AGAINST THE GRAIN
Newspapers could use a shot of Osder’s optimism
Published Thursday, September 11, 2008
Yesterday, I spent some time listening to the daunting financial problems facing the Columbia Missourian. As I reported in today’s paper, the Missourian lost more than $1 million last year and that, say University of Missouri brass, is just not going to cut it
Sitting in a below-ground conference room in the Gannett building with the appropriate feel of a bunker, it was fascinating to hear the university-run newspaper’s board members and journalism professors discuss the future of this business. Things look pretty bleak, they said, for this inky wad of newsprint that - hopefully - still lands on your doorstep everyday.
But one board member, Elizabeth Osder, stood out for her optimism. An independent consultant who has worked for Yahoo and The New York Times, she recalled a time at the school when she and her classmates took the first hesitant steps online via the Digital Missourian.
"It was exciting, the advent of something new," said Osder, who earned a master’s degree in journalism from MU in ’94. "It was like going someplace no one had ever gone before and doing something only 1 percent of the people were even interested in."
Osder arrived on campus as a journalism graduate student hoping to be a photographer, but she quickly realized she wasn’t cut out for it. She says she kept getting beaten to tornado scenes by the Tribune. "I would end up helping people look for their cats," she said, laughing.
So she changed her plan. Osder launched herself into the new medium and spearheaded projects like one that created the first interactive CD-ROM program allowing people to judge MU’s annual Pictures of the Year contest.
She said she was flexible and took a gamble on an area where she saw growth potential. Newspapers, she said, need to do the same to survive.
"I’m enormously enthusiastic and a 100 percent believer in the human capacity to report on and share info and for people to care about that," she said. "Journalism at its core is not going anywhere. The question is: Are the companies we’ve come to know associated with it going to change?"
She’s right. And there’s reason to believe that future is bright. Today, newspaper stories are attracting more readers than they ever have from a wider geographic reach.
Unfortunately for people on the business side of the equation, many of these readers are online. Fewer are traditional home subscribers. To make matters worse, say people who study this sort of thing, an online reader only attracts about one-tenth of the advertising dollars that a print reader brings in.
Online advertising thus far has been a losing proposition for most papers. The Missourian, for example, only managed to capture $20,000 in online ad sales last year.
Making the Web profitable is one of the nettlesome problems the Futures Lab at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute was built to tackle. When the imposing brick building opens its doors tomorrow, those leading the institute will have their work cut out for them.
They’ll have to figure out ways to better target advertising to individual tastes and assure readers their privacy is protected.
They’ll have to figure out how to lure a distracted, fractured readership to take time out to "click through" online advertisements.
The journalism of the future is going to be about allowing this ad revenue - a hybrid of print and online - to pay for what a paper needs as opposed to paying for the things it already has, Osder said.
Regardless of what happens to the Missourian, it was heartening to hear the notes of optimism in her voice. Too many people are ready to bury the newspaper; too few are looking for solutions.
It reminded me of a recent dust-up between two prominent reporters. Last month, after quitting his job at the Chicago Sun-Times, columnist Jay Mariotti declared, "Newspapers are dead," in a petty interview with a local television station. Shockingly, most commentators took Mariotti’s side and snickered at the arcane institution he was leaving in his dust.
Then, into the fray waddled the legendary movie reviewer and cancer survivor Roger Ebert.
In an open letter to Mariotti, Ebert wryly noted that his readership at the paper is growing through the Web. He said 40 percent of the hits for a blog entry he wrote about the Olympics had come from China. In the past month, he said, his site has been visited by virtually every country on the globe, including Vatican City.
"The Pope, no doubt. Hope you were doing as well," he wrote.
"Newspapers are not dead, Jay, because there are still readers who want the whole story, not a sound bite," Ebert wrote. "Good luck getting one of your 1,000-word rants on air."
The generally chivalrous Ebert ended his open letter by saying, "On your way out, don’t let the door bang you on the a**."
Tribune reporter T.J. Greaney’s column runs on Thursday’s. Reach him at (573) 815-1719 or email@example.com.
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