(By Valerie Bauman, senior account executive and former Associated Press reporter)

By December 2008 it was obvious. The cheeky jokes about pending newsroom layoffs had given way to echoing footsteps down an uncommonly quiet press hallway in New York’s state capitol.

It seemed like each week brought another grim goodbye “party” (read: sipping whiskey morosely under the fluorescent lights of the newsroom) at the Legislative Correspondents Association in Albany, N.Y. This charming and curmudgeonly club of journalists from various major news outlets had started to lose its only form of optimism: “With this much scandal and corruption, our jobs must be safe, right? Right?”

New York state politics had landed in the toilet (again) with a moist plop that year. But even after the state’s governor had resigned in the midst of a prostitution scandal, the journalists covering this insatiable news monster were increasingly packing up their desks.

Which brings us to the obvious: Competition is what makes journalism good, but if your competitor (or your own online publication) is giving it away for free, you can’t compete or profit. So journalists get laid off, diminishing competition, profit and, in some cases, quality of the product. This isn’t new.

Now a study says many journalists have concluded that the fate of print media is hopeless. Nearly half (44 percent) of journalists polled in a new study by Oriella PR Network agreed that the number of print media outlets would shrink.

While that’s down from 60 percent in 2009 (Perhaps layoffs have to do with that decline?), 41 percent of respondents believe online media are still far from profitable. And 43 percent of the roughly 770 respondents from Europe, the U.S. and Latin America say the quality of journalism could erode due to lack of editorial resources.

Is anyone really surprised that they’re reaching these conclusions?

Again, The Obvious: Don’t give away the whole product for free. Maybe a nibble … sure, dangle a bit of content at the end of a toothpick, just like the lady with cheese wedges at the supermarket. But even she makes a point to limit free samples to one per person.

So what’s the alternative? Finding a profit in digital content … We already know the most common model – paid subscription online. The Financial Times and Wall Street Journal have had an online subscription model for years, and The New York Times announced intentions to do the same earlier this year.

According to the Oriella study, a quarter of publications are using or considering a business model offering content through paid subscriptions. Another 30 percent are offering online access only if you have a print subscription and 22 percent are using or considering paid content via smartphone apps.

That’s where the hope may be hiding. Smartphone use – and the paid application market – could be a new business model for journalism. According to Gartner, 316.7 million smartphones were sold globally in the first quarter of 2010. One in five publications has a mobile app for its audience.

Whatever the future business model, one thing is certain: We still have to re-establish the value of content in the minds of the American consumer. This isn’t 100 percent universal. Free content works for some outlets, but most traditional print outlets need a business model that will allow them to profit from their product.

I’m a consumer too, and I don’t particularly like the idea of paying for something that I’ve gotten for free year after year. But content doesn’t come easily. The work that journalists do is hard. It’s a lot of hours of conversations with people who generally don’t like you, making sense of wildly twisted “facts,” staring at painfully small charts of data, or just waiting and waiting and waiting.

It’s a great job, don’t get me wrong. But when clicking on a link to an in-depth investigative piece, or even a breaking news report, it’s not always clear for the general public how much work goes into the product. It’s hard to assign value to something that is given away. It’s an obvious, but recurring, theme.

So, my alternate prediction (if I had to make one) is that the quality of output from news organizations will have to decline so dramatically that the general public finally notices. With so much content available every day (and so many tremendously talented, overworked journalists still doing the job), this could take quite awhile. But at that point, perhaps people will be willing to pay for content that is true, fair, and well-written. If something true, fair and well-written can be assigned a value that has been lost in a digital world, perhaps there’s hope for the tireless journalists of the New York state Legislative press corp.

Another solution would be to create a sort of universal PayPal account for online content. It would make it easier for consumers to choose content based on what they want to click on at any given moment. That way they could avoid the slowdown of creating a log-in for every news or content-based site, instead creating one singular log-in (that wouldn’t share their information with advertisers – bonus!) that would subtract say, 2 to 25 cents per article. An article’s value could depend on anything from length, exclusivity, the time that went into producing it – who knows? This is a model that could work for larger publications, but may undercut local newspapers that couldn’t be sustained by the clicks of their readership.

Ultimately content is only worth the quality of the reporters and writers who provide it. If their work and talent is devalued, the decline of the print media will (not shockingly) continue.

As public relations professionals, our focus should be on further editing what materials we send to reporters, making sure it’s of sound news value and provides as much relevant supporting material as possible. We should be doing this anyway, but in this climate especially, we should take every opportunity to help reporters in the field deliver quality content.

Image courtesy of ramondgilford.com.

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