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Scale is a problem. To give you an example, as of a few years ago, you could buy copy of a typical mid-sized city newspaper for $2.

The other $15 it took to produce that day's single copy (that's everything combined, editorial costs, and 30% print costs) came from advertising sources, of which something like 10% is digital, including subscriptions. And that's after years of massive layoffs and reductions in cost.

This is a simplified view, but it should illustrate the scale of operations. The headlining stories that people would pay for are currently loss leaders in a sense, so turning them into sole breadwinners is dooming rest of the stories produced for that day (I'm not paying for a police blotter story, unless it features a stolen tomato). And under that model there's the feedback risk of majority stories becoming tailored to their patrons, becoming images of darling kittens and pet goats.

Sideline to show I'm not just being my usual cynical self: for a brief time, AP tried to syndicate lolcats (yes, the i Can Has Cheezburger blog one) but then someone asked about the issue of image rights. Had this happened, it would have resulted in pretty much all of US newspapers ending up with kitten pictures in print, because readers would love it and it's no work at all to produce it.

These cost breakdown numbers are changing and vary greatly from newspaper to newspaper, but I hope it illustrates a dark and complicated reality of news decline. I don't know what's the solution, but you can't dismiss brick and mortar news agencies and think they can either instantly convert to digital media and revenue, or that independent online-online agencies can come replace it.

The non-syndicated stories you see in today's newspaper (go pick one up wherever you are) have been worked on for days, weeks, even months. And tomorrow's stories will have a similar breakdown of labor. Isn't it mind boggling? AP, AFP, Reuters will not concentrate in towns and fact check the local authorities and governance because they'd get stretched too thin, so newspapers mix and match local coverage with national as best they can. The kicker is that all that hard work spanning days, weeks, months gets used by local TV stations that very morning and (if the story is that unusual), by online-only agencies and aggregators, because they don't have all those boots on the ground.

It's complicated.

Reward for reading any of this rant, Dick Irwin's tomato blotter story: "Someone entered the rear yard of a house in the 5900 block of Johnson St. on Saturday morning and removed a tomato from a tomato plant. The tomato was valued at $3, police said."




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