Professors Say the Dumbest Things About Journalism

By Jack Limpert

Clay Shirky, described as a writer, consultant, and teacher who has spent a lot of time at Yale, Harvard, and NYU, thinks print is dead and the sooner it’s buried the better. In a June 17 post, Nostalgia and Newspapers, he offers this anecdote:

A year or so ago, I was a guest lecturer in NYU’s Intro to Journalism class, 200 or so sophomores interested in adding journalism as a second major. (We don’t allow students to major in journalism alone, for the obvious reason.) One of the students had been dispatched to interview me in front of the class, and two or three questions in, she asked “So how do we save print?”

I was speechless for a moment, then exploded, telling her that print was in terminal decline and that everyone in the class needed to understand this if they were thinking of journalism as a major or a profession.

Shirkey concluded: “We don’t have much time left to manage the transition away from print.”

Leaving the classroom, here are some insights and numbers from the real world of journalism:

A magazine I know well has a paid circulation of 130,000. Readers spend more than $3 million a year to buy the magazine, and advertisers pay more than $10 million a year to reach those readers. It is a business model that has been very successful for almost 50 years.

Yes, the digital revolution has affected those numbers over the past 10 years, and everyone knows a shift is taking place. Lots of effort and money are going into the digital side of the magazine, and in terms of unique visitors and impact the magazine’s website is successful.

But there is no revenue-producing business model for the digital side of the magazine. In digital’s early days, the assumption was that the magazine would put ads up on the compter screen and the ads would produce results. Surprise: The ads on the screen weren’t effective.

The reason? Readers of the print magazine are comfortable scanning from one page to another, looking at stories but also looking at the ads. Website readers are more seekers than scanners–they tend to be looking for something specific, and they move fast. Where a print magazine can entice readers to relax and spend well over an hour looking at stories and ads, digital visitors often are in and out in a minute.

If ads on the screen don’t work, what next? E-mail newsletters, sponsored content, native advertising—it’s all in play but the revenues aren’t close to being there. It’s print dollars and digital nickels or pennies. At the magazine with $13 million in print revenue, the digital revenue, almost 20 years after creating its first website, is stalled at about $1 million a year.

Shirky calls print a dumb business model. Only someone who has never sat in on a magazine or newspaper budget meeting would say something that wrong. Print is under pressure but it does have a real business model, one that brings in real revenues.

The sensible strategy is to not walk away from a print business model that works, that continues to do great journalism, that provides many good journalism jobs. Keep that print revenue coming in and keep looking for new approaches on the digital side, trying to create a digital business model that brings in real money.

Keep doing what works, buy time, try new approaches, don’t panic.
Those of us old enough to remember Vietnam also might suggest the reading of David Halberstam’s brilliant book, The Best and the Brightest, as a reminder of what happens in the real world when you take advice from people who’ve never been there.


  1. David Haldane says

    This is short-term rather than long-term thinking.
    Of course print can survive for a while by being creative and “reinventing” itself. Recognizing the larger picture, however, we must also acknowledge that such solutions can only go so far. Being honest about that yet supportive of short-term strategies is not mutually exclusive.

  2. “Disruptive innovation as the explanation for how change happens has been subject to little serious criticism, partly because it’s headlong, while critical inquiry is unhurried; partly because the disrupters ridicule doubters by charging them with fogyism, as if to criticize the theory of change were identical to decrying change; and partly because, in its modern usage, innovation is the idea of progress jammed into a criticism-proof jack-in-the-box.”
    “…the advocates of disruption have an affinity for circular argument. If an established company doesn’t disrupt, it will fail, and if it fails it must be because it didn’t disrupt. When a startup fails, that’s a success, since epidemic failure is a hallmark of disruptive innovation.”

    —From “The Disruption Machine,” by Jill Lepore, in the 6/23/14 New Yorker.

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