The “barbell problem” in media: The ends are fine, but the middle is getting squeezed

While in New York this week for a GigaOM event, I had coffee and lunch with a number of media-industry insiders and observers, including Jay Rosen and Clay Shirky – two people I think are among the smartest media analysts in the business. And one thing that kept coming up is what I have chosen to call the “barbell problem” for media, and specifically for newspapers: in other words, the feeling that while both ends of the journalism spectrum are probably going to be fine, the middle is getting squeezed to the point where its future is uncertain at best.

So the New York Times, for example, is going through the same kind of uncertainty and upheaval as the rest of the industry – having to lay off staff, cutting costs, selling assets. But while the paper’s paywall and other measures may not totally fill the gap caused by erosion of advertising revenue, the NYT has enough resources to not only survive but do well. Likewise, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal will probably survive and prosper, along with some other large brands.

Some prominent journalism brands will likely be fine

This is exactly why Shirky and his coauthors on the recent “Post-Industrial Journalism” report from Columbia specifically excluded any discussion of the Times from their analysis of the future of journalism. As Shirky described it, it’s like the average driver measuring themselves by looking at someone who races on the Formula One circuit. Practically speaking, there are very few meaningful lessons other newspapers can learn from the New York Times.


That’s one end of the barbell. The other end is the ultra-small, hyper-local newspaper – the daily or even weekly broadsheet that serves a small town or region, where the disruptive forces of the Web haven’t made themselves felt as strongly and local shopping flyers are probably still a pretty good business. This is the kind of newspaper that billionaire Warren Buffett is buying up – the kind that still has a lock on a local market. Paywalls may work well here because of the lack of compelling alternatives.

And what’s in the middle? Everything else – medium-sized papers like the Miami Herald or the San Francisco Chronicle or the Boston Globe, as well as most of the larger metro papers like the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer. What does their future look like?

Many of these papers have been trying to make paywalls work, but for most the results appear to be fairly lackluster at best – even the Boston Globe, which is far from the worst newspaper in a medium sized market, has attracted just 28,000 subscribers after more than a year. Its owner the New York Times has put it up for sale and may get less than $100 million for it, and that’s after removing the single most damaging part of the business from the equation – namely, the paper’s $200 million or so in pension obligations.

What happens to the news that doesn’t pay?

Those pension obligations are one of the biggest mill-stones around the neck of traditional media entities. And the bottom line is that even with some reader support, as Rosen and I discussed, these papers are going to have to shrink dramatically or come up with new forms of revenue, which is why the Washington Post is experimenting with what has come to be known as “sponsored content” (something we’ll be talking about more at paidContent Live on April 17)

In a recent post at Slate, writer Matt Yglesias responded to the somewhat fatalistic tone of coverage around the recent Pew report on the state of the media by arguing that as news consumers, we are better off now than we have ever been, thanks to social media and other forces. And it is easy to see how that is the case for certain topics and certain parts of the world – but as Dan Mitchell pointed out in a rebuttal to Yglesias, it isn’t the case for much local coverage of things like municipal affairs and public-policy topics.

So what happens to that kind of coverage as newspapers shrink and even die? If all the things that have subsidized that kind of journalism have been removed – the car ads and travel writing and so on – all these papers are left with is the kind of content that advertisers aren’t interested in and readers don’t want to pay for. What then? ProPublica and the Texas Tribune are interesting publicly supported models, but how scalable are they? Is every state or region going to have one?

Will some form of “citizen journalism” be able to fill this gap – whether it’s local bloggers or some kind of automated Twitter feed etc.? Perhaps. Will newspapers use outsourced services like Journatic or even robot journalists like Narrative Science? In all likelihood it will be a combination of all of these, and possibly other things we haven’t even thought of yet. At this point, the answers are a whole lot murkier than the questions.

Post and thumbnail image courtesy of Flickr user George Kelly and Jan-Arief Purwanto