A recent GigaOM article by Mathew Ingram posed an age-old question: what is the purpose of a newspaper? It seems simple enough, but it is a question that doesn’t seem to have a clear answer. There are two main obligations a newspaper must meet: to inform the public and make a profit. The problem is not in figuring out a newspapers obligations; rather, the problem is deciding which obligation comes first.
The New York Times recently contemplated giving early release of some news to customers for a fee. This idea generated criticism from a variety of people, including Ingram. Most critics argued that the NYT would be sacrificing their obligation to readers and the integrity of their company in order to boost revenue. This led Ingram to question whether, especially in these it-still-feels-like-we’re-in-a-recession-to-me times, the New York Times’ primary obligation was to its revenue streams or its news operations.
While Ingram didn’t explicitly state his opinion on whether newspapers’ primary obligation, it seems clear: a newspaper can survive without quality news, but it cannot survive without profit. With that in mind, the primary obligation of a newspaper MUST be its revenue streams; those who believe otherwise are naive to the reality of business. A profitable operation can certainly distribute quality news, but it can only distribute quality news because it is profitable.
Essentially, how many quality news operations are there in existence that are consistently unprofitable, and how many biased, junk-news operations are there in existence that are consistently profitable? Something like the National Inquirer comes to mind when I think of the latter, and, oddly enough, I can’t really think of anything when it comes to the former.