Video Rentals Toasted

Edward Wasserman is Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University. He wrote a commentary in the Miami Herald today about the newspaper business and other doomed species.

“The Internet does threaten some revenue franchises, especially classifieds. But it also offers a new way to reach audiences by going paperless and shedding 60 percent of operating costs.

By contrast, consider the video rental business. Now there’s an industry that’s toast. Or the plight of your local TV stations, the richly profitable affiliates that depend on the flow of network shows — and those programs are heading to the Internet. Now that over half of U.S. online users have high-capacity broadband connections, the Web is mutating: no longer the electronic extension of print that it has been, it’s becoming a televisual medium built around pictures and sound.

Newspaper circulation is down? Look, a half-century ago 90 million people went to the movies every week; now theaters draw barely a quarter that many. So what? Hollywood rakes in five times the money from DVDs and the like that it gets from theatrical release, which now is little more than advertising for lucrative home entertainment sales.

Just as Hollywood adapted to a new business model, so must news industry chieftains look beyond their sluggish newsprint sales and realize that the audience for quality news, information and commentary is robust and vital. That public may want to buy stories instead of subscriptions, and advertisers may demand something more effective than colorful pop-ups.

But depopulating newsrooms — ownership’s current response — will enfeeble the industry, not transform it. What’s needed is a business imagination commensurate with the editorial vision the public demands and deserves.”