At Large: In this business, you’ve got to have a plan

Newspaper people have plenty to worry about, what with the recession and the World’s Wild Web. It’s an industry whose practitioners spend a lot of time thinking about their businesses and their places in the grand news media scheme. They do that when they are not nervously defending themselves against charges of irrelevance, lodged mostly by young techno-hip types who regard newspaper folk as mostly old and in the way. But, beyond these trivial though nagging concerns, there’s the more fundamental question of what newspapers even do.

Sometimes for newspaper folks, blessed with high and haughty spirits, thinking about their business actually gets in the way of doing their business. Often, such self-reflection is unhealthy in the extreme because it leads to generous grants of dispensation for past slip-ups. “Yeah, we screwed up, but taken all and all, we’re pretty high-minded, and we have important purposes, and what would the world do without us anyway.” Much of which, in the day-to-day run of the work, has little to do with anything.

But, there are actual important issues to consider. For instance, what distinguishes newspapers like this one, and many others larger and smaller, from bloggers and commenters? After all, newspapers host bloggers and welcome commenters. Some bloggers get paychecks from newspapers, and some ordinary news reporters also blog for their newspaper employers in the course of their everyday work, adding a breathless annotation to a congressional hearing or a president’s speech.

It is also true that some hoary ink-on-paper newspapers have abandoned the printing press to shift operations entirely to the web. This has generally meant a much smaller revenue stream but also a much smaller staff.

And, in some cases, new, online newspaper ventures have been built entirely on the contributed editorial efforts of readers and commenters. Some print newspapers have used this we-accept-handouts approach to newsgathering as a way to engage readers and extend coverage, while keeping costs on a short leash. Others have considered becoming the wards of nonprofit parents. Not so haughty when push comes to shove, they’ll try anything, if the old model isn’t working.

Indeed, one of the most familiar online features, like the one on mvtimes.com that invites readers to comment on news or feature articles and encourages online discussions of the newspaper’s work or public issues, is getting to be old-hat, even as bewildered newspaper editors are grappling wincingly with the World Wrestling Federation flavor of the comments they sponsor. How to tame the unleashed is the question.

But, back to the question I suggested earlier. What is it that newspapers do anyhow? In general, I propose, newspapers begin with a business model that recognizes four things. First, they organize as profit-making businesses, with a presumption that the accounts of life and death in their communities, and the opinions they offer unasked, will attract paying customers — oh, not to the newspaper itself, but to its advertisers. Plus, the newspaper then is free to make its own rules, and free, naturally, to live and die by them.

Second, the newspaper owners presume that if the customers buy advertisers’ services and goods, advertisers will want to explain themselves to their customers and will pay for the opportunity to do so in the newspaper’s pages or on its web site.

Third, the newspaper differentiates its newsgathering business from others by identifying a point of view that underlies news coverage and associated opinions.

And finally, because it is a business that needs people, lots of them, it’s expensive. Profits that propel the business’s growth and underwrite its employees make it self-supporting. Blogging and commenting don’t cost much; newsgathering does. Profits mean you pay the bills with the fruits of your own labor, and your own point of view.

And, after all, knowing this, who wouldn’t lineup to pay the newsgathering bills for newspapers, as they are described by H. L. Mencken, one of the business’s most celebrated practitioners.

“The average newspaper,” Mencken wrote, in his engaging way, “especially of the better sort, has the intelligence of a hillbilly evangelist, the courage of a rat, the fairness of a prohibitionist boob-jumper, the information of a high-school janitor, the taste of a designer of celluloid valentines, and the honor of a police-station lawyer … a newspaper is a device for making the ignorant more ignorant and the crazy crazier.”

His view was that readers, like citizens in a democracy, think they know what they want and “deserve to get it good and hard.” I know you’ll recognize that as a business plan people can get behind.