Proposed: A Stock-Table Newspaper Tax
Those of us who wish a long and stable future for strong journalism of significant civic value have to bring about change in the news business. Necessary transformation is not coming from newsroom management. Therefore it is time to force their hands.
So I propose to levy a new tax on newspapers that continue to publish daily stock tables.
First, let’s agree that it’s wasteful and foolish to publish yesterday’s closing price of individual stocks on pressed pulp and petroleum-based inks.
In the Internet publishing world we think a lot about “use cases.” This means imagining individual readers and how they use a product. Now try to imagine a user well served by the printed publication of these prices. I can’t either.
Any trader who trades on daily price uses the Internet to conduct the trade or gather information to call (or e-mail) a broker. Anybody who has traded a stock online knows about the tools that provide significant advantages: real-time quotes during a trading day; alerts that tell you when a particular stock moves above or below a certain price; stock-price widgets on your desktop; related market and industry news; increasingly fast, cheap and friction-free trades; etc.
So: The user served by print publication of these figures would be (1) an active trader of individual stocks whose trades are based on daily closing prices who (2) is not a regular user of the Internet.
Anybody out there? Show of hands?. . .Ah, yes, one pensioner in the back there. Thanks for coming. Anybody else. . .?
There really isn’t a use case to justify continuing to publish daily stock tables. Many newspapers know this and have sharply reduced listings or simply stopped the practice. Often this has been done only with a gun to the head: Cut the tables or cut staff. Many operations have decided the listings should go after a few rounds of layoffs. Cutting employees before cutting stock tables is. . .well, let’s say any paper that continues to publish stock tables yet has laid off reporters has some explaining to do.
There should be three exemptions from the new Stock Table Tax.
A daily page of financial market data–broad indices for stock and bond markets, individual winners, losers, movers, key sectors, big mutual funds, most active, stocks in the news.
Any coverage of local stocks.
An extra page of tables on Sunday. Yes, it’s a bigger print run so it costs more, but a once-weekly deeper round-up for a larger audience arguably has value.
Any other daily newspaper that publishes daily closing prices of individual stocks should pay a tax equal to one-half the cost of the newsprint required to publish them. (I’m told this cost can range from $500 to $5,000 per page per day, depending on size of print run, page, stock used and other factors.)
This new tax will have two salutary effects:
It will provide newsroom management with incentive to quit a counterproductive old habit. Nothing else seems to be working. Each paper that has done buyouts or layoffs before cutting stock tables should be ashamed of itself. It needs a financial gun to the head–and a moment when they have to make the case to the newsroom staff for continuing a counterproductive practice at the expense of headcount.
It will make some money available to the paper for newer kinds of dynamic, multimedia, user-centered business coverage that may drive revenue for the website and other distribution platforms.
Papers that refuse to make the change will pay the new tax to a non-profit entity that supports independent new-media journalism projects. I’d recommend the Knight Foundation, which supports excellence in digital journalism of civic importance, but that’s just one of several options.
Essentially this tax will transfer income from those who are doing damage to the future of journalism to those who are moving it forward.
I have heard reasons for continuing to publish stock listings. They usually boil down to (1) the fear the paper would lose subscribers; (2) results of a focus group that found people liked the stock tables; (3) our publisher/editor emeritus/board of directors/influential stockholders insist we keep them.
No. 1: You’re hemmoraging readers anyway. The thought that a business decision with profound impact on the future bottom line should be driven by a couple of hundred indignant (let’s be plain) older readers who over-represent themselves with phone calls and (written!) letters to the publisher and top editors is. . . just plain bad business. Sure, you’ll get 200 calls. Accept them politely and forget them immediately. Like Odysseus, have your staff lash you to the mast, have them wax their own ears and sail past the sirens. Soon they will be silent and the ship will remain on course–toward a future built around new news consumers and rising media habits, not the old ones.
No. 2: Focus groups do not have to deal with zero-sum budgets. Focus groups like lots of stuff you can’t afford to keep. In fact, unless you give them a roster of features and tell them they have to lose half of them, you’re not gathering meaningful data. Secondly, doing focus groups with current readers isn’t a good idea anyway. Find potential future users of your news products online and in print. That’s who you have to re-build your business around.
No. 3: They are sentimental, retrograde, self-satisfied, isolated from reality or not paying attention. Do your best to make the case that the choice is another 10 percent staff cut or losing the stock tables. If they don’t buy that argument, do your best to subvert, ignore and marginalize them without getting fired.
Or just let your company pay the tax, layoff employees and allow important innovations in the future of journalism to occur elsewhere.
And tell them the TV-listing tax is coming in 2009.