Monday, Sep. 25, 2006
Do Newspapers Have a Future?
Quarreling about staff cuts, the old medium is missing the bigger questions
It seems hopeless. How can the newspaper industrysurvive the Internet? On the one hand, newspapers are expected to supply their content free on the Web. On the other hand, their most profitable advertising–classifieds–is being lost to sites like Craigslist. And display advertising is close behind. Meanwhile, there is the blog terror: people are getting their understanding of the world from random lunatics riffing in their underwear, rather than professional journalists with standards and passports.
Ten years ago, it was a challenge for websites to get people to spend time for pleasure in front of a computer screen. “Your problem will be solved actuarially,” a computer-sciences professor assured a group of Web pioneers, and sure enough, it was. Now the problem is to get people under 50 or so to pick up a newspaper. Damp or encased in plastic bags, or both, and planted in the bushes outside where it’s cold, full of news that is cold too because it has been sitting around for hours, the home-delivered newspaper is an archaic object. Who needs it? You can sit down at your laptop and enjoy that same newspaper or any other newspaper in the world. Or you can skip the newspapers and go to some site that makes the news more entertaining or politically simpatico. And where do these wannabes get most of their information? From newspapers, of course. But that is mere irony. It doesn’t pay the cost of a Baghdad bureau.
Newspaper angst is now focused on the Los Angeles Times, where I was editorial and opinion editor in 2004 and ’05. Long the industry’s leading example of needless excellence, the Times has had bureaus around the world, a huge Washington staff and so on. Yet it had a near monopoly in its own town and made little attempt to compete elsewhere. So what was the point?
The Tribune Co. of Chicago, which bought the L.A. Times six years ago, has been asking that question and answering it with demands for cuts in budget and staff. One might ask what the point of the Tribune approach is as well. The Tribune paid a premium for a premium paper and seems intent on dragging it down into mediocrity. That may improve margins in the short run, but it does nothing to address the fundamental crisis of newspapers. Two weeks ago the Times’s editor and publisher publicly refused to chop any further, which doesn’t address the crisis either.
Some believe that the answer is to restore local ownership. Newspapers were born free, and yet everywhere they are in chains, like Gannett. Fueled by noblesse oblige and municipal pride, a wealthy local won’t need to squeeze the last dollar out of the business. Just look at the Sulzbergers of the New York Times and the Grahams of the Washington Post. Ah, but there is a difference between folks who get rich owning a newspaper and folks who get rich and then buy a newspaper. As a rule, rich folks don’t buy expensive toys for other people to play with.
So are we doomed to get our news from some acned 12-year-old in his parents’ basement recycling rumors from the Internet echo chamber? Not necessarily. The fact that people won’t pay for news on the Internet isn’t as devastating for the old medium as it seems. People don’t pay for their news in traditional newspapers: they pay for the paper, which typically costs the company more than it charges for the finished product. So in theory, giving away the news without the paper looks like a good deal for newspapers, if they can keep the advertising.
Once you’ve rented an apartment online, you know that traditional newspaper classifieds, with their tiny type, have no future. But only slow-footedness has kept newspapers from dominating online classifieds. Technology can be bought, but the brand value of a local newspaper cannot (unless you buy the paper). Maybe it’s too late, but if newspapers have missed this boat, it’s their own fault.
Newspapers are not missing the blog boat. They are running for it like the last train out of Paris. They hold their breath and look the other way as their most precious rules and standards get trampled in the rush, and figure they’ll worry about that later.
And later? The “me to you” model of news gathering–a professional reporter, attuned to the fine distinctions between “off the record” and “deep background,” prizing factual accuracy in the narrowest sense–may well give way to some kind of “us to us” communitarian arrangement of the sort that thrives on the Internet. But there is room between the New York Times and myleftarmpit.com for new forms that liberate journalism from its encrusted conceits while preserving its standards, like accuracy.
I’m not sure what that new form will look like. But it might resemble the better British papers today (such as the one I work for, the Guardian). The Brits have never bought into the American separation of reporting and opinion. They assume that an intelligent person, paid to learn about some subject, will naturally develop views about it. And they consider it more truthful to express those views than to suppress them in the name of objectivity.
Newspapers on paper are on the way out. Whether newspaper companies are on the way out too depends. Some of them are going to find the answers. And some are going to fritter away the years quarreling about staff cuts.