It’s an accepted truism in TV that local stations, as long as there have been local stations, have been money-making machines. At least, until recently, when the gears jammed, the networks stopped being station groups’ BFFs, audiences started sampling other sources for news, and even the uber-dependable local advertisers took their Buick dealer dollars and shoved ‘em under the mattress.
Scary times. Local newsers are out of work, wondering if stations will ever field the local news benches that we all grew up expecting. The financial model that kept local news afloat-and profitable-seems to have fallen apart. Is that a temporary reaction to the recession, or a sign that things are evolving, as they have been for years in the newspaper biz?
Slate makes a compelling argument that debating the financial model misses the point: “unlike most businesses, serious journalism has seldom been about the straightforward pursuit of profit. Nearly all of the most important journalistic institutions in the free world are hybrids of one form or another—for-profit but underwritten by generous owners or other profitable businesses; not-for-profit yet entrepreneurial; co-operative; or government-subsidized,” writes Jacob Weisberg.
But hold on there, JW. What about the reassuring words we’ve been hearing from our news directors, GMs, and station group suits: “the web will save us! serve the web!” (You know, just like weekend morning news did). Well, Weisberg points to the past: “In times of yore, the best American newspapers worked like this: Public-spirited families with names like Sulzberger, Bancroft, Chandler, and Graham (the owners of Newsweek, Slate, and the Washington Post) built highly profitable businesses by becoming dominant information sources in major local markets.”
Weisberg argues that it was the media barons whose bankrolls made things work, not a successful financial model, and that, for papers at least–and perhaps local tv newsers as well, the magic formula that saves us all may not be there either: “With the decline of their traditional revenue sources, capitalists in the news business are having to become even more creative. But they won’t find the grail of a new economic model for journalism—because there wasn’t an old one.”
What’s your take, local newsers? Is the web and all its multi-platform potential a path to profitability? Was giving news away for free a mistake? Would anyone pay for the waterskiing squirrels we’ve been feeding them for years anyway? Will we all end up working for web-based, advertiser supported and charitably-endowed hybrids that let us do worthwhile reporting at moderate, but not princely pay?