Almost ten years ago, in the final season of the tv milestone that is The Wire, there is a scene when the Baltimore Sun announced layoffs that were sold as “inevitable”:
The show was created by David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun author and police reporter. He wrote after the series finale:
We will all soon enough live in cities and towns where politicians and bureaucrats gambol freely without worry, where it is never a risk to shine shit and call it gold. A good newspaper covers its city and acquires not just the quantitative account of a day’s events, but the qualitative truth and meaning behind those events. A great newspaper does this routinely on a multitude of issues, across its entire region. Such a newspaper was not chronicled on The Wire.
In fact he documented the downturn consequences of the absence of any sustainable strategy in the publishing industry. It was a local newspaper problem then. Until 2017, when the New York Times, one of the biggest newspapers of the United States pushed massive layoffs in the copy-editor department. The publishing bubble did burst the same way it did all the years before. The Outline recently lamented The Revolution Will Not Be Proofread in regards to the epidemic bubble bursting in the publishing industry but couldn’t help to ask:
What are readers supposed to make of a media operation that is often, by necessity, just as consumed with itself as it is with the world beyond?
If sustainability is equally meant for the good of the readers as well as for the authors and editors, then sustainability has not been the first priority on the strategy side so far. It means also, whoever is in charge for local or nationwide publishing is doing the research part of the digital realm not very well. May it be missing The Wire (it’s on Netflix) or the free advice by Ben Thompson:
Publishers going forward need to have the exact opposite attitude from publishers in the past: instead of focusing on journalism and getting the business model for free, publishers need to start with a sustainable business model and focus on journalism that works hand-in-hand with the business model they have chosen.
This is the crux of why many ad-based newspapers will find it all but impossible to switch to a real subscription business model. When asking people to pay, quality matters far more than quantity, and the ratio matters: a publication with 1 valuable article a day about a well-defined topic will more easily earn subscriptions than one with 3 valuable articles and 20 worthless ones covering a variety of subjects.
If your digital strategy does not include quality as a matter of sustainability, then the bubble around you will inevitably pop.