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2009 ASJMC Sass Award Presentation

Acceptance Speech delivered by Charles Overby on August 7, 2009 in Boston, MA at the ASJMC Convention, Sass Award presentation.

by Charles Overby, CEO, Newseum

Newspaper’s Lost Decade;
Moving Away from the Cliff’s Edge: The Need to Pay for News

This is a special honor for me to receive the Gerald M. Sass award for Distinguished Service to Journalism and Mass Communications from ASJMC.

It is special for many reasons:

First, because it bears the name of Jerry Sass. When I joined our foundation, then the Gannett Foundation, as CEO 20 years ago, it became obvious to me that Jerry Sass WAS the Gannett Foundation.

Second, because I have been given the privilege of working with so many of you in this room on projects that range from Chapel Hill to China and points in between. In some cases we were breaking new ground together. In others, we were just trying to uphold the important basics of a free press.

Third, because of the outstanding list of winners that I join, from Al Neuharth to Bob Giles to last year’s winner, Suzanne Shaw.

I especially want to single out my friend Will Norton, who has just returned to my alma mater, the University of Mississippi, as dean of the new Ed and Becky Meek School of Journalism and New Media. His service as a trustee of the Freedom Forum and Newseum while at the University of Nebraska has been invaluable.

I want to make clear that I accept this award not as a personal achievement but on behalf of the dedicated staff of the Freedom Forum, the Newseum and the Diversity Institute.

The Newseum as a Teacher

Many of you have been kind enough to ask me since I arrived in Boston: How is the Newseum doing?

The reaction has been great, both in numbers of visitors and in their descriptions of their experiences.

We attracted more than 700,000 visitors in our first year, considerably more than the Newseum’s best year in Arlington, when 480,000 visited and it was a free experience.

We believe this $450 million Newseum is already paying dividends. The best thing about the Newseum may well be the 74-foot high marble wall on the front of the building with the First Amendment emblazoned on it.

But there are other, equally satisfying tangible results. We get scores of letters from visitors after they return home that can only be described as highly enthusiastic. Consider these two examples from teachers:

A middle school teacher recently wrote this: “I was so impressed with how much my students learned during our visit, not just about communicating, but they learned so much that will help them in Social Studies and Civics. It looks like we will be returning for many years to come.”

Another teacher wrote this: “It was absolutely the best field trip I have taken with students. (The Newseum) has done a marvelous job for teachers and the public at large.”

This is just a sample of the letters we get every day. I read these excerpts to emphasize that the Newseum is a teaching institution. At a time when the First Amendment is greatly misunderstood, it is important that we reach young people before they develop fixed mindsets.

We believe and hope that in good times and bad, the Newseum can stand as a beacon for a free press, not a shrine, but a place where people can go to see how and why a free press works, warts and all.

Perhaps along the way, it will help inspire more than a few young people to enter your journalism schools to prepare for careers in journalism.

A Fragile Time for News Business

I want to take a few minutes to talk about those journalism careers at what seems like a fragile time in the business of journalism. The question we are probably asking ourselves: What kind of jobs are today’s journalism students going to have after graduation? If we really wanted to personalize it, would we recommend a journalism career for our children?

Peering into the future is risky business. Adam Powell put it well this morning in his excellent presentation when he said, “No one knows the future, except that we can’t predict it.”

The underlying principles of news have not changed: Seek the truth. Tell the story as fully and fairly as possible.

Paying for News

There has been one other constant, until recently. Over the years, people have understood that you pay for news. That now seems to be a debatable concept. People paid for news with the Colonial Press. They even paid for news during the Penny Press era.

Unfortunately, those who think people should pay for news are often characterized as Luddites, hopelessly out of touch.

The dilemma has brought newspapers to the edge of a cliff. The future of newspapers and journalism as we know it hangs in the balance.

I recognize that some people, including some in this room, have already written off newspapers. Some of you may have already compared newspapers to dinosaurs. But I believe that is a mistake. And I believe you as leaders of journalism education have an important vested interest in the future of newspapers and especially newspaper newsrooms.

The Lost Decade

It is difficult for me to comprehend how steep the decline in newspapers has been in the last decade. I consider the last decade to be the lost decade for newspapers.

Virtually everything about newspapers has gone down in the last decade:

Circulation is down.

Advertising is down.

Profits are down and in some cases completely gone.

News hole, or the amount of space available for news stories, is down.

The number of reporters and editors is down.

These negative trends are largely the result of the disastrous decision about 10 years ago by newspaper publishers to put virtually all of the newspaper’s content on the internet for free.

The thinking 10 years ago went like this—we have to be on the internet. We can’t miss this opportunity. We’ll figure out the business strategy as we go along. The optimists thought the move to the internet might ultimately allow newspapers to eliminate their two biggest expenses—printing and distribution. The optimists also thought the internet would bring in new readers that would result in new and more advertising.

Free is Seductive

This move to free content is a very trendy thing, very seductive, particularly with young people. There is even a book on the best-seller list called Free. I’ll point out that the book is not free. It cost me $26.99 at the bookstore.

This move to the internet has affected many businesses, some positively, some negatively. The music industry, for instance, faces its biggest business crisis ever as young people have grown accustomed to downloading music for free. It is illegal but they continue to do it anyway.

Ken Paulson, the president of the Freedom Forum and Newseum, gets students’ attention when he tells them the First Amendment guarantees free press and free speech but not free music.

The music industry recognized from the beginning that free downloads of music threatened their future. Newspaper publishers are only now beginning to realize that they cannot survive in a viable way if they continue to give away their product.

Internet ad rates are less than one-tenth the rate of newspaper print ads. Those rates won’t come close to paying for newsrooms. If the free content trend continues, you can bet the size of newsrooms will decrease even more. That is bad for local communities. It is bad for journalism. And it is bad for our democracy.

Paying for Value

The question is can this trend be reversed? Will people pay for news content after growing accustomed for a decade of getting it for free?

I believe that the trend can be reversed and that people will pay for news, perhaps in combination with print and internet. But readers have to see and understand the value. They will not pay for a newspaper or its equivalent that continues to shrink in size and resources.

Walter Hussman is the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock. I think he is one of the smartest newspaper publishers in the country. He has resisted the trend toward free content on the internet and, as a result, his circulation has gone up in the last 10 years while the circulation of most newspapers has gone down. He has a big newshole with ample space for news stories. And he has the paper delivered on people’s porches.

In a talk to newspaper editors last week, Walter cited an annual survey by USC Annenberg’s Center for the Digital Future. It found that 22 percent of users said they had stopped their subscription to a print newspaper or magazine because they could get the same content for free online.

This is not rocket science.

Think about your own situation. If students suddenly could get a journalism degree for free online that offered everything that you offer in the classroom, how long would it take for students—or parents—to quit paying tuition.

News is a Business

Free is not a business model. And news is and always has been a business. We need to do a better job of teaching that.

A free press does not mean free news. The survival of a free press as we know it depends on the public paying for it. Understand what I am saying: If we want newspaper – sized newsrooms, people have to pay for it. If robust-size newsrooms are not the issue, then it doesn’t matter.

This is an important concept for you as leaders in journalism education.

If the jobs in journalism continue to dwindle, this will surely have a negative impact on future enrollments in journalism schools. The connection is clear: If people won’t pay for news, there won’t be as many jobs in journalism, and many students won’t choose journalism as a major if it won’t lead to a job.

You know better than I do, if enrollments go down, teaching positions go down.

Preserve Robust Newsrooms

We must resist the notion that the internet, social networking, and Twitter can adequately replace newspaper-size newsrooms This doesn’t mean that you have to be against those new media. They are nice add-ons, but they are not a substantive replacement. Generally speaking, the only news source spending serious money for robust newsrooms covering local news is newspapers.

The issue is not narrowly the preservation of newspapers. It is the preservation of adequately-funded newsrooms. We’re not talking about boosting profits of newspaper companies. We’re talking about funding serious newsrooms.

Adam Powell said this morning that there are a few local news web sites that make money. He hastened to say that these sites have only two or three fulltime staffers, with stringers.

Local communities need more than two or three fulltime news people.

Waking Up to Reality

Rupert Murdoch announced this week that News Corporation plans to start charging for news content on the internet at all of its properties. Immediately, Murdoch was labeled as technically illiterate. It’s interesting to me that when cable companies charge $50 or more a month to consumers, they are not seen as technically illiterate.

This whole situation is upside down. Even the terminology is ominous. As publishers consider charging for internet content, they discuss setting up paywalls. How intimidating is that? you don’t hear Amazon talking about paywalls. Let’s get rid of the pejorative term.

I believe newspaper publishers are waking up to reality. I think you are going to see many other legacy media outlets charging for their content. And it’s about time they did so.

Not everybody will choose to pay for content. That’s ok. Not everybody subscribed 10 or 20 years ago. The issue then – as it should be today – was creating perceived value for readers so they would want to pay for their news.

David Westphal gave an excellent presentation this morning and he wondered aloud if people in the near future might ask the question: Who lost the news media? In other words, if traditional media disappear as we know them, whose fault will it be?

I think it will be the fault of those who worried more about extending their brand for free on the internet than those who focused on preserving the value of their brand.

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

New Models

I think there are new models out there, perhaps similar to Kindle, that will allow readers to easily view – and pay — for their news.

I own a Kindle and like it very much. It has not stopped me from buying books in print. But it is an added convenience, and I am buying more books overall than ever before.

I think the emerging social networks have a place in today’s society, just not as a primary source for news.

So my message is: don’t be seduced by free new media, as a modern-day answer for serious journalism.

All of you are in a position to play a key role in shaping the future by speaking out in your spheres of influence. You are in a better position to speak your minds than local newspaper editors are.

We must not be wedded to the past, but we must be guided in the future by realities that will sustain serious journalism.


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