Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Mourning Paper

There's a lot of discussion going on right now about the ''death of newspapers''. A number of US papers are close to bankruptcy, a few have folded, and others are trying to move online. A few things occur to me about this:

1. I know Le Monde was having trouble, but I have no idea if the ''death of newspapers'' doesn't mean the death of US newspapers. Are other countries having this problem? Or is this another example of projecting American issues onto the rest of the universe?

2. There are some clear-cut economic factors at play here. Newspapers used to control the means of news production because they owned the printing presses. Now anyone can post the contents of the paper online, or post their own news online, and the rest of us can read it for free. It's naive to think that people will pay for something they can get for free.

3. More importantly, advertisers can run their ads online and reach more people, and those of us who might have once used the classifieds can run ads on Craigslist.

4. Not to mention the fact- which nobody is mentioning- that a significant percentage of adult Americans are now testing as being unable to read and comprehend a full-length newspaper article. Perhaps the popularity of sites like the Drudge Report or the Huffington Post is that they simplify newspaper articles to about a fifth-grade reading level, while highlighting key facts.

5. At exactly the same time as developments 1 through 4 were occurring, media moguls were buying up newspapers, thereby putting themselves into a debt that they hoped would be paid off with the new revenues of their papers. If you consider what was going on, this was a perfectly disastrous business model- ramping up at a time when all signs pointed towards scaling back. They seem to have completely underestimated what the Internet would do to their business.

6. It's pretty easy to see why they're going under. In fact, it would be surprising if more of the papers didn't disappear. From a simple economic standpoint, the fact that people would rather get a product for free than pay for it, and to read something simpler instead of something complex, is a good explanation for the crisis facing papers. And better than wishful thinking about educated readers rejecting the ''bias'' of the media and turning to the net, which has all of the bias and no professional, or intellectual standards whatsoever.

Conclusion: It's entirely likely that most newspapers will disappear in the United States. While this is good news for trees, it's clear that journalism will have to move to other mediums in order to survive. It's not, however, clear how this will happen. It's also not clear that this will happen.


Anonymous said...

Regarding point 4 - isn't 'USA Today' written at that level? How are they doing?

I think if 'news delivery has a future it will be as a local institution. How it's going to be a viable business, that's a good question.

I think it is possible that 'the news' could be organized as a civic affair. The local downtown biz organization, say, could commmit to writing a solid article or two a week, pushed to a website. Interested local contribute columns or volunteer to cover an event.

Which is just asking for poor writing, and unadulterated boosterism, sure. Not that this isn't a problem with the papers we have now.

The Pagan Temple said...

Newspapers won't completely go out of business. They just don't have a monopoly on information anymore, and they are going to have to adjust their business models. The big giant concerns that dominated the business in the past probably are indeed a thing of the past. But, the industry will survive, adjust, and adapt.

This might be the best thing in the long run. We might eventually go back to the days when there was actually competition among city newspapers, as opposed to a city having two or more major papers that all happened to be owned by the same conglomerate.

Smaller papers will be the rule, with smaller circulations, staffs, etc. Now they are actually going to have to work to stay relevant, and they will on the whole probably actually do a better job.

Rufus said...

It's a good question about USA Today. At any rate, it does better at our university, where we get copies of USA Today and the NYTimes for free. A lot more people pick up USA Today, but many of them claim this is a protest against the Times, so it's really hard to say what that indicates.