding. In fact, if funding the business isn’t Job 1, to paraphrase the old Ford commercial, it’s Job 1.5. Financing the news business can’t be viewed as a necessary evil, as in the old days, or even as the price we pay to create journalism in the new news ecosystem. It is a task we must embrace as quickly and as heartily as we do the tasks of reporting, writing and editing.