Whither Goeth the Newspaper?

I grew up in Northern Virginia right in the middle of the Nixon/Watergate madness.  Both my parents were big readers, and growing up then, and there, turned me into a big newspaper reader.  A big newspaper reader.  When I went to college, I made sure my dorm subscribed to a paper; when I moved into my own place, one of the first things I always did after getting the power and phone and such turned on was to order the paper; when we moved from Santa Cruz to San Jose, and then to Austin, I always made sure I had a paper.

As time went on, it bummed me out that the papers were shrinking.  The font got bigger; most papers stopped printing broadsheets; sections were cut to save money.  They got smaller.  And then the Web exploded in the mid-90s, and evolved into a huge news-delivery service by the mid-oos.

And I haven’t read the newspaper since.

What all this nostalgia stuff is about is not what a great youth I had (it was pretty average), but rather the fact that a hard-core newspaper reader became a non-newspaper reader.  And I don’t just think it’s me; if sales figures are to be believed, I think it’s happening everywhere.  I think people are getting their news elsewhere, and the days of the big broadsheet, multi-section paper are deader than Napoleon.  And as an online writing geek–a guy who has basically devoted his career to getting information out in electronic format–I’ve spent a not-inconsiderable amount of time thinking about just what that means.  But for me it came to a head recently.

Consider these recent facts:

  • “The Daily”, an iPad-only newspaper app that exists behind a paywall, was recently released to much fanfare.  The reaction of the world at large:  “Meh.”
  • The New York Times just announced a new paywall strategy.  It’s incredibly complicated, no one seems to really understand the implications, and the reaction of the world at large has been, “Yeah, good luck with that!”
  • The Washington Post recently put out a Tweet pointing to an ad they have out for a “bold technology leader to reshape how we reach/engage audiences”

Newspapers have had more than 15 years to figure out this new technology space, this new delivery system, and I think they’ve blown it.  I think, honestly, newspapers as they currently are now are dead.  I think the folks who run newspapers–like Middle Ages monks confronted with the invention of the printing press–have been trying to figure out how to adapt in this new world.  And for more than 15 years, their readership has been shrinking, revenues have been dropping, young folks have been ignoring them.  And now they’re basically dead.

Sure, as you can see from above, the old-line media folks are trying to adapt to this new world in various ways.  But what I think about that is very similar to what Tom McGeveran thinks, who had an excellent recent article on such “bold moves” a few days ago.  His basic take is that it’s easy to make flashy changes, like AOL and HuffPo just did, but changing corporate culture is much, much more difficult.

I see this all the time in the tech industry.  A company finds a niche and exploits it well, but when time comes to go from a medium-sized to a large company, they flail.  So they call in some executive from somewhere whose specialty is–supposedly–helping companies make these transitions.  There’s a lot of bang and flash as groups are reorganized, “mission statements” are issued, executives make stirring speeches and spend a lot of time trying to get media folks to pay attention to the “new corporate direction”, but company culture doesn’t change easily.  And after a while, a bunch of people have left, the executive has moved on to his or her next “challenge” at some other company, and the corporate culture hasn’t changed.

How is all this high-falutin’ nonsense applicable?  Well, think about how you, personally, get your news.  Me, I read my Twitter feed, where I follow a bunch of the writers that I trust–Ezra Klein, Paul Krugman, Josh Marshall.  I also follow some “lifestyle” folks, like Laura Miller of Salon.com, and Susie Bright, and others.  And I follow some techie folks, like our own team here, and Julie at The Gadgeteer, and so on.  I read their tweets, click on their pointers, and read (or shunt to Instapaper to read later) their posts.  Sometimes–rarely–I go to their web sites.

But I don’t read newspapers.  Or newspaper web sites.  Or newspaper apps.  I just don’t.

So what does this mean moving forward?

Naw; it’s not dead, it’s just evolving.  But I think newspapers are dead as a delivery system.  And I think newspaper companies would have to change their entire corporate outlook.  Do you really want separate “sections” when catering to an audience of Dougs?  Or would it be better to spin those off into entirely different entities?  What is the role of the traditional “editor” in an online world?  I honestly don’t think there is one in a traditional sense (and I think most editors know that, which is why they’re so terrified).  How do you get people to support actual reporters, the ones out there, like Richard Engel in North Africa, who are actually getting the information?

If I limit myself to a “newspaper”, I’m limiting what information I have access to.  From my twitter feed, though, I am getting first-hand information from England, from Australia, from North Africa, from Wisconsin, from Washington, D.C.  From all over, and it’s not filtered through the sensibilities of a particular “editor” or “publisher” or “style guideline”.  And I suspect a lot of other people, too.  Why constrain yourself to, say, the Times when there are so many other options?

I don’t have the answer to all these questions.  But I do know that simply trying to graft a standard newspaper onto an electronic delivery system is simply not going to work.  People don’t consume news that way any more.  And wishing they would–or trying to force them to, as the Times is doing–is a recipe for failure.  But I’m just one grumpy guy; tell us what you think below!

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