Alexander: "The Big Newspapers Are Earning Money Again"

11 Jun 2014

Interview on occasion of an STI experts meeting that took place in Barcelona last May 3 to 6. Yale media sociologist Jeffrey C. Alexander reflects on journalism today. This is an English translation of an interview in La Vanguardia.

The Academic Leader of the STI Experts Meeting "The Crisis of Journalism Reconsidered:Cultural Power," Jeffrey Alexander, gave the following interview to La Vanguardia's Lluis Amiguet.  It appeared in the newspaper's "contra" on May 14, 2014 in Spanish...

Internet is putting capitalism through its paces, and some businesses, firms and professions haven’t been up to the challenge. Journalism, however – explains Alexander – will continue to exist. Because, in countries that have already come out of the crisis, half the citizens – the most educated ones – are again buying quality press- paper and digital – that believes in journalism and its values. The thing is, there is still no substitute for a good newspaper. Because, even if it exists alongside tweeters and bloggers, only journalism provides society with the critical reflection on itself that opens it to ethical and material progress. Without good journalism, there’s no common sense.

Is the crisis of the press one with the economic crisis or is it also a crisis of its own business model?

If newspapers were only another business that Internet had made obsolete, they’d all have gone under in every country, like travel agencies. However, in countries that have already come out of the crisis, newspapers are earning money again.

So what is your prediction?

When the cycle improves in Spain, France or Italy, quality press will become good business again, as it is in the US, which has come out of the crisis, or as in Germany or Scandinavia, where they have suffered the crisis less. Look at The New York Times…

Its editor, Sulzberger, is optimistic.

The Sulzbergers repurchased the stock they’d felt obligated to sell to Slim, because they know it’s a good investment.

Does any doubt remain as to whether fees should be charged to read digital press?

You’ll remember that in 2005 The New York Times had already tried to use a pay wall to charge readers for access to the digital edition, but they couldn’t get enough subscribers at that time. They still didn’t know how to do it right.

That suggested that we were heading towards a model in which only advertizing would count.

But the Sulzbergers tried it again in 2012, after investing in better content, and this time the market has responded in synch with the improving economy: Today there are 800,000 digital subscribers.

Will paper become obsolete?

The paper edition still has its appeal. Today between digital and paper The New York Times reaches 2 million subscribers. Other newspapers, on the other hand, have had to close because they haven’t understood how to turn themselves into a two-fold point of reference, rigor and quality anywhere and at any time.

How do you see The Washington Post?

The big Internet billionaires’ entry into the press – like Jeff Bezos at The Washington Post – has been quite positive. Bezos has bet on journalism. He has hired dozens of journalists and is hiring more. And as the content has improved, subscriptions are up too.

And Murdoch at The Wall Street Journal?

We all thought that Murdoch – king of the morally dubious tabloid – would ruin The Wall Street Journal’s credibility, but fortunately the opposite has happened. Murdoch wants to compete with those he judges to be leftists – The New York Times - and he has invested in good journalism.

Of the right.

The ideology is less important than the quality. A rigorous conservative press enriches the entire communications ecosystem.

So who are the losers, then?

The Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times, among others, had the misfortune of falling into insolvent hands. And when they fell below standard in quality and rigor, they lost their business. The Orange County Register has made an interesting play to put The Times under in California by offering quality content in paper only, with no digital version.

The journalism business had gone 20 centuries without changing its business model.

The big industrialist families founded newspapers in the XIX Century to gain political influence and business. As communication became mass communication they discovered that the really big business was their newspaper.

Was it?

For two hundred years, well-run newspapers had earnings of 20 percent or more. If you wanted to sell an apartment, you had to pay for a classified ad in the local newspaper. That’s how they held up against radio and television. Further, they were greatly influential, and ideologically profitable.

So why did they stop making profits?

Because a newspaper should be a business, but not only a business. In the US, capitalists with no editorial calling bought local newspapers and television stations to create networks that they weakened by looking for short term benefits. Internet has dealt them the final blow.

Why?

Newspapers are still worthwhile, but only so far as they offer the reader some added value they can’t get from free information on the Internet, where we find raw and undeveloped news at all hours.

And anywhere, if you have a cell phone.

But that news is free because it is nothing more than official facts or agendas that haven’t been put into context or weighed or interpreted honestly by independent journalists for the benefit of the reader.

Is that what we are paying for when we buy a newspaper?

We pay for the plus that the journalist adds to the information we wanted and even to what we didn’t know we wanted. That’s why advertisers and readers discriminate between bloggers and journalists. And they don’t pay to read blogs or to advertize on them.

What is journalism’s future?

There will be bloggers, tweeters, and content mangers on every type of platform. But the profession of journalism will continue to be as necessary – in whatever business it is carried out – as are its values of independence, truth and rigor. Because, without good journalism, the collective mentality of a country neither matures nor progresses. That’s why I am certain that it will continue to exist.

This is an English translation of an interview by Lluís Amiguet published in La Vanguardia.
Photo by Mané Espinosa - La Vanguardia