Aaron Kushner, CEO of Freedom Communications and the architect of a contrarian plan to expand southern California newspapers, began erecting hard paywalls for his digital properties while increasing newsroom and print outlay in the summer of 2012. That strategy imploded earlier this month, with layoffs, buy-outs, furloughs and the merger of two Freedom papers, essentially reversing the previous two years of investment.
There’s no nice way to say this, so I might just as well get to it: Kushner’s plan was always dumb and we should celebrate its demise, not because it failed (never much in doubt) but because it distracted people with the fantasy of an easy out for dealing with the gradual end of profits from print.
The most important fight in journalism today isn’t between short vs. long-form publications, or fast vs. thorough newsrooms, or even incumbents vs. start-ups. The most important fight is between realists and nostalgists. Kushner was running a revival meeting for nostalgists: “The internet’s not such a big deal! Digital readers will pay rather than leave! Investing in print is just plain good business!”
That was some old-time religion right there. It was fun while it lasted, for people who miss the good old days. For people who do not miss the good old days, it was not fun.
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.
The students were shocked — for many of them, it was the first time anyone had talked to them that way. Even a prompt from me to predict the date of Time magazine’s demise elicited a small gasp. This was a room full of people would would rather lick asphalt than subscribe to a paper publication; what on earth would make them think print was anything other than a wasting asset?
And the answer is “Adults lying to them.” Our students were persuaded to discount their own experience in favor of what the grownups who cover the media industry were saying, and those grownups were saying that strategies like Kushner’s might just work.
People who ought to have known better, like Ryan Chittum at Columbia Journalism Review and Ken Doctor at Nieman, wrote puff pieces for Kushner, because they couldn’t bear to treat him like the snake-oil salesman he is.
Last year, Chittum said:
Kushner, a 40-year-old former greeting-card executive with zero experience in newspapers, is running the most interesting—and important—experiment in journalism right now.
The bit of that sentence before the comma now looks prescient; the bit after somewhat less so. Doctor was even worse, penning little “Maybe this thing still has a chance!” mash notes about Freedom a month before the layoffs hit.
The really terrible thing is that both Chittum and Doctor understood from the beginning what made Kushner’s plan a disaster. They just couldn’t bring themselves to give it to their readers straight. In the same piece where he lauds Kushner, Chittum waits til 2/3rds of the way through to point out that the core of Freedom’s strategy “has been unsuccessful most places it’s been tried”, and buries his most important observation — it will probably fail — at the very end of the piece.
What happened to Chittum and Doctor is endemic to media reporting generally — an industry that prides itself on pitiless public scrutiny of politics and industry has largely lost the will to cover itself with any more skepticism than sports reporters rooting for the home team. (Here’s Doctor, writing during the implosion of Freedom’s strategy: “The enthusiasm of Kushner and [partner] Spitz is hard to dislike.” What’s this, a Pharrell profile?)
When you have an audience mostly made up of nostalgists, there’s not much market demand for unvarnished truth. This kind of boosterism wouldn’t matter so much if it were only reaching weepy journos whose careers started in the Reagan administration. But the toxic runoff from CJR and Nieman’s form of unpaid PR is poisoning the minds of 19-year-olds.
We don’t have much time left to manage the transition away from print. We are statistically closer to the next recession than to the last one, and another year or two of double-digit ad declines will push many papers into 3-day printing schedules, or bankruptcy, or both. If you want to cry in your beer about the good old days, go ahead. Just stay the hell away from the kids while you’re reminiscing; pretending that dumb business models might suddenly start working has crossed over from sentimentality to child abuse.