Questions with Bill Lueders, news editor at Isthmus newsweekly in Wisconsin

by Jason Preston on September 10, 2008

Bill Lueders recently gave a killer speech to the Madison Downtown Rotary about why newspapers are important. I think he did an excellent job of defending good journalism while not curmudgeonly blaming new media for the current state of the industry.

I had the opportunity to trade emails with him about some of the issues I think he raised in his speech. I fell into the trap of asking a journalist one too many business questions, but I think his answers are illuminating nonetheless:

Jason: You suggest anecdotally that people would probably pay for news if it weren’t available for free. Do you think a paid news model is viable at this point online, or would a newspaper be completely undercut by existing free news sources?

Bill Lueders:I have no idea if a paid model is viable. I simply want to point out that there is a disconnect between some people’s desire for quality reporting and the fact that they get it for free. The shame is that newspapers ever allowed themselves to be undercut by free sources.

They made the decision to undercut themselves by providing free news. Now they are paying the price; so, ultimately, will news consumers, one way or the other.

Jason: Do you think a print product is necessary to the survival of newspapers in their role as the fourth estate?

Bill: No, but I think a print product is still desirable and for many longtime newspaper readers is clearly preferable.

My purpose in talking to an audience of Rotarians, which included quite a few people who love newspapers and want them to continue, was to stress that they need to take affirmative steps to support print papers. It can’t hurt.

Jason: As I understand it, newspaper revenue has traditionally been about 80% ads / 20% subscription. Even if newspapers managed to retain the number of paying users online that they did in print, would that be enough?

Bill: No idea. To paraphrase Dr. McCoy from Star Trek, “Dammit, Jim (or Jason, as the case may be), I’m a journalist, not a businessman.”

Again, let me state, from my knowledge base as economic simpleton, that news consumers are going to have to pay, one way or the other — either in terms of dollars (for the paper product or Internet versions) or time (mandatory exposure to ads before stories can be viewed) or a decline in news quality.

Jason: You seem to say in your speech that the real problem facing newspapers is widespread apathy about important social and political news. If we could somehow re-ignite a citizen’s interest in the news, papers would quickly find their business turning back around. Do I understand this correctly?

Bill: I wish I were as omniscient as you seem to suspect. My feeling is that many people don’t read newspapers because they no longer feel the need to be consumers of quality information, which is something newspapers and other print media provide better than anyone.

If they consume news at all, it’s the junk-food variety: cable news and Internet yammering. If more people cared about being truly well-informed, yes, newspaper circulation would probably rebound. But no one is telling them to care.

Instead newspapers are groveling before their readers, asking them: What can we do to make reading a newspaper easier and more enjoyable?

Jason: News is a business, and you can’t strong-arm consumers into buying a paper they don’t want. How do you think newspapers should appeal to the masses of doofuses, and earn a shot at converting them, without trading down in the quality of journalism?

Bill: I think you nailed it in how you framed the question: Don’t trade down on the quality of journalism. Don’t let the momentary whims of the market or the public be our masters. Stop begging for the public’s indulgence and start demanding its respect. This is hard, important work and it’s about time that journalists stood up for themselves.

Most of the charges being leveled against us by the reading (or no-longer-reading) public are not true. Our job is to point out what’s true and what isn’t. Why aren’t we willing to do so here?

Jason: Thanks, Bill!

If you liked Bill’s speech and want to check out some more of his work, you can do that here.

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