The first part of the panel last night on “How Newspapers Can Survive, and Thrive, In the 21st Century” at Columbia’s journalism school was essentially a retread of Robert Kuttner‘s Columbia Journalism Review piece about how newspapers are not dead yet despite the digital onslaught. Then he and others on the panel (save, perhaps, WashingtonPost.com’s Jim Brady) showed their struggles with many things digital.
New York Times managing editor Jill Abramson seemed positively astounded by the idea of learning from a 29-year-old in her newsroom. “I found myself last week in the improbable position of creating a politics wiki. I probably didn’t know a year ago what a wiki was.” And she acknowledged she didn’t get the whole Arthur Sulzberger “platform-agnostic” spiel at first, but now the “sense of excitement is palpable” over digital media there.
Steven Rattner — a former journalist turned Quadrangle Group media money man — did seem to get it, and in fact is happy to contribute to newspapers’ demise with investments in classified advertising sites. He predicted that newspapers’ bread and butter — classifieds — will decline to zero in the not too distant future. Moderator Nick Lemann, dean of the school, held up a (printed from the Web) copy of Rattner’s op ed piece on the sorry state of newspapers from the Wall Street Journal. Rattner noted that the economics of audience spell doom not just ’cause of classies, but because newspaper readers spend an average of 30 minutes with the paper, but online they spend only five. So even though printing and distribution costs are saved, readers don’t spend enough time online for advertisers to make money from them.
A couple of newsy bits from the evening:
Brady acknowledged what’s been said for years: When the washingtonpost.com briefly moved from light registration (email, zip, year of birth) to a more full one, traffic dropped some 40 percent. He said the Post has never been able to work out a financial model showing that subscriptions online will bring in more money than ads on a free site — especially if one includes video. The Times is “thinking about” how to incorporate user intelligence and comments into archival pages.
Also on the panel: Amanda Bennett, executive editor/enterprise for Bloomberg News. The audience included Victor Navasky, CJR managing editor Brent Cunningham, CUNY’s new J-school dean Steve Shepard, consultant Vin Crosbie, former ABC News correspondent and current Columbia faculty John Martin, journalism ethics lecturer Dick Wald, iReporter’s Adam Glenn and Poynter’s Amy Gahran.
Our favorite quote of the evening, from Rattner, referring to management of the Times and the Post: “To have the fate of quasi-public trusts dependent on the gene pool of families is kind of spooky.”