The State of Newspapers: Dire, But Not Dead.

In News on April 1, 2008 at 2:33 pm


(Pic from Visual Editors)

The latest TWiT episode brought up the interesting topic of the death of newspapers. It’s a tough call, and I’m with Molly Wood on the subject when she says that you shouldn’t underestimate the survivability of newspapers, who have survived more than 300 years, and several calls for the medium to keel over and die.

Like I’ve previously said before in my old posts (I’m sure I must have said it somewhere), proclaiming the death of a medium is really just sensationalist hype, and you’d be better off not believing it. Just like Television was supposed to kill Radio, the internet isn’t going to kill the newspapers.

Say what you will, but newspapers are an extremely robust medium–they are mobile mediums, easy to distribute, and accessible by all for the cheap price of a few cents. Not so with the internet. You can’t lug around a freaking laptop–even if it’s a MacBook Air–just so you can download and read the daily news. It’s just not convenient to read The Star on the crapper.

Anyway, that’s just one of my contentions on this subject, sparked off by this great piece written by Eric Alterman for The New Yorker. It’s a long-assed piece, so I’m gonna just extract out a few interesting notes:

Most managers in the industry have reacted to the collapse of their business model with a spiral of budget cuts, bureau closings, buyouts, layoffs, and reductions in page size and column inches. Since 1990, a quarter of all American newspaper jobs have disappeared. The columnist Molly Ivins complained, shortly before her death, that the newspaper companies’ solution to their problem was to make “our product smaller and less helpful and less interesting.” That may help explain why the dwindling number of Americans who buy and read a daily paper are spending less time with it; the average is down to less than fifteen hours a month. Only nineteen per cent of Americans between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four claim even to look at a daily newspaper. The average age of the American newspaper reader is fifty-five and rising.

Philip Meyer, in his book “The Vanishing Newspaper” (2004), predicts that the final copy of the final newspaper will appear on somebody’s doorstep one day in 2043. It may be unkind to point out that all these parlous trends coincide with the opening, this spring, of the $450-million Newseum, in Washington, D.C., but, more and more, what Bill Keller calls “that lovable old-fashioned bundle of ink and cellulose” is starting to feel like an artifact ready for display under glass.

Those are indeed scary figures, and he goes on in pointing out that the Internet has been the cause of the newspaper industry’s decline. But ultimately, newspapers need to exist because they are the source of information upon which so many blogs are built upon–in all this hype about Digg and blogs democratising media, it’s important to note that they are just bullhorns that make a story louder. Who makes the story? The newspapers, or rather the journalists out on the field, busting their ass to get the story.

“People love to talk about the death of newspapers, as if it’s a foregone conclusion. I think that’s ridiculous,” she [Arianna Huffington] says. “Traditional media just need to realize that the online world isn’t the enemy. In fact, it’s the thing that will save them, if they fully embrace it.”

There was a subtle change in Guardian’s media section last year, when it re-termed its “New Media” section as “Digital Media”, and I thought it was an important step forward in changing the public perception of digital media in the context of print media. The previous term suggested an antagonistic relationship between old and new media, which alludes to the fact that “New Media” would replace “Old Media.” At least now the editors are seeing that the two mediums are in fact complementary to each other: Blogs need Newspapers for sources, and Newspapers need Blogs to amplify their news.

Ultimately, the loss of revenue for the newspaper industry will kill off many of the redundant newspapers–papers that offer no originality, no exclusivity, but rather just reprinting a slew of AP and Reuters stories. That leaves the big papers–The New York Times, WSJ, The Washington Post–to survive the media cull. They are the ones with enough resources to offer a wide scope and depth in reporting stories. It’s simple Darwinism–the fit survive. Well, with much less profit, of course.

There’s a lot more to that dilemma–I’ve just skimmed the surface of it–and Dvorak’s column discusses the bulk of the redundant newspaper argument, which I whole heartedly agree.

It is more than painfully clear that the current state of the newspaper during its transition to the Internet cannot be sustained. Even worse, newspapers cannot be supported at all by the transition to the Internet. Unfortunately, when all the research is read and analyzed, no real solution is apparent.

I think much of the problem stems from what I’ve been harping on for years: redundancy. Simply put, there are too many newspapers selling the exact same news. And because the owners of these papers do not understand the fact that the public hungers for original material, different from all the rehashed AP stories, papers will continue to slide.


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