December 6, 2006
Gil Thelen on Journalism, Profit Margins, and the Language of Convergence

Today marked the release of the December edition of The Convergence Newsletter, the journalism-focused collection of essays released by the University of South Carolina's College of Mass Communications and Information Studies every month. Of particular interest in this month's edition is the essay titled "Rogues, Rascals, Nostrums and Hard Truths," written by Gil Thelen, who is a former publisher for the Tampa Tribune. Thelen was involved in the converged newsroom in Tampa that combines a radio station, newspaper, and television station that was an inspiration for the Newsplex at the University of South Carolina that also has a converged newsroom.

Thelen joins in on a debate that I've been participating in as well about journalism's future at a time when the newspaper's obligation to the public is coming into direct opposition to its obligation to investors. Thelen writes:

The cost-cutting that is reaching muscle and bone in many news organizations is due in large part to unreasonable profit growth demands by the investor community. My former AP colleague Conrad Fink, now at the University of Georgia, calculates that newspapers average about double the 11% profit of Fortune 500 companies but are hammered by what he calls 'completely unreasonable' investor demands. 'Wall Street knows only one mantra,' he says, 'more, please, more.' I agree with his assessment.

Back in October, I wrote in response to Richard Siklos' New York Times piece about the two publics that newspapers were trying to serve: investors and readers. Siklos writes, "The underlying theme in Tribune's unraveling is that in a time of technological transition, the two publics are served by many of the nation's newspapers are no longer getting along so well. One is the public market--that is, Wall Street--which cares only about an attractive return on its investment. The other is the so-called public good that newspapers serve by professionally gathering and reporting news for their communities." The article provides an important way to view these shifts in the industry, with the clear implication being that the current investment structure is antithetical to the type of widespread change needed in the newspaper industry.

Adding to that was an interesting return to this question in November from Drake Bennett at The Boston Globe, who writes about "The Return of the Press Barons." Bennett poses the benefits and major problems with private ownerships of newspapers once again, looking at historical examples of the dangers of private ownership. At the time, I wrote, "Bennett's piece examines why, with many declaring the newspaper industry in crisis, now would be the time for 'several high profile multimillionaires and billionaires' to start buying up papers." While Bennett questions whether these bids from private investors will be successful, he says "they have turned heads at a time when the future of newspapers as we know them seems to be at stake."

This all raises an interesting question that we have posed before: Will Newspapers Survive? At the time, I wrote, "I still contend that it is much more valuable to think of a transmedia approach to journalism, since that term doesn't carry nearly as much baggage. What does that mean? It may mean blogging or a video camera in the newsroom, or it may not. It simply means telling the story to the best of a particular medium's ability and forming partnerships with other media outlets or hiring people within a newspaper to provide the means to do a transmedia approach...but it doesn't simply mean cross-platforming everything, or giving everyone a blog, or any other superficial attempt at 'convergence.' Basically, if it doesn't add to the story, it's a waste of time, aside from some initial gee-whiz factor that wears off very quickly."

And, perhaps very appropriately, Thelen's article is not only about changes in practices in the industry but also about language. While I write about transmedia, he uses the term "multiplatform." Thelen writes, "My name is associated with a third C word beyond change and culture. That word is convergence, meaning the organizational junction of print, video, digital and sometimes audio journalism. I find the word convergence isn't very descriptive or very useful. I prefer to talk about multimedia journalism, now increasingly referred to as multiplatform journalism."

In this case, then, language is particularly appropriate, particularly because journalists have come to fear the word convergence much more than we have at the...ahem...CONVERGENCE Culture Consortium. Back in July, I detailed my experiences with the term convergence in journalism back at J-School, writing that:

"the problem is simply that convergence, as a buzzword, is too broad. As the word is sometimes legitimately used to mean the jack-of-all-trades journalists that would look awfully good on a spreadsheet of human resources expenses, I understand why so many professors were intractable in their opposition to even discussing convergence as a department. Convergence culture, in the larger sense that we study, isn't about watering down content but rather expanding it. And, for journalism, convergence done well leads to a better informed public and a news world where each medium is used to its full potential. The trouble is that many things done in the name of convergence are, in reality, against the very principles of what we are calling convergence culture. And, until the society adopts a more sophisticated language to discuss these issues, debates like the one we had at WKU are going to continue.

Be sure to check out the rest of his piece and also the original lecture these comments are based on from back in October.



A timely piece, thank you Sam. I think the other aspect of this story that I'd like to see more concurrently and regularly addressed is the "playbook," if you will, accompanying the transition into convergence "transmedia." To what is transmedia's obliged? Where are its loyalties? Does its essence remain a discipline of verification? Must its practitioners maintain an independence from those they cover? And so on. (See the nine "elements" of journalism from the Kovach and Rosenstiel book.)

With media morphing faster than ever, and an increasingly fragmented audience driving different elements of transmedia to the forefront like bubbles in a pan of sauce, how do we keep the "expectations" dialogue operative and meaningful without getting frazzled by the echo chamber or "spun" by the private sector?

On December 7, 2006 at 5:25 PM, Dustin Bratcher said:

The biggest thing I'm seeing with large newspapers is that they aren't reading the writing on the wall.

The writing isn't necessarily saying that newspapers are doomed, but I'm fairly confident that it's telling them that they shouldn't expect ridiculous profits and growth on a yearly basis.

In my opinion they should be happy with any profits. Of course, that means that investors aren't making loads of cash, but at the end of the day I'm a firm believer in the idea that newspapers shouldn't necessarily be in the business to make tons of money for investors.

If the employees and bills can get paid and news is out there then all is well. But I feel there are too many "investors" with their hands in an ever shrinking cookie jar. And it's not because they believe in good journalism, it's because the newspaper industry was ridiculously profitable for the last 50 years or longer.

We read stories about pleasing the public and pleasing investors and the fact of the matter is if the readers are happy the newspaper will make money. If the investors are angry because they aren't making as much money as they used to the journalistic community would be glad to be rid of them.

I realize that business is business, but new forms of media will undoubtedly trim the fat from the newspaper industry. Newspapers will not only survive, but I believe they'll better off.



No problem passing it along, and I highly recommend anyone subscribing to The Convergence Newsletter who hasn't already, if you are interested in these issues and how they affect journalism.

Your call for a journalism-driven/citizen-driven idea of transmedia, that builds up journalism and its coverage rather than corporate synergy and practices for their owk sake, is important. That is transmedia coverage that is organic to its source, not just placing a camera in the newsroom to generate extra content, but questioning which source tells which aspect of the story better and giving more complete coverage in the long run.



Being in the trenches of journalism, I'm sure you know that one of the problems is this expectations of profits. Smaller newspapers aren't publicly owned, but the expectation for such a large profit line is probably even more prevalent at these large newspapers with the hordes of investors to please--newspapers have to be in the business of turning a profit, but as you point out, at least in theory, there is a greater service provided as well. That's the service to the public instead of investors.

The problem is that investing does not reward investing significant money back into the product, major overhauls to improve a newspaper, etc. They want continuous profit growth. None of these people want to be the long-term investors. Turn us a profit, and then improve your paper and upgrade on the next set of investors' dime.

Interesting point, too, about newspapers--removed of trying to provide the types of coverage that other media forms are better at--will eventually become more nimble, better to serve the community in the ways in which newspapers can be most powerful--stories that provide more context and more depth than video or audio, investigative pieces, commentary, etc.