Sunday, December 11, 2011

Book review: The Deal From Hell by James O'Shea

The Deal from Hell: How Moguls and Wall Street Plundered Great American Newspapers by James O'Shea

O'Shea may think he's written a book about how profit-driven, ego-centric people ruined some of the nation's largest papers, but that's because his own biases are at work here.

Actually what this book does is paint a picture of why it's hard to run a newspaper as a for-profit business with the goal of constantly increasing revenue.

He belittles the bosses that want to print the stories "people want" involving celebraties and gossip rather than important news of conflict, politics, and holding government accountable. But he side steps the question of paying for that coverage.

In a perfect world, readers that want to support different types of news would pay for the publications where it exists. Or advertisers would pay to reach those readers. But one problem that people consistently ignore is that advertisers have long been throwing money away on traditional media because there's simply no way to gauge how readers are reacting.

Online ad rates aren't lower because they're less effective, but because they're more effective... but they don't pay enough to support the kind of journalism great papers have produced over the years.

Whether intentionally or not though, he makes a pretty strong case for a public broadcasting style form of member-supported public interest journalism.

Update: OK, I got to the end of the book, and it turns out O'Shea *does* realize that the problem is that journalism emerged as a profession with a non-profit ethos and a for-profit business model. He's now heading up the non-profit Chicago News Cooperative, which I hadn't realized when I started reading. It may very well be a model for the future of news.

That said, it still bugged me how much he belittled local news coverage and praised national and international reporting as a matter of course -- he also tended to paint all online news with the same brush as second class citizens, even though he's now heading up an online news outfit.

He also largely paints a problem without offering a solution... and misses some of the problems in the process. Yes, newspapers have always been delivered to consumers at ridiculously cheap prices considering the costs of printing and distributing them, not to mention reporting the news.

But even if ad revenue wasn't declining, people that have gotten used to getting news for free or cheap online and through broadcast media would probably be drifting away from paying for the print editions.

This book is definitely worth reading if you're interested in the current state of the news industry, but it shines brightest when O'Shea is recounting his own personal experiences in the center of the storm. It's kind of dry reading when he slogs through the financial management of the papers he's talking about and the finer points of the deals that were made.

Like any good news story, it's the people that make this book interesting, not the numbers.

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