Bob Kuttner tells newspapers how to make money

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Robert Kuttner‘s big article on the economic future of newspapers in the current Columbia Journalism Review is a must-read–if, that is, you care about the economic future of newspapers.

A couple things stand out. One is Kuttner’s description of the daily reading habits of a certain scarily productive 22-year-old Mainstream Blogger.

I opened the conversation by inviting us to compare how we get our daily ration of information. I begin my day, I immodestly confessed, by reading four newspapers. What do you do?

Ezra suppressed a smirk. I use about 150 or 200 rss feeds and bookmarks, he explained. Ezra scans four newspapers online. He checks sites of research organizations such as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He indulges his taste for gossipy pop culture with a few favorites such as Ezra surfs a few political blogs, too, but he particularly relies on expert sites that are not exactly blogs and not exactly journalism; rather they are a very important category often left out by old media critics who divide the world into amateur bloggers versus trained reporters. Many such sites are operated by academics or think-tank researchers who have developed a taste for a popular audience, mixing blog-style comment on breaking news with original analysis, and serious research.

Kuttner dubs these “crogs,” for Carefully Researched Weblogs. Not the most felicitous of acronyms, but the distinction he makes is definitely valid.

Kuttner goes on to sketch a reasonably bright economic future for national (even global) newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal–and also for “small-town and suburban weeklies, community tabloids, and papers targeted to ethnic groups.” He continues:

At greatest risk are newspapers in between—the mid-sized regional metropolitan dailies, like The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Which is exactly the point I’ve been making (and some guy named Warren has been making). The monopoly metro dailies have been hugely profitable for the last few decades not because people were so eager to read the news they printed but because they were the sole daily conduit of printed information (comics, weather forecasts, stock tables, supermarket ads, classifieds) into most American homes. Those days are over, forever. The only remedies Kuttner has to offer are more interactivity and community journalism, plus finding owners who don’t care so much about profits. I don’t think there’s any getting around the conclusion, though, that the metro dailies are going to have to become vastly smaller economic and journalistic entities than they are now.