The arrogance of “Save the Tribune” proves it should die

from Wikipedia
from Wikipedia

Here’s a hypothetical scenario: your favorite grocery store has been in a partnership with supermarket giant Kroger to help reduce its operating costs. Even though it’s been trying really hard, it just doesn’t seem to be able to make it as a business and keeps downsizing. Then the possibility comes up that Kroger may be interested in buying out your store. In response, a few die-hard fans of the local grocery store start proclaiming that if that happens, you’ll never be able to buy groceries in the town again.

Sounds pretty silly, doesn’t it? But that’s exactly what the “Save the Tribune” people sound like.

The Salt Lake Tribune has been sharing many costs with the Deseret News for many years, including advertising and distribution. They’re currently renegotiating their deal, as the Tribune isn’t doing so well financially while the Deseret News (the nation’s “ward newsletter”) has found a successful niche in reporting. Since the Deseret News has previously used the joint operating agreement (JOA) to try to buy the Tribune, people are freaking out that the same thing will happen again.

To this I say, so what?

The Tribune is a business. Sometimes, businesses get saddled down with so many legacy costs and outdated business models that they collapse under their own weight.

Tower Records collapsed, but you can still buy music. Borders went under, but you can still get novels. Montgomery Wards kicked the bucket decades ago, yet I can still buy a washer and dryer. All of them were tied to models of distribution that ended up ultimately being their demise.

The Tribune is no different. They’re heavily invested in a model that no longer works. News stories get scooped by citizen journalists all the time who have almost zero costs and easy distribution. Utah Politico Hub nailed down the story on the LD57 mailers before anyone else. Our friends at Utah Political Capitol do the same thing. I’ve been ahead on most broadband stories (and providing much more in-depth coverage) at FreeUTOPIA for years.

What’s truly arrogant, though, is assuming that if the Tribune dies that it’s going to take journalism down with it.

There are many hardworking journalists in radio, TV, and, yes, other print publications that would beg to differ. Plenty of us citizen journalists (who largely do this as a hobby)  are reporting on stories that sometimes don’t get coverage in mainstream media.

Meanwhile, reporters are busy jumping from tech stories to car accidents to city council meetings. It would be hard to be an expert on all of these things, but the business’s outdated model no longer  has room for dedicated experts who know the issues and players. This demand lowers the quality of the product, not because the reporters aren’t good at their jobs but because the business is mismanaging them like they are merely replaceable cogs.

It’s also disgusting the Tribune’s troubles are being used peddle not-so-subtle soft bigotry against the LDS Church’s ownership of the Deseret News. The fear-mongering narrative is that if the  Deseret News takes over the Salt Lake Tribune, it would immediately gut all investigative reporting (you know, the one thing it does that the DNews does not do) and impose some kind of theocracy on journalism as a whole (again, ignoring  many other journalists in many other organizations on many other mediums).

That kind of talk has zero relevance as to whether the Tribune should survive.

Some of this panic is due to uncertainty about the future. When an old model obviously isn’t working, it’s rarely obvious what will replace it. This prescient article from five years ago brilliantly lays out how little we know about the future of news reporting. That uncertainty leads people to rush to defend the old models as necessary because they have no idea what else to do. It’s going to be very Wild Wild West for a while, with lots of failed experiments and lots of legacy players trying very, very hard to protect their turf.

Reporters who lose their jobs at the Tribune will find other ways to be journalists, just as others who have left the traditional model at other outlets have found new opportunities. I don’t doubt that someone with deep pockets will probably snap up the best of them for a lean venture, devoid of legacy costs and focused on quality content over maximizing productivity.

It’ll still be journalism; it just won’t be a newspaper. I’m okay with that, and you should be too.

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